1 Beginnings

My history as a writer might best be traced to writing conferences (actu­ally, usually, arguments) I had with my mother at the kitchen table. I remember writing a paper on William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying (Dari Bundren was my hero) for a high school literature class, and a short, short, story about mutant life forms growing under my bed when I was a seventh grader at St. Mary’s Catholic school. I would take them to my mother and always get more help than I wanted. She would read my texts, point to a place on the page, and say, “What does this mean?” I would grudgingly explain, and then defend the adequacy of my written words against any changes.

I am certain that these arguments, focused on meaning rather than punctuation or spelling, were a healthy training ground for becoming a teacher of writing. But I became a teacher of writing when I read Donald Murray’s A Writer Teaches Writing: A Practical Method of Teaching Com­position (1968) the summer before my 2nd year as a seventh grade English teacher in Northern Wisconsin.

I had been teaching seventh grade English with little formal prepa­ration for it. I had started as a music major in college, and then switched to elementary education. Before the English position, I worked with sixth graders in an elementary school, and taught eighth grade Math, Civics, and English in a junior high. I brought a love of literature (especially American literature) to my teaching, but again with little formal train­ing–I took my lessons from Twain and Steinbeck in the park during summer, and late at night, in bed.

I was supposed to teach writing to my seventh graders, but was in the dark about how to go about it. I got Murray’s book from a colleague, studied it, and from that point on thought of myself as a writing teacher who also happened to have other required duties–some I deemed worthy and others not so–in his English classes. Worthy ones were sharing a novel or two, short stories, plays and poetry with my seventh graders; not so were weekly spelling lists and grammar usage exercises in prepa­ration for district tests.

Murray seduced me. His descriptions of engaged students writing of what they cared about, and teachers helping and coaching them, spoke directly to disappointments and hopes I had collected in my early teach­ing experiences. Later, when I read Murray’s (1979) “The Listening Eye: Reflections on the Writing Conference,” the teaching of writing seemed to return to the kitchen table: Murray waits in his office, winter and dark outside, for Andrea and her rough draft and “this strange, exposed kind of teaching, one on one.”

Willinsky (1990) correctly claims that the primary appeal of work­shop approaches like Murray’s is not so much any new teaching techniques and materials, but more a vision of teaching and learning with students. The appeal is in the transformation of teacher and student roles, in relations that grant students a more active place in their learning and teachers the chance to stand beside and help students, rather than lord it over them. My turn to writing workshop approaches was a Romantic response to alienating student and teacher work–I wanted students to be alive rather than deadened by mechanical, boring school tasks. Murray’s approach asked students to look to their own experiences and imagination for material. It offered a new way to work literacy in the classroom.

So that year I began to teach writing in ways that approximated workshop approaches. My primary moves were to grant students increased control over the topics and purposes of what they wrote, and to increase their access to each other as collaborators and audiences. And most responded. They wrote. They listened respectfully to class­mates’ pieces, laughed with me at intended and unintended humor. I got tired rip-offs of Star Trek, and dutiful (this still was school, after all) reflections on “my favorite pet.” But I also got Jenny’s “Lyon, Lyon,” a parody of Blake’s “The Tyger.” I was using Kenneth Koch’s (1973) Rose, where did you get that red?, and had some of my classes write poems and stories in response to Blake’s poem. Jenny appropriated Blake’s unusual spelling, his use of questions to describe the cat and wonder at creation, and the repetition of the first stanza at the end of the poem; she degraded most everything else. Instead of Blake’s tyger, and its “fearful symmetry” and “deadly terrors,” Jenny’s peers and I encountered a beer­ guzzling lyon, overweight, flatulent, unfit to be king of the jungle. At times, I persuaded myself that my classroom bustled with properly irreverent Romantic poets.

