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The First Twenty Days of Confidence & Craft Building

writing workshop parts  gorgeous writing process

When we started the blog we deliberately selected our name “Coach, Actually: Building Teachers’ Confidence and Craft.”     This confidence/craft thing is what I am all about. When you build the confidence of a writer (or reader, teacher, leader), they become willing to take risks in their craft. When you build craft in a writer (reader, teacher or leader), they become confident. These beliefs are critical to being your BEST self. We want people to be motivated intrinsically, however, often a school’s leader doesn’t supply the conditions for a teacher to be her best self. When a leader considers both of these two elements, the leader is creating the very best conditions for leadership, for excellence, and mostly for happiness.

When I began in education, so many of my mentors did this for me. Barbara Frye (a highly regarded professor and my now good friend) and had so much faith in me as a student and gave me many, many, many tools to support my craft. Mary Osborne and Janie Guilbault believed in me before I ever thought it could be possible to believe in someone (as a NEW teacher!) and built me up. My principal Shirley Lorenzo trusted and pushed me to do things that I thought were way out of my reach.

I learned early on, from another mentor Roy Peter Clark, the power of positive by always starting any writing conference with a compliment.  Writing is hard and scary and personal.  If we want our young writers to take risks in their writing we have to help them believe in themselves–complimenting anytime during workshop instantly helps grow confident writers. Lucy Calkins taught me that a compliment should be a paragraph long.  I like to have a little structure to help me grow that paragraph. I start with naming what the writer is doing well –the skill and strategy (supports craft). Use the prompt, “This is important because…” (supports confidence–this is big work you’re doing and here’s why). And finally the third sentence in my paragraph reminds the writer that this can be used on any writing (transference). It helps me to be specific in naming the craft the writer is using, supports transference so that the writer knows this work can be done in any writing, and it helps empower the writer with the WHY.  This compliment conference is a nice focus for the the first month of school.  And will go a long way in helping kids take risks, and building their confidence.

Confidence and craft–you can’t really have one without the other. I can build up my kids’ confidence, but if they don’t have the tools they need, they can’t really learn well. In contrast, I can give them a gazillion tools, but if they feel deflated and discouraged they are unable to hear the tools, see the tools, use the tools. They feel as if they have tried and were unsuccessful, so they give up. We need to make kids feel successful in the journey of writing, along with supporting them with new craft tools to continue their growth and excitement about the work.

Below I have pulled out a sampling of my twenty days of confidence and craft building around writing for third grade. This is the grade I believe can shift a child’s belief in who they are, how they see themselves and others in an instant. This grade is the grade to make sure they see themselves as writers. This is the grade to cement their writing identity and true self as learners. This is the grade to instill empathy and concern for social justice. AND this grade is the grade where the kids get their writer’s notebook for the first time. We really want to emphasize what Fletcher calls “living like a writer,” teaching them to carry their writer’s notebook everywhere. Helping to see things others don’t because they are writers!

The First Twenty Days of Confidence & Craft Building

It Starts in the Teaching of Writing and Spreads and Spreads and Spreads…

my notebook 2

Essentials that can make all the difference:

  • A blank composition book for every student (yes it has to be a black and white composition book!)
  • The teacher has to have decorated her/his black and white composition writer’s notebook (has to look like the kids!) with some entries in it
  • Materials to support personalizing the notebook so that kids begin to really believe they are writers—writing quotes, puffy paint to paint a cool title like a “Writing Changes You” or “Live Like a Writer,” different color construction paper to create a map of your heart and then glue to notebook—make it BIG so it can have many topics inside it and can cover a big portion of the notebook, and finally pictures. If kids don’t bring them in, take a picture of kids playing at recess with their best friend.
  • Mentor texts: Ralph Tells a Story, Ralph Fletcher’s A Writer’s Notebook, I’m in Charge of Celebrations, Kitchen Dance, Love That Dog
  • A gathering area filled with mentor text and a place to hang chart paper to support writing and easel
  • A writing center filled with special pens, papers, books for inspiration, quotes on writing
  • A special place to display student work (preferably outside your classroom for the world to see) with an engaging, inspiring title above…

Here is a sampling of the first twenty days of writing workshop (however, this can happen any time in your year).

Day 1:

5 min. ML

5-10 min. IW

5 min. share

Lesson: Generate ideas by thinking of every day things you DID over the summer.


