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The Mindful Writing Workshop: Teaching in the Age of Stress and Trauma, Chapters 1-3, by Richard Koch

Author: Richard Koch

“Chapters 1 - 3.” MINDFUL WRITING WORKSHOP: Teaching in the Age of Stress and Trauma, by Richard Koch, DOG EAR Publishing, 2019, pp. 1–42.

Osho’s Core Values for Learning:

The Three Cs

Humanity has now come to a crossroads. We have lived the one-dimensional man, we have exhausted it. We need now a more enriched human being, the three-dimensional. I call them the three Cs, just like the three Rs—the first C is consciousness, the second C is compassion, the third C is creativity.

Consciousness is being, compassion is feeling, creativity is action.

My vision of the new human being has to be all three simultaneously. I am giving you the greatest challenge ever given, the hardest task to be fulfilled. You have to be as meditative as a Buddha, as loving as a Krishna, as creative as Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci. You have to be all together, simultaneously.

—Osho, Creativity: Unleashing the Forces Within

Reflection on Osho:

The three genres that were most promoted by the former common core (narrative writing, persuasion/argument, research/informational writ-ing) are three key, authentic types of writing in the world. So, working to assist students with these types of writing is indeed a good idea. This book addresses how teachers can effectively focus on these three genres while still teaching from the most powerful method we know: a writing workshop.

However, this book also hopes to make a deeper commitment to goals such as those that Osho presents. Our world is experiencing urgent conditions—in pollution and deterioration of nature, in the harm caused by world and national poverty, and in our failure to fund and develop quality education for all of our children.

The children of a society are a sacred trust. They will become more conscious if we give them authentic, lifelike challenges to critically analyze their world—to consider different stakeholders and assess benefits and drawbacks. They will become more creative if we offer them opportunities to complete whole, meaningful projects that allow for choice—and if we help them strive for artistic quality through our coaching. Finally, we can cultivate a new generation of more compassionate citizens—perhaps the most important goal of all—if we help students to value other cultures and to respect the humanity of all people, and if we remember that people learn compassion by being treated compassionately.

CHAPTER 1 Why a Mindful, Trauma-Sensitive Writing Workshop?

Love is the presence of conflict with commitment to work through it.

—Jeffrey Duncan-Andrade


The story of twenty-first-century education is surely still to be written. It could be a story of struggle between what we say we want and what we as a nation are willing to provide. It could be a tale of horror revealing the harm we do by being harsh instead of helping to students in need. It could be a dystopian narrative contrasting opportunities dreamt of under the umbrella of John Dewey with ravages brought by the storms of testing and inequity. Or it could be a mystery about whether, in our busy, preoccupied lives, we will honor the sacredness of our own children.

Let’s write the next part of this story together. Let’s blink back our hurt, wherever it comes from, and bring our deepest impulse of kindness to the table. Let’s offer students scaffolding instead of judgment. Let’s look at the world’s past intolerance of difference and respond with nurturing for all learners, who may grow mercy for others in our future. Let’s write this story of twenty-first-century education together, and let’s make it the story of our perseverance and love.

Where do we start? We can start by putting necessary things first. Mindful teaching begins with noticing the needs of learners. As a forest ranger’s son, I spent much of my childhood with woods and wildlife. I saw that creatures as different as the deer and wolf share similar struggles—for safety and nourishment. These are fundamental human needs as well. I believe learners will invariably rise to learning when it is offered in a safe environment that nourishes.

I am excited to offer you the writing workshop lessons contained in this book. I have used them with large numbers of students at various lev-els over a number of years. I have taught them to large numbers of teachers for use in their own classrooms.

With these approaches, I see previously passive or distracted students become engaged, increase their effort, deepen their resilience, and soon raise the quality of their writing. I see previously worried teachers become eager to get back to their students to offer the lessons I have demonstrated. Later, I hear those same teachers’ expressions of pleasure and satisfaction when their students respond with energy and a striving toward new skills. The craft lessons you will receive here can, when applied in your classroom, both ignite students’ energy and also help them achieve higher quality writing performance.

However, there are two fundamental challenges facing writing work-shop teachers today that have little to do with the quality of craft lessons available. And this book will help you with those challenges also. The first can be stated in relation to our students. In short, these are not your mother or father’s classrooms of learners. They are not inferior to former students—as is so often believed. They are not disinterested in learning, as may seem to be the case at certain classroom moments. Rather, the difference between past and present most acutely is that these students are growing up in the age of stress and trauma. And this has changed them.

So many students have been harmed by traumatic events at early ages or by the time they reach adolescence. So many students lead lives of sustained trauma—abuse or neglect in the home, danger and violence in the neighborhood, bullying at school, homelessness, food insecurity, and more. Parents living in poverty often cannot provide for their children in the ways they might deeply wish to.

The second related problem is how schools are not connecting to the needs of this new group of students. Given the age of stress and trauma that the students are coming from, it is all the more disturbing that we, as a society, have chosen this moment in learning history to inappropriately provide, through high-stakes testing and the test prep that accompanies it, what could be called a meaningless, high-stress curriculum. The test-prep, high-anxiety school has no actual life meaning for students. It does not make students feel safe. It does not nourish. And it does not connect to their desire to learn.

Further, many students living in this age of trauma have been impacted so that they respond to these meaningless, high-pressure situations with the characteristic trauma responses—fight, flight, or freeze. When a student, seemingly for small reasons, lashes out with anger at a teacher or peer, when a student engages in high rates of absenteeism (or emotional distraction), and when a student sits passively and unresponsively in relation to classroom demands, these are most often not truly signs that the student does not desire to learn. Rather, these are signs of a student responding emotionally, not intellectually, to an environment that, on some level, replicates other trauma in their lives. These are responses born of fear.

In the article “Why Schools Need to Be Trauma Informed,” Barbara Oehlberg explains: “Although schools are not mental health facilities and teachers are not therapists, teaching today’s students requires alternative strategies and skills compared to what worked a generation ago” (2008, 1).

Educators have often lived in denial of the role of student trauma in their classroom world (Craig, 2016). As I will explain in a moment, there are abundant statistics showing the prevalence of trauma experience in students’ lives. However, I think most educators would believe—on the face of it—that children today often lead tough lives, with significant trauma included. So, why the absence in school of a response to trauma?

I believe this absence has been due to three reasons. First, as I suggested above, the school environment—or context—for the past twenty years has been one of growing emphasis on high-pressure testing companion with fewer and fewer funds and resources being directed to schools. This has created such a traumatic environment for teachers that it has left them scrambling—and scrambling toward the wrong goals at that, toward implementing test prep rather than best practices for learning, and toward pressuring students to “achieve” narrowly as test takers rather than meeting students’ overall needs as learners.

Second, educators may have been unaware that they can do something to help students who have experienced trauma. This helping approach, they feared, would necessitate becoming therapists in addition to teachers—or, at the very least, it would require spending extra time on teaching, whereas they were already working overtime. And third, teachers have guessed that pausing to assist students who have experienced trauma would necessarily slow learning down for others and lead to lowering of academic standards in the classroom.

