Words of Wisdom
Writer's block is a fancy term made up by whiners so they can have an excuse to drink alcohol.
The traditional writing workshop occurs as writers grapple with works-in-progress and consists of peers and sometimes an instructor (usually a "master") giving feedback after listening to (and sometimes following along with) a reading of the draft.
Because W and C courses are heavy in disciplinary content, and the writers and speakers are often rather new in the type of writing or speaking they are working on, this workshop format is probably too time-consuming, even for a small class. However, a workshop can also be defined as any hands-on activity that helps achieve learning and that enhances skills.
A workshop should target what you want your students to achieve. Planning a workshop should start with deciding on an outcome. You'll have to consider:
- Where the workshop should occur in the class schedule: make sure that you have considered where students will be in the composing process when the workshop occurs. The workshop can even serve the function of getting them started (because most of them will probably start the night before the assignment is due otherwise).
- What activity students will participate in: this depends, again, on the desired learning. It's important to think about the discreet skills that lead up to what you want students to produce.
- How long the workshop should take: How much time can you spare? Have you designed the task to be open-ended enough to challenge students and specific enough so they have to produce something (even if it's a comment) by the end?
In selecting an activity, it helps to think in terms of the steps of the composing process: invention, drafting, revision, and proofreading and, for speeches, delivery.
- If students are trying to do research, do they need help with locating and evaluating sources? How about keeping track of them in RefWorks?
- If you want students to examine models and become familiar with a genre (which should be done as early as possible in the writing process), collaboration can make this activity richer and more interactive.
- If students need to think deeply about an issue before they begin, a workshop can push them into discussion with peers that challenges their thinking and shows them new perspectives. Try some techniques for developing content.
- Hold a workshop on the topic of the rhetorical situation, to encourage students to think through how it will affect their final product.
- Workshops done during drafting can help in the revision stage by establishing and operationalizing your grading criteria or the expectations of the type of documents students are working on. If you expect all papers or speeches to defend a thesis, you might want to have a brief workshop where they can examine and discuss good thesis statements. If you ask that their paragraphs be unified and notice they often are not, you might want to have a workshop where students work in small groups to examine paragraph structures. Then, when they respond to each other's work, they will be closer to agreement in their evaluations.
- In the revision stage, encourage students to make significant changes in drafts and iron out details. The most common workshop would be the peer review. The most important detail to remember about peer review is that students need practice in responding to their peers before they get good at it, so at least one practice session, preferably on a common assignment and with a rubric to guide responses, is a good idea.
- Devote a part of the class to having individuals or groups complete the rubric, then devote time to comparing how they rated the assignment and discussing the differences. Come to some consensus as a class about standards.
- If you don't have a lot of time, use a short common paper (or show a video of a short oral presentation) and simplify your rubric.
- You may think that the day the paper or the presentation is due is too late for a workshop, but it's not. In fact, this is the perfect time to teach proofreading. Many students probably think they are handing in an error-free paper (or, for a presentation, either slides or handouts). We all know that is unlikely. So ask students to swap papers and take some time to proofread.
- You might provide some proofreading tips (like going slowly, checking anything that looks remotely doubtful, and looking for consistency) and a revision checklist. Ask the proofreader to make neat corrections in pencil or on a separate paper, and then allow a little extra time for the author to check over and implement those suggestions.
- If you do this, you'll have to allow students to hand in neatly corrected papers. But that should be OK—most writers have ample time for these details, and the reason papers are double-spaced when we turn them in to editors is so they can comment and correct. Better students learn that perfection must be pursued over time.
- A workshop on delivery has obvious time constraints. Unless the assignment is a 3-minute speech, it will take up a lot of class time; however, students can do just enough delivery to help them get more comfortable and to get feedback on their voice quality, gestures, stance, and expression. For example, they could present their opening three slides, or just present their introduction or conclusion.
- A rubric or presentation checklist could be handy in this type of workshop.
If you'd like more ideas for workshops, check out our classroom workshops. You can invite the University Writing Center to present, or you can download our slides and customize them for your own purposes. Also check out the many writing and speaking guides we make available to students.
MIT Online Writing and Communication Center, Resources for Writers: The Writing Process
Dartmouth College's Institute on Rhetoric and Writing, Teaching Writingas Process
UWC Interactive Lesson on Peer Review