·       Create a ritual (writing w your writers at their desk, playing music or singing while transition to writing time)

·       Be sure to include the 3 parts of workshop (mini lesson in gathering area, independent writing at desks, and teaching share back at gathering area)

·       Independent writing time MUST be short—maybe only 5-7 min. long. It will feel odd. Here’s why it’s important. When every child writes for a short time on the first week of school everyone can feel successful.   Everyone can do it. And then you are building from that. As a whole class you can emphasize how much they have grown from the first day of school. In addition, when you stop abruptly (well I always give them a minute or two warning) they want more. You will hear things like, “That’s it?” “I’m not done!” “I want to write more.” These are all important things to address to support the writing process.   You can then say things like “A writer is never done!” Or “take your notebook with you to lunch or home.”   This all sparks their passion for writing which in turn builds their confidence.

·       Always highlight the positive!

Day 2:

5-7 min. ML

5-10 min. IW

5 min. share


Generate ideas by thinking of people and moments


·       Continue with all that you did yesterday

·       Mention the 3 Ss (seated, silent and self-reliant) in a way that feels essential to workshop. For ex. Wasn’t workshop beautiful? I think it was because everyone was working their hardest from their seat, not bothering anyone and kept themselves going—so important…

·       Encourage writers to write on the back and draw a line under the old entry and start new ones. Your writers won’t want to do this. They feel as if they need to “finish” their entry. This is so important emphasize. Last year this is was the writing process. This year, your writers are more mature and we want them to begin to develop their writing. We want to remind them that often the first thing a writer writes, leads to other ideas, and even more ideas. Then when we decide on what to publish we have possibilities in our notebook. These are not yet drafts, they are entries really emphasizing that writers are discovering meaning, discovering what matters to them. Discovering they have LOTS of possibilities in their heart. We want them to believe that… “You have a brain, a heart, a pen, a notebook, then you are writer.” Finally, this emphasis on stopping and starting a new piece helps writers to see that they have so much to write about. One of the biggest struggles I hear teachers say is, “The kids have nothing to write about.” Sometimes that can be because they feel as if they have to fill the page.

·       In the teaching share have writers do a bit of writing identity—answer this in their notebook—when has writing been easy and when has it been hard and why for both?

Day 3:

5-8 min. ML

5-10 min. IW

5 min. share


Writers Generate ideas from the heart (create a heart map that can go on notebook or folder)


·       In teaching share may create a list of my job and your job during WW.   Have the kids turn and talk to help you generate and then record on chart paper. Ask them why has writing worked so well these first three days? This chart may become the “Writers Commitments”

  • ·       Also, mention the importance of using the “magic” pens. Everything we write matters. The pens help us to do a simple single cross out of our word or sentence or section of writing, We want to see our revision work and celebrate it AND we may want to use that work on another piece later on. This simple cross out can help us read that part.
  • Ask writers to hold up their notebooks admiring all of the writing they have done.  Then have them count their words and imagine how many more they might write tomorrow.
  • Remember to compliment.  You might say something today or tomorrow during independent time like, “I am so impressed by the work that Hayden is doing.  He is going back to his list of ideas and starting a new entry today.  Amazing.  He is on his third entry today! Fab!”  Have Hayden hold up his notebook so others can see how you can have a short entry alongside a longer entry.

·       Read Ralph Tells a Story by Abby Hanlon ahead of time and discuss some ways in which you want your classroom to look like that writing classroom.

Day 6:

10 min. ML

5-14 min. IW

5 min. share


Writers select and develop their idea by asking what is it really, really, really about? Answer with could it be’s…


·       Writers go off and try to find deeper meaning around their topic—hard.   You will want to scaffold as much as you can. However, you and I might say that our writing is about “In life when we lose someone who matters it changes everything.” Third graders theme may sound more like, “I miss my sister.” Or “My story is about loss or death.” Or even “my sister.” Simply naming the topic. On this first piece (and often second and third) writers are approximating. This is a sophisticated concept. Remember when we teach writing we teach a concept knowing we will revisit it several times throughout the year. You will see growth in your writers as the year progresses. Later you will tie themes from your books into teaching this concept and lessons we learn from characters. For now it is an introduction because they are third graders and have a notebook and are doing sophisticated work. Exciting. This developing piece of the process is not mentioned until third grade. It’s new. It will come but will take time.

·       Some may need to decide on a seed still.

·       You may have them re-see their seed once they know their heart and write with more dialogue—the quality may not be where you hoped—they will be approximating. Celebrate the growth and approximations.  Remember you will teach it again and we are building confidence as well as craft.

·       Emphasize stamina and bring out a “tracking stamina” chart. You may even hang it outside your classroom so everyone can see your goal and help encourage you as you work towards achieving it (getting up to 30-40 min of uninterrupted independent writing time).



Day 9:

10-12 min. ML

5-17 min. IW

5 min. share


Writers understand their role and my role when conferring. Then go off and generate more ideas using any strategy that works for them. (This lesson and many others may seem odd—I am giving you a sampling of lessons—keep in mind that some are missing)


·       Model this with a student

·       Then chart out what the kids notice—Entitle it: Conferring: Teacher’s Role, Writer’s Role

·       Bring out stamina chart and share the goal for today—17 min.

