Setting Up A Writing Center

Preparing a writing center always felt extremely daunting. Where will I store everything? How do I keep it stocked? Am I going to be able to teach students not to blow through all of the supplies? Will they even look at the examples, vocabulary words, writing ideas? Who will keep everything organized?

My first few years of teaching writing while trying to simultaneously launch a writing center were sloppy. I have learned A LOT along the way. Still nowhere near a writing teacher expert (despite loving to write myself) BUT instead of being completely over my head, I am proud to say it is week 4 and my writing center is up and running. Here’s what I’ve learned to do:

You will need to start with making some decisions. 
  • Where will you put your writing center?
  • What will students be writing in/on? Journals, paper choices ect.
  • Where will they keep the supplies?
  • What options will they have to write about? Topic cards, vocabulary, ect
  • What resources and writing tools will be available to them?
  • How will you organize and store it all?
Draw it out! Sketch your ideal writing center. This is probably not going to be what you want to hear but the it is unlikely you will be successful the first time around. It took me 4 years until I had the system you see below set up. And I still don’t find it entirely ideal (mostly because it’s in front of cabinets that I need to open from time to time) but it’s an improvement from what it used to be. I would consider student access to supplies to be the most important thing. 

Primary Paradise has awesome FREE lined paper options you can find here.
The topic cards above are from A Cupcake for the Teacher.
Writing anchor chart is free in this post.
Bottom line: It takes time to make these decisions. Don’t feel bad if the ideal writing center you had imagined needs tweaked throughout the year. It is trial and error to find out what works best for you and your students. 

My third year of teaching 2nd grade at my current district, a new writing program was introduced and I was so overwhelmed. A dedicated space for all of the writing papers, journals, books and supplies was required. Of course, we were given NO time to actually set up any of this properly. Instead we sat in a 7.5 hour writing training and left with our heads spinning.  The program was difficult to follow. We were ASSURED it was going to take a few YEARS to find our footing. At the end of the next year, my district dropped the program.

I don’t know if it’s a me thing or a teacher thing or a human nature thing but I feel like I have to do everything I learn to do all at once. Resist the urge. Once you have your plan, break it into baby steps. Decide on your first three writing lessons. I would not recommend starting your writing center until you have written together as a whole class at least 3 times. They need to know the basics like:

  • What supplies do I use for writing?
  • What do I do when I’m done?
  • How do I come up with ideas?

Before the topic cards go in the writing center, we practice using them. We start with picking 1 and writing a story together as a class. Then, they get to pick and write a story with a partner. Finally, they write their own. Now they know how to use them and I can put them in the center! #rollout

Your writing center will ultimately be a disaster if your students cannot write independently for an entire center rotation. Of course, they don’t have to nonstop write like a mad person. But they need to be able to get something on their paper in the time allotted and not waste it daydreaming or talking. This comes with daily practice.
Most important writing lesson of the year: You are NEVER done! There is no end to writing. It’s a cyclical process. I always invite my students to revisit things they wrote before. It helps to study an author and find information about their process for writing. This really helps students see that it takes a lot of editing and revision and that is it OKAY to abandon a story if it isn’t going anywhere. I like to use Kevin Henkes as an example. There is a great video about how he writes and draws that the kids really become inspired by. We read his books, watch the video and use his words of wisdom as inspiration while we write and illustrate. 

Speaking of illustrating, drawing is a part of the creative writing process. Don’t lose your cool if you have students who do a lot of drawing. It is better than sitting there staring off into space. We need illustrators, too! Those students just need additional practice on how to describe their pictures with words. Which brings me to…

My first year of teaching we had NO writing program. Teaching writing fell on the back burner. I had a writing center but maaaaybe 48% of students were actually writing during that time (and that was a good day). There was a disconnect between my writing lessons and the writing center. Everything was mismanaged and disorganized. I knew I had to do better but I didn’t know where to start.

Start with what you see. Watch your students write. Whenever we see an issue arise, it should be included in a mini-lesson. “I have noticed sometimes it can be difficult to get started writing right away. When I am not sure what to write about, I can use my brainstorming list to pick an idea. Then I can start my picture while I think of my words.” 
Balance the positives and negatives. Ask students to share how they used punctuation correctly, added details or wrote using their senses.
Students stuck with what to write? Review tools for generating ideas and model using the tools
Students not taking care of supplies? Model how they are used correctly and review expectations
Students drawing and not writing? Model how to use a picture to develop a story
We can’t expect students to problem solve independently without showing them the way. It’s easy to get frustrated that they are off task and not working. Figure out why and address it whole group. Don’t just tell them, show them how you would problem solve in the same situation.
This is crucial and motivating. We often forget all the work our students are doing at centers. We need to provide the opportunity to share what they worked on. Schedule a time every week or two to sit down and allow students to share out what they have been working on. Or, take 5 minutes to check in while students are working. Sharing out holds them accountable and allows for opportunity for feedback from someone other than a teacher.
This one, I am admittedly not the best at but I am striving to get better! I LOVE how Hillary from Teaching Without Frills has her students reflect after centers. She reviews expectations and has them rate how they did afterwards. The more you reflect and review, the more students feel in control of their choices.
It is so important to remember that once we have centers up and running, the work is not over! You may need to revisit expectations more than once throughout the school year to keep students on track. And while this is frustrating and sometimes feels like a “waste” of time, it is essential for keeping students accountable and focused on their job. 
Setting up a writing center can feel overwhelming. Remember, it takes time. It’s not a set it and forget it type deal. Your students will make mistakes, forget what to do and get off track. Keep revisiting mini-lessons, modeling and reviewing expectations often. They need to write everyday to become better writers so don’t let them give up 🙂 

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