Possibilities. I have suggested two re-visions for writing workshop approaches: a critically pragmatic teacher response to children’s texts that is sensitive to the meanings and consequences of those texts for the immediate classroom community, and collective projects in which the production and criticism of important texts serves to focus children and teachers’ work in the workshop. Both re-visions call for teacher inter­vention in the lives and work of children in writing workshops.

If I erred in my attempts to influence children’s writing and peer rela­tions in my teaching at Clifford, I erred on the side of trying not to overdetermine children’s actions in the room. This entailed risks and consequences, which I have explored in previous chapters. But teacher efforts to take greater control of the shape and content of children’s lit­eracy work have their own dangers. If writing is messy, purposeful, “novel” (Doyle, 1986) work, then, with increased teacher control, we risk denying children the chance to find reasons to write that motivate and sustain them, and the space to maneuver and work out creative and divergent responses to textual problems.

A story told by Oliver Sacks (1990) about his early work with patients suffering from migraine will sharpen my point, and deserves extended quotation.

My first thoughts were that migraine was a simple pathology … which would require a pill, a medication, and that the beginning and end of medicine was to make the diagnosis and to give the pill. But there were many patients who shook me. One in particular was a young mathematician who described to me how every week he had a sort of cycle. He would start to get nervous and irritable on Wednesday, and this would become worse by Thursday; by Friday, he could not work. On Saturday he was greatly agitated, and on Sunday he would have a terrible migraine. But then, toward after­noon, the migraine would die away. … As the migraine and the tension drained out of this man, he would feel himself refreshed, renewed, he would feel calm and creative, and on Sunday evening, Monday, and Tuesday, he did original work in mathematics. Then he would start getting irritable again.

When I “cured” this man of his migraines, I also “cured” him of his mathematics. Along with the pathology, the creativity also disappeared, and this made it clear that one had to inspect the econ­omy of the person, the economy of this strange cycle of illness and misery each week culminating in a migraine and then followed by a wonderful transcendent sort of health and creativity. It is not sufficient just to make a diagnosis of migraine and give a pill. (p. 45)

The pill we must avoid is reasserting a stifling, silencing teacher con­trol over the talk and texts of children. The last thing I want is for my work to provide excuses for such a move.

In order to respond to workshop advocates’ Romantic portrayals of children and writing in workshops, I have emphasized some of the prob­lems that attended increased student control over the work of literacy. I have examined the underside of peer relations in this classroom, and how children’s texts participated in those relations. One way to stop possibly harmful elements of children’s experiences and relations from influencing the texts and processes of writing classrooms is to relegate children’s lives to the playground and to the edges of tightly controlled classroom activi­ties. But this we must refuse to do. Tightening teacher control may dis­courage attempts by children to use their writing to hurt or belittle others. It will also discourage the writing of The Second Stories Club, and Sleeping Beauty, and The Cloud That Smiled. The “teacher control” pill, like the pill Sacks gave his patient the mathematician, would cure children’s active engagement and exploration of writing as it cured other pathologies.

We should not give up on goals of helping students develop their voices in ways artistic and political, even though it is difficult, risky work. Thus far, workshop advocates have helped us most in understanding the craft aspects of writing, and how we as teachers can support children learning this craft. But a focus on craft, without serious consideration of the intentions young writers pursue, and the material they appropriate and transform, is irresponsible. It ignores the rhetorical consequences of children’s texts for children as audiences and members of a classroom community. It denies children, as writers, the opportunity to engage in conversations about the knowledge, beliefs, and values they draw upon and express in their texts.

With the re-visions of critically pragmatic response and collective writing projects, I tried to point to something better, point to more effec­tive and responsible ways to intervene in the work of children in writing workshops. My hope for these re-visions is that they generate searching, lively discussions among children and teachers, about writing and its responsibilities; that they make workshops more hospitable, supportive places for all children to write themselves and their worlds on the page.

As I write this, my son, John Jacob, is 5 years old; my daughter, Sarah, is 2. My experiences with them, and my experiences as a teacher with my third grade students in this writing workshop, have confirmed me in the belief that children need help from adults–they need help directing their lives, in and out of school. But I also know that schools have traditionally over-directed children’s lives and work. Writing work­shop and Freirean critiques of schooling have responded exactly to the reduction of meaningful, complex work with texts, to dry, routinized tasks that deaden and routinize children themselves.

What I have struggled to express here is what my students and I struggled for in the writing workshop: some sort of balance. We must recognize that children need room to talk and act in order to learn and develop. We must also recognize that children’s talk and actions can be turned to worthy and less worthy ends, and that as teachers we have the responsibility to push for worthy ones.

Worthy ones, for me, are those that envision classroom and future communities for children in which all members participate in the cre­ation and recreation of the forms of life that constrain and sustain them. Communities in which Karen, Rajesh, William, Jil, Robert, Janis, and John boldly name themselves heros of their own stories. Communities in which Jessie fights off the evil spell cast by peers and is line leader once in a while.


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When Children Write Copyright © 2023 by Timothy J. Lensmire is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.