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I remember when I first tried out writing workshop approaches in my classroom. There I was clutching my Lucy Calkin’s Units of Study manual (which I had read again at lunch for the umpteenth time), sitting near my chart paper easel, staring into 28 sets of 6-year-old eyes.
I felt good about the mini lesson, but I was nervous about the time set aside afterward for independent writing. How in the world was I going to get my young students to write on their own? And for how long?!
I remember the line of children behind me asking how to spell this word or that. The children starring at blank pieces of paper on desks, and the one rolling a pencil across the floor with his nose. I remember, still, others, with their cries of, “I’m done! What now?” What now, indeed?
As the name suggests, in order to be successful, independent writing requires a level of, well, student independence. Independence that is often difficult to achieve with young children. It comes as no surprise, then, that I often hear requests from teachers for help with structuring the independent writing portion of their writer’s workshops.
Which brings me to a surprising experience I underwent this past week, and some important insights for supporting independence and independent writing that we can learn from it . . .
Fostering Independence in Young Children: Lessons from a Summer Horse Camp
On Monday I dropped my two children off for their first day of horseback riding camp (or horse camp for short). Now this wasn’t your typical one-hour, go slow, introductory lesson. Oh no. This was eight hours of intense work with ten other campers.
While my nine-year-old daughter had ridden a few times before, my six-year-old son was a complete novice who had never so much as touched a horse. I’ll admit I was a bit nervous as I kissed both kids goodbye and headed back to my SUV.
My son was the youngest one there. What if he got scared and couldn’t handle it? Perhaps this was too much to ask of my little guy.
When four o’clock finally rolled around (okay it was closer to 3:40 PM, nerves and all), I pulled up to the barn, and there was my son, confidently leading his horse out the stable door and over to a patch of grass. When our eyes met, he waved, then continued on his way. No help needed. I stared after him, mouth open, as I watched him continue on with his work.
By this time my son’s instructor had made his way over to me. “These kids are capable of more than you think,” he muttered.
At his words I glanced around and noticed, for the first time, that every camper was busy working on some task: moving saddles, pushing brooms, washing horses. Each direction showcased a choreographed dance of productivity, with children transitioning between tasks with ease.
And that got me thinking. Children are capable of so much when we create environments that support independence.
Every camper at that barn had a task to complete, and knew how to achieve it on their own. So, what was it about this environment that allowed the children to operate independently and with such confidence? Three observations stand out as important:
- Each day was structured around predictable routines that were implemented consistently.
- Campers where given the tools they needed to succeed, and shown when and how to access these tools on their own.
- Space for struggle and discovery existed amongst high expectations, and approximations were celebrated.
These three tenets that fostered independence during horse camp are also foundational to supporting the development of independence in young writers. As such, it is pivotal that we incorporate them into the independent writing block. Below, I share an overview of each tenant; beginning with an example from horse camp, then connecting it back to our work with young writers.
Three Secrets for Supporting Successful Independent Writing in Primary Classrooms: An Overview
1. set, practice, and maintain predictable routines during the independent writing block
Each day campers followed a predictable routine. Show up and put your things away. Get a shovel and broom. Find a partner. Then select a stall to clean (as no one was allowed to ride until all twelve stalls were spotless). Once the barn chores were complete, the campers headed out to the field to ready their horses for morning lessons.
At the start of each lesson, the campers always began with a warmup that included walking, trotting, and, eventually, cantering their horses around the arena in a large circle. Then they proceeded to learn one new skill, and practiced that skill on their own while the instructor watched and made small corrections. And so on and so forth. Every. Single. Day.
While variety many be the spice of life, it is not conducive to supporting independence. Children thrive when they know what is expected, when it will happen, and what will come next. This predictable routine allows children to concentrate on what is new — the lesson material we want them to learn and try out.
The writer’s workshop offers students a predictable routine to operate under. But why not take this a step further, and offer additional routines within the independent writing block of the workshop as well.
For instance, how will students transition from the mini lesson to their independent writing spots? What will they do first when they sit down to work? What should they do if they are stuck on a word or an idea? How about when they complete a piece they are working on?
Putting into place predictable routines for typical scenarios within the independent writing block helps the block run smoothly, and allows for greater student productivity.
2. Offer tools for use during the independent writing block, and train students in how and when to access them
Across the week campers often completed tasks that required the assistance of tools. For example, in order to clean the barn each evening, shovels, brooms, and a wheelbarrow were needed.
On the second day of camp my son approached his instructor and requested a broom so he could start his work.
“You know where they are?” His instructor asked.
“Yep,” My son replied proudly.
“You know you need it?”
“Yep,” My son replied again.
“You know how to use one?”
“Of course.” My son stated, matter-of-fact.
“Then go get one. You don’t need to ask.” His instructor grinned, and sent my son on his way.
Having needed tools readily available, and knowing when and how to access them, is crucial to the development of independent writers.
This includes not only providing easy access to obvious tools, such as paper, pens, markers, etc. This also means teaching students when and how to use graphic organizers, word walls, heart maps, mentor texts, editing checklists, peer assistance, and the like.
Mini lessons, small group instruction, mid-lesson teaching points, and individual conferencing provide opportunities to share and practice use of such tools.
3. Set high expectations that allow for student struggle and discovery
At horse camp, we like the kids to do everything themselves.
On the final day of horse camp, parents were invited to watch their children perform. At the end of the show the instructor told campers to ready their horses for a bareback ride in the pond.
I watched from the stands as my son struggled to pull his saddle down from his horse’s back. Then slowly lift the saddle and make his way to the barn, stumbling along the way, straps dragging along the muddy ground.
Was it fast? No. Was it the most efficient technique? Not in the least. Did it accomplish the goal of getting that saddle back to the barn? You bet! And yet, my mamma heart screamed to go help. To pick that saddle up and carry it for him. Then I heard the instructor’s voice ring out over the rumble of the crowd, “You got it this time! See, I knew you could do it.”
So often we see our young writers struggling, and we itch to jump in and help. To make it better. To tell their story for them in ways we think are best. But what if, instead, we make time for young writers to struggle. What if we ask questions, instead of offering solutions. What if we celebrate their attempts — their approximations — and mean it.
No, it’s not efficient. Yes, it takes time. But writers learn by grappling with text and trying new things. This deserves repeating: Writers learn through struggle.
Children are willing to play with words and ideas in writing when we create environments that honor their process of discovery, not just the product of their work.
Voice your thoughts
We love hearing stories from the field. What routines and tools have you used to foster independence during your independent writing block? What strategies have you found successful in allowing for struggle and encouraging discovery? Share your thoughts below.
Additional Resources on supporting independent writing
Looking for more information and tips to support independent writing in your classroom? Check out these additional sources on the subject:
- Why Independent Work Time Matters | Two Writing Teachers