Literary Sweatshops: Cultivating Civility in a High School Creative Writing Classroom

In the real world, writers read each other’s works and give critical feedback to each other.  The feedback given to the writer can be invaluable as she seeks to improve the piece.  When several writers get together to discuss a piece and give feedback to the author, the exercise is often formally called a “writing workshop” and the activity itself is called “workshopping” a piece.  This activity might also be called a writing critique or critiquing, but the activity remains the same:  giving helpful feedback to the writer.

Hosting a writing workshop is a wonderful activity for modeling civil discussions and cultivating the kind of generosity and support that is necessary to be part of a functional artistic community.  (Being able to communicate kindly, directly and clearly is also a plus when it comes to being a human as well.)

My classes are held every day for a 90-minute period, so when my students are ready to get feedback from the larger group, we are able to workshop two longer pieces or three short pieces in a day.  I have fifteen students, so we devote one full week to workshopping.  The week is more enjoyable when students have written different genres; when we have fifteen short stories to barrel through, the week can get monotonous.

How does it work?

First, students sign up for workshop slots during the week that I’ve designated as “workshop week.” I have a sign-up sheet stapled to the bulletin board, and it’s their responsibility to sign up for a time slot. Other teachers have rolling workshops, which can occur at any time, but I’ve found it to be more efficient if the class works toward the workshop week as a deadline date for their first draft.  Without a deadline, many student writers, who haven’t developed an internal discipline, never get around to finishing a project.

If Sarah reserves a time slot for her short story to be workshopped on Monday,  Sarah then sends me her draft via email Sunday night, so I can make enough copies for each student to have his/her own copy of her story.  Sarah would also attach an author’s agenda to her piece, detailing what specific elements she would like feedback on.

Different teachers may deal with the distribution in different ways, such as posting the pieces online and having all the students read the work and come to class prepared to discuss, but I have found workshops run more smoothly when students 1) have the story in hard copy directly in front of them during discussion, and 2) immediately discuss the story after they’ve read it and made notes on it.

By this time, I would have already reviewed the rules for writing workshop, and I would have given them the FAQ for Writing Workshops, so students would know what to do when they get Sarah’s short story, but here are the basic instructions I give students:

  • Read the piece—completely, slowly and thoughtfully—one time.
  • Read the piece through a second time and make notes all over the hard copy, specifically addressing the concerns the author has requested you respond to.
  • If there is a proofreading error that is consistently wrong, mark it once and make a note of it, but it’s not necessary to line-edit every single grammar or usage error.
  • During the discussion, students need to listen to one another, so the same comment is not made over and over.
  • During the discussion, you are not responsible for providing any “fixes” to the issues of the story. That’s the author’s job; merely pointing out that the dialogue seems neutral and the characters seem flat is adequate.  Providing prescriptions for how to develop the characters is not necessary.
  • During the discussion, stay on the page, stay with the story and the characters. You are not there to debate the ethics of one of the character’s occupation, for example.  Do not embark on some random discussion about socialism merely because there is a character in the story who is a Socialist.
  • During the discussion, the author remains silent and takes notes on the comments she finds helpful.  (Note: I ask the writer whose piece is being critiqued to remain silent throughout the discussion and take notes on comments she finds helpful.  Some workshop models allow the writer to interact with the class, but in my experience, high school students have a tendency to want to justice their creative choices instead of listening to a reader’s honest reaction. The writer’s explanations and justifications sometimes derail a lively discussion.  However, if there is a point of clarity that needs to be made by the writer or if a workshop member asks the writer a direct question, I do allow the writer to clarify or answer the question.)

I usually allow the discussion to continue until I feel like the group has said all that they want to say about the piece, and then I would ask the writer if she has any additional questions or comments she would like to make.   All the hardcopies are then passed down to the author to aid in her revision process.

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