Reading and Writing Workshop

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Reading and Writing Workshop

Chapter 4, “Getting Ready,” Atwell, Nancie. (1998). In the Middle: New Understandings About Writing, Reading, and Learning. Second Edition. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann

Why this text?

  • You will be reading mostly Atwell’s text, with my comments and questions interspersed. From this text, I hope you will learn about a way of teaching both reading and writing that allows young students to use adult/professional ways of approaching reading and writing.

  • Additionally, Atwell is a master teacher. Her ways of organizing and managing a classroom in which students are learning at their own pace may help you to think about how you organize a music classroom.

  • Finally, while few teachers use reading/writing workshop exclusively, most teachers (k-12) recognize the importance of writing process and authentic writing experiences, which are part of Atwell’s method. If you become aware of these teaching methods, you will be able to support students who want to write about music in their language arts classrooms.

Your response

Throughout this text, I will ask you to think about questions and issues. At the end of your reading, take a couple of the most interesting (to you) questions and write about those.

This is a long text and therefore, reading and responding to it will count for two class sessions. Also there are several slides where you can choose to skip reading Atwell’s text.

Be regular and ordinary in your life like a bourgeois so that you may be violent and original in your work.

Gustave Flaubert

  • Atwell begins her text with a quote from Flaubert, who was a famous 19th century French writer. You might know his most famous novel, Madame Bovary, which is a “violent and original” novel.

  • This quote captures Atwell’s main approach to writing, which is to create a classroom routine that is absolutely predictable so that students can have the freedom to take significant personal risks in their writing.
  • How does being “regular and ordinary” contribute to being “violent and original” in music performance?

Atwell begins by dropping us right into the events of her classroom. One thing I notice about her writing is that it is vivid—you can see the excitement of her students in this scenario:

One spring day Donald Graves and Mary Ellen Giacobbe drove up from New Hampshire to visit Boothbay Region Elementary School. My kids had been hearing about Don and Mary Ellen for a long time, so this visit was a special occasion. Bert happened to be passing through the front lobby when they arrived. He took the stairs to the junior high wing three at a time, then whipped down our corridor like some eighth grade Paul Revere, shouting as he passed each room, "The world's most famous writing teachers are here! The world's most famous writing teachers are here!"

With Donald Graves in attendance during writing workshop, no one moved off into one of the peer conference corners—a first. Instead they sat at their desks writing away in absolute and eerie silence. Every now and then one writer or another chanced a glance to locate Graves as he moved among them conferring, all of them dying for him to drop by and whisper the magic entree, "Tell the about your writing." Bert's anticipation was re­warded. Don knelt by his desk for a long chat about Bert's passion for sci fi and Stephen King.

It was a good day. Taking themselves seriously as writers, the kids expected that Mary Ellen and Don would take them seriously, too. At the end of the day Graves came and stood in my doorway with his coat on, smiling. "What are you smiling about?" I asked.

"I'm smiling at you," he said. "You know what makes you such a good writing teacher?"

Oh God, I thought. Here it comes: validation from one of the world's most famous writing teachers. In a split second I flipped through the best possibilities. Was he going to remark on the piercing intelligence of my conferences? My commitment to the kids? My sensitivity to written language?

"What?" I asked.

He answered, "You're so damned organized."

Then Don stopped smiling, probably in response to the way my face must have crumpled. "Look," he explained seriously. "You can't teach writing this way if you're not organized. This isn't an open classroom approach, and you know it. It's people like you and Mary Ellen who make the best writing and reading teachers. You two always ran a tight ship and you still do, but it's a different kind of ship."

Here is the central irony: in order to have the freedom to be creative, one has to have the rigidity of organization. In order for students to achieve, they need not just a teacher who lets them do what they want, but a teacher who is willing to run a tight ship. But then, you are a musician, and you understand this paradox better than most teachers.

Before going on, think for a minute about what you need as a reader and writer.

