7 Workshop Re-Visions

[Writing workshop teachers) want the child to control, take charge of information in his writing. Their craft is to help the child to main­tain control for himself. That is the craft of teaching. They stand as far back as they can observing the child’s way of working, seeking the best way to help the child realize his intentions.

Donald H. Graves
Writing: Teachers and Children at Work

Perhaps we need to turn to the unsung sisters of these cherubic boys for redemption. But in order to discover how our daughters redeem us, we must forsake the innocent child, free of knowledge and guile, for the one who lies. “A child should always say what’s true / And speak when he is spoken to,” chides Robert Louis Stevenson. Both the act and its admonishment testify to the con­trivance that is the innocence of childhood.

Madeleine R. Grumet
Bitter Milk: Women and Teaching

James, Maya, and their friends, were worldly children pursuing social projects. They were sophisticated and strategic, with complex and some­times questionable intentions. From their elevated position within the peer culture, they often looked to the immediate classroom for mate­rial–they laughed with and at their peers and teachers, affirmed friend­ships and divisions among children with their talk and texts, and accom­modated and resisted teacher interventions into their projects. They were the “wily, winsome, wise, wild, and whining creatures who are our kids” (Grumet, 1988, p. 156). They were also more or less hostile audiences for other children, and their projects, in and out of the classroom, were partly what made them so.

Writing workshop advocates need to forget James and Maya, as well as Jessie and John, in order to write their how-to books. They remem­ber and narrate innocent children pursuing private projects. Innocent, not so much in what they know (for these writers know that children have experience in the world), but in their actions and relations with others–simple, straightforward, transparent, and with the best of inten­tions. These children pursue private projects, directed at objects outside the classroom, to personal pasts and interests–family and pet happen­ings, the space shuttle, record collections. In my early dreams of “het­eroglossic” writing workshops sounding with the unofficial voices of children–dreams that drew heavily on the Romantic images of solitary child writers provided by Calkins (1983) and Graves (1986) and others­–the voices of children are like oblique lines in geometry, connecting children to objects with straight lines that never intersect and that exist on alternative planes.

Such a vision is a rather strange appropriation of Bakhtin’s (1981) concept of heteroglossia. “Heteroglossic” does point to the presence of multiple, divergent voices, but with these voices in constant contact and interaction, involved in a struggle for meaning that began when we mouthed our (parents’) first words. Bakhtin’s “line” from author to object (to audience)–the word–is tangled with others’ words, stretched at times to breaking:

The word, directed toward its object, enters a dialogically agitated and tension-filled environment of alien words, value judgements, and accents, weaves in and out of complex interrelationships, merges with some, recoils from others, intersects with yet a third group: and all this may crucially shape discourse, may leave a trace in all its semantic layers. (p. 276)

The dialogically agitated environment of our writing workshop was a site of struggle over identity, participation, meaning, and values. In their talk and texts, children took up conflicting positions on questions of who should tell whose stories, who should speak and be listened to, whose interpretations are valid, how it is we should treat one another.

Traditional writing instruction, paralleling usual classroom discourse (Cazden, 1986), locks the student into a teacher-controlled pattern in which the teacher assigns writing, the student writes in response, and the teacher evaluates. Workshop approaches attempt to disrupt this pattern in at least two ways. Through student selection of topics, the child makes the first move in an interaction that places the teacher, ideally, in the position of response. But workshop approaches also break a teacher­-dominated discourse by allowing and encouraging children to turn away from the teacher, front and center, to each other. In place of a traditionally unauthentic, fault-finding teacher-audience, workshops promote an authentic, meaning-finding one, and peers are a significant part of that audience.

Workshop approaches flood classroom discourse with the voices of children, as children write, talk to the teacher and to each other, and read and respond to each other’s texts. But workshop advocates have attempted to capture these very real, vigorous children on the page with a Romantic rhetoric that tends to abstract authors and texts from their social contexts. Children write from their personal experience, and the choices of how and why to write, and on what topics, are assumed to be made on the basis of personal interest and meaningfulness. Children need an authentic audience so the writing is real, but workshop advo­cates seldom consider the ways audience can shape and constrain the writing of even young children (Berlin, 1988; Elbow, 1987).

For workshop advocates, the writer’s struggle is the effective expres­sion of something that is inside. They have “happily taken the personal and public aspects of literacy to consist of a one-way street: the individ­ual finds a vehicle in writing for those deep and hidden thoughts at the core of the self and goes increasingly public with them” (Willinsky, 1990, p. 208). Lost in such a conception of written literacy is the sensitivity of authors to the social contexts within which they work. We forget that all of this writing is going on in schools, in which students are expected to work and teachers are expected to make sure they do; forget that peers are deliberately significant audiences for the writing done by children in writing workshops.