Thanks to Oehlberg and others, we now know that teachers do not need to become therapists to become powerful in their classrooms at helping students who have experienced trauma. It turns out that the workshop classroom, with limited but essential tuning, can be just the environment students in the grip of trauma need in order to become comfortable in themselves and to then break through into active learning. Further—and this may be the best part—what I am calling the “tuned” workshop class-room is also what is needed to move all learners forward most effectively. It serves all learners best.

The Current Condition

Jane Ellen Stevens summarized the current state of trauma in schools like this:

After Washington State did its own statewide survey of the prevalence of adverse childhood experiences, it calculated that in a public school classroom of 30 students, more than half were exposed to physical abuse or adult-on-adult violence in their homes or neighborhoods (Anda & Brown, 2010). This is not unique to Washington State; because of the prevalence of childhood adversity, you can find the same issues in any state and city in the United States. (Stevens, Craig, 2016, ix)

Indeed, national statistics make clear that the prevalence of stress among young people is “not unique to Washington State.” In 2011, according to the Department of Health and Human Services, 6.2 million children experienced child abuse. Further, “the National Survey of Children’s Exposure to Violence reports … in a nationally representative sample of 4,549 children aged 0–­17.2[,] more than half (60.6%) of the sample experienced or witnessed victimization in the past year.” Of those, 46.3 percent experienced physical assault (2016).

Among additional risk factors for young people are being female, parental psychopathology, and low social support. Indications are that conditions overall may be getting worse, rather than better for children. National Public

Radio reported, for example, that the number of homeless students has doubled in the last decade, now numbering 1.3 million (June 13, 2016).

Stevens elaborates the results of this stress: “In a nutshell … research shows that the toxic stress of trauma can damage children’s brains, making it impossible for them to learn; punitive school discipline policies just further traumatize them” (viii).

There is bad news and good news for educators with respect to this current condition:

These experiences alter the architecture of children’s brains in ways that threaten their ability to achieve academic and social competence (Karr-Morse & Wiley, 2012). … But the news is not all bad. Brain development turns out to be a very dynamic process that retains a certain plasticity or capacity to adapt throughout the human life span (National Child Traumatic Stress Network, 2009). … With the right type of instruction and emotional support, traumatized children can regain their ability to achieve academic and social mastery.

Regrettably, these new advances in neuroscience are not yet center stage in discussions of educational reform. (Craig, 1–2)

What Schools Can Do

It cannot be the purpose of this book to elaborate fully on how the brain and human function are damaged by trauma. However, we can take heart from brain researchers’ assurance that the brain retains its plasticity throughout the human life span—we can know that healing practices have strong chances for success. And in this book I can clarify core principles of trauma-sensitive schools and how these core principles can be applied in a powerful writing workshop.

Students who have experienced trauma need caring and supportive teachers, and they need learning challenges to arrive accompanied by skillful scaffolding that can help them succeed at the challenges (Craig, 61). They need for this to occur in a predictable and safe learning community. Making the steps of workshop predictable is something teachers have been working on for a while. Making the classroom discourse community consistently safe and supportive, we now see, is equally important.

Even though most teachers are probably trying to provide such a community, there has normally been little professional development on how to do so. If we study some of the best thinkers in discourse analysis, we may find ways to improve our teaching practice in this important area.

James Paul Gee, in An Introduction to Discourse Analysis, explains that many people have felt that when they engage in communication with others, they are mainly exchanging information. Gee argues that this is a false notion, that discourse is never neutral and is never just providing the facts—rather, it is constructing an environment for social interaction and creating scaffolding for certain social activities (Gee, 1999, 1).

We use language to make social things happen. And we use language to invite others into a certain kind of culture or community. Of course, there are better and worse cultures that we can construct (Gee, 2012, 8). I believe that, under the heavy burden of national testing—with its accompanying skewed teacher evaluations—teachers have often been provoked into discourse steps that do not successfully invite students into a learning culture.

Peter Johnston, in his book Opening Minds: Using Language to Change Lives, exemplifies Gee’s point about language constructing environments in a short life moment story:

One summer at a family reunion, I went to chat with two of my nieces, ages three and five, who were playing in the sandbox. As I sat down, they greeted me as follows:

Amelia: Here’s Uncle Peter. Let’s play. I’ll be the mother.

Marie: Yeah, I’ll be the little daughter. Uncle Peter can be your husband. Amelia: No. We’re not married yet.

Johnston continues:

This brief interaction captures for me something familiar about language and schooling. In seconds, with a handful of words, and with my relatively passive consent, the girls constructed a world in which we might live for a time—they decided who we would and would not be and what we would be doing. Classrooms are just like this. (1­–2)

All over the country in classrooms everywhere, “with a handful of words,” teachers construct communities of work for their students. Nothing is more important to our students’ learning than the type of culture and community we establish through this discourse. Thankfully, just as we do not need to become therapists to work effectively with trauma-informed practices, we also do not need to become discourse theorists to create the kind of “classroom talk” that can empower students forward with learning.

Three Traits of Trauma-Informed Practice

Coaching educators toward engaging, powerful, and healing teacher-student talk is the main purpose of this book—and will be part of the work of each chapter. However, I will offer fuller guidelines for achieving trauma-informed classroom discourse in chapters 2 and 3. For now, I want to clarify three additional classroom traits that Craig believes can lead to the blossoming of students who have experienced trauma: 1) engaging in what she calls “dialogic” teaching; 2) companioning that with an instructional approach that provides early opportunities for “doing” what is being talked about in the lessons; and 3) providing intentional and ambitious scaffold-ing for each lesson that can get students started and nurture them toward success.

Dialogic Teaching

Dialogic teaching recognizes the “power of conversation and dialogue to extend children’s thinking and increase their understanding of things that they are learning. “ We keep in mind that “Children with early trauma histories are often deprived of language rich home environments” (66).

According to Craig, “Dialogic teaching provides new opportunities for children to explore how language can be used to explore other people's ideas. This helps children expand their ability to use representational thought, a skill that is critical to the development of both empathy and inferential comprehension” (66).

Effective classroom practitioners of a writing workshop may realize from the above statements how naturally dialogic methods can be placed within the workshop environment. The interactive mini lesson can provide repeated opportunities for rich dialogue, and small group work focused on one another’s writing and writing goals can lead to regular practice opportunities for exploring other people’s ideas. However, in many workshop classrooms I have observed, pausing for dialogue or questions during the lesson and providing time to share and respond to writing have become minimized.

Also, the dialogue Craig is recommending, if it is to be fully successful, needs the foundation of the predictable and safe classroom discourse environment. Chapter 3 is devoted to describing how to build that safe environment as part of your launch of a workshop in your classroom.

To touch on those issues briefly here, I offer two key elements that can assist teachers to offer trauma-sensitive guidance to the dialogic exchanges. First, “Specific praise about effort children expend working on difficult tasks makes children more aware of their capacity for persistence and effortful control” (Craig, 65).

Both the writing peer-response group and the teacher conference can easily include praise for effort, which is also recommended as help for all students by Johnston (Opening Minds). Carol Dweck, in an essay clarifying

Growth Mindset, adds an additional dimension and understanding. Effort is not all we are seeking. We also wish for learning success. With this in mind, Dweck recommends praising effort but being sure to combine that with praise for trying new and additional strategies to solve the problem (Dweck, 2015, 1).

