Writing Workshop: Helping Writers Choose and Focus on a Topic
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- Standards |
- Resources & Preparation |
- Instructional Plan |
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This lesson, conducted in a workshop format, helps young writers bring greater focus to their writing. Students use a timeline to break a larger topic into several events or moments; then, each student selects an event to write about from the timeline. Students first work with a whole-class topic, then apply this strategy to self-selected topics. Students share their writing and respond constructively to one another's efforts. Finally, teacher–student conferences help students incorporate feedback and work on specific weaknesses.
Journal Writing Ideas:This website offers a great list of topics that students may choose from for writing workshop. Make sure to gradually help students brainstorm and develop their own topics to write about. The focus of this lesson on is helping them to focus in on a specific event.
From Theory to Practice
- Even beginning writers can make decisions that affect the clarity and power of their message when they are aware of aspects that contribute to the effectiveness of a piece of writing (such as choosing a topic, making illustrations, maintaining focus, and using time sequence to organize).
- Listening to the sharing of ideas and consulting charts are especially helpful to students who experience difficulty selecting a topic.
- Sharing their writing helps students write with a specific audience in mind and reinforces the sense of being a part of a community of writers.
Common Core Standards
This resource has been aligned to the Common Core State Standards for states in which they have been adopted. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, CCSS alignments are forthcoming.
This lesson has been aligned to standards in the following states. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, standard alignments are not currently available for that state.
NCTE/IRA National Standards for the English Language Arts
- 4. Students adjust their use of spoken, written, and visual language (e.g., conventions, style, vocabulary) to communicate effectively with a variety of audiences and for different purposes.
- 5. Students employ a wide range of strategies as they write and use different writing process elements appropriately to communicate with different audiences for a variety of purposes.
- 6. Students apply knowledge of language structure, language conventions (e.g., spelling and punctuation), media techniques, figurative language, and genre to create, critique, and discuss print and nonprint texts.
- 12. Students use spoken, written, and visual language to accomplish their own purposes (e.g., for learning, enjoyment, persuasion, and the exchange of information).
Materials and Technology
- Flipchart with paper and markers
- Pencils and crayons
- Portfolio binders or folders
To prepare for this lesson, it is important that students have a good understanding of the structure and expectations of a writing workshop.
- Students will gather at the start of each session for a short minilesson.
- Students will work independently and with partners or small groups to draw illustrations and create first drafts.
- As students draw and write, you will be holding one-on-one conferences to discuss each student's writing and to help with revisions.
- At the end of each workshop session, students gather to share their writing.
To prepare, it is also beneficial if students have a pool of self-selected topics to choose from. If you need to develop this pool of topics with students, a good place to start might be at the Journal Writing Ideas webpage. Depending on students' needs and abilities, you could share the entire list with them or present them with a shorter version of it. Of course, you will want to teach students strategies to find their own topics for writing. In this and subsequent workshop sessions, encourage students to add to their own topic lists.
- Learn a strategy (i.e., timeline) to bring greater focus to their writing
- Explore ideas on a topic by creating detailed illustrations
- Write about selected events with focus and detail
- Participate as members of a writing community, offering feedback to peers throughout the writing process
- Reflect critically on their writing during conferences, making revisions in response to peer and teacher feedback
Note: This lesson should serve as part of an ongoing classroom workshop to develop writing abilities. Time estimates for each workshop segment are given in Session 1. As students become more familiar with the workshop setting and more proficient with the writing process, the session layout and the time given to each segment may be altered accordingly.
Expect to spend about 15 minutes on the steps in this section. During subsequent writing workshops, you would spend the beginning of the session teaching other writing aspects that suit your students' needs.
|1.||Explain to students that they will be learning how to focus their writing on a specific topic.
|2.||Begin with a description of the difference between very general topics and more focused topics. For example, if a student were to write about a day spent with his or her grandfather, that could include many different things. But if the topic is about making biscuits with his or her grandfather on Sunday morning, then the writing is going to be about that one specific moment or event.
|3.||Explain that this kind of focused writing is often stronger than general writing and includes more details about the topic.
|4.||Provide students with a model by selecting a topic from your own life and creating a timeline on a chart, narrowing down the general topic into several specific events. (You may want to choose only a few events for younger writers.) Model for students how you are thinking through and selecting these moments and placing them on the timeline.
Depending on students' needs and abilities, you might not want to focus on what time things happened. Instead, use the timeline to establish an order in which things happened and to emphasize the idea of specific moments and events happening within a general topic.
|5.||Next, select one of the events along the timeline to write about. Show students how you select a topic that is most meaningful to you or that you think would make the best piece for focused writing (you have enough to say about an event, for example).
|6.||Ask students for topic ideas from a shared experience, such as events in a day at school (e.g., recess, field trip, lunch), or choose an item from the Journal Writing Ideas webpage. Brainstorm possible events for a timeline. Work with students to select four or five of these events and chart them along a new timeline in sequential order.
(Note: If students are advanced enough, you might want to have them develop this second timeline in pairs or small groups.)
Independent work. From the class-generated timeline, ask each student to select one event that he or she wants to write about.
Have each student draw a picture of the event in the illustration box of the journal paper. (This should take 10–20 minutes depending on grade level and ability.) Explain that drawing is meant to help them "rehearse" for their writing. It is a chance for them to explore and work out their ideas about the event before writing.
