Installing a Writing Workshop

by Mr. Sheehy

For a couple years now I have slowly inputted a kind of writing workshop in my classroom. It wasn’t a full-fledged workshop, mostly because I had other non-workshop things I had to accomplish, but I liked to give students the ability to choose what writing assignment they were going to work on during a given time period, even if it was only a choice of which one when, rather than a completely autonomous choice about what to write.

My best attempt was a journalism workshop that my freshmen did last spring. They wrote a series of pieces and we did it within a two week stretch. At the end, they handed in what they had completed, though I’d encouraged them to hand them in as we went, so I could review their work for them. I liked it, sort of. The final result involved their messing around too much and too many students handed me piles of articles on the last day (or after it, as the cases proved).

This summer I attended a class on writing workshops taught by a colleague in my district and I peppered her with every question I had stored up over the previous years. I felt slightly bad for the other teachers in my class, since I commandeered the class as my own personal learning experience and essentially adopted the instructor as my personal tutor and sounding board, but I was so determined to get this right that I did not care what other people thought.

The end result is what I am testing out this year. I took every writing assignment I was planning to assign through the quarter, plus a couple new ones, and put them on one sheet of paper (and one webpage, of course). I counted the number of Fridays in the quarter (for this first one there are six, not counting the first week and a three-day week in October) and made each one a due date. Then I assigned students one fewer writing assignment than the number of weeks in the quarter. Thus my sophomores will hand in five writing assignments this quarter and will get one week off. Each week they must hand in one assignment (minus, of course, the week off, which they can use when they want).

We have a block schedule where I see them every other day for 95 minutes, so every class we will spend 30-40 minutes in writing workshop. If they do not want to write, they can read, but they must be doing one or the other. Homework for other classes is forbidden.

Essentially this is what my colleague in the district does, and I really like it, so I’m hoping it succeeds. If I keep up with it my students will write significantly more than I have had them write in the past, which is important to me. I will read more of their writing, giving more frequent (albeit less detailed) feedback, and they will be able to choose what they work on, when, even as they have to take responsibility for getting things completed on time and staying on task.

Consequently I have been enjoying the task of creating interesting writing assignments. For this year I’ll reuse lots of them (juniors will write the same things as sophomores for example), but I anticipate developing enough in the coming year that I’ll have mostly unique assignments for each grade level.

Here are a few of the ones I have created so far. Feel free to steal them if they’re helpful in your classroom.

Thanks for reading.

Targeting Kids’ Desires

In an interview about affluence in America, writer John De Graff described his observations after attending some marketing conferences, explaining how businesses view children as “cash crops” :

If you go to some of the marketing conferences where marketers talk about how to reach kids, it’s pretty chilling. They use terms like owning, capturing, and branding our kids. They say, “If we don’t own, capture, and brand these kids by the time they’re 18 we may never own, capture, and brand them.”They talk of parents as being gatekeepers that they have to get around with ads that promote what they call the “nag factor” in kids. They are now spending 20 times as much (not 20% more-20 times as much) to target kids with advertising as they were as recently as 1980.

We heard one marketer say, “Anti social behavior in pursuit of a product is a good thing.” He meant by that that ads that promote rude and anti-social behavior among kids would make parents look like fools and fuddy-duddies were useful ways of getting to the kids to sell products and get around the parents.

Please respond to De Graff’s comments with your own perspective. Use your own experiences and observations to share to what extent you agree or disagree with his observations. This should be 350-600 words.

Passing Along an Activity

In his book Summer of ’98, Mike Lupica writes about how he learned to love baseball from his father and how he then shared that love with his own children:

Baseball is something that is passed on. . . . I go to all the sports events with my children, all the time, and I would always rather take them to the ballpark, and they would rather be there than anywhere else. I hope that one of the reasons is because they are there with me.

I cannot tell you for sure why baseball is passed on the way it is. . . . It was something I shared with my father, and still share today. It was a special language we had . . . A love that fits inside of a bigger love, like a ball in a mitt.

Consider your own favorite hobby or activity. Think about what makes that activity interesting, and how you and others have come to participate in it. Write at least 400 words about how you have come to love your favorite leisure activity.