Second, effective responses within a dialogic environment can often be best learned within “scripted” language used to greet peers or to relate to peers in certain work settings (Craig, 79). In a workshop, the best practices we know for how to respond to others’ writing include semi-scripted approaches that both assist the development of students who’ve experienced trauma and also guide all students toward a productive response to writing. I will provide a “positive response protocol” in chapter 3 intended to establish this approach.

Peer interaction in a partially scripted and carefully guided environment can provide the “predictable classroom routines … that help children know what to do and how to do it” (Craig, 65).

The “Doing” Classroom

With respect to constructing the “doing” classroom, Craig explains, “Neural networks are strengthened by use of an instructional format that gives children frequent opportunities to do something with what is being learned—talk about it with a peer, complete a hands-on activity, or draw a picture symbolizing what they have learned” (62). Craig adds that in preparation for this active doing, “Consideration is given to the three primary neural networks associated with learning: the recognition network, which is the ‘what’ of learning; the strategic network, which is the ‘how’ of learning; and the affective network, which is the ‘why’ of learning” (CAST, 2011, Craig, 63).

Classroom “doing” needs to occur interactively with the dialogic environment. When the doing occurs in a safe environment utilizing positive guidelines for interaction, “This … allows teachers to take a proactive approach that engages children in collaborative partnerships. Characterized by respect and mutuality, these partnerships help minimize the effects of trauma and prevent additional re-traumatization” (70).


Students who have experienced trauma also need conscious and consistent scaffolding. Craig clarifies four types of scaffolding that help these stu-dents to succeed as “doers.”

First, the teacher utilizes “think-alouds”—the teacher presenting her or his own thinking process out loud to students in relation to a task or goal that is being encountered by all. Because they audibly experience the teacher’s approach to the task— and also visually experience, if the teacher is task-doing while talking—they get the opportunity to see both the rough-draft nature of this work stage and also the pattern they might follow.

Students often derive a can-do attitude from the think-aloud. The think-aloud is powerful partly because it provides children “a window into [the teacher’s] own problem-solving process” (71).

Second, it is important that teachers take a modeling approach. The think-aloud crystallizes for learners how the teacher would approach a task. Modeling extends that by having the teacher actually engage in as much of the task, and in as many task steps, as possible—to model commitment to process and to model how certain stages might look. Teacher modeling has long been known as an important method of the effective writing workshop. Craig affirms the importance of modeling, with this specific extension and clarification:

Meaningful scaffolds include teacher modeling of goal-setting behaviors, as well as close collaboration with students as they create plans to meet personal goals. These include explicit feedback that is provided in a timely, informative manner, in addition to opportunities for children to reflect on their progress and performance. … [T]hese types of scaffolds … strengthen the prefrontal cortex, making children’s executive functioning more effective and automatic. (64)

The third scaffolding feature of this “doing” environment calls for including “choice-making” as a consistent part of the student’s world. Sometimes, the circumstance is open-ended and students can make entirely free choices.

However, what successful workshop teachers know is that even choices made within parameters of more specific classroom tasks and goals can be powerful motivators for students. Perhaps an “argument” topic must be chosen, or perhaps a choice of writing topics must be made from characters or issues of a certain historical period. These choices within genres or within units of study nevertheless greatly empower students forward with motivation and purpose.

With respect to students who have experienced trauma, “Choice mak-ing is another way to foster this process of self-differentiation, especially when time is spent discussing whether the choices made help students achieve their personal goals” (Craig, 65). Of course, choice-making grows the individuality and responsibility of all learners.

Fourth, and finally, I want to comment on a type of scaffolding that is not part of every workshop classroom, but Craig believes it should be. The classroom connections to the world, and also the interactive practices within the classroom, must include the opportunity to help others.

This purpose can be fulfilled on multiple levels and in a variety of ways.

Craig discusses service learning as valuable for students who have experienced trauma. It is quite possible within a writing workshop to include service steps such as making presentations to public audiences or utilizing writing to propose public action steps, and so forth. However, construct-ing a caring and supportive peer-response environment can also provide steady opportunities to help others. Craig explains, “When children experience themselves as valuable members of their classroom community, they acquire new insights about their capacity to make positive changes in their lives” (72–73).

Equity and Culturally Sustaining Teaching

Some, and we could hope many, readers of this opening chapter may be thinking this work teachers can do to help heal students who have experienced stress and trauma is, in fact, an equity issue. I agree—it is. I am arguing here that the function of school is to meet the needs of the learner.

When we offer a classroom approach and environment that treats all students the same, or that delivers the task and then expects that all students will approach the task in the same way with the same self-awareness, we are not meeting the goal of equity, which asks that we incorporate lessons, scaffolding, and coaching in an effort to provide what each learner needs in order to learn at their best.

Similarly, this trauma-informed work can be related to a commitment to utilize culturally sustaining teaching. As Geneva Gay has characterized it in her seminal book, Culturally Responsive Teaching, this approach begins by bringing the content of the student’s culture into the classroom-learning content and also teaching each student to respect their own culture and the culture of others. Though some educators initially find this a daunting request, it is both doable and necessary. And Gay’s book provides accessible examples of how to do this, including a kindergarten teacher who posts the word “Welcome” outside her door in a number of languages, including all of the at-home languages of the children in her class. Gay also describes how this teacher includes books in her lessons that share positive information about each culture represented in the room (2018, 41­–44). Duncan-Andrade and Morrell, in The Art of Critical Pedagogy, assert that to expect drastically under-resourced schools to provide the same results as highly resourced schools is to not recognize we have set up something like “a rigged game of Monopoly” (Andrade and Morrell, 2008, 3). Similarly, to simply assign school tasks to all but not to provide the differing guidance and support for learning that different students might need is offering a “rigged” environment where only the already congruent, or culturally dominant, will thrive. Showing a student tangibly that we respect their race and culture is key in providing them an environment they feel safe in and nourished by.

Of course, this approach and concern relates to gender also. Simply being female is a risk factor for experiencing trauma in our society. This must change. We must construct classrooms and schools where girls and young women are safe from mysogyny and bullying, and where women role models and women’s accomplishments are represented in their classrooms and in their educational content. These will be classrooms where the talents and learning capacities of girls and young women are respected equally with boys and young men. And this must not be a dream but a working practice. Further, LGBTQ students must be provided a safe and supported learning environment, and one that includes study of issues that face them, and examples of accomplishments of people like them. We will need to let go of the meaningless, high stakes, test-based curriculum that is so often provided by schools today. Easier said than done? We must still bravely do it.

I understand as I say these comments that teachers are people, like other workers, who generally need their jobs for their livelihood. I know teachers need to balance their bravery with the goal of maintaining employment.

However, this must not be a reason to “dog paddle” in place—we must find meaningful ways to swim toward the destination. Perhaps a school organization or an after-school club can form? Perhaps we can wedge out a curricular space in the school day? Perhaps the teacher can make an argu-ment at the grade level meeting or at the school board, an argument on behalf of utilizing powerful pedagogical practice? Or perhaps the teacher just teaches at certain points in ways she/he knows will be nurturing and growing for students, even if that path is not fully sanctioned by the school curriculum?

