Foreword to the 2nd edition

I’m grateful that Tim invited me to write the foreword for this book. Fortunately, the pretense of objectivity isn’t required for book forewords because I wouldn’t be able to summon such a stance. In fact, I’ll start by telling something I have already admitted to Tim. Early in my career, as a finalist for a faculty position, I learned through informal networks that one of the other finalists was Tim Lensmire. Upon hearing this news, I about gave up. Although I did not know him at the time, I so admired his work that I assumed there would be no way for me to get the position. Luckily, he canceled his campus visit, thus leaving the position open for the likes of me. We laughed about that years later when I was hired at the University of Minnesota where Tim and I became close colleagues and I continued to learn from his work and evolution as a scholar.

To explain my longstanding interest in Tim’s work, in August of 1993, I had just begun my dissertation research, a year-long ethnography of the literary culture of a 5th/6th-grade progressive classroom. I approached this work with the view that much of the writing on readers’ workshop and reading circles did not take into account the social codes and practices within and beyond the classroom that shape the way children read and respond to texts and to each other. There wasn’t much out in the K-12 literacy world at the time to challenge romantic notions of progressive classrooms but these challenges were central to work in postsecondary writing studies, from which I took my cues. Then, presto, in early Spring of 1994 (while still collecting data), that would change. Tim’s first book, When Children Write: Critical Re-Visions of the Writing Workshop had been published, and it was just what the field–-and I-–needed.

The writing workshop model assumed that when teachers shared power with students, albeit with predictable structures in place, students would have the mind space to construct a writing self within an idealized community of learners. Of course, this has never been the case, and Tim’s book was one of the first to reveal the underbelly of the workshop as children in his classroom vied for each other’s attention in ways that sometimes humiliated their classmates and reproduced normative and debilitating structures of gender and social class. Further, his book shows that the “free” in free choice and the “individual” in individual voice isn’t very free or individual at all. Rather, they are shaped by pernicious social inequities that are reproduced in children’s relationships with media, culture, and each other. In short, practices and beliefs within the culture of the classroom were created through and against competing interests and differential power relations.

And yet … and yet. That’s not the whole story. Tim’s book draws on Bakhtin to help us understand that a structural view of classroom life and learning are not sufficiently attuned to the densely heteroglossic interactions and dialogic complexity of social worlds. We see it among the third-grade children in Tim’s class who sometimes delight in amusing their readers at the expense of others, sometimes suffer, sometimes withdraw, and, alas, sometimes assert themselves. As Tim puts it, at these times, children “took evaluative positions, expressed interests, valued this and not that”. I’ve seen these small transformations in my own work, often when idealized classroom rituals are disrupted in some way and students emerge from that liminal and potentially carnivalesque space with some new sense of who they have been and who they want to be in that classroom. This healthy disequilibrium, when it works in classrooms and in life, is a dynamic function of language that allows each of us to “create new ways of being” as Dorothy Holland and her colleagues (1998, p. 5) put it, allowing us to reinvent ourselves in relation to texts and each other in continuously emerging contexts.

Ironically, writing workshops expect and depend on students who are willing to produce what might be viewed as a schooled and regulated passion for writing. The messiness, humiliation, frustration, anger, and anxiety that most of us feel at least some of the time when we write— and that would surely come out sideways if we were required to write with others on a daily basis—create anxiety for workshop teachers. Tim ends this book arguing for more curricular direction from teachers. Drawing on the pragmatism of Dewey, Tim suggests that children need a project that can capture their common interests, imaginations, and shared texts. One might see the offering of a project as serving a teacher’s need for order, but it is quite the opposite. In fact, Tim’s work suggests to me that by taking the responsibility for setting up a classroom where children can engage in a worthy project, students can let go of the teacher’s need for them to be self-regulating and instead get caught up in the communal process of sense-making and learning how to be together. Tim’s “critical re-visions of the writing workshop” carry the weight of someone who has lived its challenges as a teacher, and the gravitas of an exceptional scholar who draws on theoretical work in ways that are deeply foundational to the work ahead.

Cynthia Lewis
University of California, Santa Cruz


Holland, D., W. Lachicotte, D. Skinner, and C. Cain. (1998). Identity and Agency in Cultural Worlds. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.


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