A workshop is a different kind of ship. From the beginning of my attempts to teach using a workshop approach, I've had to organize and reorganize my room and myself to support writing, reading, learning, and teaching. And as Graves suggested, I had to define organization in a new way. I don't mean neatness—a good thing, too, because meticulousness will never feature among my virtues. By organization I mean discovering what writers and readers need and providing plenty of it in a predictable setting.

Before any student comes anywhere near my classroom at the beginning of September, I need to get ready for our workshop. This means knowing exactly what I expect will happen, knowing how, where, and when I expect it will happen, and knowing who's expected to do it. I organize myself and the environment in August. My goal is to establish a context that invites and supports writing and reading so that when my students arrive they'll find what they need to begin to act as writers and readers: time, materials and texts, space, and ways for them, and for me, to monitor our activity, organize our work, and think about what writers and readers in a workshop might do.

The challenge of writing about teaching is that it’s easy to get bogged down in the theory of it and leave out how things look in practical terms. In the process of showing how writing plays out in students’ lives in the following scenarios, she also gives us a glimpse into her classroom.

Making Time

I pulled my chair up next to Amanda's, and she read her lead aloud. It was a new memoir, about attending Neil Diamond's concert in Portland Friday night with her parents and sister. It began:

"Okay, you're here. Do you want Mrs. Cook's binoculars? If you do, there are three caps you can't lose. Be careful not to let anything happen to them because they're not ours. If you have to go to the bathroom go now, not during the intermission, so you won't get lost and it won't be so crowded. At the end, meet us by the place where the hockey players go in. Okay?" 

I recognized Amanda's father's voice. When she finished reading his instructions, I asked her to go on. She had filled two pages with close descriptions of the events of Friday evening and verbatim dialogue—her family's as well as the chatter of the people in the seats around them. I laughed and shook my head. "Amanda, how ever did you remember all this in such detail?"

"Oh, I didn't," she answered. She pulled out a spiral bound notebook and flipped through its pages. "I knew before we went that I'd want to write about it, so I brought this along and took notes all night on what was going on." Amanda thinks about her writing when she's not writing. She is a habitual writer.

Robbie was at home watching television one night, with school about the furthest thing from his mind. Out of nowhere came the perfect ending for his Maine humor story. He grabbed the only paper he could find and scribbled away. The next day he came to writing workshop armed with a brown paper supermarket bag bearing the perfect ending.

Karalee came to class the same week with the lead of a new narrative scrawled on tiny pieces of telephone message paper. She explained, "The other night, when I was spending the night at Susan's, I thought up the whole beginning of my short story in my head. Luckily I remembered it until I got to paper." She reshuffled her tiny manuscript, frowned, squinted, and stared off into space. I recognized I'd been dismissed and moved on so she could pick up the threads of her story.

Robbie and Karalee think about their writing when they're not writing; they, too, are habitual writers. Writers need regular, frequent chunks of time they can count on, anticipate, and plan for. Only when I make time for writing in school, designating it a high priority activity of the English pro­gram, will my students develop the habits of mind of writers—and the compulsions. Janet came into class one day and wailed, "Ms. A., my head is CONSTANTLY writing."

What allows music students to begin to think of themselves as musicians? How do you think as a musician? Have you had the experience of finding yourself thinking about music when you were doing something completely different?

Graves (1983, 223) recommends allotting at least three class periods a week in order for students to be able to develop and refine their own ideas. When David said to me, "I think of things to write about just before I go to sleep—ideas seem to float into my head like hot air balloons," he is describing a ritual that could never evolve if he were a one day a week writer. Without at least three writing workshops a week (preferably four or five), it will be hard for kids to conceive topics, sustain projects of their own, and behave as writers.

Regular, frequent time for writing also helps students write well. When they have sufficient time to consider and reconsider what they've written, they're more likely to achieve the clarity, logic, voice, conventionality, and grace of good writing. Sandy commented, "If a teacher says, `Do a completed piece by the end of class and turn it in,' I answer not, `Yes, I can,' but `I guess I have no choice.' Having to rush my writing cuts down on thinking time and then on quality." Her friend Jennifer agreed. "When I get stuck, I take a little walk. Then I come back and try it again. I quit and come back and quit and come back because I know I won't write as well unless I give myself time to think."

