Thinking Critically About Writing Workshop

I wanted to reflect on some questions Stephanie Jones, one of my former T.C. professors and author of Engaged Intellectuals, presents at the end of chapter 11 in her book Girls, Social Class, and Literacy. She asks readers to consider some questions about the Writing Workshop they teach. Here are her questions and my answers:

1. How are students positioned in Writing Workshop by you, the teacher? By other students?

I position my students to have quite a bit of freedom. I ask them to write within a particular genre, but give them freedom of topic choice. I try to make them feel as though they are the authors of their lives. I call them writers. I think, based on the Midyear Self-Evaluations I received back from my students, most of themselves do (now) consider themselves as writers.
As far as the way other students position each other, I feel that they see some of their peers as stronger writers than others. When I see that happened, I try to help position strugglers in a more powerful way, using their writing as examples in my connections, demonstrations, mid-workshop interruptions and shares. I’ve noticed that when this happens, other students seek those students out for assistance.

2. Which positions are productive? Counterproductive?

Anything that gives students some ownership over their writing, is productive. However, when a student feels too powerful, “I’m the king of personal narrative writing!” something is gravely wrong.

Two years ago, one of my students was deemed the “Chief of Story Surgery.” This was productive since she wasn’t conceited about it. Further, she always helped her peers cut and paste their writing back together (and helped them write more before sutchering). This was a highly productive position for her in my classroom. (Further, she was positioned as a doctor, which is a typically male role. This was my way of showing my girls that they can be doctors. In fact, heads of departments, like Chief of Surgery!)

3. Do students’ texts ever perpetuate damaging stereotypes?

Sometimes. During my second year of teaching, when my kids were writing fiction, there was a lot of violence in their writing. They wanted to write about gangs and other things that they hear about, or perhaps see, around our community. This bothered me since I don’t want them writing violent pieces, but I allowed it since I didn’t want to shut them down. On the other hand, we don’t live in a perfect world, so why should I make kids write about fluff?

Also, many of the students I had last year spent the previous year (before me) out of W.W. They wrote stories in response to “America’s Next Top Model.” Again, problematic for me since I don’t want my girls to see modeling as the #1 career option for them. It’s okay if they want to become models, but writing and fantasizing about did not seem healthy to me. Therefore, I told them no stories about “America’s Next Top Model” when they entered my class. And ya know what one of my former students wrote on her midyear self-eval last year? “I’ve also learned that writing about me is so much better than writing fairy tales like I used to do.” Wow!

4. How can a critical literacy perspective help writers reconsider how and why they write texts?

They can see that they need to be sensitive to people since readers read from different places. They can try to write a text that will not marginalize their audience, if they know who their audience is. However, it’s likely that every text will position someone on the inside and someone on the outside. However, when they construct texts, I think that having a critical literacy perspective will allow them to be more sensitive when they write.