National Writing Project

Book Review: The Literature Workshop: Teaching Texts and Their Readers, by Sheridan Blau

By: Fran Claggett
Publication: The Quarterly, Vol. 25, No. 4
Date: 2003

Summary: Fran Claggett reviews Sheridan Blau's The Literature Workshop: Teaching Texts and Their Readers. Blau, she says, "translates what goes on in his own classroom and workshops" into a text that "transcends pedagogy, theory, and research" to give teachers a "journey into the rarefied realm of what teaching literature can be."

 

Sheridan Blau is the one who always reminded me to notice "noticings." And as I think about how to begin talking about Blau's long-awaited book, The Literature Workshop: Teaching Texts and Their Readers, I notice I am using the word talking, rather than writing. Talk seems the operative word for what is a compelling conversation with this consummate teacher/thinker/reader. In The Literature Workshop, Sheridan Blau translates what goes on in his own classroom and workshops for teachers into a text that transcends pedagogy, theory, and research to attain a wide-ranging yet impeccably ordered journey into the rarefied realm of what teaching literature can be.

As a veteran teacher involved with many of the issues that have concerned Sheridan Blau over the years, I have had my share of conversations with this master teacher and educational leader. I worked with him on the difficult problems of how best to design a large-scale assessment of student reading and writing, and we have engaged in passionate dialogue about subjects ranging from how to get at the meaning of a poem to the rationale for ways of using graphics to teach metaphoric thinking. Do we always agree? Often, at the beginning of an exploration, we start from different vantage points: Sheridan is the university academic, and I am the high school teacher; Sheridan is the logician, and I am the poet. We've benefited from the resultant give and take. Where there is initial accord, there is no probing of meanings, no questioning of one's own beliefs, no possibility of reversing one's opening position. There is no room for the "aha!" that nearly always transpires during a conversation with Sheridan.

And it is this kind of enlightenment that awaits the reader of this text: the excitement of moving beyond one's own perceptions of what reading is, of what the teaching of literature is, to what it can mean to "teach texts and their readers." Be forewarned, how-ever: you can't read this text just once. You will find yourself doing what Blau suggests we all do as readers: reread. It's the rereading of this book that will allow readers to internalize the dimensions, possibilities, and power of Blau's literature workshop.

Blau begins by presenting a "pedagogical epiphany." He describes an encounter with a class of college freshmen early in his teaching career. As he stood in front of this class, he began to wonder why his insights into the particular essay under consideration ran so much deeper than those of the bright young people in his class. And then he recognized that he is the one who had spent the evening before pondering the essay. It was his job to "come to class prepared to discuss the essay in ways that would illuminate its difficulties and advance our inquiry..." (2). As he told the students, any one of them who assumed equal responsibility and applied equal effort could have done as well. This early classroom encounter gave him the impetus for attempting, over his lengthy professional life, to redress a teaching situation in which the experience of learning was the teacher's rather than the students.' "As long as teachers are teaching, students are not going to learn, because the kind of experience teachers have that enables them to learn what they have to teach is the experience students need to have, if they are the ones who learn" (2). This, Blau writes, is "the fundamental paradox of teaching" (3).

There follows a brief but comprehensive overview of the split between advances in understanding how to teach writing and the stasis that has held the teaching of literature to be product oriented, text centered, competitive, and top down.

Blau then moves to the heart of the process he uses in this book, presenting not only a description of what he means by "literature workshop," but a dramatization of such a workshop in practice. He illustrates how a literature workshop session plays out by presenting a transcript of a discussion among his students as they work through Wordsworth's "My Heart Leaps Up." Blau comments that a teacher once told him that this poem is impossible to understand unless one understands Wordsworth's "own brand of Neoplatonism. "Are all of you familiar with Wordsworth's Neoplatonism?" Blau asks his students. "Of course, not," he answers (7). The text then plunges into the transcript as students discuss "My Heart Leaps Up." It becomes clear that students are able to derive truths from the poem without bringing to it any preknowledge of the fine points of English Romanticism and Neoplatonism. I was struck in this example, as I was over and over throughout this text, with how useful it is to come to a poem fresh, even a poem as familiar to me as this one. Blau mixes well-known works with (to me) unknown ones, giving us an opportunity to see the familiar in a new way, and to make the unfamiliar ours, as we apply the strategies of the workshop, even as we read this text.

Throughout the text, Blau credits the writing project model of teacher development that relies on the presentation of pedagogical ideas to colleagues largely as teachers demonstrate lessons that model actual classroom practices, and then encourages reflection on those demonstrations as a way of drawing a rationale or theory for practice. The rationale Blau presents for the writing project model is the most cogent overview I have read, citing as part of the outgrowths of the project the large body of research and theory on the sociocultural dimensions of learning.

Blau's ability to integrate and cite the research that supports the workshop approach in literature as well as writing provides a much-needed grounding for all of us who are attempting to formulate and convey to others our rationale for these practices.

The richness of this text is obvious from the titles of the text's four sections: "Teaching and Learning Literature: Understanding Tradition, Rethinking Practice," "How Readers and Texts Make Meaning," "How to Talk and Write About Literature," "Writing Assignments in Literature Classes: Perennial Problems and Provisional Solutions," and "The Foundations of Literary Knowledge." Readers may want to engage in the rewarding activity of dipping into this text here and there. Others may go immediately to "How to Talk and Write About Literature" or "Writing Assignments in Literature Classes," because these are the everyday facts of our lives. This was my first approach to the book, but then I decided to read it straight through, then reread it. This experience convinced me that each time readers immerse themselves in this text, they will assimilate more of its richness and discover new ways these principles can apply to their work as readers, teachers, and researchers.

It would be impossible to comment on all of the many facets of this text, but I do want to include one dimension that seems to me to be lacking in so much of our practice as a profession: teaching the practice of metacognition of our reading and thinking about literature. Blau deals with how to teach students to become aware, to "notice what they notice" (36), and to record their own thinking as they read (see the "Reading Process Research Report," 170), and he also demonstrates the importance of the practice for teachers in the section "Metaprocessing for Teachers: Reflections on Practice." He states succinctly what I myself have been preaching for years: "If we don't understand the rationale or theory informing a practice, we can easily subvert its purposes or blunt them with the minor revisions we inevitably make as we adapt new practices to our own classrooms" (142). These words reminded me of our work together on the California reading and writing assessment that I referred to earlier. I have in my computer about twenty-nine versions of the rationale for the kind of reading assessment we were attempting to construct. Blau played a vital role in that process; his contributions underscore what we learned during that noteworthy time of teachers working collegially to design new and valid ways of assessing reading and writing (146). If there were ever a need for hard evidence of the benefits of metacognition, these twenty-nine drafts make a strong case.

In the last analysis, The Literature Workshop is a book about conversation: Blau's conversation with his readers; his students' conversations about literature. It is fitting then, as teachers read and reread this text, that they will want to bring the conversation they have begun with it into the classroom, into the teacher's lounge, into their book clubs, and into their own private reading, where with each reading, they will be increasingly likely to "notice what they notice."

About the Author Fran Claggett is a teacher, consultant, and writer. She pioneered the use of graphics in teaching literature, helped design local and state assessment programs, served as consultant for the National Center for Education and the Economy, and has written a number of books for teachers and students on teaching writing and literature. She has been a teacher-consultant with the Bay Area Writing Project (California) since 1977.

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