4 Peer Audiences and Risk

I asked Karen if she would like to share her recently published book, Mrs. P. and Her Lovebird:

One day there was a little girl named Mrs. P. She thought of that name because she wanted to be a teacher. But her real name is Grace. The thing that Grace liked: her dog. Her dog’s name was Hooey. Every day she let him outside. And he would howl. And one day she let him out, he howled again. And the people that were next to her house, they called the police. And they took him away. And Grace was very sad.

Something about her boyfriend. Grace was in the 5th grade. One day she met this boy. And he liked her a lot. And she liked him too. And then they got to 6th grade. And he became her boyfriend.


Karen has never shared her own work in front of the class–I even had to half drag her over to Jil once to get her to have a peer conference. Karen shook her head no. I enlisted the aid of Kurt and John, and told her they would like to hear her story. They immediately caught on and played their part, asked her to please read her story to them. I sug­gested we go out into the hall, possibly a less threatening place for Karen to read. Karen went to get her book from the library, and Kurt, John. Jessie, and I went into the hall.

We all sat on the floor, in a sort of semicircle with Karen in front of us, with her back to the brick wall of the hallway. She was still hesi­tant, but with encouragement from me and the other children, she picked up her book and read her title. She was a little agitated, and occasionally rocked, with legs crossed. from her seated position almost up unto her knees, and back down again.

As she started reading her story, Ken quietly joined our group. I remember being impressed with how Ken did it. He walked behind the semicircle, and sort of crawled in right beside me, on my right. I briefly put my arm around him and gave him a little hug as he sat next to me. I was impressed because it was almost as if Ken knew that Karen was a reluctant sharer, and was trying to be as unintimidating and undisruptive as possible. I was very pleased with him.

Karen was not. She immediately stopped reading, rocked forward, and handed the book to me and said, “You read.” (Karen immediately moved to a method she had used before to get her piece heard–she wanted someone else to read it, almost as if she didn’t want to use her own voice–was it too close? too vulnerable? or was it facing an audi­ence, being too present?–Janis had read Karen’s first published piece earlier in the year.) I tried persuading Karen to continue reading, but she shook her head no. It was fairly clear that Ken was the reason she wouldn’t read. While Ken was there, I couldn’t get Karen to read. Ken seemed to know this. I didn’t tell Ken to leave, but very quickly he did, and soon Karen was reading again. A little later Janis slid into the semi­-circle where Ken was, but Karen kept reading. She soon finished her book.

I was proud of how Karen’s classmates responded to her text–they really seemed to try to make Karen feel good after she read. John picked up on what I thought was a wonderful problem at the begin­ning of the story–Karen is writing about Mrs. Parker as a little girl, and starts her story with, “One day there was a little girl named Mrs. P.” Then, Karen tries to write her way out of a child being called Mrs. P: “She thought of that name because she wanted to be a teacher. But her real name is Grace.” John doubted that Mrs. Parker, as a little girl, would call herself by her married name. I thought it was pretty impres­sive to pick this up in an oral reading. Karen didn’t seem threatened, and she was soon telling us that she was going to write her next story about her baby bird dying.

I wanted to find out why Karen wouldn’t read in front of Ken, so after the workshop was over, I asked Karen to go out in the hall with me again. I asked her why she wouldn’t share with Ken there. At first she said, “Too many people.” When I questioned this, saying that Janis had come out later, replacing Ken, and she still read, Karen said, “I don’t know.” I asked her if she had been worried that Ken wouldn’t like her story and she nodded her head yes. But I couldn’t tell if she meant it or if I had just given her a way to satisfy me and she took it. She seemed nervous, so I stopped asking her questions and we went back into the classroom.

A little later, as I sat at my round table, Karen walked up to me, carrying a large sheet of construction paper, folded in half and stapled to form a sort of envelope/pocket. Karen often does stuff like this with paper, and has given me such pockets as gifts. On one side was writ­ten, ”I’m sorry Ken.” (Maybe she would give it to Ken.) As she showed it to me, she said, “Look what I wrote and I wasn’t even looking.”

I don’t know what the “not looking” part meant, but I interpreted the “I’m sorry” as meaning that Karen had thought I had been repri­manding her in the hall before–that I was saying she had done some­thing wrong to Ken by not reading in front of him.