Sandy, Jenn, and I aren't alone. Hemingway revised the conclusion to A Farewell to Arrns thirty nine times. He had—he took—the time he needed to solve any writer's greatest problem: "Getting the words right" (Plimpton 1963, 122). Kurt Vonnegut writes about time as the great leveler. He claims that anyone willing to put in the sheer number of plodding hours it takes can make a go of it as an author:

 Novelists . . . have, on the average, about the same IQs as the cosmetic consultants at Bloomingdale's department store. Our power is patience. We have discovered that writing allows even a stupid person to seem halfway intelligent, if only that person will write the same thought over and over again, improving it just a little bit each time. It is a lot like inflating a blimp with a bicycle pump. Anybody can do it. All it takes is time. (1984)


Katherine Paterson, author of the Newbery award winning Bridge to Terabithia, talked about the way a habitual writer's plodding days set the stage for the "good days":

 Those are the days you love. The days when somebody has to wake you up and tell you where you are. But there are a lot of days when you're just slogging along. And you're very conscious of your stuff and the typewriter is a machine and the paper is blank. You've got to be willing to put in those days in order to get the days when it's flowing like magic. (1981)

Does practicing ever feel like this????

The main idea behind this type of teaching is to align what happens in the classroom with what professional authors actually do. Presumably, professional authors’ methods work for producing texts, so why not help students to adopt a writing process that works? How do professional musicians learn and practice music? How can we bring those methods into the classroom?

We need to acknowledge in our teaching of writing the reality of the act of writing. Good writers and writing don't take less time; they take more. Too many accounts of the practices of professional writers have been published—Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews is the best known series—for us to cling to school myths of polished first drafts or weekly deadlines. We need to acknowledge, once and for all, that writers and writing need time.
Even when students do write every day, growth in writing is slow. It seldom follows a linear movement, with each piece representing an improvement over the last. But regular, frequent time for writing also means regular, frequent occasions for teaching and learning about writing. In context, over a whole year, I teach one or two new conventions or techniques at a time; in context, over a whole year, my kids try out new styles, subjects, rules, genres, forms, devices, marks, and strategies. With adequate time to detour—to take risks and reflect on the results—writers learn how to consider what's working and what needs more work, to apply my teaching to their writing, and to take control.

I continue to learn this lesson. After a summer spent teaching teachers, advising them to be patient with their students because growth in writing takes time, I suffered a rude shock when I went back to the classroom and faced the worst writers who ever breathed air. That September I wrote one seriously depressed letter after another to Mary Ellen Giacobbe. My head was too filled with images of last year's students—writers who had grown a whole year by the time they left me in June—for me to recollect and con­sider my own good advice to other teachers. By November I was sending Mary Ellen ecstatic letters filled with anecdotes and writing samples; I didn't remember my own advice until I saw my kids begin to prove it by working hard, experimenting, producing, applying what I had taught them, and changing as writers.

Remember that you will be facing a new bunch of musicians every year, too!

When students have regular, frequent time set aside to write, writing can also play a crucial role in helping them grow up, making it possible for them to capture who they are, then come back and measure themselves against their earlier selves. Regular time for writing helps give students control over the distance between their pasts and presents. When they can count on time always being there, they learn how to use it—when to confront, and when to wait.

Jennipher waited. Jenn's father died when she was in seventh grade, and in early December of her eighth grade year she began to write about him. She covered page after page of yellow newsprint.

Without reading or sharing what she'd written, Jenn tucked the yellow sheets away in a pocket of her daily writing folder. "It's too soon," she said. "I'm not ready." She went on to other topics. Twice again, in January and February, she retrieved the yellow sheets, added more, then folded them up and slipped them back into her folder. In March Jenn said, "I think I'd like to write a formal piece about my dad, but not tell it first person. That's too close and too hard." So her formal piece told the story of a girl a lot like Jennipher, with a dad a lot like David Jones.


"You're too old to cry," she thought as she forced back the tears and tried hard to listen to what the minister was saying.

