Writer’s Workshops: Using The Model to Open Up Educational Opportunity, Engagement, and Enrichment

Updated: Jan 22, 2019

Heather Barton


Keywords: Writer’s workshop; peer review; peer tutoring; peer feedback; process approach to writing


Introduction and Context

My first and most important job is as the mother of two sons. During their early schooling years, I watched as my oldest gifted-labeled son navigated an education system that left him bored and unengaged. I watched his younger brother, who battled developmental and intellectual disabilities, struggle to demonstrate his mastery of the basic standards of graduation. Their experiences were the catalyst for a return to college and the pursuit of an degree in Education. Over the next ten years,  I earned my BS in Secondary Education, English; M.Ed. in Secondary Education English; Ed.S. in Secondary Education English; and an Ed.D. in Secondary Education English. What I found through the ten years of diving deep into educational theory and practice was a way to incorporate the instructional strategy of peer feedback into a school-wide approach that not only supported the learners who received the feedback, but also enriched the lives of all involved.


Events, Actions, Outcomes

As a new English teacher, I struggled with the juggling that occurs within a writing-centric classroom surrounding the creation of activities that support the standards and local curriculum while also providing authentic feedback that students could use in improving writing skills. For me, the juggling of activities, curriculum, and feedback left me feeling as if I was shortchanging my students and their education. I knew that students needed time to write often, but I struggled to give away precious instructional time to allow students to write; I knew that students thrived when writing in a classroom that embraces the writing process stages, but I struggled moving beyond a one-draft approach to writing. In fact, I found that I spent hours poring over student drafts, providing what I thought was useful feedback that students would incorporate into their writing without any involvement of the student within the revision cycle and without any connection between my feedback and the student’s growth. The less than compelling experience of process writing in my classroom led me to search for a way to empower my students as the owners of their writing process all while creating a writing-centric classroom environment that cultivated a feedback-rich writing culture.


In searching for ways to improve writing instruction I began by re-examining the historical foundation of writing. Vygotsky (1978), a pioneer in the field of sociocultural theory of learning, believed that development of skills principally takes place through a form of apprenticeship learning. In education, the apprenticeship model involves interaction with teachers and peers; the ultimate goal of this model supports the moving of students through their zone of proximal development (ZPD) with guidance as needed during the learning process. Social cognitive theorist Albert Bandura (Pajares & Valiante, 2006), further hypothesized that learners play an integral part in facilitating what they are to learn. He believed that what students felt about their abilities, good or bad, determines the level of success the student achieves. The belief in one’s abilities directly relates to the risks a learner willingly seeks as a means to improve skills acquisition. Pajares & Valiante (2006) further quantify this argument by stating that self-efficacy determines the level of engagement or disengagement, a student applies to a given task. If the learner feels that the task is one in which he/she demonstrates proficiency, the learner exerts more effort towards the task. Conversely, if a student lacks efficacy within a particular task, he/she will assume that the task is hard before even attempting to try the introduced skill. With a lowered sense of efficacy, the learner creates a circular pattern that leads to an emotional lowering of writing. Thus, I began the process of creating an apprentice-like environment in the classroom that engaged my accomplished writers with the task of mentoring - not simply reviewing - a  peer who needed support.


The process began by training accomplished students effective peer-tutoring skills. The focus of training is on how “collaborative learning works,” the writing process, assessing writing needs through rubric models, grammar mini-lessons, and effective writing strategies (Harris, 1988). We worked on understanding the importance of focusing on higher-order issues (understanding the assignment, cohesion, flow, etc.) before worrying about lower-order issues (grammar, punctuation, formatting). This helped the budding peer-tutors to see the writing holistically and allowed for feedback sessions to focus on the writer’s growth instead of simply mistakes. For the first time, I saw authentic conversations about writing emerge in the classroom; conversations that excited each of us as we watched the magic of the apprentice-mentor model help a writer improve a draft while increasing the writer’s self-efficacy.  As a result, I trained this group of students in peer-tutoring strategies and began to use them during class as an additional person who peers could seek support from during our writer’s workshop. Not only did this help their peers out, but I witnessed several students aha moments when the peer-tutor broke down a skill or concept in a way that the student-learner could understand.


Discussion

The key to the improvement of writing includes the incorporation of a feedback-rich writing process focused community (Nystrand, 2006; Prior, 2006). Although many teachers desire this structure, often class sizes limit the amount of valid and consistent feedback a teacher can provide. The development of a student-led, feedback-rich writing center provides an instructional strategy that meets the desire of writing teachers to provide support for the student throughout the process steps of writing. By the incorporation of trained peer-tutors within the classroom, writing literacy increases. Not only do students benefit, but peer-tutors also grow as writers and in the use of soft skills necessary for success in jobs outside of high school. Further, peer-tutors, trained in all aspects of feedback, provide a community approach to writing that perceives the craft as more than a function of the English classroom, translating student success beyond the classroom walls. Through the training of feedback protocols, a culture grows in which students and teachers grow into a community of feedback and growth, and student leadership skills flourish.


References

Bandura, A. (1990). Multidimensional scales of perceived academic efficacy. Guide for

constructing self-efficacy scales. In F. Pajares & T. Urdan (Eds.) Self-efficacy beliefs of adolescents, 5.


Nystrand, M. (2006).  The social and historical context for writing research.  In C. A.


MacArthur, S. Graham, & J. Fitzgerald (Eds.), Handbook of Writing Research (pp. 11-27).  New York, NY: The Guilford Press.


Pajares, F. & Valiante, G. (2006).  Self-efficacy beliefs and motivation in writing

development.  In C. A. MacArthur, S. Graham, & J.  Fitzgerald (Eds.), Handbook of Writing Research (pp. 158-170).  New York, NY: The Guilford Press.  


Prior, P. (2006). A socio-cultural theory of writing. In C. S. MacArthur, S. Graham & J.

Fitzgerald (Eds.), Handbook of writing research. New York: Guilford.


Vygotsky, L.S. (1978). Mind in society: the development of higher psychological processes.

Cambridge: Harvard University Press

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