I quickly told her I wasn’t yelling at her, that I was “just wondering” about why she didn’t want to share with Ken there. I tried to reassure her–I really hadn’t been angry or disappointed in her–because her sharing in front of a few people and getting their response was a breakthrough for her, I thought. Karen was standing next to me, and I grabbed her shoulders and told her that she hadn’t done anything wrong and that next time she wanted to share I would ask her who she would like to read to. She responded that she didn’t like reading to the whole class, and that she was going to start a new story the next day. (Fieldnotes, 3-22-90)

I develop two themes in this chapter. One, rather dramatically rep­resented in Karen’s story, is the influence multiple audiences, more or less desirable and trusted by individual authors, exerted on the experi­ences and texts of children in this classroom. In the sharing session with Karen, I had selected Kurt, John, and Jessie as an audience for her story exactly because I had guessed they represented a fairly safe and com­fortable group for her. Janis also seems to have been a trusted audi­ence–Ken, apparently, was not. When Ken joined the group, he effec­tively silenced Karen in the sharing of her text, despite what I perceived as his efforts to not disrupt her reading. One of the subtexts of my dis­cussion of James and his friends was how their intentions and actions­–constrained but also set free within the workshop setting–might make the classroom a less supportive or comfortable place for others to write. In what follows, I look especially (but not exclusively) to children on the other end of the peer hierarchy for their perceptions of peers as audi­ences for their work. The classroom seems a riskier place to write for some of these children than it did for popular, powerful children.

As a teacher, I had limited access to and influence over the work­ings of these multiple peer audiences. Above, I tried to find out why Karen did not want to read in front of Ken. I was quite interested in what Karen would say, both as a teacher worried about helping children to be comfortable writing and sharing their work, and as a researcher interested in the sense different children were making of the workshop. Was it important that Ken was a popular, middle class boy, and Karen a quiet, unpopular, working class girl? Was it important that Ken and Karen were two black children in a predominantly white classroom? My role as a teacher probably contributed to Karen’s seeming interpretation of my words as scolding. Questions like, “Why did you do that?” asked out in the hall by an adult and teacher, may very well signify to a stu­dent that she is in trouble.

But more important than issues of access to information and its connection to the teacher role is that children bring to the classroom playground and cafeteria experiences, individual and collective histories in and out of school, that contribute to their evaluations of each other as friends and audiences. As teachers of any particular group of children, we have limited control over important aspects of peer relations. I am certainly not saying that we can do nothing to influence or enhance these relationships. Only that, at any given moment, children are working out their relations with each other, and they are doing it from their pasts, behind our backs, and outside the room, as well as within situations we have greater access to and upon which we exert greater influence.

Consider Jil, who mentioned James, among others, as someone she did not want to work with (“ever”) in the writing workshop. After also rejecting John as an audience in peer conferences (“He’s biting me, he’s scratching me, he’s throwing his pencil”), she said:

JIL: Um, Robert, Suzanne, James, William, um, David, Ken, did I mention Suzanne?
INTR: Mm hm. Why do you not like to work with them?
JIL: They tease me all the time, they’re my (inaudible). I will never, I haven’t liked them since I met them and I will never like them. (Interview, 5-23-90)

A common, often accurate, prediction made by teachers at Clifford on pleasant, warm mornings was that the children would come into school worked up and difficult to handle. The reasoning was that chil­dren tended to come to school earlier on nice days and have more time outside with each other before class started. This often led to fights, which came into school with children as they began their school day.

A second theme of this chapter, then, is how the routine and norms of the writing workshop helped and hindered children in their efforts to work and share their texts with desirable audiences. The openness of writing time in the workshop routine (as well as Grace’s presence) allowed me to arrange for a sharing session for Karen with a small group of children she appeared to have trusted. But Ken also took advantage of this openness, and chose to join us there. Ken’s freedom of movement affected Karen’s experience in the sharing session. The writing workshop gave children access to each other, and this appears to have been, for most children, a mixed blessing.

In my story of James and his friends, I told how important peers were to their experiences within the classroom. James collaborated with one or more of his friends throughout the year, and placed great value on his peers’ comments in peer conferences (to the point that he seemed to worry more about pleasing them than me). Although he expressed some apprehension about reading his work in front of girls who he thought probably did not like him and his stories, he clearly relished the oppor­tunity to perform for the class during sharing time.

But other children had greatly different experiences in the workshop, and defined themselves quite differently in relation to peer audiences in collaborative work, peer conferences, and sharing sessions. Perhaps the greatest contrast is provided by Jessie, who largely rejected peers as audi­ences for her work (with, from what I could tell, good reason).

Jessie was the classroom’s “female pariah” (Thorne, 1986), ostracized by nearly everyone “by virtue of gender, but also through some added stigma such as being overweight or poor” (p. 175). Jessie was not small, and she came from the trailer park. Nearly everyone in the class, in their interviews, said that she was the least popular person in the class, and the least desirable with whom to work. Bruce, for example, called her “idiotic, dumb,” John said that she stunk, and Mary that she never brushed her teeth. Only a few children–Janis, Karen, Jil–said that they had worked with her in the class. Grace and I often intervened in verbal fights between Jessie and other children (I discuss one such incident that occurred before school in the next chapter). Jessie was by no means a passive victim–she fought back (and started a few fights herself) with volume and sarcasm.

