College has been an era of firsts for me. First time failing a quiz, first time creating a budget, first time eating both a Subway sandwich and McDonald’s french fries for the same dinner, and first time being exposed to a writing workshop. Though a part of me might argue that the Subway and McDonald’s experience has been the most enlightening, from my very first time participating in a writing workshop I could tell that it was something important.
It was the fall of my freshman year, and the class was “Introduction to Creative Writing.” We had gone over to a museum, and our assignment was to free write a fictional story based off of an object we encountered in the building. At the time, the museum had a few cardboard displays with pictures of banned books pasted on them (very middle-school-book-review-esque) that drew me in. My eyes happened to light upon one entitled, In the Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendak. It was a children’s picture book with a front cover that depicted a man with a measuring jar on his head. That was all I needed. I ended up writing a short story about a sleepy guy baking cupcakes in the middle of the night who has everything go wrong that possibly can. The end scene is him in a heap on the ground after slipping in batter, flour is spilled everywhere, cupcakes are burning in the oven, the smoke alarm is going off and in that moment he has a realization— he had forgotten the butter in all of his batches. I loved it, and it was only made better by the feedback I received from my classmates during workshop. I’m currently in the midst of taking my third creative writing course here on campus, and it has been through these classes that the concept of a writing workshop has really solidified for me.
My experience with writing workshop goes like this: a student crafts a paper, the paper is handed out to the student’s classmates and teacher a week ahead of their workshop time, the classmates and teacher then write a short letter to the student about the paper (explaining what they believe it is about, what techniques are working, and how it can be improved), the day of the workshop the student reads a portion of their paper aloud, the class then takes turns offering compliments and suggestions in a productive and polite manner, then the student gets to read the letters after class, and the ultimate goal is that the student will use the feedback to revise their piece and turn it in again at a later date, perhaps in a portfolio.
In interest of conducting research into the topic, I explored a chapter in Nancie Atwell’s In the Middle and found that there are, in fact, more ways than one to conduct writing workshops. Her style involves four things: writing-reading handbooks, writing-in-process folders, time to write in class, and time to conduct writing conferences in class. As she states, “Your handbook is where you’ll gather ideas for writing, keep track of books you want to read someday, take notes about minilesson information or tape in notes I give you, create a lexicon of literary terms, and. . . respond to prose readings” (Atwell, page 78). I love the concept. Not only does it appeal to my organized heart, but I appreciate how it masterfully straddles the line between freedom and structure. The real magic in Atwell’s writing workshop comes in the other stages, though. Students are given guiding prompts but their writing is ultimately their own. They return to class with pieces they have crafted, and once there the students continue to work and play with their ideas. During quiet— and Atwell means quiet— writing time, she walks the room and pauses at each of her student’s desks. Atwell then asks key questions that help each student further discover their own writing process.
In my future secondary English classroom, I would like to create something of a hybrid between these two techniques. I plan to take all four steps of Atwell’s method, but also throw in the group discussion of pieces from college professor for a little spice. That way, students have the freedom to write creatively but also have the opportunity to receive feedback from their peers and not just me. Of course, I understand that it will be a process. Tweaking will need to be done each year to accommodate both the current class as well as my own observations from the last implementation. No matter what, though, I want to work writing workshops into my classroom with one thing in mind— to help students find their own writing voice, through their own writing process. That way when they are in college and eating both Subway and McDonald’s for dinner the same night… in their gastrointestinal bliss they can write about it. They can write about anything and everything. They can take in the world around them and let their voice fly.