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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?

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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!

Tinkering Through the Writing Process

Reluctant writers often tell me that they struggle to generate ideas. Adept writers often tell me that they have too many ideas and that they are unable to contain or organize them.

Reluctant writers often tell me that they are uncertain where to begin improving their drafts, and when others provide insight, they’re uncertain how to attend to the feedback they receive. Adept writers often draft at length, eventually overwhelming themselves with the enormity of the revision process that follows. Too often, they abandon their drafts rather than revising them.

Reluctant writers often wait for direction before they begin drafting or revising. Adept writers are quick to invest in their initial ideas, and they struggle to gain satisfaction from the revision process. They are often perfectionists who aim to get things right the first time.

These are a small handful of the dilemmas I face as a teacher of writing.

Over time, tinkering has provided solutions.

This is how we do it.

Let me know if it helps you or your students.

Let me know how you approach it differently.



Studying Learning in the Makerspace

I’m fortunate to spend most weekdays in classrooms, working beside teachers as they design and test new plans, refine their instructional approaches, and learn more about engaging students. Typically, this work happens inside of English Language Arts classrooms and writing workshops, but more and more often, the teachers that I support are transforming traditional environments into studio and makerspaces, and I get to help out.

This week, I’m at Roy B. Kelley Elementary School in Lockport, where technology coach Heather Bitka and librarian Rachel O’Sheehan are launching a brand new makerspace. We began by establishing a clear vision of the maker they hope to shape and the space they hope to create. We’ve taken care to align our plans back to this vision as well.

Today, Rachel and Heather welcome their first group of students into the space. These second graders will begin by exploring the room and using their iPads to capture photographs that will help them answer these questions:

What could happen in a space like this? 

What are we curious about?

Rachel and Heather don’t intend to tell the students much about the space or what it means to be a maker right away. It will be interesting to see what they infer based upon their exploration of this very different environment and all of the new resources available to them. I know that Rachel plans to create a post-up of their responses so that she may revisit them with students over time. We hope that their thinking about this space and how they might use it will grow over time, and we’re excited to see how, exactly.

This project inspired me to rethink the lesson study model I’ve relied on in previous years as well. I’m not sure this traditional model, intended for classroom use, works as well in this new environment. Today, Rachel and Heather and I are taking this new model for a test drive. I’d love your feedback on it, if you have time to spare.

It isn’t really a protocol, as I haven’t defined a tight procedure, and I know it’s typically the procedure that creates equity. It is a process that we intend to move through purposefully, and the questions embedded in each phase could help to ensure that we’re maintaining a reflective stance, aligning our approach to our greater vision, and using evidence rather than assumption to guide our decision making as we begin studying learning in the makerspace.

What do you think? I’d love to know.



How do we MAKE writing?

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Take a peek inside the WNY Young Writers’ Studio, where writers recently went on the hunt for works they hoped to emulate. They copied these pieces, read them with specific lenses, and sliced the bits they hoped to emulate out of the text, dropping them onto form boards, where they could study them closely and tinker with them. This is how we make writing like the mentors we admire.

Why Make Writing?

Experience has taught me that when many young writers sit down to confront flat, empty screens and pages nothing but trouble emerges. These are the writers who battle frustration and even defeat as they wade into procedures that often feel contrived using tools that are completely intangible.

Over time, these tensions perpetuate a sort of quiet trauma: children begin to believe that they can’t write, and then they stop trying. How many adults might be better able to advocate for themselves or for justice within their communities if experiences like these hadn’t disempowered them? Many children and adults will tell you that writing is quite literally out of their grasp. They can’t wrap their hands around it, and since this is how they learn best, writing remains beyond their reach.

Many writers need to move, and they need their writing to move as well. They need to write out of their seats and on their feet, spreading their ideas across whiteboards and tables, lifting pieces of them up with their hands, cutting them apart, randomizing them, and tacking them into new and completely unpredictable forms. These writers need access to diverse tools and resources– far more than paper, laptops, and iPads. They build their stories using blocks and boards. They blend plot lines using sticky notes and grids. It’s not enough for these writers to study mentor texts. They need to tear them apart–physically. They need to use their hands to play with other peoples’ writing, and they need to tinker with their own in order to become adept.

I’ve learned to listen when my students tell me that they can’t write and don’t want to. This used to be hard to hear when I was a young teacher and thought it was my job to convince them otherwise. Experience makes better listeners of us all, though. I used to think that I knew what writing was and how to teach it well, until I stopped teaching long enough to become a learner. I began by inviting my students to write whatever they wanted, using the tools that suited them best. Then, I started paying attention. Time and again, assessing my students’ behavior validated what every resistant writer has ever suggested: writing isn’t something that everyone can do, but it is something that most people can make, given the right conditions.

Making writing requires a certain kind of space, a certain kind of culture, just right tools, and a commitment to using our words to make a meaningful difference for others. It isn’t about abandoning writers’ workshop or evading required curricula. It’s about pursuing outcomes in ways that support writers who need to move, build, mix, tinker, blend, sculpt, shoot, smear, and tack their writing together. Physically.

Making writing is about challenging individuals to identify and use the materials and processes they need to in order to meet their goals and agreed upon learning targets. Making writing is about accessing the voices of those that we serve and listening hard. It’s about paying attention to how individuals write and responding to what we observe rather than allowing our expertise and assumptions to drive instruction.

Eight years ago, I wondered what would happen if I began inviting teachers and writers to think and plan and work and learn in these ways. So, I gave it a try, and I gathered a lot of information along the way. Here’s what I learned: when we make the right space, fill it with the right tools, and cultivate the right spirit and mindset, people make writing—including those who claim to hate it.

Want to learn more? Subscribe to this blog, or grab a copy of my book by clicking on the cover, below. When you do, you’ll be supporting the WNY Young Writers’ Studio, a community of writers and teachers of writing in Kenmore, New York. We dropped our fees this year, and all of the profits from my book help to defray our expenses.

If you’re ever in the neighborhood, let me know. We welcome company. I’d love to meet you and hear your story too.



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