·       Practice conferring with one or two writers. Remember 5-7 min. long, and sit at eye level. Could start with simply a compliment conference. 3 parts: 1. Name what the writer is doing or trying to do. 2. Say WHY that’s important. 3. Remind the writer to use it again and again in any piece

·       Select another seed as a possibility for HW

·       A new set of partners meet to share their writing work for the day.   The teacher goes around coaches around engagement and respect and real listening to each other. Then assesses how well the partners are matched since the teacher will have to decide by the end of the unit the long-term partnerships. Take notes as you do this.   Move fast and get to as many partnerships as you can.

Day 12:

10-12 min. ML

5-20 min. IW

5 min. share


Writers look across both of their drafts (the one from day 7) and decide which one they will bring to publication and revise and edit. Teach how to write in the moment vs. a summary.


·       Confer (You should be up 2-3 writers per day)

·       Have a mid-workshop highlighting someone in a positive light

·       Have a teaching share around “living like a writer.” Use ralph Fletcher’s A Writer’s Notebook: Unlocking the Writer Within You. I like the chapter on “Fierce Wonderings” but any will do. You definitely want to read from this from time to time.

·       Invite writers to write at home. Yes we have a piece we a re working on but we are always living like a writer—finding things that matter to write about. Invite your writers to take their notebook home and be sure to check first thing in the AM to see who did. (Also remind before they leave that they MAY want to take their notebook home).   Make a big fuss over anyone who took their WNB home. When you do that it will spread. Others will then want to take their WNB home.

Day 14:

10-12 min. ML

5-22 min. IW

5 min. share


Writers revise by crafting a lead and ending that matches the heart. You might start with setting, internal or external dialogue, or action. You might end full circle repeating place or something from lead. Check out the book Kitchen Dance” by Maurice J. Manning for a circular ending.


·       You might decide this is too much and save teaching the ending for the teaching share or tomorrow’s lesson. Totally fine.

·       Encourage writers to “try on” several leads before committing to one.

·       They can practice leads in their notebook and may even want to practice at home

·       Once they decide their lead it is on draft paper.

·       Highlight any writer who revised. Make a BIG fuss over this. Like this is the GREATEST thing you’ve ever seen. Have writers hold up their drafts

Day 19:

5 min. ML

5-25 min. IW

5 min. share

Writers celebrate! Share how that goes. Possible Chart:

Writers Celebrate!

-Meet partner and thank them for being your partner—shake hand.

-Give literary gift

-Share writer’s notebook and why you included what you did on it

-Interview your partner and take notes!

-Take notebook, draft, and reflection card and meet with another partnership and share one of the items

***Teacher walks around and takes picture of writers with their notebook to later put on bulleting board.

Teacher can also display a copy of the notebook entry, timeline, and the draft in a pocket folder on the bulletin board. The index card and picture of partner somewhere posted near that folder and then a title and short explanation of the goals of the unit posted.

Possible Interview Questions

1.      Where do you like to write?

2.      When do you like to write?

3.      What family rituals do you have?

4.      What do you like to do after school? On the weekends?

5.      Do you have any siblings? What are their ages?


partner chart

A chart from Delores at George De La Torre Elementary in LA.


This is a sample of third grade.  Imagine your kids and how you want to build them up as writers.  What do your first twenty days look like in order to do this?  Much of what I mention above can work in other grades.  Think about what matters  most to YOU and your belief system around building kids who can be the their very BEST self.

Also, coaches, how can we apply this confidence and craft building to support our teachers? I mentioned earlier how so many people supported my educational growth. This post emphasizes how to do that with our kids in our classroom, however, we also need to do this for our teachers.  Recently I met a coach, Beth Zawatski, who spent much of her first year as a literacy coach complimenting teachers.  That’s a great start for those first twenty days.  Hmm…would love some more ideas.  Be looking for this in a future blog posting.

Mel and her student work

Melanie Levy, 4th grade teacher at P.S 40 in Manhattan, standing next to her students’ work

partnership is cool

Hathaway Brown’s Jennifer Stillson’s display outside her 4th grade classroom

partnership displayed 2-3

Love Jennifer Stillman’s emphasis on the power of writing partnerships

Building confidence & craft, actually~

Christy & Monique


4 responses »

  1. Is there a way to get the other days?


  2. Yes! Email me at and I will send:)


  3. I love this idea of balancing confidence and craft. You are so right the two go hand in hand. Hooray!


  4. Thanks Anna! Always so great to hear your thoughts:)



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