In her interview, Jessie said that she had only a few friends in the class–Janis and Karen–and a few others in the other third grade class. She said she sometimes conferenced with Janis and Karen and shared her finished pieces with them, but usually she kept her work to herself. When asked, “Who do you write for?” she said, “Um, myself. I just write for myself. Or sometimes I’d write a story to somebody, and let them read it” (Interview, 5-30-90). Although she published four books across the year, she did not share her books either during sharing time or in the writing workshop library. She did often conference with me, Grace, and the teacher aide. In contrast to James and his friends, she seemed to look much more to adults than peers as audiences. For example, when asked what she did not like about the workshop, she said, “Some times I didn’t like it was when Mr. Lensmire couldn’t get to me [for a writing confer­ence]. I didn’t like that.” Another interesting bit of evidence for the impor­tance of adult audiences for Jessie came during her interview: Of all the children interviewed, Jessie was the only one who insisted that the inter­viewer talk to her a second time so that she could read her stories to the interviewer. Other children occasionally read and discussed their work in interviews–Jessie ended up reading and commenting upon three of her four published stories in an extra half hour session with her interviewer.

Several other children seemed similarly oriented toward adults as audiences rather than peers. Karen, for example, gave a surprising answer (at least in relation to other children’s answers) to the question used to gain information about what peers she liked to work with in the room:

INTR: Who are the people in your class that you like to be with and work with?
KAREN: Um, my teachers. (Interview, 5-21-90)

Later, Karen expanded her answer to “sometimes my friends.” Karen also looked outside the classroom for an important audience. When describ­ing what she did with one of her texts after it had been published, she said that she read it over first, went home, and “I give it to my mom and she reads it and then she’ll probably say, ‘that’s good, very nice, very nice.'” Sharing her work with peers did not appear in her story of what she did with her published work. When asked who she wrote for, she replied, “Me, Mommy, and some people.”

Janis, a friend of Karen and Jessie, talked about teacher and peer conferences in ways that were almost perfectly opposed to the ways James discussed them. James had said that he sometimes took my advice on his writing, depending on his own assessment of its worth. But, at least in his interview, he gave peers’ advice much more weight, saying that he would change his text if two peers said they did not like some­ thing. Janis, on the same topics:

INTR: If he [Mr. Lensmire] gave you advice or a suggestion on how to make things better, did you always follow his advice?
JANIS: Yes I did.
INTR: How did you feel about the conferences with Mr. Lensmire, did they help you become a better writer?
JANIS: Yes, they did and I felt good about them.

INTR: Did you always use the advice of other classmates?
JANIS: Sometimes I did and sometimes I didn’t.
INTR: And what made you choose, how did you decide?
JANIS: Well when a person’s like, why don’t you add on to the story like make it, make it more adventurous and that made me go ahead and make it more adventurous, but when a person said why don’t you cut down the adventure and make it more dramatic, and I’d say no, I don’t want to do that. (Interview, 5-21-90)

And John, a student teased perhaps as much as or more than Jessie, said that he liked talking to teachers better than students about his papers. When asked why, he said:

JOHN: Well, I trust teachers.
INTR: Really? You can’t trust students?
INTR: How come?
JOHN: Because they’re younger. (Interview, 5-21-90)

John later linked his preference for teachers to what teachers knew, saying, “Because the kids, I, the kids don’t know as much.” One inter­pretation of John’s comments is that he preferred older, wiser teachers, perhaps with a certain disrespect for what other children know and their value as an audience. His comments, then, might be interpreted as expressing something which traditional, teacher-centered pedagogy often ends up doing–encouraging children to not trust themselves or other children as sources of knowledge and insight.

But we need to take John’s first comment–“I trust teachers”–more seriously. A common response by children to John’s work in sharing ses­sions was that they could not understand his stories. They would voice these complaints in ways that made it difficult for me to decide if com­prehension of John’s often difficult, adventuresome texts was the prob­lem, or if it was just an excuse for giving him a hard time. Suzanne, who John claimed often “tormented” him, hinted at both of these possibilities in her interview. First she said that John was “smarter than the rest of us and doesn’t really make sense to the rest of us.” Then, “he doesn’t know how to write right, I don’t think…he just doesn’t explain his words, his sentences too good.” Later, she linked children teasing John to not understanding his work: “a lot of people tease him and say I don’t under­stand the writing, I don’t like the writing.” Finally, when asked why chil­dren teased John and said that they did not understand or like his writing, she replied, “He is really obnoxious” (Interview, 5-18-90). Her responses suggest that criticism of John’s work might have had as much to do with children’s perceptions of John as it did with their perceptions of his texts.

My own interpretation of John’s comments, above, is that he could trust teachers as audiences for his texts because they brought more knowledge and patience than peers to his texts and to him. He was more confident, with teachers, that he would be understood–his texts com­prehended and appreciated, but also understood in terms of an accep­tance of him as a writer and a child.

