I thought my story would be a different one. I would teach writing for a year in a third grade public school classroom, struggling a little at first to get a writing workshop running with children who had only exercised their pens filling in worksheet blanks. I would research my own teaching and students’ learning. But the workshop would run, and I would focus my attention on what I took to be its heart: talking with individual children in relatively isolated, intimate conversations about their writing–what they were trying to do, what help they needed. Occasionally, I would have to engage children’s texts in a sort of ideological critique, pointing to traces of classism, sexism, racism, fighting society’s impress on their meanings and values. In the freedom of the workshop, children would choose their topics and purposes for writing, develop their ways of working texts, and write. They would go to each other, they would come to me, for help. My third grade students would write themselves on the page, move, be heard, in a place that habitually constrained their voices and bodies to teacher questions, to desks. Our workshop would be a little Emersonian democracy; Dewey’s embryonic community.

I did teach writing for a year, and the children and I did struggle to find a way to go about our work. I talked with children about their texts, and important, fascinating, funny, worthy-of-telling things happened. The children flexed their muscles, wrote, were heard. All of this happened, and I could have told this gratifying story of workshop life without lying–but I would have been lying. Lying because children are not only the Romantic, innocent little beings that appear in the stories of workshop advocates. Lying, because neither workshop approaches, nor the role they envision for teachers, are so innocent.

Writing workshop approaches to the teaching of writing emphasize increased control by students over their own writing activities and texts. As I shifted control over aspects of the work of literacy to children in this third grade classroom, children’s relations with each other became extremely important for their experiences and writing in the workshop. These relations included the rejection, by children, of members of the other sex[1] as partners in collaborative work, and peer hierarchies granting those girls and boys at the top status and influence, and those at the bottom the brunt of teasing and exclusion. This “hidden curriculum” of the peer culture–a hidden curriculum that I had experienced as a child on the playground and on the bus to school (and had forgotten); that I had experienced as a junior high teacher around the edges of my English class, when I turned from the blackboard in time to see the love letter passed, or saw the tears in Darrel’s eyes after another round of whispered abuse from a classmate (and had forgotten)–this hidden curriculum of the peer culture asserted itself in important ways within the official work of our third grade writing workshop. And, I suppose, it was supposed to. Workshop approaches invite the lives of children into the classroom. Children’s lives include their relations with each other, in and out of school.

My story focuses on this underside of our workshop community. I examine how a peer culture with gender divisions and informal hierarchies of status and power shaped the production and sharing of texts in our writing workshop. Stated more directly, I worry about how children evaluated each other and divided themselves up along social class and gender lines, despite my interventions as a teacher in this classroom. I explore how certain children silenced other children, in a classroom situation explicitly created to assure that all children’s voices would sound and be heard.

In some sense, my story works for a recovery of memory, by asking (and helping) us to remember what it was like to be a child, have friends and enemies, play, tease, and be teased. We are often invited to remember our childhoods in the stories of books and movies. But my story also asks us to look to the future , especially to our futures in classrooms, and ask: What do our experiences and those of the children in my classroom mean for how we teach and learn?

These problems have not been taken up in any serious way by writing workshop advocates and other progressive educators and researchers who call for the increased liberation of student intention and association in classrooms–most likely because such writers have pointed, often with good reason, to the traditional teacher and textbook as the primary enemies of student voice in schools. Writing workshop advocates such as Donald Graves (1983), Lucy Calkins (1986), and Donald Murray (1968), tend to tell success stories. Writers such as Anne Dyson (1989) and Vivian Paley (1989, 1990) tell much more complex stories, and do point to peer relations as sources of conflict and toil. But even these stories have a Candide-like quality in which everything, in the end, is for the best. Everything, in the end, is not for the best.

Typically, children compose very little in schools. The writing that is done is tightly controlled by the teacher who initiates writing tasks; determines audience, purpose, and format for the writing; and acts as the sole audience and evaluator. There is little opportunity for revision, and the purpose of such school writing is often to display academic mastery in evaluative contexts. In such situations, students’ technical competence to write, and their motivation to use writing in ways that enrich and transform their lives, suffer (Applebee, 1981; Doyle, 1986; Florio-Ruane & Dunn, 1985). Traditional writing instruction functions, then, much like other traditional forms of pedagogy to silence students, deny student experiences and meanings, and alienate students from the teaching and learning they encounter in schools (Everhart, 1983; Freire, 1970, 1985; Waller, 1932).