I would take their work to other teachers. A few would smile approvingly, and share their students’ texts with me. Most would look at me with puzzled faces. Their glances, and sometimes their words, would ask, “So? Why are you doing this?” I was often confused (and hurt) by their responses. I had already accomplished the primary goal I had for my writing classes: simply to get children who usually resisted writing to pick up a pencil and write, and share their work with others. The teacherly satisfaction I felt did not inhere so much in the quality of the texts or what was said, but in the fact that they had been written at all.

But my colleagues’ glances and questions haunted me, forced me to admit that I could neither articulate why I was doing what I was doing, nor argue its importance. Their questions haunted me in the classroom sometimes, when I faced a student who wanted help, and I didn’t know what to say, at least partly because I didn’t know what I wanted the stu­dent to do, other than write.

When I left teaching to go to graduate school, I took my interest in progressive approaches to teaching writing with me, and made the cul­tural, political, and social aspects of language and literacy the focus of my work. As I studied, I began to find answers to the earlier questions of purpose and worth with which my teaching colleagues had confronted me. My reading, research and writing helped me develop a broad con­ception of literacy–a critical literacy–that emphasized its contribution to student empowerment and participation, in schools and a society that denied participation to so many by gender, race and class (Freire & Macedo, 1987; Giroux, 1988; McLeod, 1986).

My work at Clifford Elementary School took me back to the public school classroom, back to teaching writing. In what follows, I elaborate the two goals that I brought to this project for teaching writing within writing workshops. These goals are developed around the concept of voice. Actually, two related senses of voice: one artistic and aimed at naming yourself; the other political and focused on naming the world.

Children want to write. They want to write the first day they attend school. This is no accident. Before they went to school they marked up walls, pavements, newspapers with crayons, chalk, pens or pen­cils … anything that makes a mark. The child’s marks say, “I am.”

“No, you aren’t,” say most school approaches to the teaching of writing. (Graves, 1983, p. 3)

My first broad goal focused on the individual’s expression of subjec­tivity, leading, on the one side, to the production of a verbal object of art, and on the other, to self-understanding and self-creation. It emphasized the private work of finding your own voice in your writing, a voice that says, as Graves puts it, “I am.” Writing, here, is the expression of some­thing inside with the help of external signs. Finding your voice involves looking to your own experiences for what it is you want to say. Writing is conceived of as the process (sometimes the struggle) of expressing and organizing personal experience:

By articulating experience, we reclaim it for ourselves. Writing allows us to turn the chaos into something beautiful, to frame selected moments in our lives, to uncover and to celebrate the organizing patterns of our existence. (Calkins, 1986, p. 3)

There are strong affinities here to Emerson, Thoreau, American Romanticism–a celebration of experience and an individualistic, non­ conformist strain–evident in Calkins’ call to make something beautiful out of “moments in our lives,” and Graves’ affirmation of the child’s “I am” against the erasing institutional forces of schooling. Like Thoreau (1960), workshop approaches would have young writers

Drive life into a corner, reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it. (p. 66)

Graves and Calkins seldom seem to consider that life might be mean at its “lowest terms,” but Thoreau’s rhetoric is appropriate for workshop approaches. The image is one of burrowing deep into subjectivity, past “the mud and slush of opinion, and prejudice, and tradition” to discover your authentic nature, and a voice that expresses who you are. When you do, the words on the page are your words, not someone else’s.

But your words, of course, are always someone else’s words first, and these words sound with the intonations and evaluations of others who have used them before, and from whom you learned them. As Bakhtin (1981) reminds us, the romantic poet “is not, after all, the first speaker, the one who disturbs the eternal silence of the universe” (p. 69)–the poet learned her words from others, indeed, became a self she could point to and ask questions of in this sharing of words and gestures.

The shift here is from what Berlin (1988) calls an “expressionistic” rhetoric, characterized by Romantic and idealistic conceptions of mind and language, to a “social-epistemic” one, in which language mediates a dynamic interrelation of individuals with material and social aspects of their environment. My introduction to this rhetoric was provided by Vygotsky (1978, 1979, 1981). Within Vygotsky’s social-psychological framework, consciousness arises out of social interaction. Speech is fun­damental to thought for Vygotsky, with higher mental functions devel­oping in its context, and with the structures and processes of thought conceptualized in relation to the structures and processes of speech. Internalized (inner) speech is, for Vygotsky, the very fabric and process of thought itself.