Despite their relative preference for teachers as audiences, both Janis and John reported conferencing and collaborating (occasionally) with other children. They also were frequent readers during sharing sessions. Jessie was not. She had decided that it was too risky to share her stories with most of her peers in conferences, sharing time, and the workshop library. After identifying children with whom she did not want to confer­ence, Jessie described how she would feel if she were forced to confer­ence with them:

INTR: What would they do with your writing? How would you feel if you had to conference with them?
JESSIE: I would feel like a jar of slime. Being sat on.
INTR: So maybe they don’t treat you very well?
JESSIE: Yes. No, like getting cut in half. (Interview, 5-30-90)

Later, she said that she never shared in front of the whole class because they would make her feel the same way in that situation (she resisted several attempts by me to have her share, as Karen did, with small groups of friends). Her description of how her peers would accom­plish making her feel “cut in half” during a sharing session surprised me. I had expected her to predict verbal attacks on her work when she fin­ished sharing a story. Instead:

Because, cause, for some people, it, nobody would, would um, answer, or ask them questions. I know that. (Interview, 5-30-90; my emphasis)

Jessie feared silence, a rejection expressed not with words but with no words, when there were supposed to be words; an active silence. Jessie’s comments assumed aspects of the sharing session that Grace and I had worked hard to put in place. If an author asked her classmates for specific help in relation to the piece she was reading, then we expected children to respond to the author’s request in their response before going on to other topics–“nobody would answer.” If the author did not set up the sharing session this way, we expected children to first talk with the author about what they liked, and then move to questions that they had about the work–“or ask them questions.”

From the beginning, I worked to make the writing workshop, and its conferences and sharing times, a safe place for children to write and share their work. In the opening meeting of the 2nd day of the work­shop, I talked about risk and the need for a supportive audience:

I talked about how confusing things might be for a while, that the writ­ing workshop was going to be different because writing demanded invention, rather than learning what somebody else was saying (I rushed this). I said that two important things authors do is write about things that they care about and that they take risks.

I then gave some examples of students who had already taken risks. I started with William, who I had talked to the day before when he said he had nothing to write about. I said that he had taken a risk and wrote a rough draft even though he didn’t know how to spell every single word. I told them that that was fine in a rough draft, that they could worry about spelling later if they wanted to publish the piece. I watched William as I said this–I wondered if I embarrassed him when I wanted to compliment him. Later, he came up to me and said that he had spelled all the words wrong. But it seemed like he was trying to strike up a conversation, rather than beating himself up after my comment. He said that tomorrow he was going to write about baseball, so I don’t think he is too damaged. I said that John, in his piece, “Me,” had taken risks, since he was writing a sort of autobiogra­phy. I said that maybe he should read it to the class–he said he would when he was finished. Finally, I said that Robert (is that his name?–black hair, crew cut, round face) had taken a risk when he wrote about something sad. I said that we would have to respect him and not make him feel embarrassed if he wanted to read his story to us. He seemed pleased, and told me later that he was drawing a pic­ture to go along with his story.

At the end of my little lecture, I said that if we were going to be authors, we needed a safe place to write. To have a safe place, we needed to respect one another and be patient with one another. I told them that we would work on ways to help and support each other as writers. (Fieldnotes, 8-3 1-89)

As the year progressed, we did many activities to help children respond to each other’s writing in helpful ways. Grace and I held “peer” conferences in front of the class in which we talked with each other about our own writing; I led discussions of student texts I had placed on the overhead; children role-played peer conferences in front of the class, which we then discussed and assessed; we developled guidelines for response that children kept in their writing folders:


  1. Find a spot away from the quiet zone.
  2. The author reads out loud.
  3. The listener responds: tell the author what you liked. Tell the author what you remember about her writing. Tell the author what you thought was interesting.
  4. The listener asks some questions about the author’s writing: let the author teach you about his topic.
  5. The author and listener talk about what to do next. Will the author make changes? How will she do it?

Grace and I were quite active, at times, in sharing sessions, both reminding children before we started that we needed to respect and sup­port our fellow writers, and intervening during sharing sessions when chil­dren seemed unsupportive. Perhaps Jessie’s fear of silence reflected her knowledge of the active role we took during sharing–she may have known we would address hurtful student comments, but she was less sure (as I am) that we could address no comments, no answers or questions.

Obviously, these teacher efforts were not enough to make the class­room a safe place for Jessie to share her texts with peers. Jessie’s peers were a significant part of her not feeling safe. When asked why other people felt comfortable sharing their stories in front of class, Jessie said, “Because they have lots of friends.”

Jessie systematically avoided peer audiences in peer conferences, shar­ing sessions, and the workshop library. Most children in the room, however, reported that they sought and avoided specific peer audi­ences in their daily interactions in the classroom. A primary way chil­dren accomplished this was in their selection of who they peer confer­enced with on their texts. Some of the patterns documented in the chapter on James and his friends characterized the workshop as a whole. Children conferenced with friends within gender boundaries. All children identified other children they did and did not want to con­ference with–in other words, they made inclusions and exclusions, and these differentiations were, as with James and friends, at times associated with social class and gender differences. Karen, for example, spoke for boys and girls when she stated that “the boys like the boys, but the girls like the girls” for peer conferences (Interview, 5-21-90). In Mary and Lori’s interview, Mary was quite explicit about who she did and did not want to work with: “I like working with Carol, Lisa, Marie, Sharon, Emily, Julie, and Suzanne. And I don’t like working with the boys.” Mary’s list of girls, except possibly for Emily and Julie, is a fairly complete naming of the most popular girls in the class. She also was forthcoming about girls she did not want to work with, and why. Mary said that “some of them had lice, they stunk,” she did not like their “styles” or their personalities.

