In: The Writing Shop
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One stunning April morning, I left my twin toddler boys with a trusted babysitter, dropped my older son off at preschool to sing and play the morning away, and drove across Westchester County, New York, to visit the Jacob Burns Film Center. A colleague at Manhattanville College, where I am an adjunct professor in the literacy department, had connected me with the Burns Center’s director of education, because she knew we shared beliefs about literacy education as well as similar family lives: we both have twins and we both recently moved our families from New York to Connecticut. Our plan was to get to know each other and swap ideas about twenty-first-century literacy. I enjoyed every minute of the solo drive that let me listen to a social science podcast, rather than my sons’ beloved Wiggleworms album.

The moment I entered the film centerw’s lobby, something caught my eye. An open door beyond the elevator revealed a crowded but organized theater workshop. Two-by-fours, power tools, and all manner of rivets and screws waited to be selected and used. I was told third graders would be along soon to continue building sets for films they were making.

Days later, I could not get this workshop out of my head. The smell alone—damp, woody, a little metallic—drew me to my childhood home, where my father’s basement workshop was chock-full of projects in progress. Workbenches along all four walls were hidden under chisels, planes, and tape measures. Cabinets that had been dragged home from local yard sales were stuffed with specialty parts. Shelves of scraps, mostly wood and metal, threatened to tip under the weight. A vise, bolted to one of the smaller benches, waited with steel jaws wide open.

My father’s workshop was all-purpose. Down in the shop, he tinkered with appliances. He built model ships, ones he’d begun while serving on a Naval submarine during the Vietnam War. And he created delightful features for his model train display, like miniature blowtorches and spinning spotlights. One shop corner was designated a darkroom, where he processed his own black-and-white photographs. All was possible because at his fingertips were different work surfaces, materials, and tools.

My father died when I was six—killed in a head-on collision with a drunk driver—and I don’t remember him. But I know the workshop, because my grieving mother, a seamstress with her own tiny shop, did not alter a single thing after his death. It reminded her too much of her husband. For years, my sisters tell me, we played in the suspended space. We glued rough wood pieces into dollhouse furniture and counted the glass jars he’d nailed to the ceiling to hold small parts like washers and wires. The workshop was our connection to our father. Surrounded by sensory reminders, down to the hum of the mini-fridge in the corner still cooling cans of Budweiser, we could tap our shared history while doing what he loved to do: build.

Figure 1.
Figure 1.

My sisters and I play “ballet dancers” in our father’s workshop

Shop is in my blood. My great-aunt sewed baseballs for the major leagues, long before the operation moved overseas (where the balls are still stitched by hand). My grandmother stamped golf balls. And my grandfather built radios; in his basement, down narrow wooden stairs that creaked under our little bare feet, was a machine shop with electric trains and metal shelves lined with my grandmother’s pickling jars. My siblings, aunts, uncles, and cousins devote their hands and ideas to everything from greeting cards to classic cars. Many are scratch cooks. For my sisters and me, childhood free time was spent playing with toys and practicing piano in our basement, in the space between our mother’s sewing studio and our father’s workshop.

I spent my teen years working at a gift shop in Connecticut, close to Mystic Seaport. When I could pay the entrance fee, I’d roam the museum grounds, lingering by the boat-building workshop, where students were taught to use traditional tools to build miniature seaworthy boats. “Learn by doing!” the flyers advertised. Mystic Seaport is still known for its hands-on workshops about boats and beyond, from period costumes to nineteenth-century stationery. Whenever I come across a workshop like this, I tend to spend as much time in it as I’m allowed. Workshops fascinate me. Where a thing is made, I want to observe. How a thing is made, I want to know.

The open workshop door at the film center opened a whole lot more for me. I instantly related what third graders were doing in that shop to what I would be discussing in my meeting upstairs: writing instruction. Everything I believe about writing, and the teaching of writing, jumped out to me in full relief. I have always loved writing in a shop.

There’s a reason we—adults and children alike—love shop. We get to build stuff. We walk in the door and don distinct outfits—aprons, smocks, goggles, gloves—shifting mode both physically and mentally. We hear the sound of machines and take in a variety of smells and grip heavy tools in our hands. We pair up differently and talk in specialized vocabulary. We feel vibrations in our arms as we hammer, sand, thread, and latch. We sense our own power as we wield tools and materials to make, from disparate parts, meaningful things. Shop excites. Shop delights. Shop says move, use your hands, collaborate.

