Skip to main content Skip to main content

Developing Writers: A Workshop for High School Teachers

First Steps

Discover ways to think about and plan for success in the writing classroom, recognizing your students' needs, as well as local, state, and national standards.

This session provides an overview of the first steps teachers should take when working with student writers. The educators, researchers, and writers featured in the video programs talk about specific goals they share with their students, recognizing the local, state, and national standards that serve as a floor, not a ceiling, for their work. They also express the benefits and value student writers find as they grow as writers, communicators, and thinkers. Visits to classrooms throughout the country underscore their thoughts. Noted author Judith Ortiz Cofer leads the featured teachers in a writer’s workshop activity focused on word triggers and their place in the processes of writing.

Key Points

“Writing helps students make meaning of whatever it is they’re learning.”

– Lori Mayo

This workshop concentrates on the important first steps writing teachers make as they plan for success in their classrooms.

These are the key points the teachers, educators, authors, and students consider:

  1. It is important to map out a plan of action before you begin teaching a writing course.
  2. When you plan, you need to:
    • Make sure that students have ample chances to participate in the many processes of writing,
    • Think about local, state, and national standards as the floor, not the ceiling, for your work, and
    • Consider what writing experiences you want for your students and ways in which you will be able to know they have mastered them.
  3. It is important to be flexible if your plan isn’t going the way you expected.
  4. There is support for teachers in planning courses from other teachers, department heads, county offices, and organizations like the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) and the National Writing Project (NWP).
  5. Students can gain a great deal by becoming effective writers. They gain a skill that allows them to succeed personally and professionally. They become more adept at thinking and reasoning. They find personal satisfaction in being able to communicate well.

Grow as a writer with A Writer’s Notebook, an online writer’s workshop led by noted author Judith Ortiz Cofer.

Things To Consider

“The most important thing a writing teacher needs to consider is the ongoing structure of the class.”
– Lucy Calkins

Lucy Calkins

  • We all know that planning is a good idea. But where do you start? Take a look at this analysis to start thinking about where you are going and how you will know when you get there.
  • In an interview for this project, Lucy Calkins, one of the founders of writing workshop philosophy and structure, said this about planning:

    “. . . the most important thing a writing teacher needs to consider, as you plan your year is, first of all, what will the ongoing structures be like? A writing workshop needs to be simple and predictable so that kids can be active and planful. So a teacher needs to say, ‘How will every day go in this writing workshop? What will be on the ongoing structures?’ And we need to create time for kids to write-and to write in school-and we need to create time for kids to talk with each other and to receive coaching on their writing.”

    Think about the time your class concentrates on writing. What percent of that time is spent:

    Writing?  %
    Talking with each other about their writing?  %
    Getting “coached” on their writing?  %
     % TOTAL
  • In announcing NCTE’s new Writing Initiative, Past President David Bloom said, “Learning to write and write well is important for academic achievement and for success in business and the professions. It is a crucial skill for participating in a democratic society such as ours.”
  • What do you think is the most important skill students gain by learning to write well?
  • Want to know the full range of national and state standards and benchmarks on writing? Search or browse the Mid-Continent Research for Education and Learning’s extensive site.

In the Classroom

“It’s important to think about what you want students’ writing to look like at the end of the year.”

– Kelly Quintero

The teachers in this workshop noted that, as they think about the first few days of classes, they often plan to help their students get to know them better as teachers and writers. Kelly Quintero used this activity, below, to start off her 2003-2004 school year. This activity builds on a writing exercise that was part of a writer’s workshop led by Judith Ortiz Cofer:

Aim: To develop descriptive writing through word association
Motivation: What words come to mind when you think of your high school years at Huntington? What aspects of your experience do these words represent?
Presentation: Read a piece of your personal writing aloud to students and ask for feedback. (Kelly reads “Titi”)

What aspects of my personality are revealed in this piece? To which images could you relate on a personal level?

What are your suggestions for further exploration?

Share your experience writing this piece with students, paying close attention to the planning stages.

Show copies of the piece at various stages of development.Note the sheer messiness of the writing process.

Guided practice: Students brainstorm words that represent themselves. They select one word on which to focus that best reflects their unique experience.

They participate in a “quick write” in which they draft their own pieces based on the word of their choice.

Choose volunteers to sit in the author’s chair and read their pieces aloud to the class.

Class discussion ensues and the volunteers receive feedback.

Create a plan for furthering this draft.

Which part needs to be explained more?Is there a point at which my story lacks vivid details?

What other word associations can be made to allow me to explore my unique experiences more profoundly?

You can participate in this activity through the supplementary workshop, A Writer’s Notebook.

This list of the top ten myths of writing might be a good starting point for your first discussions with student writers (list courtesy National Council of Teachers of English – NCTE):

1. Kids hate to write.
It’s sad but true that some kids come to hate writing through bad experiences. Yet no one is born hating to write. For instance, kids love to tell stories – their own stories – from events at school, other kids, TV, daydreams, and more. When kids begin by writing their own stories, they learn to love to write.

2. Real writers get it right the first time.
Most of us can’t even write a grocery list without making some changes. Even famous authors, poets, and journalists have to produce a few rough drafts before arriving at their best work. The important thing is to keep writing until you’ve said what you mean.

3. Kids have nothing interesting to say.
Are you kidding? Anyone who’s spent any time around kids knows they’re full of lively and unique ideas about the world around them. And they always seem to find things to tell their friends. If we just give kids chances to write down their ideas, we’ll be amazed at what they come up with.

4. You have to know what you are going to say before you begin writing.
The funny thing about writing is that it actually helps you think. Many writers don’t discover exactly what they’re trying to say until after they’ve written for pages. Writing not only helps kids think deeply, but it helps them find out what they already know — not just in English class but in everything from math to biology to music.