MARY: Most of them, and some of them are from the trailer park and I don’t like working with people who are from the trailer park…Like at first I thought that Lori was from the trailer park before I went over to her house the first time.
LORI: Thanks a lot.
MARY: Well I did. (Interview, 5-31-90)

But friendship and trust (or lack of it) were the most common rea­sons given for their decisions, especially when children were asked why they did not want to work with certain children. I reported in the last chapter that Bruce did not want to work with James because he could not trust him to keep secrets about his stories. James had expressed apprehension about conferencing and sharing his texts with girls in the class because he believed they would not like his work, and assumed that they did not like him. Robert, one of the boys from the trailer park of whom James was critical, said in his interview that he had conferenced with Leon, his “friend William,” and Rajesh. When asked why he confer­enced with them, he responded:

ROBERT: Well, I know they wouldn’t like tell everybody, you know?
INTR: No, tell me. Tell everybody what?
ROBERT: Well, they wouldn’t tell, they wouldn’t go off telling everybody what you wrote.
INTR: Yeah. Is that important to you?
ROBERT: Yes it is.
INTR: Why is that?
ROBERT: Well, because, sometimes they laugh at you, they tease you.
INTR: What do they laugh or tease you about?
ROBERT: Well, what you didn’t write and what they didn’t write, like the same, like, they would think that theirs, theirs was better than the others. (Interview, 5-24-90)

Marie, one of the more popular girls in class, said that she did not want to read her pieces to “people who pick on me, make fun of me,” because they “probably would say, that story is bad, and stuff, they’d try to make fun of stuff” (Interview, 5-16-90).

Marie’s use of “probably would say,” instead of something like, “they said that,” is indicative of children’s reports of their experiences in peer conferences. Although almost no children reported bad experi­ences in peer conferences, most anticipated bad experiences if they conferenced with certain children. The few exceptions focused on diffi­culties children had working with another person on writing, not with instances of children teasing or hurting each other in conferences. Rajesh, for example, reported getting into arguments with other children as he tried to revise texts with them. Rajesh refers below, I think, to moving a bit of text around to see where it should go (I had showed children how to cut up and physically manipulate their rough drafts dur­ing revision):

Why would I get into arguments? Because, I was like just really mad. I was like, why don’t we put it here, and he was like, no, no, no, no, it was right here, here, here. (Interview, 5-18-90)

I partly attribute the success of peer conferences–success in terms of their being safe interactions–to the work Grace and I did to help chil­dren interact in positive, supportive ways. But I attribute much of their success to children’s opportunities to select their first audiences in peer conferences and collaborations during writing time. The norms of this part of the workshop routine, especially the relative freedom of move­ment and association, granted children an opportunity that we adult writ­ers often take for ourselves: It gave them the chance to share texts with friendly, trusted audiences before sending them on to, perhaps, less friendly ones.

But as I noted in relation to Karen’s sharing session at the begin­ning of this chapter, and as should be apparent from the previous chapter and some of Jessie and Robert’s comments above, the open­ness of writing time made it difficult for children to avoid sometimes hostile texts, talk, and audiences. Outside the purview of the teachers’ influence, there was writing used to tease classmates: When asked if children ever used writing to tease one another, Bruce replied, “Yeah, but they, but then they crumpled it up and threw it away” (Interview, 5-21-90). There was underground talk: In the last chapter, remember, Sharon and Carol told about trying to get their names out of boys’ sto­ries, and then suggested that even if they succeeded (often with the help of the teacher), the boys could keep them “in” the story orally, by telling their friends who the characters really were. And children could read a child’s story over his back when he did not want them to, did not ask for their comments: “You were writing, they’d come over to your desk and they, they say like their story’s so big and neat” (Robert, Interview, 5-24-90).

Writing time gave children the chance to connect with people with whom they needed or wanted to connect. It also provided opportunities for confrontation, fighting, and teasing. Furthermore, except when such problems made themselves known–by being loud, named by a child, accidentally or purposefully observed by teachers–I had limited access to and influence over these interactions. This was a risk I was taking as a teacher in order for children to have access to each other when they needed it and wanted it.

Sharing time also made it difficult for children to avoid undesirable peer audiences. The most common form sharing time took was an indi­vidual author reading her text to the entire class. After some of the chil­dren’s comments above, perhaps it seems unlikely that anyone would want to share under such circumstances. But actually, many children did share pieces with the class, and reported it being, overall, a positive experience (if a little scary) in their interviews. Of course, as I have already noted, some children did not want to share, and sometimes chil­dren would ask friends to read their texts to the class–they would stand next to or behind the author’s chair as their friends read their texts. Karen, Emily, and others did this.