The Writing Shop is based on the premise that just as any shop is the most practical and enjoyable environment in which to learn and practice a trade or craft, a writing workshop that remembers its roots as a shop is the most practical and enjoyable environment in which to learn and practice the writing craft.

The writing workshop model, developed in the 1970s and growing more and more popular in today’s schools, is a highly effective way to teach writing. This book, rather than arguing that claim, expands on it. There can be no doubt that writing workshop is powerful; however, despite best teaching practices and the openness to new ideas and thinking on our feet required by the workshop model, we writers and writing teachers still hone in on the end product. This makes sense. Complete projects are, by nature, part of the life of a workshop. Photographers send out finished prints to display on walls, publish in books, and hang in galleries. Architects erect models to use as three-dimensional building blueprints. Theater technicians craft stage sets against which new worlds come to life. So too does a writing workshop turn out final products: the pieces of writing that inform, persuade, and move readers. In order to balance product with process, we offer our students robust scaffolds, elaborate graphic organizers, intense coaching, step-by-step guidance, and line editing, all to transport them from seed idea to final draft. Because we’re good at that. And because we believe our students (and their families) demand it.

But sometimes, in our eagerness to shuttle our students through the writing process to the final product, we forget how important it is to play, make mistakes, change direction, and discover along the way. We forget how acceptable, even preferable, it is to leave things some things in the shop unfinished.

Perhaps you are reading this book for an undergraduate course on literacy instruction. Perhaps you are a graduate student in a course on writing workshop. Perhaps you are a working teacher engaged in professional development to strengthen your literacy block or workshop structure. You may be here to shake up your own writing routine. Whatever path led you to this book, I hope to show you how to put shop back in writing workshop.

I invite you to peek inside workshops of all kinds and borrow their elements for your writing workshop. I want writing shops to smell and sound and feel dynamic like their fellow shops do, with a little noise, a little mess. I want teachers who have not yet adopted the workshop model to consider how shop elements can still enrich any program of writing instruction.

I want you to see yourself as a master craftsperson. In a writing shop, teachers wade deep into writing along with their students and capitalize on their inherent love of the written word. These teacher-writers recognize that they are more than capable of guiding their students on the path to mastery of the writing craft.

I urge you to participate in writing with all your senses and interests. I want teachers and students alike to immerse in a variety of writing materials, wield the tools of writing, and try new techniques in molding, crafting, building. I want writers to enter writing workshop the way they enter a darkroom or test kitchen, woodshop or art studio: breathing in the work of writing, ready to engage in the process, willing to learn new skills and apply them, all under the guidance of a master. These are the students who will write across the curriculum and in their personal lives. These are the students who, as they grow, rather than let fly the uninformed comment or post or email, will thoughtfully assess and compose. These are the students who will see themselves as writers with the power and the right to participate in society. These are the students who will effect change.

Can our writing workshops perfectly mirror arts and industrial workshops? A writing workshop can’t, of course, actually smell, look, feel like a woodshop or a sculpture studio. Purposes, tools, and materials all change from shop to shop. Writers build with ideas and words, not planks and nails. But if we look closely at various workshops, we can name the common elements that make them so exciting to young learners and infuse our writing workshops with those elements. This book allows teacher-writers to do just that: visit workshops, identify their core elements, and apply those elements to their writing shops.

Chapter 1, “The Drafting Table,” gives a brief history of the writing workshop model. Chapter 2, “Building the Argument,” lays out three primary reasons that writing workshops should incorporate the elements of shop: shop reinstates exploratory play as a central component of learning to write; shop invites all types of learners to write, including English language learners, students with special needs, and students who show reluctance toward writing; and shop supports the development and practice of off-page skills. Chapters 39 discuss the seven shop elements: master, mess, sense stimulation, workspace variety, safety procedures, technical skills, and craft techniques. Chapter 10, “Share the Masterpiece,” offers ideas for publication that result naturally from a writing shop.

Ten years after I founded a New-York-City-based writing salon called Salon Esse, fellow members Caitlin Leffel and Crystal Mandler (2016) compiled the decade’s most memorable pieces. To open the collection, they describe Salon Esse as a space that demands the creation of millions of sentences. The Writing Shop asks you to look carefully at where writing happens and to consider how to make it a space that invites, even demands, the creation of millions of sentences.