But I soon grew frustrated with the seeming neutrality and emotional flatness of social interaction in the hands of Vygotsky and some of his interpreters (e.g., Wertsch, 1979, 1985). Where were heated arguments at the kitchen table and in the classroom, ideological conflict, power, pas­sion? Social interaction was smoothed out, and so was much of the com­plexity and emotional toil of inner speech, of thought, of writing.

I turned to the work of Bakhtin and his circle of friends and col­leagues. Like Vygotsky, Bakhtin and his circle asserted a social account of mind in which consciousness emerges in our relations with each other (see Volosinov, 1973, 1976). But unlike Vygotsky, this process, and consciousness itself, is charged with emotion and struggle over meaning and values. The Bakhtin circle presents “language use itself as a locus of class and group conflict” (LaCapra, 1983, p. 320). Our days and our consciousnesses are filled with living language, with the words of others.

The word in language is half someone else’s. It becomes “one’s own” only when the speaker populates it with his own intention, his own accent, when he appropriates the word, adapting it for his own semantic and expressive intention … And not all words for just anyone submit easily to this appropriation, to this seizure and transformation into private property: many words stubbornly resist, others remain alien, sound foreign in the mouth of the one who appropriated them and who now speaks them …  it is as if they put themselves in quotation marks against the will of the speaker … Expropriating [language], forcing it to submit to one’s own intentions and accents, is a difficult and complicated process. (Bakhtin, 1981, p. 294)

As Bakhtin became more and more important for my conceptions of language and writing, I did not lose the goal for my students of helping them find individual voices–the goal just looked a little different. When consciousness is viewed as developing through social interaction–when thought is “inner speech” that emerges as the child engages others in investigations of the world–then finding your own voice is less burrow­ing to some authentic nature, and more appropriating the myriad voices and words surrounding you, and forcing them to your own purposes. I assumed, like Graves, that children wanted to say, “I am.” My students would write texts that expressed this uniqueness. I assumed with Rorty (1989) that

The conscious need of the strong poet to demonstrate that he is not a copy or replica [is] merely a special form of an unconscious need everyone has; the need to come to terms with the blind impress which chance has given him, to make a self for himself by redescribing that impress in terms which are, if only marginally, his own. (p. 43)

My classroom would be a place for children to begin to rework the blind impress, a place to look to their experiences, and in remembering them and reworking them in their writing, to name themselves rather than be named by others. My first goal for workshop writing, then, emphasized a private project in which young writers were increasingly able to find their voices–to find what they had to say and wanted to say–in their texts.

I also brought a second, political sense of voice to my work at Clif­ford Elementary School. This sense of voice emphasizes an individual’s or group’s active participation in the world, an active part in the produc­tion of knowledge and texts. If the first sense of voice is evoked with the contrast, “my words versus another’s words,” then the contrast to this political sense of voice is silence, where silence points to oppressive con­ditions that keep certain people from participating in decision making, storytelling. Voice here, stands for active engagement by a given speaker or writer in the community and society. Rather than emphasize the indi­vidual’s attempts to distinguish herself from others with her texts, this sense of voice emphasizes a writer inserting herself and her texts into public spheres.

Freire’s (1970, 1985) work was most influential for my sense of this political connotation of voice. His critique of traditional schooling prac­tices emphasizes the passivity of students in traditional pedagogies, the reduction of learners to objects, when they should be subjects of their learning. He names this sort of education the “banking conception of education.”

