How to Keep Your Students Engaged During Writing Workshop
Engagement is key in not only writing but simply with teaching. If you start the year building community and confidence, then you are setting yourself up for success throughout the rest of the year. I decided to address engagement in writing workshop first in the Summer Writing Series because if you've got this down, it makes EVERYTHING so much easier. It's a core foundation. I've got some tips coming later this summer for specific things to do at the beginning of the year. The ideas shared below are things you can do throughout the year to keep your kiddos continuously excited about writing.
So what does engagement look like? How can we build and promote engagement in our daily lessons so that our students actually care about writing? Below, I am going to highlight specific and actionable ways that you can foster engagement in your classroom.
1// Exude enthusiasm.
If you don’t care about it, they won’t care about it. Chances are if you feel the fight and struggle with writing, that is going to reflect into your students. Then you all end up frustrated. If momma ain’t happy, nobody’s happy. That goes with writing too! So check in with yourself. If you are not enjoying teaching writing, what is the issue? When I am not enjoying something I am teaching, it’s because one of three reasons:
- I don’t understand the content. (lack of knowledge)
- I don’t like the materials I am using. (crappy resources)
- I feel overwhelmed by the amount I need to cover #allthethings. (overwhelm)
To recap, the underlying issues are lack of knowledge, crappy resources (pardon my french), or overwhelm. Before we move on, check in with yourself. Which is your typical frustration with writing? Or is it something else not mentioned above?
If all else fails: fake it till you make it! 😉
2// Select Mentor Texts YOU love.
Most of the time (there have been many exceptions), if you share a book with children that YOU love, they will love it too. Create a go-to selection of your favorite books that you can use to teach year after year, grade level-upon-switching-grade level. I’ve gotten so good at this that I am trying to get better at trying out new books to mix it up. Not that this is as a bad thing. I use these books all the time to teach all types of things in writing. I can quote the lines, my students can quote the lines. Guess where that translates? Their writing. Guess who feels confident? YOU. Guess where that translates? YOUR STUDENTS. Guess who enjoys writing a little bit more? YOU. Guess where that translates? YOUR STUDENTS. You see where I am going with this, right?
Maybe you can already name some go-to picture books that you love. Make these your mentor texts. If you don't have any, I've got you covered! Let me share with you my favorite mentor texts for each type of writing. This is the short list. Meaning I am not looking at my classroom library right now, nor my teacher shelf of favorites. These are off the top-of-my-head-you-need-to-teach-this-type-of-writing-GO books. These are the ones that I could probably teach without even having the book in front of me. I’ve used them that many times.
Those Shoes by Maribeth Boelts
Bedhead by Margie Palatini
Spiders by Seymour Simon
Dolphins by Seymour Simon
Sharks by Kevin J. Holmes
A Pig Parade is a Terrible Idea by Michael Ian Black
Just the one for Opinion. It is my FAVORITE. I don’t even need another one. Nothing else really compares. You will find it all throughout my opinion writing unit.
There is also a read aloud on YouTube.
3// Celebrate and share their writing (and yours too!)
I’m going to be candid with this one. In the days of standardized testing and worrying about test scores, celebrating student writing is not as common as it used to be. That doesn't mean it is not important. Quite the opposite. I've been the teacher that plans elaborate writing celebrations, with a poetry writing cafe complete with hot chocolate and muffins. I've also been the teacher that is too busy to take time to celebrate my students' success in writing. We are busy and test scores are held as the holy grail. Going almost a year without celebrating student writing and then having a full-on celebration at the end of last year helped me to realize WHY it was so important.
As teachers, we constantly have an ongoing struggle to do what we need and want for our students and the time needed to do it. Hop on Instagram at any given moment to feel less than. So if you're the busy teacher that struggles with making the time to celebrate student writing, relax. There are ways to tuck it in day to day, so when you don't have time to take an entire writing period to have students share their writing, you don't feel like a complete slacker as a teacher. You're not. You are amazing! We do the best we can. What more can we ask for?