We know that the drastically unequal funding for schools is not by accident, but by race and class. And we know that the test-prep curriculum serves tests that do not measure how well students will do in life, and that scoring high on these tests can often be most solidly correlated with family wealth. We know that tragically it is not rare for young girls and boys to be driven to suicide by bullying. And we know in terms of the classroom that many students are taught reading by being drilled over short, boring passages for which they are simply to name the main point. Studies show this type of teaching produces adults who have been alienated and who do not read. When you walk into a classroom where the teaching of reading looks more like the interrogation of a criminal than like the nurturing of a child, then we must act. Reading can be taught meaningfully and invitingly. Writing also can be taught with joy and authenticity, as this book will show.

We must be each other’s allies as we take these steps, as Beverly Tatum explains (2008). There is a need to move forward with help and in community. Sometimes we may need not only to be each other’s allies but also co-conspirators with one another to protest wrong practice and to advocate actively for change, and to “infiltrate” school with powerful teaching and learning, as Bettina Love suggests (2018). I am making an argument in this book for both growing students toward critical thinking and also for helping them develop the capacity to express themselves effectively and fully. By teaching students in ways that promote justice and caring in the classroom, we are also providing a framework that helps them to value a socially just and compassionate world.

Growing Body of Research on Trauma-Healing Practices

Research in related fields supports change in schools toward trauma-sensi-tive practices. This includes the ideas of leading trauma researchers such as Daniel J. Siegel, who, in a variety of works, has offered guidelines for help-ing those who’ve experienced trauma. In works like Healing Trauma, Siegel and his coauthor, Marion F. Solomon, highlight that “Understanding … the ongoing impact of relationships on neural and mental function can help us understand both the origin of risk following trauma and the necessary ingredients for prevention and intervention” (2003, xv, emphasis added). Siegel and Solomon study how relationships are often the cause of trauma, but how relationships are also key to preventing further traumatizing and key to helpful intervention for those who have been traumatized.

In Siegel’s subsequent work on children and brain development, The Whole Brain Child, with coauthor Tina Payne Bryson, the authors explore what they call “implicit memory” and characterize that memories are neither factual nor objectively proportional. We do not simply remember

what occurred, and we do not necessarily remember most profoundly what occurred over the greatest period of time. Rather, our brain holds implicit memory, often based on the intensity of the experience and with respect to the positive or negative nature of the experience.

With reference to a young person’s development, Siegel and Bryson write: If a piano teacher frequently criticizes his playing, [the child] may create a mental model that he doesn’t like piano, or even that he’s not musical. A more extreme version of this process occurs in the case of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, where an implicit memory of a disturbing expe-rience becomes encoded in a person’s brain, and a sound or image triggers that memory without the person even realizing it’s a memory. (2011, 72)

Siegel and Bryson explain that this is how a natural brain function intended to keep us safe (the tendency when threatened to engage in fight, flight, or freeze) becomes an overly dominant function in which victims of trauma respond unreasonably to nearby stimuli—in the general world or in places like school.

Further, there are books in more specifically educational fields, such as Girl Time by Maisha T. Winn, which focuses on utilizing restorative justice for healing and on how both dialogic and experiential approaches help young women who have been incarcerated (2011). Similarly, Expressive Arts Therapy for Traumatized Children and Adolescents by Carmen Rich-ardson, provides an example of work in art class that can more directly help those who’ve experienced trauma (2016). Both Winn’s and Richard-son’s works are based on inviting those who’ve experienced trauma into inherently creative situations—situations in which they themselves are the actors, the doers. In Winn’s work, the incarcerated females write, produce, and act the parts in plays authentic to their past and current experiences. In

Richardson’s study, children and adolescents create a wide range of artistic pieces, often with directly healing purposes—such as portraying the events of past experience and mapping the emotional content of those experi-ences.

Siegel’s studies and conclusions about the potential for supplying restorative and healing memories to help children who have implicit memory banks of trauma are relevant to our pedagogical work. Winn’s treatment of restorative justice through therapeutic “doing” is related to the issue of healing those in our workshop classrooms who’ve experienced trauma. And Richardson’s study of approaching the content of trauma and healing through artistic representation is directly relevant to writing expe-riences that can be included in our school classrooms.

Though work with trauma-sensitive practices may sometimes seem complicated, Siegel’s emphasis on the need for human support can serve as a beacon, showing us how to help. Winn explains that restoration and healing “are not [contained in] a program—nor even a ‘Best Practice’—but occur through relationships we create” (2016). And Jeffrey Duncan-Andrade, whose statement on love also serves as epigraph to this chapter, concurs, reminding us that “The single biggest protective factor in a young person’s life is a caring adult” (2016).

CHAPTER 2 Combining Quality and Compassion, Craft and Kindness: How to Use This Book

Surface emotions like anger, disappointment, and ego satisfaction are to be experienced and let go. Deep feelings of the heart like joy, love, and sorrow bring peace and reveal where conscience and intuition meet. These feelings must be kept with us and should guide our lives.

—Native American Shamanic Teaching (Kenneth Meadows, paraphrase)

What Is Mindfulness?

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”

In older, simpler days, we said this as children in moments of receiving insult or rejection, hoping these self-protective words were true. We knew that physical attack could leave us harmed, for sure, but so could assault with words. Words wound under the skin, in ways that alter our psychology and our brain—and yet, in ways that may pass invisibly before others in a gathering. Words can wound so deeply that they leave us paralyzed beside the road, knocking our life dreams off course. When Anne Sexton, a

Pulitzer Prize winning twentieth-century poet, was told at age eighteen by her teacher that her poems were just second-rate imitating of a published poet’s work, Sexton didn’t write again for ten years.

Thankfully, words can also support. They can let the other person know we see them and value them. They can invite others into a sisterhood and brotherhood of mutual concern, safety, and opportunity. Words can soothe the soul. Mindfulness toward others in our words and deeds can help us grow a healing and engaged classroom. But what exactly is mindfulness?

In Meditation Is Not What You Think, Jon Kabat-Zinn, who has written several books on this subject, says, “Mindfulness is synonymous with awareness.” He proceeds to define it as “the awareness that arises from paying attention to purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally… in the service of wisdom, self-understanding, and recognizing our intrinsic interconnectedness with others and with the world, and thus, in the service of kindness and compassion” (2018, xxxiv). Kabat-Zinn talks about a “deep inhabiting” of the present moment (xii). This deep inhabiting of the moment and the awareness it brings can move us toward treating others, and ourselves, more gently and kindly.

So, mindfulness is paying attention to the present moment in a positive and patient way—having the intention of noticing with respect. When you notice the other with respect for their needs instead of judgment, then seeing their potential beauty will not be far behind. And once you experience the other as beautiful, reverence emerges. And reverence manifests in the world as kindness and compassion.