The scope of action allowed to students extends only as far as receiving, filing, and storing the deposits … In the last analysis, it is people themselves who are filed away through the lack of cre­ativity, transformation, and knowledge in this (at best) misguided system. For apart from inquiry, apart from the praxis, people cannot be truly human. Knowledge emerges only through invention and reinvention, through restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry people pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other. (1970, p. 58)

Freire’s pedagogy, what he calls “cultural action for freedom” in his The Politics of Education (1985), emphasizes engaging students in dialogues focused on their existential situation, an ongoing inquiry into their world in which they formulate increasingly critical interpretations of that world and their place in it. From this perspective, the power to name the world and order it has rested, in society, with the elite, and in the classroom, with the teacher and textbooks. Freire’s pedagogy seeks to upset this power relation with student voices, and help students actively participate in making sense of the world around them. hooks (1989) captures this sense of voice as an act of individual and collective resistance to domination by others in her discussion of the importance of “coming to voice” in feminist work.

For women within oppressed groups who have contained so many feelings–despair, rage, anguish–who do not speak, as poet Audre Lorde writes, “for fear our words will not be heard nor welcomed,” coming to voice is an act of resistance. Speaking becomes both a way to engage in active self-transformation and a rite of passage where one moves from being object to being subject. Only as sub­jects can we speak. As objects we remain voiceless–our beings defined and interpreted by others. (p. 12)

In my classroom, I wanted students to come to voice, in both the sense of a private exploration and ordering of experience in the expres­sion of a unique self, and the sense of greater public participation in the cultural work of naming and renaming the world and their places within it. Both senses of voice suggest resistance–the first resistance to Dewey’s “crust of convention,” the second to power relations that silence.

I wanted to set up and work in a transformed classroom community. My dreams for that community emphasized the presence of student voices where there used to be primarily the teacher’s, and constrained, lifeless student responses to alienating material. I envisioned, with echoes of Emerson, a miniature cultural democracy, a marketplace of ideas and stories, in which strong individuals asserted themselves, and continually provoked and enhanced each other in their interactions (West, 1989). My classroom, like Dostoevsky’s novels, would celebrate heteroglossia: unofficial voices, the polyphonic confusion of voices sounding with the characteristic words and intonations of different social groups, and the idiosyncratic twists of speakers and writers attempting to force shared, given words to individual, particular purposes and situa­tions (Pechey, 1986; Bakhtin, 1981).

My role as the teacher was to encourage, orchestrate, and support this heteroglossia, finding ways to help each student sound and be heard. More concretely, I saw myself as pursuing primarily two teacherly tasks. One was creating a classroom environment that supported children’s writing. The second was responding to children’s texts in writing conferences.

I planned to teach each day for approximately 45 minutes. The work­shop would follow a three-part routine, with an opening meeting, writing time, and sharing time. The first part of the routine, the opening meeting, would last approximately 5 to 10 minutes, and was modeled after what Calkins (1986) calls mini-lessons. I would use this time to teach, often in a whole-class situation, procedures and norms of the writ­ing workshop, and aspects of the craft of writing.

For example, I would discuss the purposes and handling of the writ­ing folders children and I would use to collect their writing across the year and to monitor their progress. Or we would discuss procedures for working with and maintaining writing tools in the workshop: pens, markers, staplers, paper for rough drafts, scissors for cutting and pasting texts during revision. I would also engage children in activities to help them support and encourage each other as writers in the workshop, par­ticularly in their responses to other children’s texts in peer conferences. Workshop approaches encourage teachers and children to think of chil­dren as teachers of writing in the classroom. One of the responsibilities of workshop teachers, then, is to ensure that children respect and help each other in their interactions with peers. I would also teach children about how to find topics and brainstorm for ideas, how to draft, revise, edit, and publish pieces in the workshop. I would read books by adult and children authors, and engage them in discussions of what we enjoyed and valued in the books we read, and what we might learn about crafting texts from other authors.