Let's took a look at a few Small Ways and Big Ways you can celebrate student writing:
We all need to feel like we are winning at life. We all definitely need to feel like we are winning when it comes to writing. Writing comes with a lot (A LOT) of mistakes. And that is okay. Our students need to know that. WE need to know that.
- Quick Shares Open or close each writing lesson by sharing 1-3 students’ writing that were doing something well, or used a writing strategy that you want other students to do. Do not feel like you have to share all of their writing. In fact, I’d sway you against that. Focus on one part and name precisely what they are doing. For example, an introductory paragraph. Just read the paragraph. Acknowledge why you thought it was especially spectacular. If there is time or you feel inclined, you can also have students turn and talk about what else they noticed in the student’s writing. This does wonders for your classroom. A) Can you imagine how proud the writer feels to have his writing shared with the rest of the class? B) Your other students are proud of their classmate. C) Your other students want their writing to be shared as well–they are more motivated to write. Expect them to ask you to share their writing next time.
- Create Mentor Authors in Your Classroom When you notice your students doing something exceptionally well or having success with a strategy in your class. Make them a mentor author for their classmates. This is also a great way to nonverbally acknowledge your writers.
- Snaps for Smart Thinking: This isn’t just a writing thing, this is a classroom thing. Anytime (and not necessarily every time) someone shares something they either worked really hard on, tried something I taught, noticed something unexpected, or simply to honor their effort, we give them snaps for smart thinking. This is an excellent way to foster engagement and to teach students to listen and acknowledge their classmates. Plus, it’s so adorable.
Sometimes you have a lot of time for an end of unit celebration. Either way you choose to celebrate is an acheivement. It establishes community and creates a sense of purpose for their writing. Not only that, now they have an audience. Depending on where you are teaching, how you are teaching, and what you are teaching your writing celebrations will dictate how and how often you celebrate. Also, just because it is a “big way” to celebrate your student writing doesn’t mean it has to be big on time or effort. Below are some easy ways to make your students feel BIG confidence about their writing.
- Gallery Walk: Students display their stories on top of their desks, students roam the room and read one another’s work. They leave a compliment on a post-it or note on the writer’s desk.
The end of this unit happened to fall during the week of Valentine’s Day so our theme for this celebration was We HEART Writing. Students left hearts on each writer’s desk to compliment the specific writing strategies used in their essay.
- Small Group Share: Divide students into small groups to read their stories out loud. (Snacks always make it more fun!)
- Class-to-Class: Share with another class either in your grade level or in another grade level. Students can buddy up with other classmates to share their final stories. I paired my 3rd Graders with a Kindergarten class and it was adorable! I highly suggest this type of celebration!
- The Traveling Writer: This one takes bravery! Have students share their stories out loud to another class. For example, a 4th grader could go to a Kindergarten classroom and read their story out loud to the class.
Other Ideas to Continuously Celebrate Student Writing
- Class Newspaper
- Class Blog
- Class or School Website
- Publish on special writing paper
At the end of the day, you are in charge of your classroom. These ideas to share student writing are a product of listening to others’ ideas or paying attention to what works for my students. Paying attention to what engages and excites your students will help you innovate new ways to celebrate your writers.
This fun way of sharing writing came from a time when I was struggling to celebrate student writing. I was at a new school and writing wasn’t necessarily taught the way I was used to, BUT I needed to get my students excited about their writing. I wanted them to celebrate how far they had come. Enter musical essays. This is available to download in the Free Resource Library. (Get access here>>TLL Free Resource Library)
(If you're reading these comments closely, you might also notice the need to teach on ways to comment so that it doesn't come off too harsh. I highly suggest teaching HOW to talk to other writers about their writing by building them up and offering respectful suggestions.)
