Tinker Trays in the Writing Workshop


Approaching writing as a continuous process forwarded by efficient movement from one step to the next often fails to help writers discover anything new about themselves or their work. If they’re to remain invested, novice writers need to reap far greater rewards. Deep processing satiates, and tinkering is what enables it.

Make Writing: 5 Teaching Strategies that Turn Writer’s Workshop into a Maker Space

In an effort to make tinkering a far more tangible concept than words might convey, I introduced the writers I support at the WNY Young Writers’ Studio to tinker trays. What are tinker trays, you ask?

Ours looked like this:


Tinker trays can be thematic, as these are, but they don’t have to be.

The point is to create a collection of resources that makers can mess around with. Many use the materials to build things. Some discover writing ideas by investigating the contents of a tray.

Our first experiences with tinker trays were intended to move writers away from text. I wanted them to mess and build things with materials other than words in order to get a “feel” for revision:

For instance, it isn’t a single step in a linear process but rather, the heart of every phase of the creative experience. Sometimes, revision is productive. Sometimes, it isn’t. Here’s what I’ve learned from the makers and learners I support: When we tinker with one small bit of our creation at a time, lifting it from the whole and changing it in a whole bunch of different ways before settling on a version that satisfies us, revision is a far more rewarding process.

So, I invited kids to tinker with the items in these trays, and then we compared the experience to writing. Some of them went on to use the things they made to inspire new writing ideas. Others wrote about making. Some noticed connections between writing and making that I didn’t anticipate, and this inspired us to think about story arc in far more inventive ways.

Have you ever compared string to story arc?



Find the string inside our simplest representation of story arc, below. What IS story arc anyway? What COULD it be if we tinker with it?

DSCN9823 (2)

What if we played with the string of our story arc the way we play with real string?

What if we tied it together?

Wove it?

Created purposeful knots?

Began with the resolution?

Made a circle of our story?

Some writers think and learn this way, so it made sense to invite them to use their hands and a pile of string to plan and then play with the arc of their stories. Try this with your students, if you’re compelled to. They may be pleasantly surprised by the results.

Tinker trays help us think about the writing process in a very different way, and the things we make inspire our ideas, deepen the level of detail we include in our drafts and help us rethink and revise our words. Now that I’ve introduced them in our studio, I plan to invite kids to start making and sharing their own.

Check out my tinker tray Pinterest board if you’re looking for additional ideas!


About Angela

Founder of the WNY Young Writer's Studio, I'm a writer, a teacher, and a professional development service provider specializing in literacy.

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