The second part of the routine, lasting approximately 30 minutes, would be called writing time. This was the part of the workshop where children would exercise the greatest control over their own work and movement. This autonomy was to serve their writing, allow them to engage in topics and stories that they found meaningful, and to engage their peers and me in ways and at times that suited their work and the problems they faced as they wrote. If a child needed to talk with some­one about an idea she had for the revision of a story, for example, she would have the freedom to do so. She could go to her peers, or, if I was not talking to another child at that moment, to me. Primary activities for children during this time would be brainstorming, drawing, drafting, revising, and editing texts; conferencing with peers and the teacher; publishing selected texts (including putting together books and illustrating stories); and reading. Children would make choices during this time as to what they wanted to work on, with whom, and for how long. My primary activity would be talking with children about their writing. I would help them identify important stories, revise, and get their drafts ready for typ­ing and publishing.

The final 10 minutes or so of the workshop routine would be shar­ing time (modeled after Graves and Hansen’s [1983] “author’s chair”). Sharing time would be one of two primary ways for children’s texts to go public within the classroom, to reach a larger audience than those in teacher and peer conferences. During sharing time, one or more children would read their texts in front of the class, and then receive response from classmates and adults in the room. The texts would often be fin­ished pieces, typed, illustrated, and bound between cardboard covers. Other times, an author might want response to an earlier draft of a text, perhaps seeking specific help with a writing problem.

The second official way for children to reach the classroom audience would be the workshop library–a few shelves somewhere in the room that housed children’s published pieces. Children would donate the books to the library for certain amounts of time so that other children could check them out and read them during writing time and other parts of the school day.

This was my workshop architecture and system. It provided spaces, in writing time, for children to pursue important individual projects, and in sharing time and the workshop library, to make those projects public. The workshop would be alive with student voices in the hum of conferences and collaboration, and the dramatic reading of important texts by child authors. I would support these voices by providing opportunities to write on meaningful topics, by helping children acquire skills of the craft of writing, by shaping a supportive physical and social environment.

My real work, however, and what I looked forward to most in my teaching, was talking with children about their texts. My first conception of response was to follow the child. It drew heavily on Murray, Graves, and Calkins, and their ideas on response. But even before I started teach­ing at Clifford, I began developing a second conception of teacher response to children’s texts that attempted to address problems the first ignored. This second conception recognized that there would be times when children’s writing should be questioned, not followed.

The purpose of teacher response within writing workshop approaches is conceived largely in terms of helping students to realize their intentions in text–that is to improve the texts at hand and engage children in conver­sations that will eventually be internalized and allow them, in the future, to deal more effectively with text on their own. The teacher, once the sole initiator and audience/evaluator of student writing, now follows the child (Graves, 1983, p. 103) in his writing processes, watching carefully for ways to encourage, support, model, and coach at appropriate times.

A major concern of workshop advocates is helping teachers avoid falling into traditional, teacher-dominated ways of talking with students and responding to their writing. With reference to Graves, Murray (1985) presents the following basic pattern for writing conferences.


  • The student COMMENTS on the draft.
  • The teacher READS or reviews the draft.
  • The teacher RESPONDS to the student’s comments.
  • The student RESPONDS to the teacher’s response. (p. 148; emphasis in the original)

Graves and Murray want to shake up typical classroom talk in which the teacher leads, the student responds, and the teacher evaluates stu­dent response (Cazden, 1986). Instead, they would have the teacher and student engage in a conversation about the craft of writing, a “profes­sional discussion between writers about what works and what needs work” (Murray, 1985, p. 140).

Calkins (1986) brings similar goals and concerns to her writing about teacher response, but tends to emphasize teachers responding to the meaning, the content, of what children are writing. She asserts that teach­ers must really listen to what children are saying so the children know that they have been heard.

Our first job in a conference, then, is to be a person, not just a teacher. It is to enjoy, to care, and to respond. We cry, laugh, nod, and sigh … Sometimes that is enough. Sometimes the purpose of a conference is simply to respond. Other times, if the moment seems right, we try, in a conference, to extend what the youngster can do as a writer. (p. 119)

Calkins wants teachers to become a genuine audience for students, an audience that is interested in what young writers have to say. She is responding to the pervasive role of teachers as evaluators of student writing for grading purposes, in which teachers read student texts as tests of students’ subject matter knowledge and/or their ability to produce well-spelled words, well-punctuated sentences, and well-organized paragraphs.