Thich Nhat Hanh explains that compassion is the most powerful force in the universe (2002). It is powerful for the giver because it releases us from our inner anger and confusion. It is powerful for the receiver because it releases them to become their full creative selves in our presence. Ultimately, mindfulness contains two basic parts: 1) self-awareness that desires to be wide awake in the moment and 2) the intention of kindness toward others. As we grow in wisdom, we come to realize that kindness toward others both grows our own hearts and also grows awareness of the power of kindness in the other.

We need, desperately, to build a kinder and more compassionate world. It is, in fact, the fundamental missing ingredient—and need—of our time.

It may seem to us that such a world is not only nonexistent now but far away in possibility. And, indeed, in many ways this goal is distant. However, the work of the heart does not travel in a straight line. It radiates and ripples out from each act of kindness in divinely mysterious and powerful ways. And for those of us who are educators, parents, or simply stewards of the world’s children, there is a simple path before us that can open into the light. That simple path to a better future lies in finding ways now to treat our children with compassion and kindness.

Yes, this goal is challenging in our time—and in any other. But it is not beyond our ability to try. Matthew Fox, in Creativity, reminds us that when we attempt to create beauty, we are always right to do so, because in that engagement we are mimicking the Creator (2002, 82). No one is asking perfection from you. Even if perfect teachers existed, we don’t have time to wait for them to do the work. All of the children are in need. And we are the teachers they know.

I will show you—in the next chapter—how to make kindness and compassion toward others a key part of your classroom goals and practices—a key part of your intentions. Then, throughout the rest of the book, I will show you how to conduct a writing workshop in your classroom in such a way that there is always an underlayer of kindness in the way we treat students and in the way we are coaching them to treat one another. I know this is what, in your heart of hearts, you want to do. I am honored to be here to try to help you accomplish this. Please don’t worry that quality learning in skills will be lacking. You will see learners growing mightily in all areas.

Teaching for Quality, Providing Compassion

As I indicated in chapter 1, I developed these materials in response to teachers I was working with, in response to their fears and wishes. They had fears that they might not know which lessons to teach, and fears that they might not offer the lessons as powerfully as possible. These teachers, because they were dedicated to their students, wished to teach mighty craft lessons in an effectively designed sequence and in an accessible and yet complex enough way so that the lessons would “take” with their student writers.

Many of the most helpful books on writing workshop have offered steps and ingredients for classroom lessons that are similar to one another. Teachers who have skillfully followed those steps and carefully included those ingredients have often had much success. However, when I arrive at a school or at a meeting of teachers, I often find, as I have been reporting here, that teachers feel insecure and uncertain about what makes for a complete lesson and about what the keys are to making that lesson succeed with students.

For that reason, I would like to characterize the elements of a successful lesson in two stages. In the first stage, I will clarify what we might consider the conventional wisdom about what makes for an effective workshop lesson, an approach I call the “packed lesson.” Second, I will explain the tuning we ought to do to refine this lesson to meet the needs of students who have experienced trauma.

The Packed Lesson

The widely used steps for a workshop mini lesson derive perhaps most profoundly from the work of Brian Cambourne. The conditions for a successful lesson, according to Cambourne, include engagement, immersion, demonstration or modeling by the teacher, responsibility (choice and commitment by students), and “use” by students over time. So, the lesson itself should engage the learner with its purposefulness and creativity. The lesson should, as much as possible in a short time and space, immerse the learner in the literary issue under consideration.

Further, the lesson should involve a demonstration by the teacher—in a workshop, this is done both by offering models of professional mentor texts and also by offering examples of the use of that craft in the teacher’s own writing. This is where the Calico Cat Lessons I include in this book can be especially helpful—because, in addition to the professional mentor texts and the teacher’s rough-draft examples, we see how each craft step can be applied to the calico cat essay that I am writing. The calico cat lessons provide an extra layer to the immersion—an additional craft-step model from me as guest teacher, which enriches the selection of models being offered to demonstrate the craft. For reasons I can’t entirely explain, when the calico cat part of the lesson arrives, the energy in the classroom rises to new levels. I hear students say, “This is fun!” and, “I want to try that!” Recently, when I walked into a classroom where I had been demonstrating with students for a time, a sixth grader greeted me with “I love your calico cat.”

Finally, in each lesson the learners should be invited to “try on” the techniques—to “have a go” as the Australians say—by relating the craft step to a piece of writing they are working on. This also fits with Craig’s sense that students who have experienced trauma need to “do” what is being taught. All of this is done in an encouraging environment in which the teacher clearly expects that the learners will try the technique and will, with help, become successful.

The first time a teacher presents a craft step for student consideration and use, the collected writing workshop wisdom—as well as Cambourne’s conditions for learning—suggest that we offer that craft step in what I am referring to as the packed lesson. Even in subsequent lessons on a craft step, the teacher may want to include a light stop at each of these steps.

I present the steps of the packed lesson here for two reasons. First, it is a guide to review the steps of the lessons contained in this book, so that when you teach them, you will be well-versed in the pattern of the lesson you are using.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, I am presenting these lesson steps so you can utilize the pattern to design your own packed lessons. It is necessary to teach more than one lesson on any key craft issue with students. Teaching a craft step once is a lot like mentioning something once in a conversation: Your listener will not automatically hear fully what you say and take it to heart. Additionally, you will, of course, want to teach lessons on other craft steps than those included in this book. So, the packed lesson can be a guide, or template, for planning those lessons as well. For those teachers who have felt insecure about the quality of their lessons, this offers a step-by-step guide. And for teachers who are already schooled in these steps, there is no harm in reviewing what works!

The Packed Lesson

As I said above, the first time a teacher teaches a craft step to students, I believe, this should be done in the packed lesson. The packed lesson includes:

1) clarifying how and why this craft step may be important to effective writing for an audience;

2) a clear explanation of what the craft consists of—a definition of the craft step—and how a writer begins to practice this craft move;

3) mentor text examples of effective use of the craft step—to demonstrate points 1 and 2 above;

4) examples of the teacher attempting to utilize the craft step with her/his own piece of writing—in this case, also including an example of how the craft step might help improve the calico cat essay;

5) a “work period” during which the students have a go at trying to make use of the craft step in a piece of writing that they are work-ing on; and

6) a “sharing time” during which students are invited to share out the result of their “have a go” experiments and to share their discover-ies or to ask further questions in a supportive environment.

Tuning the Lesson toward Trauma-Informed Practices

How can each craft lesson include trauma-informed healing, as well as pro-viding Cambourne’s intellectual conditions? I offer guidance for this both by incorporating methods for countering stress and anxiety in your classroom when they occur and also by clarifying how each craft lesson can incorporate

Susan Craig’s trauma-informed teaching and learning practices. Frequently, in between chapters of this book I provide a “Trauma-Informed Teaching

Tip” that grows our cumulative sense of a healing approach we can take in our classrooms one ingredient at a time. Also, each chapter and mini lesson of this book incorporates three key aspects of Susan Craig’s trauma-in-formed teaching practice (as presented in chapter 1).

What I Say to Students: What, Why, How

First, we have learned from Craig that students who have experienced trauma need to be helped to understand the lesson on three brain lev-els. “What” is the technical or practical issue being taught—define it, give examples, show what it looks like. “How” can the learners engage actively with the topic—what does it look and feel like to engage with this craft issue? “Why” would someone engage with this topic or technique? What is the purpose? Why might this step become important in a writer’s relationship with a reader?

