Methods #15: Struggles Getting Behind the Writer’s Workshop

Though I agree with Nancie Atwell that students need to be provided time and that they must be expected to write daily I struggle with the concept in my own classroom where students are years behind in their writing abilities from what the standards demand of them.

There are undoubtedly lengthy lists that I could generate for why my students are completely behind in basic skill sets, but I feel I could make a generalization why many struggle: they are expert manipulators. Don’t get me wrong, my kids are great kids, but they know how to get away with doing less than the minimum. There is no reason why several eighth graders pout about needing to write two to three complete sentences in response to a question yet they fight tooth and nail about having to do such.

For example, I had my students select their favorite songs and respond to questions such as: What does this song mean to you? What do you think the song is about? Etc.… Over half of my eighth grade answered each question with a sentence or a sentence fragment. When I demanded more, they gave less. One student said, “That’s what it is about, I didn’t write the song. Don’t blame me!” in defense of Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space” being a song, “about a crazy person.”

Long story short I discovered many students were not able to demonstrate higher level thinking because they haven’t been forced to access their own brains. Don’t get me wrong, some students excel, but those that struggle have survived on the coattails of others and been spoon-fed the correct answers by frustrated teachers and aids attempting to cover the curriculum that demands more of students each year.

Because of the giant gap I find in my students’ ability levels, I cannot sacrifice instruction time to commit to a writer’s workshop. Many of my students need to be taught years of missed language skills that will not develop simply because I tell them to write. I have no doubt that they will also struggle even if I do my best to force-feed neglected education from the fundamentally necessary knowledge from topics ranging from parts of speech to grade level skills that they need to succeed at the high school level.

It is likely that Atwell, and other advocates of the Writer’s Workshop, would argue that the Writer’s Workshop is the perfect vehicle for developing these students because it forces them to set goals and provides them with the freedom of choice.


One thought on “Methods #15: Struggles Getting Behind the Writer’s Workshop

  1. Interesting post, Gary. I think we get lulled into thinking that students would be able to write better if we focused on those missing basic skills–but in almost every case, skills are missing because students haven’t had an opportunity to write. They have been drilled in skills, and it didn’t take the first time–or the second, third, or 27th. Most of our students have spent far too many years in school reading and writing out of textbooks rather than out of need, desire, or the realization that they have something worthwhile to communicate. Forcing them to complete more teacher-centered assignments isn’t going to help them learn anything but compliance. That’s probably not what you want to hear, but it’s what years of experience, reading research, and visiting other classrooms has convinced me of. And your students, in particular, don’t see a lot of value in compliance. For which I heartily salute them! Students who resist our teaching are telling us we need to change what we’re doing. I LOVE the students who resist because they’re the ones who help me get better. Let me just say, in my first year teaching, I had A LOT of resistant students. Whole classrooms full of them! I have been on the receiving end of exactly the kind of resistance you describe, and I know how soul-sucking it can be. Once I made a full, whole-hearted commitment to change in my classroom–once I threw out everything I was doing and started over again with a strong vision for what I wanted to accomplish–the resistance ended. I could not change my students–but I could change myself and what I was doing. Workshop was challenging to organize and run, especially the first year, but it was so far above and beyond what I had been doing before. No student failed my English class again after I changed to workshop–and I was requiring FAR more work of them in that structure than I did in the more traditional, skills and assigned literature based classroom I had before.


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