Reflection on war and stories

Shelby Foote, who is famous for writing a three volume history of the Civil War, once said the following:

All good literature about war is anti-war. If you are celebrating the glory of war, you’re writing trash . . . because the truth is it’s more bloody than it is glorious, and the pain and the suffering are a far bigger part of it than the patriotism and the glory.

Consider books you’ve read or movies you’ve seen about war in light of Foote’s comments. What is your position regarding the telling of stories about battles or war?

Make this 450-700 words.

Reaction to Youth Sports

Please read this article called “Where elite kids shouldn’t meet” and react in a paper of your own. Use information from your own life and observations to react to the situations that Tim Keown is crying out against. What is the problem as he observes it, where have you seen the problem, and do you think it is a problem? Make this 300 words, minimum.

Descriptive story of your summer

A number of my students have declared that the essence of summer is freedom. If this is the case, please consider your summer and a time where you either felt particularly free or a time when you failed to experience that freedom. Describe that time for us. Make the readers feel like they’re there with you. 450-500 words.

Short story for kids

My children often come in to visit me. Suppose that they were here today (this year they’re seven, five, and three years old) and asked you to tell them a story. They love suspense, they love humor, and they have wonderful imaginations. Whether you use those things or not, the key is that they love a good story. Please write a story that you might tell to them. Keep it between 300 and a 1000 words.

Reflection on money and evil

Many of you have heard the saying that money is the root of all evil. In a book I read about the history of America before emancipation, for example, Daniel Walker Howe makes an observation that highlights how money is what was behind much of slavery in America: “Slave children represented capital gains. So a respected Virginia planter could advise his son-in-law in 1820, ‘A woman who brings a child every two years [is] more valuable than the best man of the farm.’”

Please explain or show to what degree you agree with the statement that money is the root of all evil. Use examples from life, history, or even literature to explain your opinion. Make it 450-700 words.

(In case you’re wondering where the quote comes from, it is actually a common misquotation of a verse from the Bible–1Timothy 6.10, which says “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils,” but the misquote has become better known in our culture than the original.)

Most Beautiful Place in America

Please describe what you claim is the most beautiful place in America. Make sure your piece appeals to three of the five senses, and make us as readers feel like we are there experiencing that place. Make this piece 300 words, minimum.

Character Narrative

Please invent a character and then tell a story in that character’s voice (that is, in first person). To introduce us to who is speaking, please include two lines at the top of your page explaining (in third person) who your character is. Then skip a line and begin your story. Make this piece 300 to 750 words.


Write a one page “story” that consists of dialogue between two characters. If you’d like, use The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as a model for how to capture an exchange between two characters. This should be a concrete example of indirect characterization. 300-750 words.

Technology and Manners

Is our technology ushering in a new era of rudeness? The web journal Slate sets the stage:

With smartphones appearing in millions of pockets and computer screens mediating more and more of our interactions, the question of what’s rude has rarely been in greater flux. Technology and social media have connected us in astounding ways, but they’ve also given rise to etiquette dilemmas [last century’s etiquette experts] never could have imagined.

Please chime in with your own opinion about what is polite in the use of technology 300-750 words.

Pine Needle Article

Write an article for the school newspaper, The Pine Needle, reporting on a school related event or activity. See details for writing this narrative report online. Realize you’ll need at least one quote from a person who was at the event you are reporting on.This should be between 250-600 words.

Pine Needle Personal Essay

Write a personal essay for publication in The Pine Needle. See ideas at the Pine Needle’s staff wiki for more ideas about what would work. This would need to be 300-1000 words.

The Purpose of Sports

Is there a broader purpose or reason for participating in organized sports? Explain in a minimum of 400 words.

To get you thinking, consider reading Rick Reilly’s column, “Let’s Keep Rolling,” where he sings the praises of four former athletes who spearheaded the retaking of United Flight 93 on September 11, 2001. They resisted terrorists’ attempts to crash the plane in a populated area and forced it instead to crash in a field in Pennsylvania:

There certainly were more passengers among the 33 on board who planned the insurrection and stormed the cockpit, but we know about these four. All of them jocks. All of them with the physical and mental training to rise up when all seems lost.