In each lesson, or chapter, I first talk briefly just to you, the teacher. Then I quickly move to a section called “What I Say to Students: What, How, Why,” which presents what I say to students in presenting the lesson and which carefully includes attention to each of the three brain levels: what, how, and why.

Dialogic Teaching

The second technique offered by Craig was the need for a lesson to be dialogic.” The “What I Say” part of the lesson is primarily teacher talk— though the teacher should pause for questions at certain points and, of course, be gracious in receiving them. However, at the next point, when we move to the “Mentor Text” models part of the lesson, this should be done dialogically. We may need to explain an opening mentor text example our-selves. But with subsequent examples, we should invite students to think and talk with us about “how” the mentor text sample does indeed show the craft step being discussed. This can be scaffolded by the teacher doing a “think-aloud” (as Craig recommends) with an initial mentor text example before inviting students into the talk. And this step can often be facilitated by having students turn and talk to a peer, allowing them to brainstorm together for a moment.

The Doing Classroom

The third of Craig’s key ideas included in each lesson is that students are given an early opportunity to “do” something with the material being learned. Of course, with writing workshop we are moving toward students doing the craft step being discussed. However, Craig is talking about something more urgent and timely with doing—right during the mini lesson.

This is accomplished in each lesson by going from dialogically presented mentor text examples—and the calico cat examples-in-pro-cess—directly to the “Student Task: Have a Go—Students Doing” part of the mini lesson.

Discourse Review: Restorative Conversation

As I have been expressing, it is a belief of this book that how we teachers talk has a profound impact on how students learn. To help us focus that talk, each chapter ends with two brief additional sections. The “Discourse Review: Restorative Conversation” and “Common Misstep: Supportive Coaching

Moves” sections offer advice for how to handle the discourse of the learning work so the lesson will be both strategically effective in relation to writing and also restorative to students who have experienced trauma.

The Discourse Review will remind about and clarify ways to monitor how we speak and respond throughout the lesson and how we can also help students talk in productive ways.

Common Misstep: Supportive Coaching Moves

In “Common Misstep: Supportive Coaching Moves,” the final section of each chapter, I will cover one or two common errors students make in working with the craft lesson under consideration. This may be one of the more important parts of each chapter in working toward the discourse goals Gee, Johnston, and Craig would have us achieve.

Error is, of course, necessary to learning. Perfect performance merely shows that the student already knew that step. I have found that teachers’ carelessly negative responses to student practice efforts and errors are often among the biggest obstacles to classroom learning success. A negative judgment is rarely—maybe never—called for while students are in-progress working on something new. Rather, skillful teacher or peer discourse will include praise for effort and for trying new approaches, as well as acknowledgment of partial success for the purpose of coaching the student about the next step they might try.

Students who have experienced trauma need, even more than other students, to know they are emotionally safe as they risk-take by trying new steps. The discourse approaches we take and the subsequent supportive coaching responses we make to student errors can provide that foundation of safety.

Using the Chapters in Order—Or Not

The packed, trauma-sensitive lessons offered through this book are designed as a sequence, in order of how lessons might be taught. Our next chapter, chapter 3, launches the classroom work as it explains how to build a foundation of mindfulness in your classroom. The chapter offers guidance about how to establish a basic “respect agreement” with your students, as well as establishing ongoing parameters for response to each others’ writing.

Most subsequent chapters are designed to guide a teacher in how to offer a certain craft lesson—powerfully and in a restorative manner.

The order of classroom lessons, of course, can be quite different, depending on the goals of the teacher or needs of the writer(s). However, in general, the order of lessons here suggests that first students may need help getting good topics. Even when offering students a choice of topics, effective teachers help students choose topics wisely.

Then, in order, this book proposes that we teach: building moments through sensory detail, seeing imaginative meanings in a topic through metaphor, engaging the reader by varying the leads or beginnings, and achieving powerful closure through different types of endings. At that point, we have addressed the key elements of a piece of writing. However, we have not yet addressed all of the key aspects of achieving quality. So, as ways to further develop and refine our piece, we next focus on energizing writing through vivid verbs, focusing the reader by searching for precise nouns, and considering the effects of alternative ideas for organization of a piece. The book then addresses argument, or persuasive writing, as

a genre, offering ways to get good topics, key argument craft steps, and ways to address audience analysis. The last genre area the book takes up is research. Research is often the least well-done genre of writing in school. This need not be the case, because inquiry is a most interesting and worth-while intellectual activity.

It is my argument in this book that memoir, and the craft steps of a quality memoir, make a fine foundation also for persuasive and informative writing. The same passion a student feels when writing an important personal memoir must be found in order to produce a quality effort for argument or research writing. The sensory moment that intensely shares the essence of your memoir with a reader becomes the shining moment of experiential evidence in an argument and also the key illustrative example of your research paper. Leads and endings are similarly important in argument and research, as they are in memoir, and often have the same rhetorical goals—to open engagingly and to close meaningfully—and so forth.

Finally, I show how to help students work effectively toward correct-ness. As others have explained, correctness is not so unimportant that it is left to last. Rather, that is where correctness becomes important, at the end—when the whole piece has been developed and needs to be made presentable for a public audience.

Although all of these issues are of high importance, as all writing teachers come to know, they cannot all be taught at once. This book is seeking the most productive order, in sequence. However, if you see your students could benefit from a certain craft lesson at a certain point, the book is written so that each craft lesson stands on its own and can be offered at any time. In the end, the goal of publication beyond the classroom is also a major incentive for students to revise toward quality.

To sum up, in each lesson we look carefully at professional writers, we visit how the lesson might relate to the calico cat essay, study reflectively how both the professional mentor texts and calico cat writing “work,” and then have a go at trying to work like those writers ourselves. Finally, we almost always take time for sharing of writing, a step that, similar to later publication beyond the classroom, validates for students their putting in the effort it takes to write well. We do these writing experiments in an environment of emotional safety and supportive coaching. Studies suggest that students become creative and effective problem solvers by being placed in a learning environment of kindness and respect—where they feel safe enough to try new things. And we don’t have to leave the presence of kindness and respect to chance. There are pedagogical methods for bringing these qualities systematically into our teaching.

Appendix A: Guide Sheet/Template for … Designing a Packed Lesson

1) What Is the Craft Step? (two minutes) Say what exactly the craft step or writing ingredient is that you will be teaching about. In short, what is it, and why is it important?

2) Definition (three minutes) Give an informal further and fuller explanation of what this craft step is and how it works. Say: 1) a short definition, 2) what the writer is trying to do with this craft step, and 3) what the impact/result is for a reader when this step is done well.

3) Mentor Text Examples, Plus Calico Cat Example (ten–fifteen minutes, allowing for student interaction) Present print examples (accompanied by read aloud) of three or four mentor text examples from children and adolescent literature, or from approachable adult literature. The examples should not be too lengthy, and they should not just be left to stand alone. The teacher explains how one or two examples “work” and then asks/allows students to take a turn (after pair-sharing, perhaps) at explaining how one or two examples seem to work in relation to the craft step under consideration. Then the teacher focuses on the calico cat example to see how, in that essay draft, the writer is attempting to utilize the craft step under consideration.