"But I'm only thirteen," her thoughts interrupted. "This can't be happening to me." Some strong force was building up inside her now, and she wanted to scream. "I can't cry; I can't cry," she thought, holding tightly to her mother's hand. Her mother and brother were both crying.

When the ceremony was finally over, she was the last one to walk down the aisle and out of the church. Her cousin stood by the door. She burst into tears as she hugged her tightly. She was shaking as her cousin helped her down the steps where crowds of people were stand­ing, talking. They were mostly her friends and family. She was hugged by an aunt and started to cry again. "Pull yourself together," she commanded herself, straightening up, wiping the tears from her face.

"It's funny all the time I've had to think in the last couple of days," she wondered, "even with all these people around." But she had thought. She'd thought about all the good times with her dad, about the stories her dad had told her.

He'd died of cancer three days earlier. When her aunt had told her she had cried and kept crying. "But now," she thought, "I can't cry again."

Then she was back at the house after the funeral, fighting through the crowds of his friends and family: that was who they really were. She had the chance to see a lot of people, and talk about him and them and herself.

She remembered again the stories he'd told. She loved the tale about the time he'd gone to Texas for treatment; had sat down on the curb waiting for his brother, who was checking the time of his appointment. A kid had come up to him to bum money for bus fare. Her father had asked him where he was from, and the boy replied, "Vermont." Her dad had teasingly responded, "I beat you; I'm from Maine." The boy had said something about his mother coming from a small town in Maine. And it happened that the boy's mother and her dad had grown up in the same town and had dated each other in high school.

Her dad was like that: he could make the whole world seem smaller and happier.

Now, the flowers around the house reminded her of the plants and flowers that had bloomed and blossomed under his green thumb. She snapped out of her reverie to realize someone was talking to her.

"He really was the greatest," the voice was saying.

She nodded, dazed, wanting to dwell on thoughts of all the good things about her father. "Why him?" she asked herself. "It's not fair!" The voices were screaming inside her now. It was pure fear.

She pushed the thoughts away and walked upstairs, where most of the kids were hanging out. She smiled and said "Hi" to everyone. And as they talked she forgot all her troubles. But later, when she went downstairs again, she heard someone say, "She has her father's looks, doesn't she?" and someone else replied, "Oh, yes."  

"No!" she thought. But it was true. She had his eyes, his complexion, his hair.

Later in the day she'd once again forgotten everything that was wrong. She was laughing and talking with the others, playing games and watching TV. But in a moment a word triggered all those thoughts of her father, and they came crashing back down on her.

She was so scared—not like being afraid of the dark scared, but a really deep down, somebody's dead scared. She knew she would live and keep on living. But she'd still be scared, and maybe she'd have to try hard not to cry sometimes. And maybe every time someone mentioned cancer, or she read the word in a book, there would be an empty space somewhere in her stomach. Maybe someday she'd forget, or maybe someday she wouldn't. But her heart held one, great hope: that when she grew up, she might be as good a person as her dad had been.

Jemipher Jones

Pretty good writing, huh?

Jennipher benefited, academically and personally, from the steady availability of time in school to write—and to read. Over a long career of having to explain my teaching methods to parents and administrators, the daily time I made at Boothbay Elementary for students' independent reading was the most questioned of all my questionable practices. It looked as if nothing was happening. The principal even made the classic administrator's comment when he came in one day to observe and found me circulating among my reading students: "I'll come back when you're teaching," he whispered.

I responded to concerns about reading workshop by explaining my rationale for inviting students to sit (or, shudder, lie) around my classroom with their noses stuck in books. I cited research that indicates, study upon study, that the best readers are those who read a lot. I justified my practices by pointing to state and national progress reports that show that Maine and US. thirteen  and seventeen year olds read less than our nine year olds, both in school and out. And I explained about adolescents and the social upheaval in their lives that leads to fewer and fewer occasions for reading.
Later on in the article, you will find out just exactly what is going on when Atwell circulates among students as they are reading.

