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When Writers Drive the Workshop: Honoring Young Voices and Bold Choices

reviewed by Erika Mein — February 08, 2018

coverTitle: When Writers Drive the Workshop: Honoring Young Voices and Bold Choices
Author(s): Brian Kissel
Publisher: Stenhouse Publishers, Portland
ISBN: 1625310730, Pages: 186, Year: 2017
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Brian Kissel’s When Writers Drive the Workshop: Honoring Young Voices and Bold Choices is a valuable resource for teachers seeking to implement or refine writer’s workshops in their classrooms, particularly at the elementary level. Throughout five engaging and well-written chapters, Kissel invites readers to think carefully about the central role of student writers in the writer’s workshop. In so doing, he highlights the enduring potential of writing as a powerful means for children (and all students) to tell their unique stories. Such stories, along with teachers’ and students’ authentic responses to them, can help set the stage for significant relationship-building and deep learning within the classroom. Kissel’s book not only emphasizes the core purposes underlying the writer’s workshop; he also provides accessible, hands-on tools that teachers can use in the classroom to create a workshop environment that truly reflects and responds to student writers.

The book is structured into five chapters and an appendix. Each of the first four chapters is devoted to four critical elements of the writer’s workshop–conferring, author’s chair, reflections, and mini-lessons–while the fifth chapter draws heavily on writer’s workshop pioneer Donald Graves to outline the ideal pedagogical conditions for writing in elementary classrooms. All of the chapters follow a similar pattern: an opening classroom-based vignette to illustrate the practice at hand, followed by a detailed explanation of the practice, interspersed with hands-on examples of how the practice can be implemented in K-5 classrooms. Each chapter also contains a set of guiding beliefs and Frequently Asked Questions. In addition, the first four chapters include a section called “Digital Diversions,” which provides insights and resources for how each of the key practices could take on a digital life.

The book thoughtfully presents concrete ways that each of the core components of the writer’s workshop can be implemented to put student writers at the center of the process. The topic of writing conferences, for example, intentionally comes first in the sequence of chapters because for Kissel it represents “the most important interaction that takes place between writers and their teachers” (p. 8). Emphasizing conferences as “a conversational act” (p. 14), Kissel outlines key content and structural modifications that teachers can make in order to put students’ needs and desires at the center of the conference, which in turn puts students at the center of the learning process.

The call for students to drive the agenda applies not only to conferences, but also to the practice of the author’s chair, which is the focus of Kissel’s second chapter. This chapter provides insight into the kinds of responses that students seek when sharing their writing publicly and recommendations for ways to facilitate the author’s chair so that students’ voices and choices are central. The most important contribution of this chapter, however, is the emphasis on the documentation of the author’s chair as an “authentic form of formative assessment” that “reveal[s] the nuanced, complicated, and messy ways that our students think and learn” (p. 52).

Authentic assessment as central to the writer’s workshop is a theme that carries over to the next two chapters. In the third chapter, which discusses the practice of reflection, Kissel provides guidelines for both the content and timing (daily, weekly, monthly, and quarterly) of student goal-setting and reflection, which he sees as “the missing piece of the writer’s workshop” (p. 60). The information gathered through conferring, the author’s chair, and student reflection should, in turn, inform teacher mini-lessons, which are the focus of Chapter Four. Mini-lessons represent “a negotiated process between the teacher and his or her writers” (p. 81) and should be responsive to writers’ needs, as uncovered through documentation of the other key elements of the writer’s workshop. In this way, planning for mini-lessons represents a process of inquiry wherein teachers gather information and resources, ask questions, study both students and content, create sample texts and lessons, teach, and reflect (p. 84).

The fifth and final chapter of the book highlights the pedagogical and classroom conditions that support student success in writing. Drawing inspiration from Donald Graves, Kissel outlines and describes seven key conditions: time, choice, response, demonstration, expectation, room structure, and evaluation. In the appendix, Kissel provides a treasure trove of resources for K-5 teachers to carry out student-driven writer’s workshops in their classrooms, including question protocols for conferences, mini-lesson tips, and templates for documenting all stages of the workshop.


One of the greatest strengths of the book is its emphasis on writer’s workshop reflection and documentation as alternative forms of assessment; part of a “counternarrative to standardized testing” (p. 59). In each chapter, Kissel provides key insights and practical strategies for how teachers can collect and analyze diverse forms of data focused on their own students’ unique strengths and needs. In the chapter on the author’s chair, for example, he provides a template for teachers to identify the types of responses individual students seek, their observations, and resulting instructional implications. Kissel argues that these child-centered forms of documentation and data collection should inform all aspects of instructional planning and decision-making around writing as opposed to pre-packaged writing curricula.

Another important strength of the book is the emphasis on reflection throughout the writing process (by both students and teachers). Arguing that reflection is often “the missing piece” in the writer’s workshop, Kissel provides a schema for encouraging student reflection at daily, monthly, quarterly, and yearly intervals, culminating in portfolio compilations that serve to paint a more complete picture of students’ writing than the single story told by one standardized assessment.

Throughout the book, Kissel draws inspiration from pioneers of the writer’s workshop, especially Donald Graves. The nod toward foundational scholars in the field constitutes both a strength and a shortcoming: on the one hand, it draws attention to important historical and conceptual underpinnings of the writer’s workshop; on the other, the emphasis on this early work tends to reinforce the critique of the writer’s workshop as primarily tailored to homogeneous classrooms infused with middle-class norms and practices. Kissel seems attuned to these critiques, as is manifest in his attention to his own background and privilege and to his students’ diverse life experiences. Where the book does not go far enough, however, is in its treatment of the writer’s workshop for linguistically diverse students. As of 2014-2015, there were more than 4.8 million English learners in U.S. K-12 classrooms (U.S. Department of Education, 2015). While acknowledging that “language matters” (p. 67), Kissel’s book could do more to show how pedagogical supports for diverse language users, such as explicit instruction, can be integrated into the writer’s workshop to increase the likelihood of successful participation and learning by all students.

On the whole, When Writers Drive the Workshop is an important read for skillful, reflective practitioners who seek to deepen the practice of the writer’s workshop in their classrooms.


U.S. Department of Education Office of English Language Acquisition (2015). Fast facts: Profiles of English Learners (ELs.). Retrieved from http://www.ncela.us/files/fast_facts/OELA_FastFacts_ProfilesOfELs.pdf.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: February 08, 2018
http://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22268, Date Accessed: 2/19/2018 6:54:22 AM

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About the Author
  • Erika Mein
    University of Texas at El Paso
    E-mail Author
    ERIKA MEIN is an Associate Professor of Literacy/Biliteracy Education at the University of Texas at El Paso. Her research interests include second language writing, disciplinary literacies, and the identity development of teachers and other professionals. Her most recent work has been published in Action in Teacher Education, Theory into Practice, and Mind, Culture, and Activity, among other outlets. Her current projects include writing professional development efforts with secondary teachers in the El Paso region as well as an NSF-funded initiative to examine the academic and professional trajectories of Latinx engineering students.
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