4) Teacher (or, Later, Student) Example of Use of Craft Step: (five minutes) It is important for students to see imperfect models—such as the teach-er’s in-progress attempt to utilize this step with writing that she/he is working on. And it is important for students to see the teacher as a fellow writer trying to achieve quality. The calico cat essay examples of the craft step (used in step 3 above) also add the modeling of a “guest teacher”—me.

5) Have a Go (ten to twenty minutes) The students get a ten-to-twenty-minute work period to try to make use of the craft step to improve a piece of writing that they are working on. Possi-bly, the teacher will begin the work period by having one or two volunteers get brainstorming help from the whole group with their own pieces. This allows everyone to rehearse and think-aloud about the craft step. Then, usually, the teacher tries to write on her/his own piece at the beginning of the have a go period and then circulates to offer encouragement and help.

6) Share Time (five to fifteen minutes) The teacher makes time available—almost always—for students to share out the results of their have a go efforts. Students can share successes, which will show other students further examples of how this step can work. And students can share difficulties they ran into, which can result in a final moment of group brainstorming to help one or two students over a problem-solving moment.

(Times given are typical, not absolute rules. This packed lesson involves more teacher talk than later, shorter follow-up lessons on this craft step.

However, because the teacher invites questions about the definition, asks students to weigh in about what they observe in mentor text examples, and allows students to comment on the teacher example, the lesson is interactive, rather than just a listening time for students.)

CHAPTER 3 Namaste: Mindfulness and Respect as Foundation for the Workshop Classroom

(A Guide for Teacher Coaching and for Peers Helping Peers in Writing Circles)

Just embrace somebody to your heart and you are creative. Just look with loving eyes at somebody … just a loving look can change the whole world of a person.


The tree that is beside the running water is fresher and gives more fruit.

—Saint Teresa of Avila

INTRODUCTION: Namaste: Healing and Growth through Classroom Relationships

Audrey’s Story, Part 1

She sits silently in her seat, looking like the other sixth-grade girls. This is a rural Midwest classroom, not a world of $250 jeans or high-brand blouses or shoes. But her straight shoulder-length blonde hair seems clean and neat. And working from the salvage of Target and Kohl’s, her clothes look every bit as respectable as the other girls. But those blue eyes are not easy to read—her expression, too steadily neutral. She gives attention to the moment, but something suspenseful remains, some-thing under the surface that will come out. And sometimes, as if an overhead flashing light has gone on and then off, her expression widens and then shadows over, showing her fear …

* * *

As I have explained, research on trauma-informed healing approaches not only establishes that these approaches can well support the learning of all students but also clarifies that these approaches can be taken while keeping in stride toward high academic achievement. It is not a question of setting aside high standards. Rather, it is a question of providing both high expectations and, also, supportive scaffolding to achieve those expectations.

I have laid out in chapter 1 the reasons for moving our teaching toward trauma-sensitive practices and explained some of the key ingredients for such a move. In chapter 2 I presented more exactly how we can tune the elements of our lessons to both foster healing and also to help students achieve high-quality writing. The entire remainder of this book is devoted to how to implement that blended approach in your classroom.

Most fundamentally, the trauma-sensitive classroom described by Susan Craig, combined with the discourse-safe environment that I am clarifying, can build a mindful and mutually respectful environment as a foundation under student risk-taking. Craig suggests we begin this with a “respect agreement” to establish a community of caring for the group work. And she suggests the need for a pervasive predictable kindness—in word and tone—to succeed with the dialogic relationships in the room. Teaching the mindfulness concept of namaste at the outset of my

work with students establishes a shared understanding of our safe relationship that I have found even elementary school students can quickly grasp. Further, the positive response protocol that I utilize for all classroom response to writers and their writing—by teachers and student peers alike—provides a healing and supportive scaffold as underpinning for all critique of in-progress writing. I have witnessed this combination of features restore confidence to young writers and also provide clear guidance for next steps the writers can take toward quality writing. Together, the foundation of namaste combined with the positive response protocol constructs and enacts the basic respect agreement needed by all, though by some more urgently than others.

When I introduce the concept of namaste to students as a basis for our working together, I also present it right off as a foundation for responding to other writers. I offer a lesson on the word itself. I emphasize that this is the essential concept we will use to frame our relationship to one another. I suggest they say this word to one another as a greeting for the day and that they say it silently inside their heads as they prepare to respond to someone else’s writing. And then, in the next few days, I proceed to teach how to do writing circles, as I am going to teach you in this chapter.

What I Say: What, How, Why

I explain to students that namaste is a Sanskrit term literally meaning “I bow to you.” Because the term comes from the East, people in Western culture have often experienced it in yoga or meditation. It is also related to the bowing at the opening of a martial arts session. It is often helpfully translated as “The spirit in me bows to the spirit in you.” At the end of her wonderful book Warriors Don’t Cry, Melba Pattillo Beals—one of the “Little Rock Nine” who integrated Little Rock Central High School in 1957—closes by saying to her readers, “Namasté (the God in me sees and honors the God in you).”

When I had the privilege of teaching a group of high school students from several different countries at the African American History Museum in Detroit not long ago, I asked them if they knew this term. Several of the twenty or so group members did know it. One young girl from Brazil explained that in her country, the term meant “The light in me is the same as the light in you.” I like that translation very much.

After providing some information and then asking students to share what, if anything, they know about the term, I explain, “To me, the term is best understood as meaning something like ‘I recognize that you are a sacred child of the universe—that you are special and valuable to the universe. And I know that the universe expects me to help take care of you.’ ” I add that when they say this to me, it carries the same meaning from them to me. Then I say that the reason I am teaching this term is because it is necessary for us to feel this respect and appreciation—and this caretaking responsibility—for each other if we are to be the most helpful writing community for one another.

Audrey’s Story, Part 2

I understand if some teachers might worry that this lesson moves the class-room toward religious issues. For this worry, I offer two responses. First, the concept of namaste is a spiritual practice that does not advocate for any specific religion or belief. It simply brings a concern for each other’s well-be-ing into our classroom community—a concern that, I believe, is overdue.

Second, student responses have shown me how much they value this foundation for their writing workshop community. One example is Audrey, the girl pictured in the opening scene of this chapter, from a sixth-grade group I worked with over several weeks. I noticed her as I observed the teacher interact with the class. Then, as I spoke on that first day, I could see by her intent gaze that she was carefully attending to this opening lesson on namaste. Afterward, in a break, she approached me to explain that she had been the victim of a harsh stepfather who, thankfully, was no longer in her family and who, she said to me, she was no longer permitted to see. With her mother’s permission, she then began to write about those harsh experiences.