With Graves, Murray, and Calkins, I was developing the notion of a teacher response that I call “following the child.” This notion sug­gested beginning assumptions and commitments for the pedagogy and curriculum of the writing instruction I would provide in my work with third grade writers. If we think of pedagogy as a “deliberate attempt to influence how and what knowledge and identities are produced within and among particular sets of social relations” (Giroux & Simon, 1989, p. 239), then following the child, as a pedagogy, seeks to radi­cally upset the micropolitics of social relations and language in the classroom. The commitment to student experience and meaning-mak­ing lets students speak first, metaphorically (and sometimes literally in writing conferences), in their texts, and in their talk with teachers. Fol­lowing the child, then, suggests a how of writing instruction and teacher response. It also points to the what, the curriculum, of writing workshop approaches, and this was where my problems with follow­ing the child, as a conception of response, began. Eventually, these problems pushed me to a second conception of response, that is, response as socioanalysis.

The primary curriculum of writing workshop approaches is the pur­poses, content, and genres, students bring to their writing. Children make curricular decisions, and teachers follow them. Teachers engage children in conversations focused on the craft of writing that assume, that accept, the purposes and content children bring to them. Remember, the primary goal of these conversations is to help children realize their inten­tions in text, now and in the future.

But what about situations in which student intentions are question­able, such as when a racist joke represents the authentic voice of one of our students?

Willinsky (1986, 1990) frames the problem as one in which the pur­suit of art, with an emphasis on self-expression, comes in conflict with the demands of education. He argues that writing workshop approaches have their roots in Romanticism, and that

The educator drawn to the aesthetic of romanticism must ultimately bring together the opposing moments of art and education, provid­ing the opportunity and motive for unfettered expression and then the imposition of reflection upon it. (1986, p. 13)

The moral Willinsky draws above emerges from his research with a teacher colleague in a grade one and two classroom. When given the chance to write on topics and in genres of their choosing, the boys in the class wrote violent story after violent story, “until, it seemed, their pens dripped with blood and not an illustration passed without the tell-tale scar of the red marker” (1990, p. 128). The girls wrote of beautiful gardens for mother and daughter to walk in (after doing the dishes), or stories where “princesses wake up, dance with princes all the night long, and the woods laugh out loud” (p. 130). He concludes that to be responsible in our teaching, the progressive commitment to student expression and meaning must be met by an equally progressive commitment to “educate what is traditionally given in gender and identity” (p. 126).

Traditionally given. Willinsky is making two sensible demands here. First, he asks us to recognize that children’s stories have content, that children’s texts represent more than just vehicles for discussions of pro­cess. Second, he wants us to remember that children work with material from their experiences; or, as Bakhtin might put it, children’s material is half someone else’s, and appropriated by children for their own pur­poses. Student experience, what writing workshop advocates want to bring into the classroom, encompasses not only values and knowledge supportive of our goals for learning and moral and political develop­ment. Our children grow up in a sexist, racist, classist society. They bring this with them as well.

Writing workshop advocates ignore such issues in their talk about teacher response. Children’s stories remain cozily wrapped in a Romantic rhetoric emphasizing personal artistic creativity, “the innocent perceptions of children making individual sense of the world and their role in it” (Gilbert, 1989, p. 199). Graves and Murray focus on crafting texts and avoid the content of student writing, except to say that we should validate it and help students express it more effectively. Calkins emphasizes the content of children’s writing more than Graves and Murray in her writing on response, but if you remember the possible responses Calkins lists above-enjoy, care, cry, laugh, nod, sigh-it seems that children will always work with material we should want to support and extend.

My conception of teacher response as following the child was in trou­ble. It depended on the assumption that children would choose writing tasks that were appropriate for their development as writers and as future citizens of a society with democratic and egalitarian ideals. I needed a conception of teacher response that would retain the commitment to stu­dent experience and meaning-making, but that did not place the teacher in an uncritical stance in relation to student intention and content.

