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Shifting from the writers workshop to the makers workshop

Written by Chad Sansing
February 09, 2011

A few weeks ago, I had a brief Twitter conversation with Paul Oh and Ira Socol about how little we re-read and re-write in schools. One of Paul’s tweets about design-thinking sparked my part of the conversation. I see writing as a design process – we craft it. We plan, draft, revise, publish, and evaluate the effectiveness of our writing in a variety of ways as adults and educators. It’s an iterative process. We write and re-write for impact. We read and re-read for meaning and enjoyment.

Do we teach kids how to do these things in school? Do we acknowledge and value how kids already do these things?

Do we teach kids to write texts that others want to re-read? Do we teach kids that their writings are lasting entertainments rather than disposable tests? Do we teach kids how to use writing to design other texts – pieces of art, films, or games – that inspire others to re-read them? What kinds of inspiring texts can we help students design through writing so that those texts hold the same power for their audiences that books hold for many of us? Do kids ever get the chance and support needed to write and produce something that holds their audience’s attention the way a breakthrough performance becomes a legend, the way an uncanny sculpture becomes a landmark, the way a popular game inspires multiple play-throughs, the way a cult-favorite movie works its way into the vernacular, or the way a beautiful song makes its way into a people’s memories?

As individuals and teacher consultants, I bet we say, “Yes!” As a school system, I know we say, “That’s not the point of reading or writing instruction,” and, “Kids are not capable of such things without going through our curriculum.”

However, there is no single right way to teach reading or writing. When we imagine that there is, we tend to buy programs that ask kids to be passive. We need to design classes and workshops that allow for multiple, better solutions for our multiplicity of learners.

If we let kids use writing to express themselves and design the learning they want to do, then their writing will become what we hope it will be – honest, specific, and effective.
If I were asked to design a writing program, I would start by asking kids to write about what they want to make. I’d ask them to write, dictate, or draw everything they know about what it is they want to create. I’d ask them about the resources and steps involved. I’d ask them about their reasons for making whatever “it” is. I’d ask them how they plan to get feedback and how they will know when they are done. I’d ask them how they will share their work and and process with others who want to learn how to do the same thing. I’d ask them to tell the story of the making and to evaluate their results.

I’d assemble a classroom of prototyping materials and toys, of desks and beanbags and sofas and drafting tables, of notebooks, notepads, and computers of all shapes and sizes with all kinds of authoring tools – word processors, dictation software, graphics programs, game engines, programming platforms.

I’d trade-in my class sets for a line of credit at the local bookstore. I’d place daily orders for the printed texts my kids wanted to decode and comprehend for their design work. I’d help them decode and comprehend what they wanted to read. I’d help them decode and comprehend the writing they wanted to emulate.

I’d make our writers workshop into a makers workshop and trust kids to design their learning. I’d help kids write and re-write until they had effective design documents others could read and re-read as how-to texts. I’d help kids make art and inventions that others couldn’t stop contemplating, reading, playing, or using.

I’ve started assembling some of these pieces, but certainly not all of them. I’ve started realizing some of this vision, but certainly not all of it. Later this month I’m going to try it by starting a literacy support club for reading and writing about what we make.

I’ll also write about a few specific game-based examples in the coming weeks to share and debrief examples of paired design documents and products.

What kinds of student work have you seen that blends writing and making? I would love to learn more!

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