Tools Matter: 8 Must-Haves for Your Writers Workshop

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writing toolsA workshop is where writing happens. A studio is where writing is made.

Let me explain.

When I founded the WNY Young Writer’s Studio eight years ago, I leapt into an action research project that completely transformed my teaching. Studio is more than writers workshop; it’s a place where writers work freely.

It exists outside of school systems. Unlike writers workshop at school, we aren’t beholden to bells, grades, or standardized testing there. We do embrace standards. We also craft rubrics together and work hard to improve the quality of feedback we provide. I used grounded theory methodology for my research project, gathering abundant qualitative data first, before using the findings to shape questions that I would pursue further.

Beginning research with questions can narrow our vision.

I never would have been looking for any of the things I uncovered had I started my action research project with clearly defined questions. Like all teachers, I know that I suffer from the curse of expertise: Diving in, reviewing a lot of my data, and zooming in to analyze it helped me discover something pretty profound, though.

Tools matter.

When writers have access to abundant tools and are encouraged to use them in diverse ways, they tend to plan more before they write and tinker around with their texts as they move through a draft. This improves the quality of their writing, and it completely changes their process.

Writing often happens bit by bit.

At writers workshop, the process isn’t linear, and drafts aren’t typically completed in this fashion either. Studio writers need tools that support this approach. I’ve noticed that they move far more than the writers I work with in schools. Their writing moves more too. It’s this movement that often leads to unexpected connections, the generation of abundant ideas, and far more collaboration.

As I reviewed all the photos, conference records, and feedback I’ve received over the years, one thing really struck me: Our writing looks more like making, and the tools we use influence this greatly.

8 must-have tools for writers workshop:

  1. Sticky notes allow writers to spill all of their ideas, long before they are completely coherent.
  2. As ideas turn into phrases and whole chunks of text, index cards provide more space while still encouraging movement.
  3. Foam boards house the notes and cards, enabling writers to move them around, bump them up against each other and watch ideas shift and change as they go.
  4. If you aren’t exploring the connection between Gamestorming and writing, you’re missing a huge opportunity to engage writers in deep, collaborative idea generation. Take a peek at this cheat sheet by Brynn Evans, and use the games there to design innovative writing lessons.
  5. Interactive charts do more than define new learning for kids. They invite participation and collaboration.
  6. White and chalk boards and tables provide writers abundant space to work in. Here, they spread their sticky notes and index cards around, clustering, categorizing, and prioritizing as they go.
  7. Paper scrolls enable writers to map their stories, doodle in details, slice up scenes, and manipulate text structure–physically.
  8. Grids help writers plan across genres, weaving scenes, details, and elements together with great intention.

Are you surprised that I haven’t mentioned more technology tools? We use them at writers workshop, to be sure, and I’ll be sharing more about how in the future. Those tools aren’t transforming how we think and write nearly as much as the ones I mention above though. Eight years ago I may not have said this, but now? The writers I work with have grown up using tech tools. They lived that transformation. What’s changing now is how they think, plan, design, rethink, and learn. That’s bigger than the tech tools they use and sometimes, smaller too.

What you’d add to this list? Please drop your ideas into the comments.

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A former English teacher, Angela Stockman is the founder of the WNY Young Writer's Studio, a community of writers and teachers of writing in Buffalo, New York. She is also an education consultant with expertise in curriculum design, instructional coaching, and assessment. Read more from Angela at Angelastockman.com.
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