Foreword to the 1st edition

In her latest book of essays, Adrienne Rich says she writes best “in solitude in dialogue with community.” Writing workshop classrooms around the country are trying to create just that environment for all students, as children hear or read each other’s compositions and respond as critics to their author peers. Writing workshops may even be considered one of the best examples of “cooperative learning,” so widely advocated for today’s schools.

But, like so many excellent ideas, writing workshops are easier to read about than to enact. One potential problem is that relationships among children now affect not just classroom management and classroom climate but the official curriculum–not just in the talk but in the texts. Whose compositions are appreciated by peers and whose are not? Who enjoys praise and constructive advice and who only feels misunderstood? And, perhaps most difficult of all, what should the teacher do when some children turn their peers into story characters, and then portray those characters in hurtful ways?

Timothy Lensmire is not the first researcher to dare to discuss such problems. Anne Dyson’s new book in this same series on the experiences of first-grade writers in a racially heterogeneous classroom comes immediately to mind. Her vivid narrative and analysis is written by an outside researcher who focuses most intently on the children. What, we wonder, is–or should be–a teacher’s response?

Lensmire is a teacher, and this is his case study of teacher research that led him to rethink his practice of writing workshop with third-grade children. His choice of the term re-vision for that rethinking, instead of the more usual revision, is just right. It does more than catch the reader’s attention with a hyphen. The distinction between revision and re-vision is the same as Gregory Bateson’s distinction between “feedback” and “recalibration” as different ways to perfect adaptive action.

Bateson’s most familiar example contrasts two kinds of control of a home heating system by means of a thermostat: one (using feedback) turns the furnace off and on, moment to moment, in response to information about deviation from a preset standard; the other (recalibration) resets the standard when the resident is dissatisfied with the resulting temperature over some period of time.

Several years ago, two colleagues–Judith Diamond and Paul Naso–and I reviewed teacher research on writing these terms. We assumed that in a best case scenario a writing teacher uses both these learning modes. She gets immediate feedback that influences how she conducts her class and also recalibrates the patterning of past learnings each time she acts in class. That’s the ideal.

In the more likely reality, the teacher gets feedback on the success of a particular strategy, but not on her body of knowledge about teaching and learning that calibrates those strategies. For any teacher, just getting feedback about how to preserve a steady state in the ever-changing classroom life is infinitely more complex than the dichotomous on/off of the thermostat. And more fundamental change in teaching strategies, recalibration in Bateson’s terms, is more complex than in any of his examples.

Lensmire’s account shows how teacher research can be an important aid in this process. He set out to create for his students a writing workshop in which a “community” of writers would share their writing and respond to and nurture each other. But what is the teacher to do when one member’s “self-expression” hurts another member of that community? When, in John Willinsky’s words, “the self finally expressed in student writing is not the one we were hoping to see emerge?”

We follow teacher-researcher Lensmire as he both acts in, and reflects on, the writing workshop in his classroom: planning, arranging, speaking and listening, agonizing, revising, and finally re-visioning–trying new ways to create, within his classroom, that elusive “community.” Whatever the subject we teach, there may be no more important objective for today’s broken world.

Courtney B. Cazden


Bateson, G. (1979). Mind and nature: A necessary unity. New York: E. P. Dutton.

Cazden, C. B. , Diamondstone, J., & Naso, P. (1989). Teachers and researchers: Roles and relationships. The Quarterly of the National Writing Project and the Center for the Study of Writing, 11(4), 1-3, 25-27.

Dyson, A. (1993). Social worlds of children learning to write in an urban primary school. New York: Routledge.

Rich, A. (1993). What is found there: Notebooks on poetry and politics. New York: W.W. Norton.

Willinsky, J. (1990). The new literacy: Redefining reading and writing in the schools. New York: Routledge.


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