Atwell (1987), a workshop advocate who writes from her teaching experiences with eighth graders, acknowledges the importance of peers for her students’ writing:

In considering the realities of adolescence, if we know that social relationships come first, it simply makes good sense to bring those relationships into the classroom and put them to work. … Within the structure of a writing workshop, students decide who can give the kind of help they need as they need it. … small groups form and disband in the minutes it takes for a writer to call on one or more other writers, move to a conference corner, share a piece or discuss a problem, and go back to work with a new perspective on the writing. (p. 41)

Atwell’s portrayal of peer relations in writing workshops is like those of other workshop advocates–it casts peer relations only in a positive light, and suggests an openness and fluidity of association among students that my own experiences and research with children tend to contradict. My worry is that this fluidity is only apparent, that beneath it are more stable patterns of peer relations among children that divide them, subordinate some to others, routinely deny certain children the help and support that others receive from peers.

When I loosened the lid on student intentions and association in my classroom, peers became extremely important influences on student experiences and writing. These influences were not all positive. Peers were sources of support and confidence. They were also sources of conflict and risk, and pushed back on the writing children did in the class­room. Children evaluated and excluded each other–by gender, by social class, by personality–in ways that echoed some of the worst sorts of divisions and denigrations in our society. Children divided them­selves up, sometimes in less disturbing, more temporary ways, in ways that allowed for changing evaluations, new friends and enemies. But they did, at any given moment and with more or less permanency, dif­ferentiate among their peers in terms of who was and who was not a friend, a desirable collaborator, a trusted audience in conferences and sharing time.

Peers, as audiences for children’s writing, brought with them friend­ship, trust, a “social energy” (Dyson, 1989) that could empower young writers and their writing in the classroom. Peers also brought with them teasing, risk, and conflict. Both aspects of peers-as-audience were impor­tant for student experiences. I have tended to emphasize the latter, since so little is said about this aspect of children’s experiences in writing workshops.

But if James and Maya taught us anything, it is that writers in the workshop were not just pushed around by their audiences–they pushed back. As writers, children were not only vulnerable (susceptible to influ­ence, confronted with risks), they were also assertive. They took evalua­tive positions, expressed interests, valued this and not that. Their texts were not just more or less well-executed expressions of personal experi­ence and objects of contemplation; they were rhetorical, had effects, did work. Children’s texts could influence others’ conceptions of themselves and their worlds, could make them laugh, hurt them, make them feel connected to others, safe or unsafe, encourage them to speak and write, or remain silent.

The rhetoric of workshop approaches does not entirely ignore the rhetorical nature of children’s texts. Calkins (1986) asserts that a “sense of authorship comes from the struggle to put something big and vital in print, and from seeing one’s own printed words reach the hearts and minds of readers” (p. 9). But it seems that, for Calkins and the others, the words from children that reach others’ hearts and minds will never be false or hurtful or ugly. Their teaching depends on it, since workshop teachers follow children, support their intentions.

Gilbert (1989) aligns writing workshop approaches with child-cen­tered commitments, and Romantic conceptions of creativity and imagi­nation. She argues that the

Seemingly innocent discourse about student authorship, student lit­erature and student ownership of texts needs much closer scrutiny. By constructing an elaborate edifice of personal artistic creativity over school writing, the discourse masks the ideological nature of the production of school texts. The act of creation, the individual expression of personal experience, becomes the focus of atten­tion. … The messages these texts carry are incidental. (p. 199)

I learned about the rhetorical nature of children’s texts because the messages they carried for children in my room were anything but inci­dental. These messages were continuous with the talk and other actions of children in the classroom–interactions that silenced Jessie, enraged John, amused James.

I opened this chapter with epigraphs arranged to play Grumet against Graves. Grumet (1988) has a less Romantic view of children, and she would take the messages of children’s stories seriously. But her response to the problem of schools “requiring order and stillness, replacing touch with the exchange of performance for grades” (p. 162)–her response to an educational system aimed at producing “child redeemers,” the inno­cent sons who would liberate us adults from our adult world–is similar in tone to that of writing workshop advocates. Grumet looks to the pos­sibilities of daughters’ lies, their fantasies of how things could be, for their redemptive power, and couches at least parts of her proposal in the most Romantic of imagery–gardens and growing plants.

In showing us the world as they would have it, they reveal the world that we fled because we were not brave enough to pitch our tents and raise our flags there. Their lies can become our knowl­edge … the child’s fantasies can flower in the fictive ground of the curriculum … School is not the real world, and so it shares the property that Marianne Moore attributes to poetry: “imaginary gardens with real toads in them.” (p. 162)

Grumet is responsible enough to remember that if we want children to transform our world, “we had better transform theirs.” She is honest enough to remember that all lies are not “pleasant and pastoral,” but says little about what to do with such lies when they grow in the garden of lies you are tending. And what about lies with vines and leaves that choke other lies and keep them from the sun?

