"…There are moments when the room is completely still except for a slice of paper now and then and the scratch of pens. There are other moments when questions and answers burst out, offering sudden inspiration for everyone. There are special guests, music, outdoor adventures and always plenty of nutritious snacks and drinks." WriteGirl
No, this isn’t a dream. It’s the experience girls have when they participate in Write Girl workshops. Write Girl is an out-of-school time organization that supports girls in becoming writers through one-on-one mentoring and creative writing workshops. In these workshops, professional women writers support girls in learning techniques, gaining insights, and identifying hot topics for great writing in all genres. The girls and their mentors write poetry, fiction, creative non-fiction, songs, journalism, screenplays and plays, persuasive essays, and more. Write Girl is just one organization that has adopted the workshop format to encourage writing. If you would like to join the ranks of such programs, here are some tips and resources to get you started.
A writers’ workshop is simply a chunk of time set aside for you and the young people in your program to write. Just as we become good readers by reading, we become good writers by writing. Writers’ workshops are an ideal activity for out-of-school-time programs because they offer a lot of flexibility in the amount of time set aside for the workshop and how you spend that time.
Depending on the age of the writers and their purpose for writing, you may choose from among several strategies to facilitate writing. Components such as mini-lessons and sharing time are optional. The one indispensable component of every session is writing time.
Some children and youth will not have experience with choosing their own topics or writing for extended periods. Teaching That Makes Sense (TTMS) offers four lessons every workshop leader should know and tips on conducting mini-lessons (PDF, see pages 4-8) to get young writers ready to write.
Mini-lessons are brief—5 to 15 minutes—and focused on one topic. Early mini-lessons might focus on choosing topic, as suggested by Ralph Fletcher and JoAnn Portalupi in Launching the Workshop (page 37 has a mini-lesson on topic selection). As participants become more experienced, you may give mini-lessons on such topics as revising, punctuation, and techniques for writing in specific genres.
Now it’s time to write! Many kids will have little experience with writing for extended periods of time, so you should explain up front that this is what they will be doing. The amount of writing time depends on participants’ age and experience. Young writers new to the workshop format need enough time to get their ideas down, but not enough to get bored or run out of ideas. You might begin by telling them they have 10 or 15 minutes for writing. Watch how they’re doing, and if they’re still engaged when time is up, silently extend the time until you see they are finishing or getting restless. As they grow more experienced, extend the time until you have writing periods of 20 to 45 minutes or more.
While kids are writing, you are too! You are their writing role model.
After you have established by example that writing time is for writing, you can take part of your writing time for one-on-one meetings with writers who are ready to talk about their pieces. Start with a question, such as “What are you working on?” or “What can I help you with?” and then spend more time listening than talking. If a student has a problem, throw it back in his or her court: “What do you plan to do about that?” Three to five minutes per writer should be all the time you need.
Periodically check in with individuals and the whole group to determine how writers are doing. Do they need more time? What’s going well? What supports do they need?
When writing time is over, it’s time to share. One kind of sharing is talk about process. Ask writers about what it was like to write, uninterrupted, about their own interests. They can share their responses aloud or write in their journals.
During the writing, revision, and editing phases, writers can read their pieces aloud while others listen or read along from a photocopy. Then other workshop members talk about what they heard the piece saying, reflecting its strengths and offering suggestions for revision. Writers are often so close to their subject matter that they can’t tell whether they’ve communicated what they meant to. Georgia Heard’s The Revision Toolbox (page 27, Asking Questions, Adding Details) offers some ways of structuring a session in which listeners describe what they’ve heard to help the writer strengthen the piece. To make the process both informative and respectful for the writer, set up clear guidelines for considerate communication and active listening.
Writers’ workshop is a management system that is simultaneously structured and flexible. Make writing time a consistent part of every session and then use other components—mini-lessons, conferencing, status of the group, and sharing—as needed. When participants have opportunities to write—frequently, for extended periods of time, on topics of their own choosing—you will see their passion for writing grow until your workshop starts to look like WriteGirl’s: "…the room is completely still except for a slice of paper now and then and the scratch of pens."