Book Review: Above & Beyond The Writing Workshop by Shelley Harwayne

Above & Beyond The Writing Workshop: Stenhouse Publishers

By Shelley Harwayne

In Above & Beyond The Writing Workshop, Shelley Harwayne (writer-teacher and staff developer) shares her experience and expertise in developing young writers. What excites me most about her latest title is how Shelley shares her unparalleled skill in developing class writing projects based on the reading/writing connection.

As we do with all our write-ups, I will review the book using the 14 principles of world-class writing teaching (Young & Ferguson 2021).

  1. Build a community of writers

‘How do we give students opportunities to write about things that perhaps no one else has thought to write about and to write about them in fresh, surprising ways?’

In the classrooms which Shelley knows best, she explains that children are given time to pursue their passions, collaborate with others, and read, research, and write throughout the day. Shelley writes passionately about the need for classrooms to be effectively managed, assessment-driven and full of daily pupil-conferencing. It’s Shelley’s conviction that when we invent class writing projects which are joyful, accessible, and meaningful, we should want to take part in them ourselves. It’s this which helps teachers create a community of writers. 

  1. Treat every child as a writer

Whilst Shelley doesn’t discuss children with English as an additional language or children with special educational needs and disabilities, one of the amazing things about her is her ability to plan class writing projects which all children can bring themselves to. The projects she shares throughout her book are utterly accessible and treat all children as writers.

  1. Read, share, think and talk about writing

‘When classrooms are marked with camaraderie, children learn to pitch in, support one another, and feel free to pore over texts and screen together’.

Shelley is adamant that there should be talk in the writing classroom. We must honour children’s conversations while at the same time ensuring that children have a classroom environment which is free from outbursts, interruptions and loud voices. The fact is students learn a great deal from one another during writing time and teachers can learn from listening too. 

  1. Pursue purposeful and authentic class writing projects

‘When writing demands interaction with a reader, an adult or a peer, it is more likely that students will work hard to make it their best. Better yet, if the completed work is turned into a gift for a friend, becomes a family heirloom, or takes up permanent residence in the school or classroom library, students work hard to make the work their best. The message is clear: we need to give students real-world reasons to work hard. Students need to see that their words can make a reader smile, sigh, nod, laugh, or even tear up. They need to see that their words can change their readers’ behaviour or attitude, or make someone rethink an issue or solve a new problem’. 

This is one of the principles of world-class writing teaching which the book showcases the best. Shelley provides a whole host of great examples of purposeful and authentic class writing projects. Importantly, she shares her process so that you can create your own too. Some projects which Shelley provides include:

  • Across-the globe writing. Children write about an aspect of life from across cultures.
  • Quirky questions and biographical sketches. Children write short biographies about a variety of people who share one thing in common.
  • Curiosity at the core. Writing a letter to someone to get a question answered.
  • And the award goes to… Where children get to write fictitious awards.
  • Could it really happen? Children finding answers to their often quirky questions.
  • Just for a day writing. A playful way to engage children in people’s history/biography writing, children are invited to write the typical day of someone they admire.
  • Doing what animals do. Producing picture books which share how humans and animals often behave in the same way.
  • If you were… Children finish this sentence off in a number of ways until they feel they have something worth pursuing as a piece of writing.
  • Wearing a mask. Children get an opportunity to engage in persona writing.
  • Doing what they do best. Sharing what people do for a living – and the qualities they must have to do that job well.
  • Definitional picture books. In keeping with personification, children are invited to make a picture book which tries to define an emotion.
  • Would you rather… ? A cheery way in which to introduce the concept of discussion texts.
  • Creating reader’s notes. Making a knowledge organiser for their favourite book.
  1. Pursue personal writing projects

Whilst there is no specific discussion or guidance around children pursuing their own personal writing projects either in school or at home, Shelley does make this comment for us to think about: ‘wouldn’t it be eye-opening to simply follow our students’ leads, to have blocks of time with no set agenda, simply inviting students to do the kind of writing that they themselves choose? This, of course, would require that administrators trust their teachers and that teachers trust their students’.

  1. Teach the writing processes

‘I have long been a fan of writing assignments at the elementary level that match students’ interests and sustain their attention. That belief has usually led me to shorter publications (my mantra was short children, short genres). Short genres are not just good for young writers, they are good for teachers. For example, just like in a poetry course, students can often attempt several pieces’.

One aspect of a writer’s process which is undervalued in classrooms in England is the idea of experimenting with more than one piece of writing within a class writing project. Traditionally, children are asked to write a single piece. However, Shelley suggests that if we allow children to write more than one, they craft better. For example, children could write a variety of flash-fiction or poems. They shouldn’t need to simply craft one. 

Another wonderful aspect of this book is how Shelley shares how class writing projects are celebrated at the publishing stage of the process. She provides numerous suggestions as to how classes can find time to celebrate what they’ve worked so hard to create.

  1. Teach mini-lessons

‘We led students through a series of minilessons demonstrating how to improve the quality of their draft’.