5. If you can’t spell, you can’t write
Oh, yes you can! Good writers first write all their thoughts and ideas. Then they revise, revise, revise until they’re satisfied they’ve said what they want to say. Then – and only then – is it time to edit for spelling and other rules such as capitalization, punctuation, and word usage.

6. Writing is built one sentence at a time.
Writing is made up of words and sentences but it’s actually written first as chunks of ideas. Kids don’t need to master the sentence before they go on to the paragraph. They just need to start writing any way they can – revising is for later.

7. Only great writers can be creative.
Baloney! Different types of writing – including creative writing like poems and plays – have different challenges, but there’s no law that says kids have to learn one type first. What’s important is that kids choose the best type of writing for what they want to say – whether a poem, a letter, or a report.

8. Good writers work alone.
There’s probably a good writer somewhere who likes to write in a quiet closet. But most writers today are people who work in busy offices or classrooms, and who write with frequent input from their coworkers and peers. Young writers learn even more when they are part of a “community” of others – sharing ideas, asking questions, and revising their writing.

9. You can spot a good writer at a glance.
There is no gene for writing! Good writers don’t all look the same, they don’t all learn the same, and they don’t all use the same methods. Some writers jot a lot of notes before starting to write; others jump right in; some writers outline; some doodle in the margins while they think; some write best to music; some write best sitting under a tree. The point is that all writers are individuals and need to discover what works best for them.

10. Poor marks make good writers.
A student paper dripping with blood-red marks on every line does not a better writer make. Kids do learn best when they get feedback, but harsh grading isn’t the answer. Writers improve by first learning what parts they wrote well and then focusing on what parts still need work.

  • A good lesson plan helps you put your goals for the year into action. GEM, the Gateway to Educational Resources and The Educator’s Reference Desk, formerly AskERIC, (both sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education) offers extensive lesson plans related to writing. Use the site’s search function to locate them, entering terms such as “writing,” “essays,” or other specific writing genres.

Additional Resources

“In the beginning of the year, I ask my students to identify two or three personal goals.”

– Susie Lebryk-Chao


Susie Lebryk-Chao

Listen to:  

On the Web:

  • Concept to Classroom sponsored by PBS station WNET with support from the Disney Learning Partnership gives you a chance to explore many classroom issues, including ways to coordinate standards with lesson plans and activities in your own classroom. Select materials for Teaching to Academic Standards to review this free tutorial.
  • The Nation’s Report Card – Writing reports the National Assessment for Educational Progress’s (NAEP) current writing assessments. Part of the National Center for Educational Statistics site, this section also contains information about trends in results, sample questions, and yardsticks against which students are measured.

In the Library:

  • Burke, Jim. Writing Reminders: Tools, Tips and Techniques. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2003.
  • Burkhardt, Ross M. Writing for Real: Strategies for Engaging Adolescent Student Writers. Portland, ME: Stenhouse, 2002.
  • National Writing Project. Because Writing Matters: Improving Student Writing in Our Schools. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2003.
  • Newkirk, Thomas, ed. To Compose: Teaching Writing in High School and College. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1989.
  • Strong, William. Coaching Writing: The Power of Guided Practice. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2001.
  • Williams, James D. Preparing to Teach Writing: Research, Theory, and Practice. 3rd ed. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2003.

Books on Writing

Here’s a list of other books on writing you might want to use to reinvigorate your teaching:

Inspirational/Instructional Books
Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott
Free Within Ourselves: Fiction Lessons for Black Authors by Jewell Parker Rhodes
Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg, Judith Guest
If You Want to Write: A Book About Art, Independence, and Spirit by Brenda Ueland
Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande, John Gardner
Telling the Tale: The African-American Fiction Writer’s Guide by Angela Benson
What If? : Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers by Anne Bernays
On Writing by Stephen King
The Writing Life by Annie Dillard
Luna, Luna: Creative Writing Ideas from Spanish and Latino Literatureby Julio Marzan (Editor)
Where I’m From (Writers’ and Young Writers’ Series #2) by George Ella Lyon, Bob Hoskins (Photographer), Robert Hoskins (Illustrator)
The Freedom Writers Diary: How a Teacher and 150 Teens Used Writing to Change Themselves and the World Around Them by Freedom Writers, Zlata Filipovic

Reference Books
The Elements of Style, Fourth Edition by William Strunk Jr., E.B. White, Roger Angell (Foreword)
The Chicago Manual of Style: Fifteenth Edition by University of Chicago Press Staff
Telling the Tale: The African-American Fiction Writer’s Guide by Angela Benson
MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers (MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers, 6th Ed) by Joseph Gibaldi, Phyllis Franklin
A Writer’s Reference, Fifth Edition by Diana Hacker
The Little, Brown Compact Handbook (APA Update), with CD (4th Edition) by Jane Aaron, H. Ramsey Fowl

Additional Resources
Rising Voices: Writings of Young Native Americans by Arlene B. Hirschfelder, Beverly R. Singer (Contributor)
Something Like a Hero: Stories of Daring and Decision by American Teen Writers (American Teen Writer Series) by Kathryn Kulpa (Editor), Kathryn Kupla, R. James Stahl (Editor)
Early Harvest: Anthology of Student Writing from Story Line’s Rural Readers Project by Rachele Deininger (Editor)
Night Is Gone, Day Is Still Coming: Stories and Poems by American Indian Teens and Young Adults by Annette Ochoa (Editor), Betsy Franco (Editor), Traci Gourdine (Editor), Simon J. Ortiz (Introduction)
YELL-Oh Girls! Emerging Voices Explore Culture, Identity, and Growing Up Asian American by Vickie Nam