It is time to look to the future, to our futures in classrooms, and ask what the experiences of children in my room mean for how we teach and learn writing. If my classroom was a philosophical laboratory in which I brought theory to bear on practice, it is time for practice to bear down a little on theory. In the remainder of this chapter, I suggest two re-visions for the work of teachers and children in writing workshops. The first is a new conception of teacher response to children’s writing, one that recognizes the connectedness of response to the social life of children in the classroom, and that actively strives to create a classroom community in which children accept and learn from each other’s differ­ences. With this re-vision, I continue the work, begun in Chapter 1, of articulating a critical stance, a position, from which we might respond responsibly to the lives and texts of children. The second re-vision is to strengthen the role of the teacher as curriculum-maker in the writing workshop, by having teachers engage children in collective writing pro­jects focused on important texts in children’s lives.

I do not provide full-blown discussions and evaluations of these pro­posals. Future work will have to explore, for example, the multiple, con­crete ways that we can establish and sustain the sort of classroom com­munity I advocate below, and examine the special risks and opportunities that collective writing projects pose for the voice and agency of individ­ual children. My purpose is to offer these re-visions as possible directions for the future development of workshop approaches.

Workshop advocates conceive of response as something a teacher does in relation to a particular child and his oral and written texts, as an action taken in isolation from the immediate context within which teachers and students work. The goal of response is to help the child be better able to realize his intentions in text, both immediately and in the future. I had a slightly more complicated vision of response when I started my teaching. I realized that there would be times when it would be irresponsible to support student intentions, in as much as children would sometimes draw on material–such as racist or sexist stereotypes–that needed to be questioned.

I had appropriated and developed rules for response. Rule one: Fol­low the child, support her intentions. Rule two: When the material was questionable, question it without taking away control of the writing from the child. I brought these rules for response to my work with children, and found they provided me precious little guidance in the blur of chil­dren, texts, and classroom situations. I learned the inadequacy of follow­ing the child and socioanalysis, as conceptions of response, for capturing what was involved when teachers and children talked about texts in writing conferences.

Children’s intentions for writing are neither necessarily transparent, nor supportable. If we locate children in a mix of social relations and texts that influence their work, then to conceive of an individual child as somehow having a simple, clear-cut intention that we can identify and follow is a problem. Writers pursue many intentions in their works that are more or less conscious to them–a student writer may, simultane­ously, hope to tease her friends, want to become a better writer, and try to please her teacher (Hulbert, 1987). Writers are influenced by, and in some sense, their intentions are shared with, their audiences. Romantic conceptions of writers and writing simplify intention by assuming an iso­lated, preexistent self with preexisting intentions, rather than a social, emerging self, appropriating this, objecting to that, constructing itself and its intentions as it goes along: “Writing is not simply a tool we use to express a self we already have; it is a means by which we form a self to express” (Harris, 1987, p. 161). Consequently, as teachers, we continually shape children’s intentions, not just follow them. And our influence can point intentions in different directions, toward varying ends.

Furthermore, children’s intentions, even emerging ones, may not be transparent because children want to keep them hidden from us. Work­shop advocates assume that children always want us to follow them, to understand what they are up to. Or put another way, they assume that children will never pursue intentions in writing that children would not want to explain to us, and that we could not support when they finished explaining.

I assumed that there would be occasions in which I could not sup­port student intentions, and such considerations led to my conception of response as socioanalysis. But the critical stance I created there abstracted children’s texts from the immediate classroom community, and proposed reading them as artifacts of a classist, racist, sexist society. This sort of response is important if we want to help our children avoid modes of thought and action that perpetuate these aspects of our society. But socioanalysis is inadequate, because it does not concern itself with local meanings, values, and relations, the micropolitics of particular class­ rooms and children’s texts.

In my experiences as a teacher with these young children, I learned lessons that parallel what feminist theorists such as Gilligan (1982) and Benhabib (1992) have been trying to teach more traditional moral theo­rists–that issues of justice do not exhaust the moral domain, and should be complemented by attention to the relations and responsibilities of nurturing and caring for others. Gilligan writes that

Since everyone is vulnerable both to oppression and to abandon­ment, two moral visions–one of justice, and one of care–recur in human experience. The moral injunctions, not to act unfairly toward others, and not to turn away from someone in need, capture these different concerns. (cited in Benhabib, 1992, p. 189)

In my thinking about socioanalysis, I understood that teacher response to children’s texts was caught up in questions of justice–with fairness, equality–inasmuch as I was concerned with helping children avoid stereotypical representations of people by race, class, and gender in their texts. What I didn’t understand was that teacher response was also bound up in the intimate relations of particular children with each other, peer relations that nurtured some, and abandoned others. Our workshop community was not an equally caring one for all children–teacher response could intervene in or acquiesce to that community.

