Writer’s Workshop in My Classroom

July 26, 2013

I may have mentioned this before… but I l-o-v-e teaching writing to first graders.
Although it can be painstaking at times, the progress made by the end of the year is truly remarkable. I was asked by a follower last week how I ran writer’s workshop in my classroom so I thought I would share in case anyone else finds this information useful!
Before I start, I will say that while I love teaching writing, I am by no means any type of expert in this field. In fact, I am pretty hard on myself when it comes to what my students produce as young writers. I am always going to workshops, reading professional books, and talking with other teachers to get their input on teaching writing. What I write in this post is just what has worked for me over the past few years. Please feel free to share what works successfully for you while teaching writing to the primary grades! I am always looking for new tips!

The Beginning:
At the beginning of the year, the writing process is pretty simple. I spend the first month of school reviewing handwriting, asking my students to produce simple sentences, teaching them how to “free-write” while building their stamina and all the while I am assessing their work. I like to know exactly where each of my students are by the end of the first couple weeks.  I do a lot of activities from my beginning of the year writing unit to build students’ confidence before we dive into a full writer’s workshop model. Using plenty of writing samples, I split my students into groups.

Group 1: 
Need help with letter formation and/or still identifying letters (names or sounds).
Group 2:
Know all letters and sounds and working on producing simple sentences. Ex: I like to run.
Group 3:
 Can produce simple sentences and are working on making more complex sentences. Ex: I like to run outside with my friend.
Group 4:
Can produce complex sentences and are working on making sentences “juicier” as well as adding more to their writing. Ex: I like to run outside with my friend, Julie. We love to race and play tag during P.E.
*Note: I wrote my example sentences with correct spelling, but I do not expect my students to at the beginning of the year. I am a huge advocate of inventive spelling in first grade and I find that the less I stress correct spelling, the more willing my students are to let loose and enjoy writing.*
Naturally, I don’t call my groups by a number, but instead I make up fun names for them (generally I choose jungle animals). As the year progresses these groups change and students are constantly moving from group to group. Throughout the year the groups progress in skill as well and the “high” group begins to work on paragraphs and longer papers, while the lower groups may be working on some basic mechanics. Before Christmas break, I may even have 5 groups. This happened last year when I had two particularly high students who were working on forming paragraphs and 2 new students who were still struggling to learn their alphabet. Whatever the case, I am very flexible with my groupings and I am constantly looking at my students’ work to determine what they need from me the most.
Meeting Place:
Everywhere & Anywhere.
For real.
At the beginning of the year, I call my groups back to the kidney table so I can be up close and personal and we can get used to working together. For some lessons, like sustained writing, I find that this method is best. Sometimes, I will call over my group to the mat and we will sit and share parts of our writing. We will confer together and discuss when and where we could add details to a classmate’s writing. Then I will send them on their way back to their seats to practice adding details to their own papers. Other times, I will walk around the classroom with a clipboard and look for specific things I have taught that day (punctuation, capitalization, adding details, etc.). These times I will either walk right over to a student and have a mini one-on-one conference, or I will make an impromptu group and get together somewhere cozy to re-emphasize a lesson. 
Keeping Track (Conferencing):
My goal each and every week is to meet with every student at least once. That being said, I try to meet with each student more than once per week and I like to meet with my lowest group every day. As optimistic as I am, I know that doesn’t happen each week so as long as I have spent a few minutes with each student per week, I can tell myself I didn’t totally fail 🙂

This past year, I participated in a year-long research study revolving around teaching writing and I picked up some great tips on how to keep track of your conferences with students.
Folder with index cards:

This system is easy to write quick anecdotal notes when you conference with your students and it saves space! I just  write down the date I met with a student and a quick note about what they are working on, getting better at, or still struggling with. I used to use a binder with a page for each student and I would write paragraphs every time I met with a child. I liked my cute little binder but this method is a lot faster and helps me get right to the point when I am meeting with parents to discuss a student’s work.

My friend, Michelle, teaches 4th grade and she uses this system in her class. She wrote a little bit about here if you want to see how she does it!
I mentioned this one above and I only use the clipboard method for specific skills. For instance if I had been teaching mini-lessons on using correct ending punctuation, I would walk around with my clipboard during the writing block and quickly assess each student. I made an editable version of my checklist for you. Here is an example:

Click here to download the editable version.

What are some ways you organize student notes during conferences??

Pin it:

The Process:
My writing block is my last block of the day and it is 50 minutes long. 50 minutes solely dedicated to the writing process. This past year, I used the program Being a Writer as a general guide for our block and the outline was this:
10 minutes – mentor text
10 minutes – teacher modeling & shared writing
20 minutes – shared & independent writing
10 minutes – sharing

I stick to this schedule pretty strictly so my students can get used to the routine and also build their stamina. Shared writing is on the schedule twice because at the beginning of the year, I spend more time modeling (the full 10 minutes) and then we go into shared writing for another 10 minutes before the students go back to their seats to write independently. As the year goes on, it shifts a bit and the students end up writing for a longer time independently and we do less shared writing on a daily basis.

