Crafting quality writing curricula that provides writers just enough guidance to consistently propel them forward without threatening their autonomy is no simple task. Many teachers consider their vision, standards, the writing process, the elements of writer’s craft, and the production of specific forms as they chart a course for their year and aligned, multi-grade level maps for their buildings and districts.
Day after day, year after year, these same teachers put their plans into motion, executing lessons with the hope that one day, they might discover the ultimate catalysts for writing, promising strategies to engage the most resistant writers, and processes that will help them sustain a state of flow once they’ve finally achieved it. Requisite to authentic learning and growth, engagement is the driving force behind every great writing teacher’s instructional plan.
Whether you’re preparing a classroom or a place within your community where people will come to make writing, considering how your space influences engagement is a critical first step. It’s also one that’s often overlooked.
Creating makerspaces for writers can be daunting, but I’ve found that experience is the very best teacher. Dive in, transform your space in ways that excite you and engage your students, and pay attention to the transformations that seem to best elevate their learning and their work. Notice what they seem to be needing too, and assure them that your space is agile: show them how to transform it in response to what emerges. You don’t have to create a “perfect” space right out of the gate. Give yourself and your students permission to build as you go.
Shape your space.
Mold it like clay.
Make it a perfect fit for the kids who will make and write there.
This is how I created space for the WNY Young Writers’ Studio, the community of writers and teachers of writing I founded and led for ten years in Buffalo. Here are a few photo albums of the spaces we designed together.
Each of these makerspaces evolved out of a three layer design process:
- Phase 1: Visioning the makerspace, in response to this question: Why will we make writing here, and how will we make it? Sometimes, I knew the writers who would inhabit the space, but often, I did not. This first phase was full of anticipation and assumptions that experience would challenge. I recognized this and invested in the space judiciously, up-cycling and hacking many of our resources together. I didn’t want to spend a lot of money or burn a ton of energy designing a space that wouldn’t be useful.
- Phase 2: Customizing the space, in response to what I learned about my students once they arrived. We continued moving furniture, re-purposing materials and resources, and adding what was absolutely needed.
- Phase 3: Specializing our tools, materials, and furniture, in response to specific requests from writers who were developing very unique expertise.
Phase I: Visioning
As I thought about why and how we would make writing in these spaces and discussed this with my students, these realizations inspired the design of each new space. They still help me transform traditional writing workshops when I’m called upon to support teachers who are doing the same:
• Making writing requires more room than merely studying or producing print might. Tables, empty wall spaces, whiteboards, tacks, scissors, tape, and chalkboards enable us to do more than merely examine mentor texts. They allow us to literally crack them open, unpack their working parts, spread them apart, and study how pieces work in isolation and in concert with the whole. Tools like these also enable us to make our thinking transparent to others, so that they could contribute to it or even question it.
As I was planning my first spaces, I knew that I would need more space to do this, but I also knew that finding it would be a challenge. I often worked in small rooms (and I still do). Even when the spaces were larger, the walls were often full. This is how foam core boards became our friends. They’re lightweight, easy to move, and easy to drop down over traditional desks or lean against walls or bookshelves. They also come in many sizes. We used sticky notes to generate, move, mix, and remix our ideas on these boards. Tacks and index cards worked well, too.
• Making writing requires containers of all kinds. I was worried about storage (ideas here), but quickly realized: The most important containers were the ones that held our ideas and our thinking. Index cards, scraps of paper, sticky notes, and chart paper enabled us to capture our ideas, spread them out, and move them around purposefully. File folders, paper rolls, and cameras allowed us to pack up our thinking and take it with us as we traveled within and beyond the space. Social bookmarking sites enabled us to bookmark and share the resources that best informed our learning and our work. And over time, writers made thing using a variety of tech tools. Each one was chosen with great intention, which led to great diversity. We all used Google tools, Chromebooks, and WordPress, though. Why? Because they helped us research, write, and collaborate well inexpensively.
- Making writing also involves loose parts play. Tinker totes, trays, tool buckets, and mobile makerspaces provided them an endless supply of inexpensive materials to work with. Need more ideas for how to fill these containers? This post provides a brief introduction, and my digital course takes a much deeper dive.
