Mastering the Essentials gives students and teachers the foundation they need to carry out a 21st century writing workshop that will show results over the school year. Teaching writing to young adolescents is enormously challenging because learning to write is not about one skill; it represents a “bundle,” encompassing everything from generating good ideas to editing the grammar of a final draft(Fletcher and Portalupi, 2001). Recognizing just how complex this type of instruction can be, this four week introductory unit aims to make start-up easy, fun and understandable to students, and highly manageable for teachers. But is it really necessary to take so much time to introduce the practices associated with the 21st century writing workshop? What can be gained?
Linda Ellis and Jamie Marsh, the authors of Getting Starting: The Reading–Writing Workshop, Grades 4–8, emphasize the importance of setting the stage when they state, “What happens in the beginning of the writing workshop sets the tone for the rest of the year. It’s critical to establish our expectations and organization, structure and commitment” (Heinemann, 2007, 51). Mastering the Essentials does just that. Students develop an understanding of the overall structure of the workshop and how they will take part in this environment that emphasizes responsibility (for choosing and fleshing out topics, working independently, exchanging writing with peers online), active learning (making effective use of in-class writer’s work time by writing in a sustained manner) and professionalism (producing complete pieces of writing and publishing for a real online audience). Students come to understand and develop essential skills while completing the first assignment, a written “snapshot” that briefly describes a real experience in detail. Students get their feet wet with several stimulating brainstorming approaches that ignite their imaginations, and engage in every step of the writing process while being supported by instruction that meets their individual needs as well as web-based activities increasingly relevant to their day-to-day lives. Ultimately, they produce work for sharing and celebrating. For youngsters, this first project goes far beyond familiarizing them with the practices and guidelines that will be used all year. Students also have an initial enlightening and satisfying writing experience to jump start what is to follow.