I tried, with Grace, to make these sharing sessions safe places for children to read and receive response from their classmates. I drew heav­ily on Graves (1983) and Calkins (1986), and other workshop advocates, for guidance in how to go about this in the classroom. But workshop advocates overestimate, as I did, the extent to which teachers can smooth over peer conflict with interventions such as teacher modeling of response and rules for behavior. Imagine Rajesh coming to the writing workshop after being pushed around by James and Bruce on the play­ground. What sort of audience for his texts are James and Bruce, what­ever their in-class behavior?

If they tell Rajesh, very politely, during sharing time, that they did not understand the meaning of parts of his story, what does that mean? What does it mean for Rajesh? What does it mean to me, as the teacher, espe­cially if I do not know that Rajesh got pushed around at recess? Does it mean that they were genuinely puzzled by Rajesh’s story and offered their observations in hopes that it would help him improve his text? Or were their questions a subtle put down, voiced, of course, in appropriate language and tone, that made fun of Rajesh and his story? How do I know? Carol and Sharon said in their interview that James would not ask questions about boys’ stories, but did ask them about girls’ stories. They believed he did this to tease girls. In other words, even the mere pres­ence and absence of seemingly appropriate responses might be mean­ingful (and hurtful).

These children had histories, individual and collective. They were working out relations continuously, in and out of the workshop, in and out of school. As a teacher, it was difficult to learn about these relations, to fol­low them, understand their significance for what was (and was not) said and written in the classroom. I had invited these relations in, had wanted to give them bigger play. I had hoped to capitalize on the interest and value children placed in each other as friends, as authors, and as audiences.

Because of my efforts–and despite them–peers were at once trusted and risky audiences for each other. In the next chapter, I discuss the writ­ing of fiction as a response, in part, to risky peer audiences. Before I do, however, I want to tell one more story of a child sharing texts with peers, and then briefly examine the writing situation children faced in the writing workshop. The story is about John and his interactions with multiple audi­ences—in this case, peers, teachers, and even the principal. It demonstrates some of the difficulties I encountered and the errors I made in my attempts to understand and influence peer relations. The story reminds us that writ­ing is risky, involves an exposure of self that can leave us vulnerable.

Robert provides an appropriate introduction to John’s story. Robert said that he was “very nervous” about sharing his first published book in front of the class (he was one of the first children to do so):

ROBERT: And I, I didn’t know what they were going to do.
INTR: Who?
ROBERT: The people. I thought that they were going to boo it and all that stuff.
INTR: Did they?
ROBERT: No, no. You never know what’s going to happen. (Interview, 2-


John shared a story today. As Grace said later, the workshop had been going fairly smoothy up to that point. Most kids were calm and writing (or at least looking like they were writing).

John shared his piece. He has a certain presence when he shares. He seems very self-assured, not very nervous. He takes his time reading, shows his pictures slowly to the class, first to the right side, then middle and left, slowly rotating his body. He seemed so comfortable today that his pacing seemed a little slow–especially since the illustrations were too small for the kids in the back of the room to see anyway. I saw Carol turn to Marie several times and raise her eyebrows in what I interpreted as a sort of do-you-believe-this-guy look. Maya also made eye-contact with Carol while John was reading with a similar facial expression.

I had conferenced with John about the piece–it had been con­fusing, but I thought the part he added helped explain things. I really wasn’t thinking any of this would create a problem.

After John finished sharing, I started clapping (as has become the custom), and several children joined me. John stopped us, saying he hadn’t shown the final illustration yet. I don’t know who started the questioning, but soon Suzanne, seated just to John’s left in the first seat of the middle row, became the point person for a group of at least three–Carol, Maya, and Suzanne–telling John that they didn’t under­stand his story. I quickly moved up to the front of the room, near John. I squatted down next to him as he sat in the author’s chair. I put my right arm around him. I guess, more or less instinctively, I wanted to be by John and support him as he got some hard questions, possibly tinged with a little malice. I considered stopping sharing, but I wanted to continue. On the one hand, this might have been a sort of attack on John, coming from people who he often fought with (especially Suzanne). On the other hand, what they were saying was true in some sense, and I thought it might be helpful to John to hear what they couldn’t understand.

So, I went up by John. With my arm around him, I asked his respondents to respect him and be nice in their responses. Suzanne started again–she even said something like “no offense” and “I’m sorry if I offended you,”  which struck me as a little funny–and pro­ceeded to say she didn’t understand the story and that it had a “noth­ing” ending. A nothing ending–I can’t remember how she explained it. Carol and Maya offered responses around Suzanne’s, and added that his previous work suffered from similar problems. John tried to respond, more or less defending his piece, and I did the same, trying to keep them specific and stop them from exaggerating.