Throughout the book, Shelley explains how she devised the mini-lessons for her class writing projects. This includes some really good explanation around how teachers can effectively invite children to revise (compositionally) their initial drafts. These are sessions which Shelley calls ‘lifting the quality of children’s writing’. For example, Shelley will regularly introduce a ‘craft move’ as part of a daily mini-lesson and then ask children how she could use the technique in her own writing. She then invites the children to do the same with theirs. This is an elegant and meaningful way of delivering direct writing instruction.

Show the craft move in literature -> Apply the craft move to your own text -> Invite children to use the craft move during that day’s writing time.

  1. Be reassuringly consistent

Shelley Harwayne has always been an advocate for the reassuringly consistent approach Writing Workshop can provide (Harwayne 1992, 2001). In this publication, Shelley showcases aspects of self-regulation strategy development instruction – for the benefit of teachers and children (Google: Steve Graham & Karen Harris’ work on SRSD instruction for more details).

  1. Balance composition and transcription

Shelley reminds us that as teachers who pursue the principles of world-class writing teaching, we must have the expectation that high-quality writing will be crafted. Part of this is ensuring that we balance our focus on children’s composition and their transcription. She suggests that because her class writing projects are short, she expects the highest possible standard in terms of quality and final written outcomes.  

  1. Set writing goals

‘Teachers who have high standards for student work are wise to save copies of students’ best work’.

Shelley supports good genre-study. In the book, she provides exemplar texts from her own students for your class to look at and pore over. This is something all teachers should do for their pupils. In addition, Shelley invites classes to read and reread mentor texts written by their teacher and other commercial writers. After reading, she recommends that children create a list of ‘craft moves’ which they believe the writer used from their ‘toolbox’ to help them craft such an effective piece. She suggests that children can then be taught about how they can do these things for themselves in their own pieces via daily mini-lessons.

‘We named the tools the author lifted from his writer’s toolbox to create such an effective piece… these techniques can all be borrowed… teachers should help students tease out what each author has done effectively.’

Beyond the advice on producing product goals, it is great to read about how Shelley introduces new class projects to her students. She shares how teachers can provide explanations as to why the class project exists, the publishing goal for the project, and what they hope their students will gain from participating in it.

  1. Pupil-conferencing: meet children where they are

While mentioned regularly, this is not a principle of effective writing teaching which Shelley chooses to discuss in detail. I suspect that Shelley assumes her readership will know about the importance of live verbal feedback and assessment-based individualised writing instruction already.

  1. Be a writer-teacher

‘Teachers can become the most meaningful mentor for their students because if students admire us, they will want to be like us. If we are enthusiastic, serious, and hardworking when it comes to our own writing, so might our students be. When we write in the genre that our students have been asked to write, we learn… valuable writing techniques. So, the first way to support students’ efforts is to attempt the writing yourself’.

Shelley supports the view that teachers should be participating in class writing projects alongside their students and that they should be writing mentor texts for their children to learn from: ‘the more teachers try their hand at all the genres assigned to students, the easier it is to explain to students the qualities of good writing’. 

She reinforces Donald Graves’ conviction that if a class writing project isn’t interesting to us, if we’re not itching to write one ourselves, how can we expect our pupils to be interested in giving it their best? She shares how children are impressed by their writer-teachers’ efforts and appreciate having an image in mind of where they might be heading themselves. 

When we write what our students write, we come to understand what they need us to teach them. It appears that Shelley has a nice routine when it comes to producing mentor texts. First, she will find a commercial picturebook (or another type of text) that she admires greatly. Next, she will ‘leapfrog’ off of this text and create her own. The one she creates will match what she expects the children to produce. She will then share both these texts as part of the class’ genre-study sessions.

Commercial writing as a mentor text -> Teacher’s writing as a mentor text -> Children produce their own writing.

  1. Literacy for pleasure: connect reading and writing

‘Teachers need to remember that just as their own writing informs their teaching, so, too, does their own reading’.

Rather than tether a series of writing tasks to a novel study unit, Shelley has a wonderful ability of finding books which invite children to bring themselves to the text. The beauty of Shelley’s view of the reading/writing connection is that when she comes across an intriguing piece of writing, her first thought is: I wonder if my students would like to write something like this? Then she invites them to respond in their own personal ways by generating their own ideas. This is her power.

Incidentally, this book is absolutely full of book recommendations for teachers and includes a link to an online bibliography which Shelley keeps updated regularly. Books which, according to Shelley, are so well written, teachers can’t help but mine them for wonderful ‘craft lessons’ and class writing projects. 

  1. Interconnection of the principles

In conclusion, Shelley Harwayne provides teachers with plenty to think about in terms of encouraging children to be inquisitive, outspoken and independent writers. By reflecting on the wisdom shared within these pages, teachers would be perfectly placed to create a passionate, supportive and loving community of writers who write with pleasure, purpose and power.

Review by Ross Young. Ross runs The Writing For Pleasure Centre and helps convene the United Kingdom Literacy Association’s Teaching Writing special interest group.

References:

  • Harwayne, S. (1992) Lasting Impressions Weaving Literature into the Writing Workshop. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann
  • Harwayne, S. (2001) Writing Through Childhood: Rethinking Process & Product Portsmouth NH: Heinemann
  • Young, R., Ferguson, F., (2021) Writing For Pleasure: theory, research and practice London: Routledge

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