Reading takes a backseat in anyone's life when life becomes impossibly full. During the first two years of my daughter's life I didn't read a single novel. My students' lives are often similarly full—of sports, clubs, baby­sitting, homework, chores, music and dance and voice lessons, first jobs, first loves, and killer social lives. Amanda, a former student, anticipated April vacation of her freshman year of high school by informing me, "Ms. Atwell, I'm going to read six books this week. All of them are books I've been dying to read since Christmas. I just look at them and feel depressed. There's always something else I've got to do."

After the first year of reading workshop I could justify the provision of time to read in school by pointing to what my students accomplished as readers. At Boothbay, where reading was scheduled as a separate class and my kids read an average of thirty five books, their scores on standardized tests averaged at the seventy second percentile, up from an average at the fifty fourth percentile. In June more than 90 percent of students indicated that they regularly read at home for pleasure—that they were taking home the books they read during the workshop. When I asked how many books they owned, the average figure they gave was ninety eight, up from September's average of fifty four. I have no way of knowing whether they did, in fact, own more books. I do know that they perceived themselves as the sort of people who acquire and collect libraries.

This is the kind of evidence that begins to convince doubting administrators and parents: students read more, comprehend better, and value books and reading to a greater degree when we make time in school for them to read.
Today I see my seventh and eighth graders four days a week for one ninety minute language arts block that includes both writing and reading. Within the block I try to carve out time each day for a poem, a writing or ­reading minilesson, independent writing and conferring, a brief read aloud from a novel or short story, and time for independent reading, usually fifteen to twenty minutes a day. In addition every student's baseline homework assignment every night is to read for at least another half hour: to create a routine -a time and place in their lives -for behaving as a reader at home.

Over the past three years at the Center for Teaching and Learning, between the seventy minutes a week I provide in class and the time I assign them to make at home, my students read an average of twenty nine books, September through June. Although briefer than I—and they—would like, the in class time sets a tone and creates a milieu: a group of kids and a teacher who read together and talk about books. It's time enough to get students so hooked on their books that they want to take them home to find out what happens next. And it gives me time to circulate among my students, record what they're reading and how far they've gotten, find out what they think of it, and help them find books when they're stuck or when they don't understand it's okay to abandon a book they don't love.

A minilesson is a short lesson about a reading or writing strategy, genre, idea, etc. Within this type of teaching (reading/writing workshop), the minilesson can be given to the whole class or it can be given to a small group of students that might benefit from the information.

When I sit down with my plan book in August, I write Writing Reading Workshop every place on my schedule that it would otherwise say English. The workshop isn't an add on; it is the English course—here, everything that can be described as language arts is taught as sensibly as it can be taught, in the context of whole pieces of students' writing and whole literary works.

If my schedule consisted of fifty minute periods for English, writing and literature included, I'd continue to give over class time to writing and reading workshop. Below I've sketched two options for using the five periods and assigning homework, so that students can experience the sense of continuity and routine that writers and readers need. I would give the bulk of the fifty minute periods to writing, because, of the two disciplines, it's where kids need the most hands on help, teacher demonstrations, and structured time.

This is a couple of scheduling options. You may skip reading this slide if you like.


•Writing workshop on four regular, consecutive days (e.g., Monday Thursday)

• Reading workshop on one regularly scheduled fifth day (e.g., Friday) but with booktalks and literary rninilessons throughout the week

•A half hour's worth of independent reading as homework every night

•An hour's worth of writing as homework, done at the student's discretion between Thursday night and Monday morning.


• Writing workshop four days a week (e.g., Monday Thursday) for one semester, with an hour's worth of writing as homework between Thursday night and Monday morning

• The required curriculum four days a week for the alternate semester

• Reading workshop on one regularly scheduled fifth day (e.g., Friday) throughout the entire school year, and frequent booktalks and literary minilessons

•A half hour's worth of independent reading as homework every night.
Time for independent writing and reading isn't the icing on the cake, the reward we proffer the senior honors students who survived the English curriculum. Writing and reading are the cake. When we fight for time, giving students one of the basic conditions for writing and reading, we begin to make writers and readers.

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