We were quite engaged. Then, at one point, I had to hold John in his seat–my supportive arm became a restraining one–I thought he was going to jump up and hit Suzanne or Maya. I quickly stopped sharing time, saying that perhaps John, Suzanne, Maya, and Carol could have a small group discussion some time if they wanted. I was thinking that this might be less threatening to John, and the girls would have less of an audience to nail John in front of (if that is what they were trying to do). John went to his seat, and I started telling the class to get ready for their next class with Grace as I walked down the mid­dle aisle to the back of the room.

I turned around in time to see John jump out of his desk, rush Maya and then Suzanne, and pound each one of them on the hand with his fist. I trotted up to hold John. This was when the fireworks began (or the first explosion anyway). John and Suzanne were strug­gling with each other–a constant verbal struggle as well as grabbing each other and trying to scratch each other. Soon Grace and I were both in on the dance. At one point John and Suzanne were locked to one another, each not letting go of the other, and Grace and I were each holding a kid (Grace-Suzanne, me-John) trying to pry them apart. It was a circus–almost funny, since here were two adults, I think both not trying to yell too loud and not trying to handle the struggling kids too roughly. But the children were thoroughly engaged with each other. That’s probably not very accurate. John was immersed (over his head). Suzanne was in control–she knew how to score off John. John was basically out of control. What I like about Suzanne–her sharp wit, her perception, her courage–were put to use against John, and he was no match.

Eventually, John and I went out into the hall. I just wanted to let John cool down. Carol told me later that Grace talked with the class about how scary it could be to share, and how the class would have to do a better job at making the author feel comfortable and sup­ported. Meanwhile, I was out in the hall with John. The principal, Bill, just happened to be nearby. John was a little hot yet–I wanted to calm him down, tell him it wasn’t just his fault, and apologize for not stopping things sooner.

Bill came over. I didn’t feel it was necessary, but he must have. I quickly tried to explain what had happened. John interrupted with yells and bursts. Bill put his hands on John’s shoulders, trying to get John to settle down. This was when the next round of trouble started. Bill told John to quiet down, that he was disturbing other classes (I doubt it). John responded with “I’m just telling you how I’m feeling,” again quite loud. This escalated–Bill citing rules of politeness. John expressing his feelings–until John said, “Sometimes I think that you are a bad principal.”

Bill had been standing in front of John, bent over at the waist. Now he put each of his hands on each side of John’s face to talk to him. He was calm. He told John, with his face about three inches from John’s, that he had the choice of settling down and being quiet or going to the office with him where Bill would call his parents to have him taken home. John is not very good at being silent, especially when he is agitated. He again said–not quite a shout, but loud enough–that he was just saying how he was feeling. Bill, who was very serious, but not enraged or anything like that, simply said, “That’s it,” and started walking to the office with John, holding his hand.

What has happened? A small child–a third grader–shared his book in front of the class. A small group of children who probably don’t like John (Suzanne told me later that day that John really bugs her) crit­icized his work as not being understandable. They not only criticized this text, but also named two or three others, saying that all of his work is like this. As a teacher, I made an error in thinking that something con­structive could come of this–I intervened, tried to support John, get his critics to be more specific and help John (Ha!) understand specifically what they don’t understand. Out of this–an engaging, vital discussion, I suppose–John got in trouble with the principal (when things matter in schools, bad things can happen; honesty–John was being very hon­est throughout–doesn’t necessarily do well in school).

I followed John to the principal’s office. I didn’t want John to get in all sorts of trouble. I went into the office with them, and quickly explained that John had been sharing a story, and that Suzanne and some others had criticized his piece, and that he and Suzanne had gotten into an “argument.” Bill’s line with John was that he had to control himself. John’s consistent line was that he was just saying how he felt. I really admired John. Here was this little third grader, sitting in the principal’s office with two adults, and he wasn’t backing down or cow­ering–he was much calmer by now, which made things easier for Bill,  I think.

Then, just when I thought this all was about over, John pursued the “bad principal” thing again. He made both a more general and specific critique, saying that kids, not just him, thought that Bill was a bad principal because all he did was say hi to them sometimes. Now I felt a little bad for Bill–my presence might make this harder for him to take than if it was just John and him. But Bill handled it well. He told John that he thought John had said what he did because John was angry. John eventually apologized on his own, sort of–he said that he was frustrated and said what he said when he was angry. But he never said that what he said wasn’t true. It didn’t seem to matter to Bill. I took John back to the classroom.

Before we left, I told Bill, in front of John, that he might want to talk to Suzanne, since she had been part of this as well. I didn’t really want Bill to talk to her, but I wanted John to know that we weren’t coming down only on him. Bill has had many dealings with Suzanne–she seems to get in a lot of fights before school. He said that he would talk to her sometime at lunch.

