How Can You Drive Engagement in Your Writer's Workshop? Use Generative Writing.

The Heart of the Writing Workshop is the Students

writing workshop

I have been using generative writing in the writing workshop in my middle school classroom for years. However, I have been using it mainly only in ONE genre of writing: personal narrative writing. After attending a National Writing Project cohort training for C3WP (College, Career, and Community Writers Program), I realized that generative writing really is at the heart of all writer’s workshops because it uses the students’ interests and personal experiences to create the topics, provide the organization, and make the connections that are so necessary for engagement and comprehension. The answer to most things in education is coming back to the relationships and rapport we establish with our students, but these ideas are not new.

These are great places to get some inspiration:

Learner Interest Matters: Strategies for Empowering Student Choice by John McCarthy | Edutopia, August 25, 2014

Using Student Interests as Resources for Instruction | ASCD, February 28, 2017

Writing Into the Day Routine | NWP’s College, Career, and Community Program

Even in these articles the idea of “generative” comes up short from what I am putting on the table. Even in the conversations we are having about diverse texts in our classrooms, the connection to engagement is one that is mandatory. Cornelius Minor in We Got This.: Equity, Access, and the Quest to Be Who Our Students Need Us to Be sums up this call-to-action perfectly. Mr. Minor tells us: “Teaching cannot work optimally if it is not rooted in this kind of community engagement. We are most powerful when we labor to understand young people and when we work alongside (not for) them. When our vision for kids and for classrooms is guided by a community’s vision for their children, our work becomes real to children and to parents. Relationships are appreciably challenging to maintain, but they become infinitely easier when they are grounded in a shared vision and genuine collaboration. Teaching without this kind of engagement is not teaching at all. It is colonization” (28). Moving forward from here, when I use the term generative writing, I am talking about using our students as the inspiration for the curriculum work…not the other way around.


The definition I am using is NOT the same definition that you will find in other places for the workshop that focus on pre-writing in particular. A common definition is taken from Doug Fisher and Nancy Frey’s Scaffolded Writing Instruction: Teaching with a Gradual-Release Framework that focuses on a specific setup and guideline to writing. This is not that. This is more than making lists and brainstorming ideas before writing a claim and evidence on paper. The art of generative writing incorporates who the student is into the project. It ignites their natural curiosity in a writer’s workshop because the task at hand is intricately connected to who they are as people. 

10 Generative Writing Strategies (All Genres of Writing Included!)

Finding Arguments in Schedules (Argumentative Writing)

We did an exercise during the three-day training for C3WP that I thought was particularly powerful. We wrote our schedules down in detail for that particular morning as a play-by-play. Mine that day in the summertime looked like this:

  • 7:00 am Wake-up

  • 7:15 am Stop hitting snooze and let the dog out

  • 7:25 am Morning yoga practice

  • 7:50 am Breakfast, pack bag, shower, get ready

  • 8:45 am Let the dog out again, put her in her crate, grab items, and leave the house

  • 9:00 am Arrive at WMU

  • 9:00-9:30 am Attend C3WP Cohort Meeting

Now, the idea is to write in front of students and show them that arguments surround our everyday lives. I immediately saw two different areas that could be sources for potential arguments: daily yoga practice and crating our dog. Arguments are everywhere in our lives, and this connection to my own life made the idea for coming up with an argument extremely easy to find. I thought this could easily translate to the classroom. 

100 Things I Love (Narrative Writing)

I love list generation in all forms, but one of my favorite ways to get to know students is using the 100 Things I Love Activity. I get students to write down as many things as they like or love and then we re-introduce ourselves. It is fun to see what we have in common and some of the differences that pop up. I then have them use this for their cover on their writing binder as a way to remember how we got to know each other and also as a pre-writing tool when they say “I have nothing to write about.” Oh, yea? Look at your binder cover at all the things you love. 

On another note, this can also get interesting if you change the focus. For example, list 100 things you hate or dislike. This could also be under the genre of argumentative writing as an idea brainstorm for topics. 


  • Things I Can’t Live Without

  • Things I Don’t Like

  • Things I Am Scared Of

  • Things I Can’t Forgive

Summer School Warm-Up Screens 2018.jpg

Poetry Heart Map from Georgia Heard (Narrative Writing)

If you have seen my bullet journal, I love any type of sketch-noting or drawing. I wasn’t always a fan of drawing because I thought I couldn’t draw, but now I use it as a way to destress and decorate my writer’s journal. Georgia Heard talks about how we can use different kinds of maps to show the different aspects of our lives. 