In contrast, writing workshop approaches emphasize providing opportunities for students to engage in and practice the craft of writing. A central theme within such approaches is student ownership: Students have wide powers to determine the topics, audiences, purposes, and forms of their texts. Such control is in the service of student voice. With the support of the teacher and numerous opportunities to collaborate and share texts with peers, children are supposed to gradually become more and more able to realize their intentions in text. This is the primary goal of such approaches.

Workshop approaches are part of a more general and varied push to teach writing “as a process” (Hairston, 1982). Process writing approaches conceive of writing as a complex cognitive and communicative act, framed by a purpose, and made up of various recursive phases or stages, such as drafting, revision, editing, and publishing (Applebee, 1986). Within such approaches, teachers focus on helping children work through the writing process. Willinsky (1990) provides an even broader home for writing workshop and process approaches within “The New Literacy,” his name for approaches to the teaching of reading, writing, and literature, that share a commitment to increased control by students over meaning and texts in the classroom, with consequent changes in the roles and activities of teachers and students there.

I remain sympathetic to, and see my work as contributing to, “New Literacy” efforts. It is essential to put meaning-making at the center of literacy work with children, to enliven and transform classrooms with the voices and texts of children. But we need to critically appropriate the assumptions and practices of workshop approaches, something I had barely begun to do as I started my teaching and research at Clifford Elementary School in the fall of 1989. Looking back, I would say of myself and my assumptions something like William Morris said of a fellow 19th century socialist, Sidney Webb, who thought evolutionary processes assured the coming of socialism:

He is so anxious to prove the commonplace that our present industrial system embraces some of the machinery by means of which a socialist system might be worked … that his paper tends to produce the impression of one who thinks that we are already in the first stage of socialist life. … [Webb overestimates] the importance of the mechanism of a system of society apart from the end towards which it may be used. (cited in Williams, 1983, p. 183)

I put too much faith in a workshop “system,” in its processes and routines, and had not worried enough about its content and ends. Or, perhaps more correctly, it was not until I had lived and worked in a writing workshop with young children for an extended period of time that I realized there was reason for worry. The third graders in my class–James, Maya, Jil, Karen, John, Jessie, and the rest[2]–taught me much about workshop approaches, much about themselves and writing in classrooms, about teaching and its responsibilities.

As a teacher-researcher in this writing workshop, I wanted to study what the commitment to increased student control over the work of literacy entailed for my teaching and my students’ learning and experiences. I brought interpretive research assumptions and methods (Bogdan & Biklen, 1982; Erickson, 1986; Hammersly & Atkinson, 1983) to this work, and collected the following types of data:


  1. Fieldnotes. I wrote fieldnotes following each day of teaching. These notes included general narratives of the day’s teaching, as well as reflections on specific pedagogical and methodological problems and issues.
  2. Teacher and classroom documents. I collected lesson plans, lists of rules and procedures, forms, sign-in book used in writing workshop library, notes to students and parents, etc. These documents provided written records of teacher and student intentionality (Burton, 1985), and enabled me to reexamine what we had hoped would happen, in order to juxtapose these hopes against what actually occurred in the classroom.
  3. Audiotapes. Starting in October, I taped whole-class sessions and writing conferences with children in order to do close analyses of discourse in various workshop situations.
  4. Student interviews. Twenty-four of twenty-seven children in the class participated in interviews conducted at the end of the school year by colleagues of mine. The extended interviews focused on the sense students were making of the writing workshop, and included questions that explored children’s relations with one another and with their teachers, and how these relations influenced their writing.
  5. Student writing. Students’ written work–both rough drafts and finished pieces–was photocopied throughout the year. These texts were essential for analyzing the material and genres children pursued in their writing, and how children’s texts were related to the immediate social context.

In this book, I pursue three interrelated subjects, and work productively at the boundaries of more traditional research in elementary classrooms.

The first subject is my experiences as a teacher in this writing workshop–a teacher committed to helping children “come to voice,” both in the sense of the expression of a unique self, and the sense of greater public participation in the cultural work of naming and renaming the world and their places in it (hooks, 1989). I write from the point of view of a teacher-researcher of writing who hopes not only to understand what is happening, but also to act effectively and responsibly in response (Bissex & Bullock, 1987; Goswami & Stillman, 1987). In such work, the classroom becomes a “philosophical laboratory,” a site for the application and revision of theory through practice (Berthoff, 1987).