A more adequate conception of response, then, would address two aspects of writing workshops that have been largely ignored. First, it would pay more attention to the immediate peer culture, to social rela­tions among children and the meanings and values they assign to each other, texts, and teachers. The peer culture is an important backdrop upon which children’s texts are written and given their local, particular meanings. Workshop approaches encourage teachers to know children, but this is usually thought of as knowing individual children, as if these individuals were not caught up in relations with each other (see, for example, Graves, 1983, on individual children’s “unique territories of information,” pp. 22-28). I am not denying the need for knowledge of individual children. I am arguing that such a focus can blind us to the ways children are connected to each other, blind us to the more or less shared meanings and values children bring to their activities and texts.

Second, an adequate conception of response would include goals that go beyond supporting (and/or questioning) student intentions. It would include a vision of the type of classroom community in which we want our children to write and learn. Workshop approaches have aligned their goals with individual children’s intentions, without considering that the ends some children pursue may not be beneficial for other children (or even themselves). There are bullies on the playground, and peer cul­tures maintaining divisions among children by class, race, and gender. We affirm these aspects of children’s lives when we commit ourselves to uncritically supporting student intentions. As Goodman (1992) has noted,

Given our cultural values, putting an emphasis on increasing the personal freedom of students will probably result in anti-social, egotistical posturing among children rather than the free child so often lauded in the radical school literature. Children’s true individuality (rather than their self-indulgence) can grow only within a commu­nity structure in which there are restrictions and expectations placed upon the individual by that community. (p. 102)

My students and I created a community within the writing workshop, and children’s writing emerged from and contributed to that community. The community we created was important for the experiences and learn­ing of the children and teachers there. I have discussed some of its dis­turbing aspects. If, as Harris (1989) asserts, we “write not as isolated indi­viduals but as members of communities whose beliefs, concerns, and practices both instigate and constrain, at least in part, the sorts of things we can say” (p. 12), then we had better pay attention to the classroom communities we create.

My first proposed re-vision for our teaching in writing workshops, then, is that teacher response to children’s texts be critically pragmatic, and aimed at promoting an engaged, pluralistic classroom community. Criti­cally pragmatic response is concerned with the intellectual, moral/politi­cal, and aesthetic fruits of children’s texts, both for authors and audiences (Cherryholmes, 1988, 1990). An engaged, pluralistic classroom commu­nity is one that recognizes and affirms differences among children, and encourages children to learn from, be enhanced by, those differences.

This new conception of response has strong affinities to my previ­ous ones, especially response as socioanalysis. Critically pragmatic response emphasizes engaging children in serious conversations about the meanings of their texts. It calls for the examination, with children, of what their texts have to say about who they are, what the world is like, and their relations to it and to each other. Unlike socioanalysis, which looked only to an oppressive society for questionable material, a critical pragmatic response would also pay attention to local, classroom rela­tions and meanings. Furthermore, since texts go public in the writing workshop, the rhetorical play of a child’s texts in the classroom com­munity would be an important consideration and topic of discussion in writing conferences.

Maya’s story, The Zit Fit, forced me to consider the rhetorical effects of her text on other children. I had to decide whether or not I would, above all, support individual student intention. I decided that there were other things to consider, such as how Maya’s text would make Jil feel, and the messages I would be sending children about how we should treat each other in the workshop. The worth of Maya’s project, then, was not judged solely on its importance or meaningfulness to Maya. It was also judged for how it participated in the classroom community.

Critically pragmatic response to children’s texts would be guided by a sense of what sort of community we wanted to encourage and support in the classroom. I have adapted the notion of an engaged, pluralistic class­room community from Bernstein (1988). In his text, Bernstein character­ized what he called the “ethos” of pragmatism in the writings of Pierce, James, Dewey, and others. For Bernstein, an important theme of the prag­matist ethos was the vision of a community of inquirers that supported critical thought and action by its members. He addressed his text to the community of American philosophers (it was a presidential address to the American Philosophical Association), and argued that their community would do well to attempt to live out this pragmatist vision of community.

The central characteristics of an engaged, pluralistic classroom com­munity are suggested by its name. “Pluralistic” recognizes the diversity of children in classrooms, along lines of class, race, and gender, as well as attributes unique to specific individuals. It recognizes the heteroglossia of the voices of children in the classroom, the multiple social and personal intonations and evaluations that children bring to speaking and writing. But the fact that a community is pluralistic is less important than how it responds to that pluralism, what it does with it:

For there is a danger of a fragmenting pluralism where centrifugal forces become so strong that we are only able to communicate with the small group that already shares our own biases, and no longer even experience the need to talk with others outside this cir­cle. … There is a polemical pluralism where the appeal to plural­ism doesn’t signify a genuine willingness to listen and learn from others, but becomes rather an ideological weapon to advance one’s own orientation. There is defensive pluralism, a form of tokenism, where we pay lip service to others “doing their own thing” but are already convinced that there is nothing important to be learned from them. (Bernstein, 1988, p. 15)

An engaged pluralistic classroom community embraces a different, more desirable, response to pluralism than the responses listed above. I use the word “engaged” to suggest three characteristics of the work and lives of children and teachers in such a community.

