differentiation in writing workshop with independent projects 

ahhh…. independent projects. the ultimate in writing workshop. kids not only choosing the topic of their writing but the genre as well as endless publishing possibilities. as much as we try to offer choice during our genre studies, it is nothing like an independent project for kids.

one thing we know about independent projects is that kids. just. love. them. we can’t really stress that enough. we could liken the enthusiasm that kids show for independent projects to what they show for recess or the really cool art teacher who lets them splatter paint everywhere or that assembly that gets changed to the same time you scheduled your math assessment.

but, full disclosure: even though we know how much kids love independent projects, we have to admit that at least one of us had serious doubts as to the value of independent projects at first. yes, kids loved to choose everything about their writing, but sometimes the products were not exactly scintillating and we weren’t completely convinced that kids were really applying all they knew about the process.

if you’re feeling hesitant about implementing independent projects because of the quality of the published pieces, we recommend thinking about the purpose of independent projects. for us, the purpose is mostly to give our writers a chance to write anything they want, and to fall in love with it, to be excited about writing. we think that there’s great value in launching independent projects in every classroom, if only to get kids more turned on to writing. colleen cruz’s book independent writing is the best resource we’ve found if you’ve decided to try independent projects.

in thinking about how independent projects fit into differentiation, we think that every student potentially working on a different genre and topic – both of their own choosing – couldn’t be much more differentiated. that, really, independent projects are inherently differentiated. your whole-class teaching becomes more focused on tips to help keep the class as a whole moving on their independent projects, and your conferences and small groups are completely responsive to what the students are encountering as they work.

some things to think about if you’ve decided to take the plunge into independent projects (and it is a total plunge – not one for the faint of heart, but totally worth it):

launching: we usually begin with a mini-lesson during which we brainstorm as a class all the possibilities for writing. this gets kids thinking about their own possibilities and builds excitement.

independent project chart

the anchor chart we co-author with the class on the day independent projects are launched. the word cards with synonyms for “topic” and “genre” are important to support kids in naming the topic and genre of their independent projects, which is part of their responsibility when filling out a proposal.

scheduling time: most likely, schedules are pretty full with your planned units of study. we recommend looking at your writing time across the entire year and roughly mapping out the time frame for each unit. can you designate one day a week as a day to dedicate to independent projects? can you schedule a couple of days between units? can you do both? we’ve found the most success in dedicating a day each week. if we make sure to factor this in as we plan the unit, we just know that our units will stretch out a little longer. (when our grade-level team plans the timing for units of study for the upcoming year, we build about four days into each unit for independent projects so that teachers feel like the time is already there, but each can decide the spacing of the days for independent projects themselves.) a word of advice – kids really look forward to this day and will not be happy if it’s frequently cancelled. we recommend treating it as an important day in your week’s workshop.

project proposals: just as we use plan boxes to help plan and organize daily, we have an organizing tool that helps us and students to keep track of independent projects. independent projects are begun with writers submitting a proposal to their editors (us, as the teachers). we model for students how to choose a project and plan for how they will go about completing their projects. this includes thinking about the work they’ll do in their notebooks, choosing the mentor texts that will guide them, and setting a publishing deadline for themselves. these proposals must be approved by the editors before students launch their projects. at this point, our role is to help set students up for success. maybe they’ll need some help finding mentors. we have a bin set up for this by genre that we add to as needed. or maybe they need help thinking about how they will use their notebooks. sometimes the scope of the projects is too big and we help students to think about what it is they want to say. for example, we had a student who was going to write an all about skiing book but after a conference decided to write a more focused  travel brochure on fun activities for kids at a ski destination that she had visited. this allowed the student to elaborate her writing with much more specific details and a stronger voice.

teacher offered seminars: based on our student needs, we offer “seminars” which are really just small groups that students choose. we try to make these seminars sound as exciting as possible and offer a sign up sheet for students once we’ve “advertised” the seminars. we choose the seminars based on student needs so, for example, if we have a few students that are working on a new genre (like an interview) we may offer a seminar called “tips for conducting a successful interview.” or if we have a group of students who have an individual workshop goal related to punctuating we may offer another seminar called “using punctuation purposefully and powerfully.” sometimes we’ll have students that sign up for a seminar that we didn’t really have in mind for them. we may try to encourage them to sign up for an alternate seminar by pointing out the genre of their piece or their goal but the decision will ultimately be their one (as long as there’s room as we do limit the number of students in a group. we find four students or less to be an optional number).

mentor texts: throughout our class units of study, we model using mentor texts often. so we expect students to use mentor texts in their independent projects and see the value in this. students know how to search through the file box of mentor texts organized by genre to find what they need and ask if what they need isn’t available. our mentor text bin contains everything from personal narratives to travel brochures to interviews. mentor texts often give us a launching point for our individual conferences with students. when independent projects launch in the fall, our students need support choosing a mentor; it’s not uncommon for students to think at first that they can use a narrative as a mentor text for their brochure. soon, though, as we work more with mentor texts, they grow to understand that a mentor is a teacher in the same genre as what they’re writing, and they’re able to more successfully find mentor texts. this is something that always needs explicit teaching into (and usually reteaching).

deadlines: when our students fill out their proposal, they write a deadline for their piece. for some kids, this is really motivating, and they’re able to work toward publishing their independent project by the deadline. for most of the kids, though, the deadline is sort of arbitrary (at least for the first few projects they work through), because they’re still learning how long everything takes with the time they have to work on the project. (in addition to working on the project for a workshop time each week, students sometimes have opportunities to work on their independent project for that night’s writing homework or as work during independent writing time as the third part of their plan box.) we’re ok with the deadline being pretty flexible, but have found it helpful to have a few must-publish by dates throughout the year. one way to do this is at the end of each trimester or quarter, depending on how your school year is structured. having an independent project celebration day at the end of each trimester helps our students be sure they’re working toward publishing something (without these formal celebrations, we find that there are always a few students who would end up working on a project sort of endlessly). for students who have published more than one independent project by the time the trimester is ending, they choose which project they want to share during the celebration, and other students who haven’t published their first project yet have a harder deadline to work toward.

how to handle the “hot” genre of the year: our classroom mirrors the fads in popular culture in that we’ve found there is usually a “hot” genre that changes from  year to year.   we can’t predict what it is, but once kids have identified it, we find a large number of students approaching us with proposals for a piece in this genre. one year it was graphic novels while another it was interviews. as much as we’d like the genres to be more varied (and we have had conversations about how to have this happen), we know that the reason that independent projects are so appealing to kids is that they have choice-even when this choice is solely influenced by the popular culture of the classroom. so we’ve found ways to work with the “hot” genre. one way is to offer seminars focused on specific qualities found in the genre to lift the quality of the work.(see above) another is to pay close attention to proposals and make sure that kids have a viable plan of their own and not just a copy of a friend’s plan. other than that, we let the genre play itself out. and it usually does. then kids will move on to other projects.

making sure that we have structures in place during independent project time ensures that our students are not only making choices about the work they’re doing, but that we’re supporting that work in purposeful ways.

how do you give kids choice of genre in writing while making sure that the work is purposeful and focused in your classroom?

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