• Writers needed places to tinker independently. Some did this best at a desk, while others needed to sprawl out on the floor. At the WNY Young Writer’s Studio, we hacked tables together out of two 30” bookshelves and a hollow core door that we covered in chalkboard paint. We added 26” stools instead of chairs, so writers and makers could choose to sit or stand as they worked with the materials that suited them best. In addition to tables, we had several comfortable chairs and lap desks, a futon, a cushioned window seat, and a variety of bean bag chairs that remained a perennial favorite.
• While writers made a great deal independently and in groups, opportunities for direct instruction arose during nearly every session. We needed a place where everyone could come together for a bit of shared learning. A carpet sufficed for small groups and my youngest learners. I situated a whiteboard and an easel near a set of larger tables where older writers met as well. I kept a steady supply of bright colored markers, chalk, and chalk pens, too. We used anchor charts to contain the best of what we learned together during each session. Those charts lined the walls of our studio, encouraging writers to interact with them throughout the year.
• Writers needed to become acquainted with the norms that govern collaborative and independent work. I distinguished separate spaces for each of these endeavors, and often posted the norms where they could easily be seen. I also situated the materials near the spaces where they were used most often, and I taught writers to respect those who needed to work quietly and without interruption.
• Whenever possible, I provided writers the opportunity to travel with the technology tools their work requires. Laptops and tablets allowed writers to group and regroup themselves in different areas of the space, as needed. They mapped their writing across tables and moved their devices along the plan, making writing as they went. Portable hotspots helped writers remain connected as they migrated between different rooms and even outside, when they were compelled to.
• I needed a printer, a steady supply of copy paper, and abundance of writing instruments. Rather than expecting writers to bring these materials back and forth with them, it made sense to create supply caddies that lived on the desks and tables in our spaces. Ours include pens, pencils, Sharpies, thick and thin washable markers, colored pencils, white out, scissors, tape, sticky notes, a ruler, a hole punch, dry erase markers and erasers, chalk, a stapler, and tacks, which writers use to attach bits of writing to those foam boards for closer inspection and precision drafting.
• We also devoted a small corner of our space to a small lending library. In addition to mentor texts and writing resources, we began accumulating DIY books that were of unique interest to the writers I supported and connected to the projects they were working on. Elementary fellows of the WNY Young Writer’s Studio loved Ed Demberley’s doodling books. Some of our high school writers are inspired by Austin Kleon’s Newspaper Blackout poetry. As our collection grew, writers added copies of their favorite books and magazines to our shelves. The lending library supplements the digital archives and databases we rely on.
• The walls of our writing studio were interactive tools. In addition to whiteboards and chalkboards, I tried to reserve portions of our wall space for pin ups. Writers require feedback during all phases of their work, and most appreciated having a place where they could post portions of their projects in order to solicit it. Bulletin boards, ledges, shelves, and magnetic displays are good choices. When space is tight, stringing a clothesline might be a better option. I’ve seen writers add their work to clipboards that are filed inside of crates, and when I was in the classroom, I used a glue gun to attach clothespins to the metal ledge that ran beneath my white board. They snapped off cleanly when it was time to pack and move.
• Inspiration boards housed quotes, images, prompts, calls for work, cartoons, and ideas that motivated, empowered, and entertained writers. The collection was maintained by everyone who made writing in our space. It was often colorful, disorganized, and quickly overpopulated. It seemed like whenever someone added an artifact to the inspiration board, they were giving a bit of themselves to the group. This was one way to foster a quieter kind of connection between members—particularly the more introverted ones, who tend to gravitate toward it. You need an inspiration board. Take a peek at these ideas.
Phase 2: Customizing
Our early work involved establishing norms, setting up notebooks, exploring project options, and generating lists of potential topics for our pieces. During this time, writers were getting to know themselves and one another. I provided ample time for collaboration and independent thinking and work, and I took time to notice how the space was facilitating these efforts and in what ways it might have been hindering them.
These were the questions I often asked myself:
- Who is doing what?
- Where are they doing it and how?
- Which materials and resources are used most often? Why?
- Which resources and areas are used in unexpected ways? What does this reveal?
It didn’t take long for me to notice that it wasn’t just my curricula but the space that served as a catalyst for collaboration, ideation, and creativity.
As writers began to engage, they led me through this second layer of design. They began making and writing, and I began letting them manipulate the space in order to work it to its fullest potential. This required two things: patience and permission.
Rather than anticipating my students’ needs as I previewed curricula, I tried to simply clarify my instructional objectives and outcomes, model quality writing, and then invite them to use the tools and resources they chose to in order to meet our standards.