Before I took John into class, I apologized to him, I told him that it was partly my fault for letting things get as far as they did, and that I shouldn’t have let Suzanne and the others criticize his work that way. I told him that I thought his revision had made his story much better, and that his other work was really very good work (the truth). At issue here for me–I want John to keep exploring, to keep taking risks, and not write boring, more understandable stuff because of what some children who don’t like him anyway say about his work. John said that it wasn’t my fault at all, and walked into the classroom. (Fieldnotes, 3-25-90)

Elbow (1987) relates how, when struggling for words in speaking situa­tions, he often involuntarily closes his eyes. He interprets this behavior as an “instinctive attempt to blot out awareness of audience when I need all my concentration for just trying to figure out or express what I want to say” (p. 50). From this personal start, he goes on to examine different rhetorics and psychologies, and their implications for the manipulation of audience, by teachers of writing, for the benefit of student writers. Elbow is concerned that current theories and practices put too much emphasis and faith in audience awareness, and ignore how audiences can push back on writing and make it defensive, tangled, absent.

Elbow argues that two “pieties of composition theory” are often in conflict. One, from the classical rhetorical tradition, would have writers think about audience as they write. The other, which Elbow associates with a “newer epistemic tradition” grounded in the work of Berthoff, encourages writers to use writing to make new meaning–and, as Elbow notes, “it’s often difficult to work out new meaning while thinking about readers” (p. 53).

This conflict is visible in my fieldnotes of John’s sharing session, espe­cially toward the end of the notes. I am worried that John will lose his cre­ativity and uniqueness if he bends his work too much to peer audiences. But my words and actions, that day at least, functioned to force John to face his audience–keep his eyes open, even as I tried to support him and shape audience response. (At various times earlier in the year, I had John read to older children in Clifford school–according to John, these sessions were quite successful.) I wrote that “it might be helpful to John” if he understood what his peers did not understand about his piece. In other words, I wanted to socialize John, and use his peers to do it.

My stance has support from current psychological models:

From one side, the Piagetians say, in effect, “The egocentric little critters, we’ve got to socialize ’em. Ergo, make them think about audience when they write!” From the other side, the Vygotskians say, in effect, “No wonder they’re having trouble writing. They’ve been bamboozled by Piagetian heresy. They think they’re solitary individuals with private selves when really they’re just congeries of voices that derive from their discourse community. Ergo, let’s inten­sify the social context–use peer groups and publication: make them think about audience when they write. (Elbow, 1987, p. 57)

The image of me crouching with my arm around John as he sat in the author’s chair is a powerful representation of the writing situation children faced in the writing workshop. My arm around John was both supportive and coercive. I used it to express solidarity with John, so that he knew he was not alone in a difficult writing/speaking situation. I also used my arm to keep him in the situation, a situation constructed of talk, rather than let him transform the situation by possibly expressing his frustration or disappointment physically (or was he just trying to run away?). As far as I can tell, I was a safe audience for John and most chil­dren in the room, even preferred by some over peers. I worked to help them find topics and purposes for their writing; I supported their efforts. At the same time, I made them write, and in a social situation in which peers were purposefully prominent audiences.

One of the responses children made to the presence of multiple peer audiences in the writing workshop was similar to Elbow “closing his eyes.” They avoided certain peer audiences and turned to other ones for support. These alternative audiences were other peers, teachers, sometimes parents.

Writing is risky, and children in the workshop experienced this to a greater or lesser degree. An important part of what made writing risky to them was sharing their work with peers. In this, these third graders joined other writers in their ambivalent relations with audiences. On the one hand, we risk exposing ourselves and our work to criticism when we share it with others. On the other hand, audiences are sources of sup­port, and we often write exactly because we want others to read our texts–sharing our work is part of a communicative transaction in written language. Richards (1986), a professional sociologist and writer, dis­cusses risk in these terms:

For me, sitting down to write is risky because it means that I have to open myself up to scrutiny…Every piece of work can be used as evidence about what kind of a sociologist (and person) you are…I cannot face the possibility of people thinking I’m stupid. (pp. 113, 114)

Audiences are sources of risk in the chance that they will reject the work and the author. But audiences are also sources of affirmation, of encour­agement, that cannot be tapped until something is written and shared.

So there I am, faced with the blank page, confronting the risk of discovering that I cannot do what I want to do, and therefore am not the person I pretend to be. I havent yet written anything, so no one can help me affirm my commitment and underscore my sense of who I am. (p. 117)

Richards “solves” this problem much like my students did in the workshop–by sharing her work, especially her working drafts, with people she trusts, people she has a common history with, who have seen “early attempts to write and think…and believed there was some­thing lurking there beneath all the confusion” (p. 116). This does not remove risk–other audiences may be on the horizon, we may still worry about sharing texts even with trusted friends, may still fail to do what we had hoped in our writing–but it often helps us to write, to risk.

But we should not forget John in the author’s chair. Children in the workshop were often confronted by audiences with whom they were less than comfortable. Furthermore, they had to write. If they wanted to do as their teacher asked, the blank page could not remain blank for long, whatever the risk of exposure they felt. So they wrote, and worked to collaborate and share their texts with friends. And for most, the situa­tion seemed to be quite satisfactory, assuming (as Jessie did not) that you had “lots of friends.”


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