As part of another project investigating the concept of resistance in various disciplines and practices, I began reading Freud and other writers on psychoanalysis. I was soon struck by similarities in method, material, and social setting, between psychoanalysis and the workshop approaches and conceptions of response I was studying.

As to method, London (1986) notes, in his discussion of “insight therapies” (of which psychoanalysis is the charter member), that

The patient initiates the talking and assumes responsibility for it … Therapists guide, as it were, by following the patient’s lead … All insight therapy therefore involves an insight bearing sequence of 1) exposure by the patient, 2) therapist operation on the exposed material, and 3) consciousness or insight, intellectual or emotional, growing in the patient. (pp. 55, 57)

The pedagogical sequence here is very similar to that in Graves (and Freire)–London even uses similar language when he writes that therapists follow the patient’s lead. In the workshop, student experience is elicited, followed by conversations around this material, leading to greater control over writing and self-understanding (in Freire’s work, critical consciousness).

For material, psychoanalysis turns to the past, to memory, in order to rework powerful childhood experiences. Writing workshop approaches make a similar turn in their emphasis on children telling personal narratives, and writing on topics they find personally meaningful. Freud asked his patients to free associate to generate this material; Elbow (1973) asked his readers/writers to free write. (See Besley, 1986, for discussion of Romantic origins of Freud’s “unconscious”; and Willinsky, 1990, p. 204, for common roots of psychoanalysis and “New Literacy” approaches.)

And in the social setting of psychoanalysis, we return to the isolated pair, alone with their words, and Murray’s “strange, exposed kind of teaching.” Calkins certainly wants teachers to be warm and supportive in their writing conferences with children, in contrast to the neutral, scientific stance Freud endorsed for analysts in his writing, if not in his own practice (Flax, 1990; Gay, 1988). But the image is powerful–writing conferences and psychoanalysis are enacted by two people, removed from the everyday, focused on the verbal and written texts at hand.

But it was a crucial difference between psychoanalysis and “follow­ing the child,” amid the similarities, that made their juxtaposition especially productive. That difference was the analyst’s critical stance in relation to the patient’s material. Analysts, unlike workshop teachers, assume that the content of their patients’ stories demands response and questioning.

I began thinking of response as a type of analysis, but not one supported by Freudian theories of the unconscious, repression, and resistance (even though some researchers and teachers of composition at the college level have done so; see, for example, Brooke, 1987; McGee, 1987; Murphy, 1989). I looked to the “socio” rather than the “psycho,” to the workings of language, culture, and power in the lives of speak­ers and writers, and conceived of teacher response as socioanalysis. Response as socioanalysis assumed that traces of racial, class, and gen­der oppression would, at times, find their way into the stories children told.

Freire’s (1985) notion of dialogue helped me elaborate what response as socioanalysis might entail. Within teacher-student dialogues, the teacher’s role was to “propose problems about the codified existential situation in order to help learners arrive at a more and more critical view of their reality” (p. 55). Students come to these dialogues not empty, but filled with stories of the world. However, these stories are formed within oppressive social relations that bestow privileges on some individuals and groups, and on their stories. Freire’s notion of dialogue insists on the use of student stories and the questioning of those stories. The first move validates the learner as a knowing person and makes available the learner’s insights into the conditions of her existence (insights that may well challenge and teach the teacher). The second move, however, refuses to accept the learner’s stories as given or final, and helps her to critically appraise them.

Habermas’s (1970, 1984, 1987) and Young’s (1990) work on com­municative action helped specify what it was I would follow and/or question as I responded to children’s texts. Habermas’ theory of commu­nication emphasizes the cognitive-instrumental, normative, and expres­sive functions of language. With any utterance (spoken or written), vari­ous claims are raised. In fact, any utterance always raises, explicitly or implicitly, at least three sorts of claims: claims as to what is true or effec­tive (cognitive-instrumental claims), what is right (normative claims), and what a person’s feelings, beliefs, and so forth, are (expressive or sincer­ity claims). In response to a speaker/writer’s utterance, a hearer/reader evaluates these various claims, and accepts or questions one or more of the claims made with that utterance.