I was patient as they muddled through their first attempts at making writing. I encouraged them to get out of their seats and diversify their tools. I gave them permission to think about what they should do in order to plan and execute their ideas successfully, but I waited on telling them exactly how to do this. I invited other writers to suggest which tools might support someone’s efforts best, but I was careful not to require the use of specific devices, resources, or writing instruments.
Instead, I inspired a bit of struggle, I asked questions that brought their needs to the surface, and I adjusted the space in order to meet them.
This is how the physical environment of the WNY Young Writers’ Studio evolved over the course of a decade, one small shift at a time (follow the progression from the top left to the bottom right):
As you approach this second phase of the design process, you might find it helpful to ask writers questions like these:
- What do you like to do during your free time? What are your hobbies? Your favorite games? Toys? Activities?
- What tools do you use to generate new ideas at the outset of a project? How do you feel about the thinking and the work that emerges from this process, typically? Which new tools and resources are inspiring you to brainstorm differently? Why? What could we add to this space or change about it in order to enable even better ideation?
- What kind of research are you doing? What resources support you best? Which tools enable you to capture the evidence you gather and connect your thoughts? What could be better?
- How do you prefer to draft? What’s most difficult about this process? Which tools could help you overcome the challenges you face? How might you change the process itself?
- What’s helping the collaborative process? What’s hindering it? What do you need? What should we change?
- How do you ask for quality feedback? How do you provide it to others? How can we make this process more rewarding for everyone involved? Which tools can help us with this? What resources do we need to add?
- How do you tinker with your writing? Which tools and resources would help you tinker to your fullest potential?
- Describe the quality of the revisions you typically make. How are they satisfying to you? To your readers? How would you like to deepen your revision process? What tools and resources will you need in order to make this happen?
- Who is your audience? How will you share your finished work with them? What tools connect you to this audience most efficiently? Which ones connect you to this audience in the most powerful way? What do you need access to that we don’t have here?
- Most importantly: what are you making? How will it matter? How is it going? What are you thinking? What are you learning? What does that mean to you? What do you need?
Phase 3: Specializing
This involves securing tools that are specific to the writers you serve and the projects they are working on.
If you read Make Writing, then you know that Luke needed LEGOs in order to make writing:
His friend Shea needed access to a digital camera. Teddy needed binder clips to make a fort, and Erin needed a sketchbook instead of a lined composition book. Allison preferred to write on her iPhone. Kerry liked to brainstorm longhand and draft in Google docs.
Each of these writers were pursuing the standards I prioritized and a common curricula. They just made writing differently. As I came to know them better, I gave them permission to use or find the tools they needed, and I added more as well. Our space continues to adapt to their shifting needs.
Finally, know that it pays to up-cycle and hack furniture to meet your needs.
Upcycling can help you reduce your expenses and repositionable furniture allows for necessary adjustments that are an inevitable part of the making process, particularly if space is tight.
I’ve often said that the WNY Young Writer’s Studio was made entirely of Velcro, painter’s tape, and re-purposed treasures we picked from the trash. This is mostly true. You will see much of what I refer to below if you take a peek right here.
The tables I referred to earlier were held together with Command strips. This allowed me to tear them down, change their shape, and fold them flatly against the walls when I needed to.
Our window seat was made out of three kitchen cupboards that we spray painted black and topped with a removable cushion. I upholstered that cushion with fabric that can be easily removed and replaced, as needed.
Our printer table was an old stereo cabinet that my husband and I fished out of the trash on our way home from the grocery store one Saturday.
Our coffee table was a thrift store rescue.
One of our favorite planning tools was a huge wooden grid that hung on the wall toward the back of our space. Writers used it as an interactive planning matrix, but it once served as the frame for a recessed kitchen ceiling light.
As you go out into the world, be willing to see what’s possible instead of what is. Focus your eye not on how something looks, but on how it works. Better yet, focus on how it could work if you tinkered with it in some way.
I know this post is much longer than it probably should be, but would you believe me if I told you that there is so much more for me to share? If you’re in the process of dreaming up a makerspace for writers, preparing to open your doors, or trying to get a sense of how to improve your established space, I’d love to help you more. This digital course launches soon and will remain open indefinitely. You may begin any time and move through it at your own pace, pausing and returning as needed. I’d love to see you over there. Let’s talk more about creating your own makerspace for writers.
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