differentiation in writing workshop with plan boxes

when we first started teaching, we liked to see that all of our students were trying out what we taught in our mini-lessons that day, right after the lesson. even though we thought this was what we’d like to see, we knew deep down that if we were controlling what our students did every day, then this wasn’t truly a workshop, and there certainly wasn’t much differentiation happening.

it can be difficult for teachers to know that what we’re teaching in our mini-lesson may not be what our students will be doing during workshop. at first glance, it seems like it would be easier for us if all of our students were working on the same thing at roughly the same pace. but, in reality, students don’t work like that. while we may teach a strategy for planning a story with a story mountain, there may be some students who will be more successful or prefer using a story book for planning their story.

we’ve grown to expect and applaud students for using strategies that have been successful for them in the past, even if they are not ones that we taught them. this is a sign that the decisions students are making as writers are thoughtful and purposeful. after all, what are we really teaching writers if all they do is mimic what we’ve shown them, even if it doesn’t make sense in their own writing?

these days, our mini-lessons are planned to show students strategies that they can use at each stage of the writing process. and, of course, we do plan an active engagement during our mini-lessons that involves all of our students in trying out new strategies right then and there. this way, everyone gets a chance to try the strategy out for size, and if they don’t choose to use the strategy right away, they’ll feel more comfortable using the anchor charts, which have a reminder of the strategies, when and if they do choose to try it.

you may be wondering, if students aren’t always doing what’s taught during the mini-lesson, how can we support students in using their workshop time productively AND make sure that we know what they are working on so we can support them even when they’re not working on what we’ve just taught AND do work that’s differentiated to meet their needs? enter: plan boxes, the writing workshop version of a to-do list.

inviting students to work on whatever they need to seems like a gratuitous invitation unless we give them the tools they’ll need to do this. anchor charts are one of these tools. and today, if you walked into our classroom at the end of a mini lesson, you would see our students making the other tool, plan boxes. plan boxes are a list of the writing work that each students plans on doing. they are, essentially, the writing workshop version of a to-do list, and something we learned from day by day: refining writing workshop through 180 days of reflective practice by ruth ayers and stacey shubitz.

when we teach about plan boxes in our mini lessons, we compare them to the lists that we all make to prioritize what we have to do everyday in life because, in essence, these are what plan boxes are (just only about writing).

we tend to wait a few weeks before teaching students about plan boxes. before they’ve learned how to make a formal plan box, we still make sure the language we use during mini-lessons leaves the choice of whether to try that day’s strategy or not up to them, and we’ll often have them turn and tell a partner what their writing work for that day is, using the anchor charts to support them in remembering their choices. in this way, they’re being primed for the more formal work of creating a written plan box. we usually introduce plan boxes as an expectation for daily writing work when we’re cycling back through the writing process during our first unit of study. we think this is a good time to introduce them because students are already standing on the strategies and work they’ve done one time through the process in the same genre, and so there’s more room for them to make choices about the writing work they’ll put in their plan box.

when we introduce the idea of plan boxes, we are open with our students about how we make lists and why we make them. we tell our students that, while some of us are bigger list makers than others, we think that all of us, deep down, appreciate the satisfaction that comes from checking off a finished item on a list. as a matter of fact, as we tell our students, we’ve even been known to add an already completed item to one of our own lists just to have that sense of accomplishment when we cross it out.

we know from experience that making lists frees up our brains from trying to remember all we have to do. once it’s written down, we can focus on what we’re doing now. this is just one one of the roles that plan boxes play for our students in writing.

plan box steps

our anchor chart for creating a plan box. eventually, this chart comes down and some students are given an artifact with the steps and examples to support them in independently making plan boxes. we keep an eye on the amount of time students spend making their plan boxes (we want it to be less than three minutes eventually) and also the type of work that’s written in the plan boxes to decide who would benefit from some support while making their plan boxes.

so what do plan boxes have to do with differentiation? when we give students the tools they need to choose the writing work they need, students are differentiating for themselves.

when we are working on a class genre, we expect that students will all finish with a written piece in that genre. what we don’t expect is that they will all need the same strategies to produce this product or move at the same exact pace through the writing process. by teaching students to make plan boxes, we are letting them know that we are all headed to the same place, but how we get there doesn’t look the same for everyone. we’re also giving them the ownership over their work, which is motivating.

getting started with plan boxes:

when we model creating a plan box in front of our students, we show them how they might choose and prioritize their writing work by thinking aloud and using class anchor charts to model as we choose the three strategies to put on our plan box. we tell students that they may not get to all three (just like we don’t usually get to all the items on our own lists), but it’s important to have a thorough plan just in case there’s time. they may also decide to return to the previous day’s plan box, and use the unfinished parts as a starting point for the current day’s plan box.

so if we were revising a draft of a feature article, we would model making our plan box for writing time by looking at our class anchor chart for revising an informational piece and choosing a strategy from that chart that we plan on trying in several places throughout our draft. this would be number one on our plan box.

when we model, we usually try to choose a second item that continues the work on our class genre piece. so in this case, it could be a second revision strategy or it could be working on the next step in the writing process.

for the third and last item in our plan box, we often model adding an item from our class chart of “writing work that’s always o.k.” this includes writing work like adding more writing ideas into our notebook, working on our independent projects or studying a mentor text. this third item could, of course, also be related to the class genre piece, but gives students a chance to do some other writing work alongside this piece.

how plan boxes can impact workshop: 

plan boxes have been a game changer for writing workshop time. here’s why:

  • they’ve eliminated (or significantly reduced) students saying, “i’m done with my writing. can i…read, play a math game, etc.” our students, instead, always have writing work to continue on to.
  • they let us see quickly what the writer is working on when we pull up to a student to conference.
  • they teach students valuable organizational and time management skills.
  • they push students to reflect on their work as writers.
  • they ask students to differentiate the process by choosing the work that they need.
  • they help students’ brains to focus on what they’re doing now instead of what they’ll  do next.
  • they encourage independence, putting the responsibility of filling their writing time in the hands of the students rather than the teachers.

8 thoughts on “differentiation in writing workshop with plan boxes

  1. ReadWriteThruLife says:

    Tara and Kate, I am so grateful that I found your blog! I have been snooping around on your blog and have been refining my practice in my head. This is another blog that has helped me think through my beliefs so that I will be able to put them into practice. One philosophical struggle I’ve had is my belief in using workshop and giving as much choice as possible to students yet being able to hold them “accountable” for lack of a better word because I know that in my evaluations my principal will ask me – “How do you know they got it?” In order to make sure I can answer his question I have had all students working on the same thing during writing workshop. But, the Plan Box can help me give more choice during the workshop and keep track of what students are working on. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • taraandkate says:

      we are so glad that you see plan boxes as something you can implement in your classroom! just know that for the first few weeks, it’s going to be slow going. (or, maybe not – depending on how experienced your kids are with workshop and their age! but we’ve always found that choice is way new to our kids.) you’ll likely need to do some explicit teaching into strong plan boxes once they’ve gotten up and running (e.g. we’ll show a plan box with things like “revise,” and “edit” as the three steps and have the students compare that to something that names the specific writing work they’d be doing, like “revise by exploding big actions into tiny actions” or “edit by adding paragraphs.” referring to charts is a perfect support for this, because they can use the same language on charts in their plan boxes.) just knowing that it’s going to take time and lots of teaching (and reteaching) to get them to where they’re able to make plan boxes may help you give yourself more grace with it as you’re getting into it. and, feel free to reach out if you have questions or trouble as you’re doing it! we’re happy to share how we address the trouble – it’s similar in all our classes, we’re sure!


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