The second subject of my book is the examination of writing workshop approaches as an agenda for writing classrooms, and as a strategy for the creation of more humane and just forms of life in school and society. Writing workshop assumptions, goals and practices are scrutinized and revised. To accomplish this, I confront workshop approaches with the concerns and insights of the language and literacy theories of Bakhtin (1981, 1986), and the critical pedagogy and theory perspectives of Freire (1970, 1985) and Habermas (1984, 1987), among others. I bring literary and philosophical perspectives to my analyses that have informed some work on composition pedagogy and theory at the college level (eg., Berlin, 1988; Faigley, 1986; Harris, 1987), but that have seldom been used to illuminate work with elementary students.

My students’ experiences in this writing workshop is the final and dominant subject of my book. Children’s intentions for writing, their relations with peers and teachers, their struggles, their texts, are at the heart of this work. Erickson and Shultz (1992) have noted that

Virtually no research has been done that places student experience at the center of attention. We do not see student interests and their known and unknown fears. … Classroom research typically does not ask what the student is up to. (pp. 467, 468)

What my third grade students were “up to” in this writing workshop is the primary theme of my book, and drives my exploration and criticism of writing workshop goals and practices.

In my first chapter, “Beginnings,” I articulate the goals for teaching writing that I brought to my work with these third graders, and elaborate my initial conception of the teacher’s role in writing workshops. I begin to examine what happened to these hopes and intentions in my second chapter, “Teacher-Researcher Practice.” The chapter traces three progressions in my work and thought as a teacher-researcher: a move from being the writing teacher to a writing teacher in the room; the evolution of my research methods in the face of conflicting teacher and researcher demands; and a shifting research focus, from primary concern with my own experiences as a teacher to an emphasis on student experiences and writing within the social context of the workshop.

I take up the experiences and texts of my third grade students in the core chapters of my book. Chapter 3, “Student Intention and Relations,” focuses on the texts and activities of a popular and powerful group of boys in the classroom, led by James. I argue that James and his friends asserted their dominant position among peers not only in their face-to-face interactions with others, but also in subtle ways in their texts. I show how these young writers resisted teacher interventions into their writing, and drew on gender arrangements and common forms of teasing between boys and girls to provoke response from peers.

In chapter 4, “Peer Audiences and Risk,” and chapter 5, “Fiction, Distance and Control,” I concentrate on children with little status and influence among peers, and use discussions of their experiences to characterize common student responses to this workshop as a context for writing and sharing texts. I draw heavily on children’s interviews, as well as children’s texts and classroom vignettes, in order to specify:


  • the risks that children, especially unpopular children, associated with writing for peer audiences;
  • children’s responses to those risks, which included rejecting certain peers as audiences, and avoiding genres and topics that involved too much exposure of self; and
  • the reasons children in this workshop preferred fictional narratives to the personal narratives I encouraged them to write , which included their belief that fiction involved less responsibility for what was written, and a sense of control and pleasure in the writing of fiction that they did not feel when writing about what “really happened.”

Children’s texts participated, for better and for worse, in the social lives of children in the workshop. My sixth chapter, “Teacher Response to Children’s Texts,” tells the story of my response to Maya’s text, The Zit Fit: The Lovers in the School. Maya, a popular child in the class, wanted to publish a fictional narrative that I read as an attack on an unpopular classmate. I explore how my response was caught up in the social relations, norms, and public sharing of texts in the writing workshop, as well as larger debates on the status of texts in the world and writers’ responsibilities for what they write.

Across these core chapters, I challenge workshop advocates’ Romantic portrayals of children and writing–portrayals that tend to abstract young writers and their texts from social context, and place the meanings and values of their texts beyond criticism. In my final chapter, “Workshop Re-Visions,” I link a revised conception of children as writers to two proposals for change in the work of teachers in writing workshops. The first is a revised conception of teacher response to children’s text; the second, an increased role for teachers as curriculum-makers in writing classrooms.

The overall goal of these revisions, as well as the close examination of children’s experiences and writing in this writing workshop, is to articulate and address problems and issues that teachers face when they teach in ways that respect student agency and voice, but that have not been adequately treated in the how-to books of workshop advocates, in research on teaching and learning writing, and in discussions of progressive and radical approaches to education. In what follows, I bring some of these problems to our larger collective conversation on teaching and learning in schools.

  1. When I wrote this book in the early 1990s, ‘other sex’ was considered progressive and an improvement on the conventional ‘opposite sex.’ I note here, then, that what follows is the original text from the 1994 edition of When children write and that I have not done revisions to represent my current understandings of gender and sexuality, social class, and race.
  2. These and all other student and school personnel names are pseudonyms, as is the name of the school; see Appendix for discussion of my use of pseudonyms.


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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.