YouSoup (Narrative Writing)

This is another variation of a heart map or things that they love, but it sometimes creates different results in the workshop. Perhaps you have seen “reader recipe” cards. The student decides what types of ingredients they are and makeup amounts. This is great because of the fact that sixth-graders review fractions at the beginning of the school year as well. I love any opportunity to work in a cross-curriculum format with my peers as possible. 


  • Life Island

  • Life Map

  • Life Roadmap

Group Story (Narrative Writing)

This is how I am starting the school year! Not all generative writing comes from the individual student, sometimes it comes from the collective. I love using forms of group storytelling to build community and ignite laughter from day one. When we create group stories together, they get to see that the first risk we are taking as writers is together. We are showing that the group is willing to do the work. The second time they see this is when I write in front of them. The sequence goes: The group makes the story, I make the story, you make the story. Group storytelling takes the risk out of having “not good ideas” or “making writer  mistakes.” All that is left is to write. 

How To (Informational/Expository Writing)

Students are experts at so many things! When we have students create expert lists, we encourage them to become the teachers. I love the idea that students don’t have a complete sense of mastery until they are able to teach the concept to someone else. This isn’t always the case, but it is important to provide this type of an empowerment opportunity to our young people. The interesting thing is that our middle schoolers can teach us about a lot of things. 

How to make slime?

How to play fortnite?

How to floss?

Yes to all of the above. We can also teach them how to go find information to help integrate evidence and sources because it is also important to teach them that the cool thing about learning (and scary thing) is that it is infinite. We can always learn more. 

Ted Talks (Informational/Expository Writing)

I assigned Ted Talks to a group of my past seventh-graders, and the result was transformative. We as teachers must get our students up speaking in front of class more often, and we have to do it with the same heart and compassion we have for their writing. The group was tasked with teaching the audience something with a message. They had to incorporate inquiry, research, and evidence into their Ted Talks. Here is a list of the talks that were given by my students:

Brainstorming Questions (Informational/Expository Writing)

All questions come from the person who is doing the asking. I recently published a post regarding question asking and using diverse texts as your anchor texts. However, my favorite way to incorporate brainstorming is when we are doing research. Research questions can always come off so forced, so robot-sounding. However, when we allow students to choose their topics, they can show off their natural curiosity about their topics through the art of question-asking. 

Inquiry-Based Research Project (Informational/Expository Writing)

I have done research where I give a list of topics, and I have done research where they propose topics. The element of choice is at the heart of a good research paper. For the past few years, I have been doing an Activism Research Project where students decide on a problem in the world, and then they find out more about the problem. Many even try to come up with solutions. This type of project taps into what students are passionate about because we are all natural problem solvers. We hope that when our students see injustice in the world, they will know how to research the issue and fight back toward a solution. These topics often range from things like pollution, to animal endangerment (lots of animal topics in sixth-grade), and police brutality. 

Word Association (All Genres of Writing)

This one is fun to do with academic words and content area words, but also words that come up in stories to make personal connections. You can place a word on the board and have students list the first 10 words that come to mind when they see this word. Then, they can share connections to ideas. More often than not, this activity serves as a great connection of information for students to help with comprehension, but also a way to get a good discussion going in class. This activity is also particularly helpful when discussing controversial topics in class to see where everyone immediately goes to in their mind before jumping into a conversation. 

Mentor Text Writing (All Genres of Writing)

Each week, my students learn a new grammar rule based on the work they see from a published author. I do a book talk, they notice the author’s writing, name the writer’s move and then imitate. This imitation is the best part. First, we act out some example sentences together. I need you to picture running around the room, screaming, jumping, and lots of laughter. Then, I scaffold this by giving them example sentences I have written and sentence frames. They write their sentences and then we share out as a class. I like to ask a question like, “Who think they have a better sentence than Jason Reynolds?” The hands go up. They created the sentence often with them as the subject, therefore they are more engaged. 

Writing Mindset Reflection: How do you incorporate students’ interests in your classroom beyond the simple survey? How do you use generative writing in writer’s workshop?