With less experienced writers, you may want to model how you move from selecting an event to creating a detailed drawing. Use the event you selected from your personal timeline as an example.
Collaborative work. Have students work with partners or in small groups to share their drawings. (Allow 5–10 minutes for this step, depending again on students' needs.)
Talking about their drawings further helps students prepare to write their pieces and often generates details they might not otherwise have included. Encourage students to add details to their drawings as a result of their conversations.
Gather as a class and spend 5–10 minutes having students share selected topics and drawings. Talk with students about how, in the next session, they are going to take these drawings and move to a piece of focused writing.
|1.||Gather students for a minilesson. Using your own example from the previous session, show students your drawing.
|2.||Model how you would look carefully at the drawing and think about the details you have included. Model how you would move from drawing to writing.
Your writing example should reflect the expectations you have for your writers. Younger writers may need support such as showing them how they might start their writing pieces. For older students, you might work on strategies for elaborating in their writing. For example, you can model for students how you would add description or dialogue to your piece and encourage them to try these strategies during independent and collaborative work time.
Independent work. Below the illustration box of the journal paper, each student should begin to write about the pictured event. Remind students to be specific and to include written details about what is happening in the story and in the picture. (As students progress in subsequent workshops, you may also want to make available additional lined paper for longer writing pieces.)
Encourage students to use their drawings and their experiences for ideas when writing. What is taking place? Who's involved? Where is this happening? What sounds, sights, feelings might be involved?
Collaborative work. Have students confer with one another, possibly with the same partners or in the same groups as before.
As students are writing and working together, conduct one-on-one teacher–student conferences. Each conference should take about 5–10 minutes. You may not have time to confer with every student in the same session; instead, plan to spread conferences across several workshop sessions.
|1.||In each conference, ask the student to reflect on his or her writing process. What does he or she notice about the writing? Is it on topic? How has the timeline helped him or her to focus? Are there details from the drawing that might be added? Are there new things that might be added in response to feedback from peers?
|2.||Give instruction about one specific item: perhaps on how the student has used the timeline to focus the writing, how he or she has used the drawing to support the writing, or other writing skills such as sentence construction, capitalization, or spelling.
|3.||Have the student make revisions. As he or she practices and masters a new skill or strategy, you can move on to other items in subsequent writing conferences. (Although revisions can be made during conferences, also let students know that they can continue to revise their writing if they finish their work early in later sessions.)
|4.||Place the revised entry in a folder or binder for the student as part of his or her ongoing workshop portfolio.
|5.||Keep anecdotal records of your conferences: What are students doing well? Where do you need to do more instruction? Do you see patterns in several students' pieces that you can address in a minilesson?
Spend the remainder of the session on sharing and feedback. You may want to have students share in the order the events are listed on the timeline. Depending on the number of students in your class and their level of writing, additional sharing time may need to be scheduled in subsequent sessions.
After each student reads his or her writing, make observations and provide feedback on the writing process. Ask other students to also share their feedback, which should include positive comments, thoughtful questions, and suggestions for improvement.
Having developed a shared topic and timeline as a class, it is essential that students apply these writing strategies (timeline creation and illustrations as rehearsal for writing) to topics of their own choosing.
At the start of the session, review the use of a timeline to break a general topic into several moments or events. Then, review how to consider the items on the timeline and select one to write about. (Refer to charts from Session 1 as necessary.)
Independent work. Have each student consult his or her own topic list, create a timeline on a self-selected topic, and choose a moment or event from this timeline for his or her next writing piece. If students finish early, they can try this strategy with other topics.
Collaborative work. After students have created the timelines and have selected their events, have them meet with partners or in small groups to share this work and make changes.
As students work on their timelines, continue from where you left off with student–teacher conferences, keeping anecdotal records of student performance and allowing students time to make revisions.
Have students share their timelines with the class. Encourage each presenter to talk about why he or she has selected a particular moment or event to write about.
In a short minilesson, return to examples of drawing about a selected topic, then moving from drawing to writing. Again, younger writers may need modeling help with transitioning from drawing to writing.
Allow individual and group time for drawing and writing, as was done in Sessions 1 and 2. Depending on grade level and abilities, these steps might continue to be conducted across separate sessions.
During the drawing and writing stages, continue to hold conferences with students.
End the session with further opportunities for sharing and feedback.
In subsequent writing workshops, second-grade students may enjoy creating their timelines using the interactive Timeline tool. This tool allows students to sequence and describe events, and can be printed for reference before writing. If use of the online tool detracts from the purpose of the lesson (i.e., having students choose and focus on a topic), a handwritten timeline should be used instead.
Student Assessment / Reflections
Assess each student's ability to:
- Narrow a general topic into several events using a timeline
- Create a drawing and use it to support his or her writing
- Maintain focus in his or her writing
When assessing students, refer to their written work (timelines, drawings, and drafts) as well as your anecdotal records from conferences. You will want to ask questions such as the following:
- Has this student selected a topic?
- Has this student used a timeline effectively and selected a more focused event or moment within the broader topic?
- Has this student created a drawing that elaborates on the selected topic?
- Is this student's draft a focused piece of writing?
- For older students, is the piece written with added description and/or dialogue?
A rubric could be created with an area for students to reflect on questions such as those listed above and an area for your assessment of their work. Obviously, a rubric used for kindergartners will look different from one for second graders. A good rubric will be designed based on the work you have done with this particular group of students, your assessment of their strengths and needs, and the expectations you have for their writing.