Each day has the same set up and I generally work on the same skill all week. Some example skills that would be modeled and practiced all week would be:
-More detailed pictures
-Relating your illustrations to your writing
-Adding more to your story
-Adding dialogue

I thought the easiest way to share what a week in my classroom would look like would be to create a shortened lesson plan with each day mapped out. This weekly lesson is for the skill: adding more detail to your illustration and relating your illustration to your story. I have done this lesson around early October right before we go into personal narratives. You can click on the images below to get the lesson plan for yourself:


As you can see, I also added examples of what I am modeling throughout the lesson. Monday-Friday is included.

Keeping Track (Student Work):
When we are
full into the writing process (drafting, editing, revising, etc) things
can get messy quick with first graders. “I can’t find my paper.” “My
paper is ripped/crumpled/ruined.” You get the picture. My first year I
spent way too much time looking in students desks or backpacks to find
their work, that we didn’t get as much writing done as I would’ve
preferred. I am still learning and finding better ways to organize.
A teacher friend of mine was generous enough to give me a class set of these folders from Really Good Stuff that I used my second year:
are marketed for grades 2-3 and it did take a lot of time for my first
graders to get used to each section of the folder and put them in the
right spots. Even then, their papers were still crumpled from trying to
shove them in each pocket and I made the mistake of using the folders
while we were working on more than one writing piece at a time. If I
taught 2nd, I think I could make it work… but if I used these again in
1st grade I would only have one writing piece in the folder at a time
and I would spend a lot more time modeling when we move a paper from the
editing to the revising pocket and so on.
This past
year I used a different system, but I kept these folders in my writing
corner. I also used the folders with my high group who were able to work on
simultaneous writing pieces at one time. By the end of the year, just over half of
my class had one of these folders in their chair pockets and they loved
to add to their old stories.
The method I used last
year was my most effective method. It worked for me and my students and
we were able to spend less time searching for our work and more time
exact ones are from Target (Dollar Spot of course!) and are in storage,
but the neon ones above would work just fine. I only use three colors
for collecting writing samples: red, yellow, and blue. I tell my
students from the beginning of the year that when they pass in their
paper to a bin they are telling me something. This is what they are
telling me:
Red bin:
“Ms. Moran, my paper is not finished. I am still adding to my writing piece.”
Yellow bin:
“Ms. Moran, I think I am done adding to my paper, but I still need to edit it.”
Blue bin:
“Ms. Moran, I am totally finished with my paper. You can grade it now.”
the end of each day, I can take a quick flip through each bin and see
where my students are in their writing process. When our independent
writing starts, I have my star of the week pass out the papers and we begin!

The bins also let me easily flip through and find an example paper to show on the doc-camera (name covered, of course)! We can do a quick mini-lesson on adding more from a paper that was in the red bin and that student can gather some ideas. From the yellow bin, we can do a quick mini lesson on editing and revising. Or if I want to have someone practice sharing their paper and getting feedback, I will pull a paper from the blue bin!

Some have asked me if there are products or programs that I use when teaching writing and at my old school I was lucky enough to have a lot of freedom to pick and choose what works best for me and my students. With that freedom, I have been able to use bits and pieces of programs like Lucy Calkins, Being a Writer, and Write from the Beginning. I have been able to take the bits and pieces I like from each and do my own thing. I have made a few products that are available on TPT that pretty much get me through the whole year.

**You can see all of my writing units HERE** but I will highlight my favorite ones below:

My Common Core bundle has 3 explicit units (each about a month long) that teach the three main common core writing strands: narratives, informative texts, and opinions.

After I teach those three units, I move onto some more involved writing through reviews, how to books, and even realistic fiction writing:

My Writing Through the Seasons pack is a bundled resource I came out with only a month or two ago and it has tons of narrative, informative, and opinion seasonal writing prompts that will get you through the whole year. Each prompt also comes with graphic organizers.

I use the seasonal prompts when I am not knee-deep in one of my Common Core units and I made the prompts very kid friendly and included a bunch of crafts to create cute bulletin boards throughout the year as well!

Click on each product image above to see more details and previews.

Thank you for sticking with me through these two long posts and I hope I answered some of your questions!

Do you do anything similar for your writing block?!

Pin it:

Leave A Comment - 31 Comments

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

  • This is great information, Susan! I am so glad you are sharing:) I was looking into purchasing Lucy Calkins writer's workshop, and still may, but I really wanted to add to my current system this year (which is the district-approved system, anyway) before spending even more out-of-pocket! Thanks!!

  • I love teaching writing too! Last year, I used post-it notes and kept them in two file folders, sorted by student. The only issue was that the post-its would lose stickiness and fall off. I like the index card idea a lot though! Thanks for sharing! Can't wait for Part II!
    Teaching in the Valley

  • Hi Susan. This may be a silly question but this is an area I really struggle with getting in daily. How much time per day do you work on writing? I know it should be little lessons each day but I was just wondering. 🙂 Trying to improve my writing this year!!

    Thank you so much!!

  • Love the idea of using anecdotal records on index cards! I think I will adapt this idea but try using the Evernote App on my iPad to compile digital notes. Looking forward to part 2!

  • Loving the index card method! Works so effectively! I also like to put the dates of the individual conferences by the names on the outside of the index cards so at a quick glance I can see who I need to work with.
    Great Post! Thanks for the shout out!
    from Well, Michelle?

  • Can I please just say a huge THANK YOU! This will be my second year teaching first grade, and I felt that I really struggled with writing and writing workshop last year. I absolutely love your idea of ability groups (not just for reading!) and the way that you track your observations. I can't wait for Part Two!

    Teaching with a Smile