The third edition of Nancie Atwell’s In the Middle will be released on November 13th. In a special series, Nancie Atwell blogs for Heinemann Publishing every Wednesday. This week Nancie writes about Don Graves and organization.
In In the Middle, you remember Donald Graves’s compliment, “You’re so organized.” This is clear in your books and professional development videos. Why do you think organization is so important for a workshop teacher?
The first, most obvious answer is that everyone in a workshop is doing something different. Students are at different stages of the writing process, tackling different topics, and reading different books. To stay on top of all that activity and be responsible to every student, I needed to develop systems of recordkeeping and accountability—to be able to say, on any given day, “This is what she’s writing about, the genre, and where she is in the process” and “This is the book he’s reading and the page number he’s on.” At the same time, I don’t want recordkeeping to be so onerous that it takes time away from my bigger responsibility of conferring with individual writers and readers. It’s a balancing act, one I try to answer with the question, “What do I really need to know?”
Another issue is the organization of the space. With variability of activity the norm, the room arrangement needs to be established and reliable, so kids can count on it to meet their needs as writers and readers—red pens for editing your writing are always kept here; your class’s finished writing folders are in this file drawer; thrillers are shelved in this bookcase and classics in that one; if the printer runs out of paper, you’ll find a fresh ream on that shelf. I start each school year with a scavenger hunt. In teams, students search for and identify on a map of the classroom the materials, tools, resources, equipment, and literary genres I’ve gathered to support their work as writers and readers.
A third kind of workshop organization involves the use of time. My schedule within each eighty-minute block is unvarying: we discuss a poem, I conduct a writing or reading minilesson, students write independently while I circulate among them, a couple of kids or I conduct booktalks about recommended titles, and students read independently while I circulate among them. In the new book, I describe alternative schedules for teachers whose classes meet for just fifty minutes. However much time we have each day with each class, the point is to establish routines, and to stick with them.
Students who are asked to take initiative as readers and writers need a predictable setting if they're going to develop habits of mind, produce and complete work, and make plans. Rather than a stimulating or creative environment, they need a regular one they can depend on as they get the job done.
I spend a lot of time each fall teaching and reteaching the organization and routines of the workshop, so students can lean on its scaffolds as they venture into new territory as independent writers and readers. I know I've succeeded if, by Columbus Day, no one's asking me, "What am I supposed to do now?"