First, engaged refers to the participation of all children in the com­munity’s important activities. It carries, then, the political connotations of voice that I discussed in Chapter 1. Being engaged, like coming to voice, refers to children asserting themselves in public spaces, having their stories told and listened to by the class. If children are to learn from and about each other, to learn through their differences as well as their simi­larities, this participation is essential.

It is the other who makes us aware both of her concreteness and her otherness. Without engagement, confrontation, dialogue and even a “struggle for recognition” in the Hegelian sense, we tend to constitute the otherness of the other by projection and fantasy or ignore it in indifference. (Benhabib, 1992, p. 168)

Teacher response, here, would look for ways to help and encourage chil­dren (such as Jessie and Karen) to make their texts available to larger audiences, and have those texts taken seriously.

Second, engaged refers to children paying attention to the needs of others in their immediate classroom community, learning to care for each other (Gilligan, 1982). When I talked with Maya about her story, I was asking her to consider the consequences of her text for other children. I was asking her to listen to and be concerned for another, particular child–Jil–who Maya apparently did not feel she had to consider.

Finally, engaged refers to the teacher’s participation in this community, and recognizes the teacher’s responsibility for encouraging and sustaining this, and not that, classroom community. It recognizes that the teacher will use her power as an adult and teacher in the classroom to influence the beliefs, concerns, and practices of the members of that community. At times, as in the Maya case, the teacher will restrict student action that could harm other children, and undermine the goal that all children actively par­ticipate in the making and remaking of the classroom conununity through the stories they tell and the responses they give to each other.

But teacher engagement, like student engagement, also refers to the teacher being open to, learning from, and caring for the children he works with. When the teacher is engaged with children, he is enriched by the fictional worlds they create on the page, and gains insights into his own and others’ lives as he listens to children talk and interpret their own. He has the responsibilty to care for children, nurture their growth, enrich their lives.

Critically pragmatic response to children’s texts would concern itself with the consequences of children’s texts, both for the children who write them, and those who read them. Such response would seek to sup­port a classroom community

based upon mutual respect, where we are willing to risk our own prejudgments, are open to listening and learning from others, and we respond to others with responsiveness and responsibility. (Bernstein, 1988, p. 18)

I have proposed critically pragmatic response to children’s texts as one re-vision to writing workshop approaches. My second re-vision is greater teacher participation in the determination of the writing projects children pursue in the classroom. Specifically, I suggest that teachers frame collec­tive writing projects focused on important texts in children’s lives. Our goals to support student voice and to create engaged, pluralistic classroom communities with children may be well served by such projects.

In my sketch of this re-vision, I first discuss Scholes’ (1985) notion of textual power, as a reminder of why we should care about children com­ing to voice in writing workshops, and concern ourselves with the ends to which children put their voices. Then, I criticize the curriculum-work writing workshop approaches have envisioned for teachers and students in the past, and discuss an alternative.

Scholes (1985) writes of textual power as “the power to select (and there­fore to suppress), the power to shape and present certain aspects of human experience” (p. 20). In the selection of this and not that, in the particular slant and tone a writer takes, certain things are being valued over others, saying this is (and this is not) important, the truth, beautiful. Scholes argues that textual power should be the focus of our work with students and texts:

We have always known this, but in the past we have often been content to see this power vested in the single literary work, the ver­bal icon, and we have been all too ready to fall down and worship such golden calves so long as we could serve as their priests and priestesses. We must help our students come into their own powers of textualization. We must help them see that every poem, play, and story is a text related to others, both verbal pretexts and social sub­texts, and all manner of posttexts including their own responses, whether in speech, writing, or action. The response to a text is itself always a text. Our knowledge is itself only a dim text that brightens as we express it. (p. 20)

I like Scholes’ conception of textual power for its location of meaning in the interaction of texts and people. He avoids, as I often did not in my early thinking about voice, the Romantic move to locate meaning primar­ily in the self-expression of an isolated author. The author is always writ­ing in response to the words she was born into and within which she learned to think and speak. In response, she selects and appropriates oth­ers’ words and gives them, with more or less effectiveness and courage, her own characteristic slant or “intonation” (Bakhtin, 1981).

