A Classical Educator Reflects on Writer’s Workshop

The ancient Greeks wrote on papyrus, made of cross-hatched strips of the plant.

Just to be above board at the first:  I think Writer’s Workshop is 100% compatible with classical education methods and curriculum.  If you don’t think so, let me explain …

In grad school this week, we were assigned an essay about Writer’s Workshop by the famous (to public school teachers) Lucy Calkins. I have glanced over her materials in the past, but a vignette from the Calkins essay we read struck a nerve with me.  She told of a writer who remembers being sick as a child and her mother bringing her orange slices that were almost too beautiful to eat.  If she ate them, they would be gone forever, and this thought seemed awful.  “These oranges are part of my life,’ she thought, ‘and I am going to forget them.”  Thus was born in her the desire to write.

How deeply I have felt that same sense of the treasured moments of life slipping away.  Once, I jokingly told a friend that I had a “disordered attachment to being alive.” Attached to every second, I clutch at time as it slips past.  I feel a momentary sadness for every passing day.

I can’t be sure, but I have the belief that students feel the same way about their lives.  When Calkins says “we can’t give children rich lives but we can give them the lens to appreciate the richness that is already there … “ I feel like agreeing  “everyone’s life is rich in some sense.”  Even boredom is a kind of gift, if used in the right way to drive us to become creative.  But is this seeking the richness in life, and writing about feelings, really a classical strategy?

Writing freely and personally is what the ancient Greeks did when they studied what interested them the most (such as philosophy and education).  Dialogue about what we are writing and thinking is what Plato did at his Academy, arguably the first university.  Writing workshop can be seen to descend from these impulses and practices, giving every student the treasure of time to seek out and sift out what is really important to them, and bring it to a sharper focus.

Sometimes classical educators have the impulse to eschew all “new” methods.  However, Writer’s Workshop is not actually a new method.  It reminds me very much of the activities of the aforementioned-in-this-blog Bronte sisters in Claire Harmon’s biography Charlotte Bronte a Fiery Heart.  The three sisters wrote and shared homemade books and stories for years and years, wrote letters and diaries … all the types of activities we now do in Writer’s Workshop.  In other words, Writer’s Workshop mimics not just ancient scholarly environments but the home school of the early 19th century.

As a classically inspired educator in a public school,  I’ve always had faith in students to work by themselves or together in small groups. From the earliest I have found that although we can’t dispense with direct instruction, independent learning is powerful as well, and proceeds mystically as students self-engage in meaningful tasks.  Of these tasks, I know of none more powerful than writing.

Therefore, as we seek to classically educate students, I think we should look to these earlier models, and answer “yes” to students writing on self-selected topics and sharing their writing.  Although I never agree with anyone all the time, I admit that I believe we owe a great deal to Lucy Calkins and her writer’s workshop promotion, for allowing this venerable method of developing young minds to be known all over the country, to the  good of students.

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