First Grade Teacher Inspires Students Through Writing WorkshopsIn Judith Sabel’s classroom at Lutheran South Unity School, students are hunched over their desks, scribbling out words. Colorful signs remind students to use “sparkly words” and ask questions. These first graders are participating in a writing workshop, learning how to see themselves as authors who are developing their unique writing voice.Mrs. Sabel was inspired by a professional development opportunity last summer at Columbia University’s Teachers College, a weeklong intensive designed for teachers to learn how to conduct writing workshops.
Mrs. Sabel is a veteran teacher, boasting 32 years of experience including 6 years at Zion Lutheran School in Fort Wayne and 7 years at Lutheran South Unity School.“Writing has become an essential part of our curriculum today,” Mrs. Sabel says. “When I went through school, there were no classes on teaching writing,” she notes. “Opportunities for young children to write reinforce their thinking, reading and spelling skills.”LSUS principal, Krista Nagy agrees, “Our aim is to get all students writing fluidly. Students think better when they’re actively engaged in thinking and writing. It’s really important for students to have a voice.”This workshop style is a different way of learning to write—one that allows for more of a student-directed approach to writing. For example, children begin by listening to a “mentor text,” a book introducing students to various aspects of narrative writing. After students decide on their own personal story to write, they tell their story in sequence, draw pictures to go with it, and then write their story. Mini-lessons on catchy introductions and conclusions, elaboration, punctuation, spelling and grammar are incorporated into each unit. This allows Mrs. Sabel to enrich her students’ vocabulary, language abilities, self-expression, and critical thinking skills through writing.
“With writing workshops, you have to take a child where they are and work with them,” notes Mrs. Sabel of the individualized approach. Working with a partner to evaluate, proofread, and edit each other’s work is part of the approach.“One child wrote about something they liked and said, ‘It’s great and I love it!’ But the other kids noticed what was missing in her writing and said, ‘You need to give reasons.’” Mrs. Sabel teaches students that they must have reasons to support their ideas, a necessary skill for the future when students write research papers.Besides learning to evaluate each other’s writing, students are exposed to a wide variety of styles. They write reviews by bringing in a toy collection and writing about their favorite. When students cover nonfiction books, they teach something in the style of a “how-to” book and add pictures to emphasize their point.Mrs. Sabel takes it one step further, giving students the opportunity to give a speech on their writing topic. The impact on students is transformative, as kids begin to see themselves as authors who have a voice in the world.“Students see themselves as authors. It’s exciting to see their growth and ability to communicate,” Mrs. Sabel adds. “At the beginning of the year one student was writing only a few words on each page. Now he fills his whole page providing descriptions and dialogue. Another very capable student wrote very little during the allotted workshop time, but recently wrote an excellent review about Applebee’s that served as a model for other students.”
Stories like this show us how the continued practice of writing transforms kids into authors at Lutheran South Unity School. Mrs. Sabel is pursuing that goal with the students at LSUS every week, inspiring budding authors to communicate through their words.“It was an amazing opportunity,” she says of her week at Columbia University. The opportunity not only benefits her personally, but every student in her classroom at Lutheran South Unity School and beyond.