It is also important that Scholes uses the word “power.” Texts have the power to shape our conceptions of the world and our relations to each other. Their power is tied up with seeing the world in some ways and not others. Writing workshop advocates have largely avoided con­sidering the good and bad such power can work. One way they have done this, as I have suggested in earlier chapters, is by construing the child as capable of only innocent intentions and content. They would have teachers efface themselves before children’s texts, rather than truly engage them by considering their content. A second way they have avoided questions of power is to focus on the authors of texts, and not their audiences; to treat texts primarily as expressions of personal cre­ativity, rather than rhetorical objects. One gets the sense that children’s texts in workshops are important, but primarily to the people who write them, not to those who read them. It is important that other children read these texts, but not because they might enjoy them or learn something. Rather, the author needs an audience. Workshop approaches ignore the work texts do in the world:

We care about texts for many reasons, not the least of which is that they bring us news that alters our way of interpreting things. If this were not the case, the Gospels and the teachings of Karl Marx would have fallen upon deaf ears. Textual power is ultimately power to change the world. (Scholes, 1985, p. 165)

My stories of James, Maya, and others, were stories about textual power put to various ends. One moral of those stories is that teachers must participate in shaping the ends toward which textual power is put by children. A laissez-faire attitude may very well allow status and power differences from the playground and society to assert themselves in the official work of the writing workshop. Children who are still learning about the consequences of their actions may hurt themselves and others in the process. Teacher response to children’s texts is one way to influ­ence the ends of children’s textual power. Another is through collective writing projects.

Workshop approaches have traditionally focused on individual children pursuing individual projects. More recently, Calkins (1991) and her col­leagues have begun to experiment with what they call “genre studies.” In genre studies, the teacher and children in workshops focus, at various points during the year, on reading and writing a particular genre (for example, biography). Genre studies are examples of what I am calling collective writing projects. By this, I simply mean projects that a teacher and students pursue more or less together, as a class. They could focus on producing some type of group product, such as a student magazine, or focus on individual products connected by a common theme or prob­lem. Genre studies place a particular genre of texts at the center of the work of teachers and students in the writing workshop.

I think the idea of genre studies is an important development. It rec­ognizes that children may benefit from being able to produce some kinds of texts that they would not choose or even have access to with­out teacher intervention (Florio-Ruane & Lensmire, 1989; Martin, 1989). Writing workshop approaches have traditionally assumed that teacher determination of topics and genres for student writing necessarily undermines children’s motivations to write and their development as writers. Hogan (1987), a teacher-researcher strongly influenced by workshop approaches, argues against such a view. In her work with col­lege freshmen, she found that some students tended to fall back on what they could do or knew well, seldom challenging themselves with new topics or forms. My work, which highlights the importance of risk and peer influence in children’s writing processes and texts, cautions us from assuming that children are unconstrained in their writerly decisions once teacher restrictions on topic or form are removed. Thus, teacher­ assigned genres and topics may not be limiting, but actually expand stu­dent chances for growth in writing.

Genre studies are a new, positive development for workshop approaches. But from the standpoint of the purposes reading and writing might serve in writing workshops, they are not new at all. For workshop advocates are again avoiding critical work with the content, the messages of texts. Students have been the determiners of content in the workshop. Teachers have been responsible for a craft curriculum, for sharing tricks of the trade with young writers. The move to genre studies simply continues this emphasis: Part of the curriculum for which teachers are responsible is teaching children about formal aspects of texts and their production. This is important, and is surely part of helping children acquire textual power, helping them understand how texts are put together, how they work. But what is missing is any real concern with the ideas, values, and interests that texts express. Literature, and its read­ing, interpretation, and criticism, must become a more important part of workshop approaches.

It is not that literature has not been a significant part of the curricu­lum of writing workshops. Graves and Calkins want children to be sur­rounded by literature written by children and adults. But for what pur­pose(s)? An extended quote from Graves (1983) should help here:

At every turn the teacher seeks to have children live the literature. The most important living occurs at the point at which children make literature themselves through writing. … Teachers try to make the literature “live” by bringing in authors, showing drafts and the processes by which authors write. They share their own writing and the drafts used to arrive at final products. They read about how authors compose, finding drafts of their work, or statements by chil­dren’s authors about how they compose their books for chil­dren. … The mystique of authorship is removed that children may find out the beauty and depth of information contained in lit­erature itself. It is removed that children might learn to think and experience the joys of authorship themselves. (pp. 75, 76)

This quote from Graves captures some of the most progressive aspects of writing workshop approaches. The idea that teachers should “demystify” authorship is crucial for our attempts to help children take on the role of author, and assert their power to shape and order the world in that role. Graves and workshop advocates want to share the “beauty and depth of information” of literature, its cognitive and aesthetic power, with children; a vision that stands in stark contrast to the piles of work­sheets many children face each day in reading and language arts classes.