4// Activate Your Lessons
I love this book: A Guide To Making Your Teaching Stick by Shanna Schwartz
She explains that in our mini-lessons, we can create engagement in 3 major ways:
- Telling little stories to connect our teaching to their lives
- Using gestures that get their bodies active
- Act and role-play
At the intermediate level, we can easily connect our teaching to our lives. Particularly, in writing, we can use our life stories to TEACH writing. This connection to our personal lives is a natural way to engage students. The moment you start sharing a story about your dog, your cat, your kids, your husband, or your childhood is the moment when your students start listening and learning. Despite what their behavior might imply, they care about you and what your life is like beyond 7:30-3.
The art of storytelling is not easy. It comes so naturally to some, but is SO difficult for others. It is much easier for me to write a story than to tell it out loud. Just like for our students, the more we do both, the easier it becomes. Hence, whatever you want your students to get better at- you have to get better at. (Yep, I know I ended a sentence with a preposition. It haunts me everytime I do it. #truth)
- Agreement Signal: I don’t have a video (…yet) for what this looks like in my classroom. I did find this video on The Teaching Channel. I use this hand signal, which I learned from my experience with Number Talks by Sherry Parrish. Scroll to 1:30 if you don’t want to watch the whole video, but want to see the specific strategy. However, the video is pretty awesome and you might find it beneficial in other ways. 🙂
- Snaps for smart thinking. Though this can’t happen ALL THE TIME, it is an easy way to have students celebrate each other and build confidence when sharing writing. This is so simple. When students hear a student share their writing, they snap (rather than clap) for the students’ writing. If you have a student share out their ideas, then the class response is to “snap for smart thinking.” If you share student writing with the class, students respond with snaps for smart thinking.
Act and Role Play
Think about this as a way to help your writers imagine how their reader will react or how to apply elaboration. Rather than getting too deep, I am going to give you two quick examples.
What it could look with narrative writing:
This is a great strategy to use if students are having difficulty describing character thoughts, feelings, and actions. With a partner, have the students act out the scene and then describe what they did with their body, what they said, etc. Partners can help each other put the role play into action.
What it could look like with informational or opinion writing:
Maybe your students are having difficulty elaborating on the facts, but don't move beyond that. They have no voice. You can start by posing the questions: What does that make you think? Why is it important? Why does that even matter? Put yourself in that situation and think about how this issue affects other people/living things? This is what you would say after you say the fact.
Fact: Seven out of ten graduating students are not equipped with the tools to thrive in the civic and global economy.
Elaboration: If students are not prepared with basic career skills, then we have to be strategic in our instruction to ensure they are getting the skills they need.
Fact: Seat belts on school buses can cost at least $5,000 per bus.
Elaboration: That might seem like a lot of money, but for children's safety? It is worth every penny.
Create Tangible Ways for Students to Interact with Writing
- Post-Its: Use large and small post-its to plan with writing or to partner practice a specific strategy.
- Chart Paper: Depending on the type of writing you are doing, have students work together to either plan, draft, or rewrite a piece of writing. You might not be able to do this with a personal narrative. This strategy would be great to use if you are writing in response to text for informational or narrative writing. Whether students use markers or pencil, the novelty of using chart paper is an easy engagement tool.
- Colored Pencils or Pens: Colored pencils or pens can be used by students to color code the text, edit and revise, circle misspelled words, or peer edit their writing. In the photo below we used colored pencils to sort our notes for informational writing. Students were planning an informational essay about an animal topic of their choice. They spent time researching and taking notes. Afterward, we needed to figure out a way to organize our writing. Students created buckets of topics and assigned a color to the topic. For each note that related to that topic, you use the same color to underline the note. This helps to organize the notes and draft an organized paragraph or section.
Well, there you have it. My best engagement strategies to promote the love and excitement of writing. When we start with our primary focus on engagement in Writing Workshop, it sets the stage for success throughout the rest of the year!
Remember, this is Week 1 of 6 in the Summer Writing Series. To get notifications for the upcoming blog posts as well as access to my Free Resource Library, you can head here >>> Free Resource Library Access