Following the child, as a conception of response, emphasizes con­versations with children that focus on what does and does not work in their attempts at expression–in other words, teacher response would remain in the instrumental realm and focus on effectiveness. This is not necessarily an inappropriate teacher move in any given occasion for response, as long as we understand that this focus leaves unchallenged, and therefore tacitly accepts, other aspects of a text’s content. When Graves (1983), for example, endorses a teacher’s efforts to help a child improve his story on military weapons and killing by asking for more detail (pp. 120-123), he (like the teacher) is taking a position on the con­tent of the story, even as he seems to ignore it. This is following the child, which, as Willinsky (1990) notes in his own response to this example of “appropriate” response in Graves, “seems a little odd in the case of an excited description of the damage the weapons of war can cause” (p. 49).

Habermas’ work helped me conceptualize teacher response to chil­dren’s texts by pointing to the various claims any utterance raises. In addition to responding to children’s texts in ways that helped make them more effective, I also wanted to engage children in discussions of the moral and political aspects of their texts, in conversations about truth, and how their texts did and did not represent who they were and what they wanted to become.

The shift from following the child to socioanalysis is well-delineated with reference to Habermas’ distinction between reflexive and nonre­flexive learning.

Non-reflexive learning takes place in action contexts in which implicitly raised theoretical (technical) and practical (ethical-politi­cal) validity claims are naively taken for granted and accepted or rejected without discursive consideration. Reflexive learning takes place through discourses in which we thematize practical validity claims that have become problematic or have been rendered prob­lematic. (cited in Young, 1990, p. 42)

Following the child is partially committed to a vision of reflexive learning. It does engage children in discussions of technique. And in the context of traditional, teacher-dominated discourse, its emphasis on stu­dent voice and experience challenges the normative claim that teachers should talk and students listen. But in its conception of response to the content of children’s texts, it remains nonreflexive, and ignores what their texts have to say about how it is we should live together and what it is we value as members of a classroom and society. Response as socio­analysis would aspire to reflexive learning. My students and I would crit­ically examine the “traditionally given,” and challenge claims embedded in the cultural material we worked with as we wrote our stories.

These were my beginnings–a commitment to artistic and political voice, a workshop architecture with spaces to write and share, and two evolv­ing conceptions of teacher response to children’s texts. With dreams of children writing themselves and their worlds on the page, and of me sup­porting and challenging their visions, I started teaching writing in Grace Parker and Ruth Meyer’s third grade classroom the last days of August. Grace and Ruth each taught half-time, Grace mornings and Ruth after­noons. I visited and talked with Ruth occasionally, but taught mornings, and spent most of my time that year with Grace. I taught 5 days a week, for approximately 45 minutes each day, but was at the school 2 to 3 hours each morning, and most of that in Grace’s classroom–planning opening meetings, gathering materials, writing notes, typing children’s stories, meeting with children who needed some special help, teaching, and researching. (See Appendix for full description of workshop schedule and length of study.)

Nothing we do goes as planned. Before I started this project, I had largely thought of myself as a teacher and a researcher, as if I were two different people at different times, or as if there would not be overlaps and conflicts among these roles in my day-to-day work. Teaching made demands that conflicted with research demands. And as I struggled–as a teacher–to understand and respond to the actions and texts of chil­dren in the classroom, the original focus of my research gave way to a new one. I began with an emphasis on my own teaching experiences. As for student experiences, I was interested in them only in relation to the teacher (me) and a teacher-manipulated environment. But children were also engaged in social relations with each other, and these social rela­tions were extremely important for children’s experiences and writing in my classroom. My research methods, as well as the focus of my research, were greatly influenced by aspects of my teaching and by my commit­ments as an educator.


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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.