But I am frustrated with Graves’ discussion of literature here, for sim­ilar reasons that I was frustrated with Murray’s (1985) discussion of writ­ing conferences. Writing conferences, if you remember, were supposed to be “professional discussions” among writers about “what works” in the texts students produce. Where is criticism? Workshop advocates embrace only the most limited senses of the term–a piece’s effectiveness in rela­tion to its intentions, or its success or failure in relation to “literary norms of its mode or genre” (Scholes, 1985, p. 23). Writing is a craft, granted. But writing is also an ideological activity, in that it involves meaning, world views, moral and political positions that select and bend facts toward particular ends (Volosinov, 1973; Eagleton, 1991).

Lost then, in workshop approaches’ uses of literature, is any real concern with ideas, values, and their relation to what sort of world we hope to live in and how we want to treat and be treated by others. Lost is any serious attention to criticism, as a “critique of the themes devel­oped in a given fictional text, or a critique of the codes themselves, out of which a given text has been constructed” (Scholes, 1985, p. 23). Criti­cism involves evaluating a text’s themes and codes against a system of values. It involves “human, ethical, and political reactions” to the mean­ings of texts.

Another type of collective writing project, then, is needed. In addi­tion to those projects, such as genre studies, that focus on helping children produce certain forms or genres of texts, children should also have opportunities to read and write, critically, in response to texts (of course, certain genres–such as reviews–are largely defined by such a critical response). In other words, children would read biographies not only in order to write them, or to learn skills of the craft of writing (as important as this work is); they would also read biographies in order to write responses to the subject’s treatment of children, or critiques of the biog­rapher’s treatment of the subject. Grumet (1988) points to the purpose of making such work an important part of the writing workshop curriculum: “the desire to establish a world for children that is richer, larger, more col­orful, and more accessible than the one we have known” (p. xii).

Writing workshop approaches have sought to enrich children’s (and teachers’) lives in schools by allowing them to bring their pulsing worlds into the mechanical, dry space. What these approaches have largely ignored is how to enrich children’s worlds with critical work on texts­–work that would enlarge, affirm, and call into question the experiences children bring with them from family and community. Teachers of writ­ing should embrace the curricular task of identifying texts upon which (and against which) children and teachers will work. These texts would be at the center of at least some of the collective projects children pur­sue in classrooms. Other projects would focus on producing (reproduc­ing) certain genres and forms–as in genre studies.

Where do we get these important texts, and how do we know one when we see one? Part of the answer to the second question rests with who gets to say a text is important or not. Adults and children are two groups with consequential assessments of the relative importance of vari­ous texts, and of course, these assessments can be at odds. One of the challenges of collective writing projects will be finding texts that both groups deem worthy of attention and labor (the difficulty of which Dewey (1956) underestimated, I think, in his The Child and the Curriculum). I do not underestimate the difficulty of this task, but will only note here that workshop approaches have traditionally solved this problem by giving responsibility over to children for selecting the important texts–that is, the personal narratives and descriptions drawn from children’s memories and interests. Atwell (1987) writes that workshops are “student-centered in the sense that individuals’ rigorous pursuit of their own ideas is the course content” (p. 41). But there are at least two other sources teachers and stu­dents might draw on for important texts. These sources are what I will call the official and unofficial canons (see Carroll, 1988, for his discussion of what I am calling the unofficial canon–his term is “vulgar canon”).

Critical work with the official canon–with the texts that are already in schools and classrooms, that have already been certified as important for children by teachers, parents, university experts, state and federal policies–is essential. This canon is represented by children’s books in the library, reading basals, and language arts, math, and history text­books. There are, of course, continuing struggles over this canon on many levels within the educational system and across society–from par­ent efforts to censor novels for young adults in the library, to the adop­tion by teacher and administration committees of this and not that basal series, to Hirsch (1987) prescribing the story of George Washington and the Cherry Tree as a neutral bit of information we need to read (I side with McLaren, 1988, in his critical response to Hirsch and other expo­nents of “cultural literacy”).

The unofficial canon is made up of texts children encounter in their homes and on the streets–movies, cartoons, TV shows, song lyrics, jokes, magazines, stories told them in catechisms and by their parents and grandparents. These texts are, as Carroll (1988) notes, often much more important to students than texts from the official canon. It might seem strange for teachers to appropriate some of these texts for use in workshops, especially if our goals are to enlarge and transform the everyday worlds of our children–these texts are part of the everyday. But the inclusion of texts from the unofficial canon is important for at least three reasons.

