Notes from the Field
School Library Monthly/Volume XXVIII, Number 7/April 2012
Writer's Workshop and the Literacy Club
by Jennifer Wheat and Kym Kramer
Jennifer Wheat is the District Literacy Specialist in MSD of Pike Township and a doctoral student at Indiana University in the Literacy, Culture and Language Education department. Email: email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org
Kym Kramer is a student inquiry specialist for MSD Pike Township in Indianapolis district and an adjunct instructor in the school library program at IU-Bloomington. She also supervises MLS student teachers. She taught 2nd and 3rd grades for six years, and was a K-5 school librarian for ten years before moving to her current district role. Email: KKramer@pike.k12.in.us
Becoming a writer involves standing on the shoulders of others (Smith 1988). Students can stand on the shoulders of published authors, peer writers, classroom teachers, and school librarians—all contributors to the entire school community. One effective way to establish this system of support is through classroom writing workshops in cooperation with the school library where habits of mind can be nurtured and developed by the school librarian. Once this support both in and out of the classroom has been established as the culture of the school, children will begin to flourish as writers.
Writing Workshop Defined
Stemming from the seminal work of Donald Graves on process writing, we know that children must be given the opportunity to write every day in order to become better writers (Graves 1983). Writing workshops not only give students opportunities to write, but also the privilege of seeing themselves as authors in their world of writing. Calkins discusses the importance of authorship and helping children build an identity as a writer (1994). She believes this is best accomplished during what she and others have deemed a writing workshop time, which evolved from Graves's work with the writing process. The writing workshop occurs in the classroom daily for at least an hour.
The writing workshop follows a predictable structure. It begins with a mini-lesson during which children look at published works that serve as models for their own writing. Next, children have time to actually write while using the writing process. They can build the habits of writers, develop ownership in learning, and author personal stories. Teachers can use writing workshop time to learn about their children as writers through conferring or small-group strategy work. Toward the end of the workshop session, the class can come together to reflect on the writing process and/or share their writing.
The most valuable part of the workshop, according to Calkins, is the teacher (1994). A scripted writing program cannot replace a highly qualified teacher responding to children's ideas and writing. The decisions the teacher makes in finding touchstone texts (texts that serve as mentors for children's writing), the teaching he/she does during conferring/small group instruction, and his/her own use of writing is vital to children developing as writers.
The teacher shows children the possibilities of authorship, but who guides the teacher in selection of the most up-to-date touchstone texts? Who has the knowledge base and wide understanding of the variety of children’s books and authors that can be used? It is the school librarian!
Natural Connections for School Librarians
The school librarian can use his/her collection development expertise to connect teachers and students with books so they can discover and experience writer’s styles and ideas. Katie Wood Ray, in her book Wondrous Words, discusses the importance of understanding the craft of writing, which includes both text structure and the ways authors use words (1999). Most importantly, she invites educators into her library and shares the touchstone texts that she uses. She quotes Frank Smith in describing the importance of "reading like a writer" (Ray 1999, 15). This means that every time readers engage in reading a book, they are thinking about the moves the author makes. Using this approach during co-planning sessions with teachers, the librarian can ask questions such as, "What are your goals for this unit? What craft of writing do you want the children to learn? What literature have you used in the past?" The library professional knows the literature collection in intimate ways that can constantly expand teachers' knowledge of touchstone texts that will be perfect for modeling aspects of craft through the writing workshop. Connecting teachers to the books that have a richness of story as well as a richness of craft enhances the instruction during writing workshop.
Another natural connection occurs when the school librarian models exactly how to "read like a writer" and does this for both children and teachers. By exploiting the role of a bibliophile, a librarian can morph into a "logophile," a person who loves words! Working from the position of a key player in the students' literacy teaching and development, the school librarian can stress that people who lead writerly lives revel in words by searching for interesting language usage and writing structure. Using Calkins’s idea of touchstone texts, the school librarian can have a few books and authors she/he knows thoroughly (1994). These texts can become part of the librarian’s writerly life identity as well, and the school librarian can explicitly show children how the author is using words and structuring text during lessons involving literature. Regie Routman suggests keeping a writing notebook where well-loved quotes and moving passages can be recorded, remembered, and shared (2003). This tool can become part of the school librarian's identity as a writer.
Modeling with up-to-date literature during the mini-lesson is a great start, but the librarian can be involved in conferring with children about their writing as well. Conferring allows one to listen closely and determine how to meet the individual needs of each child during the workshop. The school librarian can be a key person in conferring, but it may not necessarily be in the traditional sense of the term. Ray describes how to help writers "envision" the work they might do by discovering stories' and authors' styles (1999, 57). Through a reader’s advisory conference, the school librarian can listen to a child describe what is to be achieved. Matching the child with books that model the desired craft rather than mirroring the topic helps him/her envision how to write the piece. Collection expertise as it relates to craft and structure provides a depth of knowledge that will expand the students' and teachers' repertoire of mentor texts.
Questions that the school librarian could use in the reader’s advisory conversation include "What are you trying to do with the book you are writing right now?" Or, for a more mature writer who understands the term "structure," "What type of structure are you wanting to use?" or "What message do you want to send to your readers?" These responses help the school librarian understand the student’s task at hand, so he/she can match the writer with books and authors.
A final way that the school librarian can support writing workshop is through the natural role of inquiry specialist. In general, collaborating with teachers to imbed nonfiction inquiry cycles on topics found in content curriculum sets the expectation of student as inquirer. Explicit teaching of the bridge between the writing process and an inquiry cycle will help student writers understand how inquiry nests within the writing process.
Using inquiry in the craftsmanship of story structure and language usage further expands the school librarian’s role in writing workshop. Building from the librarian's knowledge of stories, students can learn how to deconstruct a selection by inquiry. Katie Wood Ray explains it as "slowing down" in order to analyze decisions authors make about writing craft (1999). This explicit teaching helps children so they are " not just seeing the possibilities, but studying them as well" (Ray 1999, 16). Through modeling, student writers can see ways of gawking at techniques that press upon the "writing rules" or gaping over savory passages. In this way, teacher and librarian can show children that books are not meant to be used as drive-bys. Digging in and deconstructing a text can move a technique from awe-inspiring to do-able. Taking other writers' works apart in this fashion helps students develop the habits of mind that will help them do this for themselves in the future.
The librarian's role as collaborator, literature expert, scaffold-builder, and safety net can be extensive if she/he understands the complexities of writing workshop. This article scratches the surface of the possibilities of ways the librarian serves as a mentor to both children and teachers by enabling them to "stand on the shoulders" of their writing and expertise in the field of literature.
Calkins, Lucy. The Art of Teaching Writing. Heinemann, 1994.
Graves, Donald. Writing: Teachers and Children at Work. Heinemann, 1983.
Ray, Katie Wood. Wondrous Words: Writers and Writing in the Elementary Classroom. National Council of Teachers of English, 1999.
Routman, Regie. Reading Essentials. Heinemann, 2003.