First, these texts are important to children. TV shows about Freddy Krueger and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Mom’s story about accidently popping a wheelie on a motorcycle, are texts children choose to bring into the writing workshop themselves, exactly because these texts interest them and are important for their experiences. This does not mean that any particular text from the unofficial canon will be important to all children–several children in my class, for example, were much more interested in the chapter in their science textbook on the solar sys­tem than they were with the Ninja Turtles. Second, as unofficial texts, these texts often contain oppositional elements important for criticism of more official ones (Shor, 1986). That is, the clash of meanings and values that occur as unofficial and official canons are brought into interaction has promise for helping us and children understand both sets of texts better.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, if our goal is to enlarge and transform the worlds of children, then one of the ways we can do this is by helping them learn to read and question the everyday texts of the unofficial canon. Scholes (1989) provides stunning examples of such reading and criticism in his analysis of a beer commercial that sells its beer as we root for the black baseball umpire in his showdown with a grizzled, white manager, “because we want the system to work–not just baseball but the whole thing: America” (p. 123); and in his analysis of magazine advertising that “goes for the sexual jugular” (p. 118). Chris­tensen (1991) and Pang (1991) discuss such work with high school and elementary students, in projects that examine children’s stories, cartoons, and films for their stereotypical race and gender portrayals.

My point is that we do not want the textual power of these pervasive texts from the unofficial canon to overpower our students. I should emphasize, however, that we want to take a similar stance to the texts of the official canon as well. They wield considerable textual power, par­ticularly with the various institutional endorsements that make them offi­cial. We do not want children to give themselves over to these texts too quickly or too easily–to their “beauty and depths of information.”

Collective writing projects with important texts as “problems to be solved”–either in the production of certain genres of texts, or in the reading, interpretation, and criticism of texts–hold promise for our goals of helping children empower themselves in their reading and writing. The expansion of the curriculum of writing workshops to include critical work with important texts from official and unofficial canons could enlarge children’s repertoire of forms and purposes for writing, and enrich and transform their conceptions of themselves and the world around them. In addition to these possible benefits, I see at least three other reasons for considering collective writing projects.

The first is that such projects may reduce risks associated with writing and self-exposure for students. Writing workshop approaches have focused on personal narratives and topics. Collective projects, while allowing for and encouraging personal stances and individual­ized solutions to textual problems, would focus on texts and their pro­duction and criticism, rather than on children’s personal lives. The risk of exposure, on some level, is unavoidable: When we write or speak we make assertions and express interests and values, and these can be discerned and criticized. But in collective projects, children’s texts would be shared and exposed, not necessarily their personal lives. Children may feel more comfortable asserting themselves in the pub­lic spaces workshops provide, if the demand is not made that they put so much of themselves there (Mccarthey, 1992). (Obviously, the study and writing of autobiographies, for example, would reintroduce risks related to exposure of personal material, as might biographies of par­ents, relatives.)

Second, there seem to be greater possibilities for community-build­ing in workshops with collective projects than in workshops with indi­vidualized ones. I associate these possibilities with the focus for chil­dren’s activity that collective problems provide. The focus on producing and/or criticizing specific texts may lessen chances for children to turn on each other. Children’s activity can turn to many ends, some of which we want to support, others which we do not. With collective projects, we support certain peer relations, not by intervening at the level of outward behavior, but at the level of curriculum, by directing their attention to a common problem to be solved. Furthermore, collective problems at the center of activity may mean that individual contributions can “add up,” contribute towards the knowledge of the group as it tries to solve textual problems, in ways that individual solutions to individual problems do not. There seems a better chance that children themselves will see and acknowledge the contributions of others when those contributions help in common efforts to produce or respond to important texts.

Finally, and related to possibilities for community-building, collec­tive projects assume and project a vision of empowerment that I find more in line with my own notions of change as a product of individual and collective struggle. Workshop advocates, when they consider the relation of their work to larger societal and political issues, tend to con­ceive of change in terms of individual action and dissent. Berlin (1988) provides a powerful reading and critique of workshop approaches firmly embedded within what he calls an “expressionistic rhetoric.” He argues that this rhetoric, represented most ably by writers such as Murray and Elbow, does provide a powerful “denunciation of economic, political, and social pressures to conform” (p. 486). The problem for Berlin is that while this rhetoric champions resistance to dehumanizing forces and conditions, it is always (and only) individual resistance:

The only hope in a society working to destroy the uniqueness of the individual is for each of us to assert our individuality against the tyranny of the authoritarian corporation, state, and society. Strate­gies for doing so must of course be left to the individual, each light­ing one small candle in order to create a brighter world. (p. 487)

Grant Berlin his sarcasm, and his point. Workshop approaches emphasize individual voice and projects, and, as I learned in this third grade classroom, these projects can pursue ends in conflict with our hopes for a classroom community in which children respect one another, and all children feel safe and supported in their efforts to acquire power over the texts they read and write. Collective classroom projects offer the possibility that children will learn how to work together, and learn the value of such collective efforts in solving problems that they face. I am not envisioning some always-friendly, smooth classroom of consensus. I am envisioning an engaged pluralistic community, in which differences among children promote learning (and are not necessarily resolved). Col­lective projects hold out the possibility that children will recognize the power of joining together and sharing their knowledge and strength; they hold out the possibility of undermining some of the individualism and competition our schools and society often engender.


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