Subsequently, before our group convened each day, Audrey walked up to me wherever I was—whether unpacking my materials or chatting with the teacher— paused, and bowed, saying, “Namaste.” I always then bowed to her and replied, “Namaste.” I sensed she understood that we were making a promise to each other about how people were going to be treated in that room, and she deeply appreciated the atmosphere of respect I was working to co-construct for her in her work. Later, as the class planned an upcoming evening of sharing our writings with parents and friends, Audrey and another girl volunteered to explain the concept of namaste as an opening greeting to our visitors.

Respect Agreement

Even though I have been presenting the potential importance of utilizing the direct approach of mindfulness based on the mutual exchange of “Namaste,” it is quite possible to implement Susan Craig’s idea of a respect agreement as a classroom foundation entirely without reference to namaste. I do both. I have designed my own four-point respect agreement (below). You may find this version suitable for you, or you may prefer to devise your own—or you may begin with mine and revise as you go. Ordinarily, having taught the idea of namaste, I elaborate by presenting the guidelines of our classroom respect agreement:

Respect Agreement

•• We are making a promise about how we are going to treat each other—this includes everyone.

••We are a family of writers who are going to take care of each other.

••We are practicing “making the kind choice.”

•• We fulfill this promise partly by how we respond to each other’s writing (PQS).

I read each point aloud and expound briefly upon each. I clarify the word

“promise” as a commitment we are making. I point out that we are learning traits of a healthy family. I then take up the words “family” and “kindness” dialogically, inviting the students to join in describing and elaborating about each. Together, we name healthy family traits such as offering help and support when needed, being willing to be interested in what is important to another family member, and having an underlying intention to be caring.

In taking up the word “kindness,” I point out how almost all religions teach it. Then I ask students to help give a definition for kindness. I ask them to give example moments of kindness in their lives. I ask them to explain what kindness “looks like” and “sounds like.” They usually do this well. I make certain we clarify that kindness involves placing caring in your heart and then making your speech and actions match that caring. Then I say, “You will have six or twelve, or more, times each day when someone does something or something happens, and you will have the opportunity to choose how to respond.” And I remind them, “At those times, we are practicing making the kind choice.” Finally, I say I am soon going to teach them a way to respond to each other’s writing and that I have chosen this way of responding with our classroom family because it is both what research on “response” recommends and also a kind way to respond.

Two Key Principles Guiding Response

  1. Teaching writing must involve coaching the individual writers toward their goals.

The teaching of writing, even more than many other subjects, is really the teaching of each individual learner. Lessons and instructions are offered from the front of the room, but at some points, individual coaching must also occur. The saving grace is that not all of this coaching needs to come from the teacher. If prepared and practiced properly, peers often can pro-vide useful coaching advice to one another.

  1. The workshop must occur in the midst of a mutually respectful classroom conversation.

This is a point fundamental to adapting our work to mindfulness and to trauma-informed practice. Our mantra: How we talk to each other in the classroom makes all the difference to the learning that goes on.

Students have an intuitive awareness of whether they are being spoken to respectfully (Moffett, Teaching the Universe of Discourse, 1983). When we respond to a student notebook entry or their freewrite or to an early draft with immediate correction or judgment, we are not being respectful or helpful. First of all, this is not the time to “correct.” If a student shows you a bold and interesting new vocabulary word in their rough draft and you pounce upon the fact that the word is misspelled, the result you get is not a better speller but a student less inclined to experiment in writing with bold words—because no one seeks out negative judgment. Further, you get a student who no longer wishes to show you their writing.

The model for a respectful conversation, according to James Moffett, is how we speak interactively with a friend. My homespun illustration for this goes like this:

Your friend says to you, “I just saw the best movie I have ever seen last night.”

You do not say, “That would have been a better sentence if you had included the title of the movie in it.”

Instead, you say, “Oh, that’s great! I’m glad to hear that. Tell me about the movie.”

Donald Graves has argued that by treating students’ writing primarily with correction and judgment, instead of coaching them graciously and supportively, we have created a society of people who treat a writing occasion as if they have been invited to an uncomfortable formal dinner. They arrive late, hope not to be noticed, and leave early.

It is to help us achieve the above coaching and discourse goals that I recommend the teaching of namaste as a basic part of a respect agreement—as a guide and reminder of our discourse intentions at all times. Further, I recommend the PQS, or positive response, protocol as part two of that agreement, because it is a powerful way to establish a supportive coaching response to writers and writing. This PQS response framework is widely supported by the work of discourse theorists. It is recommended by current research on the helpful coaching of students, as summarized by John Hattie and Helen Timperley in the article “The Power of Feedback”

(2007). These guidelines I recommend are true to Hattie and Timperley’s research, as well as to those of Carol Dweck and Peter Johnston, but are my own steps and language. Here is a brief, self-contained presentation I provide for both teachers in workshops and students in classrooms on the

PQS response pattern.

* * *

PQS: Positive Response Protocol

Research on helpful response asks us to coach the writer in a positive direction, not merely to offer our judgment (Dweck, 2007, 2015, Hat-tie and Timperley, 2007, Johnston 2012). One type of supportive and yet coaching response to a writer about a piece of writing is the PQS, or posi-tive response, protocol. In responding to a writer during sharing time or in a conference, the teacher or peer follows this pattern:

1) (P)raise: What do you like best about the effort or paper? What seems most interesting or vivid?

What do you remember best after reading?

(I prefer: What do you remember best?)

Also: What craft steps do you see being used? Or, What is most successful in this piece so far?

2) (Q)uestion: What are you confused or curious about as a reader? Ask two or three questions.

3) (S)uggestion: Make your best one or two suggestions for what you feel would be the most helpful next steps for the writer and this piece.

We use this approach for several reasons. First, it is a tool to help the reader/coach—you get to know the piece by appreciating and questioning a bit before you feel prepared to coach next steps. A coach’s best ideas are not usually off the top of their head but come after making contact with the writer and piece.

We use this approach to help the writer/learner. It is important to remember that in situations of anxiety, the listener cannot effectively hear you if their fear or anxiety rises too high. This is why people take someone with them to receive a doctor’s diagnosis sometimes—so the less involved person can hear. If we want our suggestions followed, we need to make the suggestions in a context in which the learner is comfortable and feels safe enough to be able to hear them.

Finally, we use this approach for technical reasons. No one can follow a multitude of suggestions. Humans do better at following one or two. By proceeding with appreciation and reflection first, you increase the likelihood you will offer your best one or two suggestions.

To be effective, this approach must be honest, specific, and relevant.

You must refer to specific places in the paper and explain your points.

Telling a writer that a piece is “great” when it is not is harmful because that response is vague and because it miscommunicates how much work good writing takes. When you become practiced in this protocol, you may examine a rambly freewrite and be able to not say, “My, you have a disorganized mess here!” And to say instead, “There is a vivid sentence halfway down the page—I wonder if that’s what you should write about?”

* * *

Responding to student writing efforts is a point where great help can be offered, or it can become a point where great harm is done. To ensure that we offer help rather than deliver harm, the PQS response protocol becomes the consistent and fundamental way we respond to writing. As I have said, James Paul Gee makes this fundamental point about language use: We are never just delivering information when we speak or write. We are constructing a world (Gee, 1999, 11).

Johnston cautions that praise should be focused on the process and not offered as a blanket judgment of the person (38). Judging the person is not the goal, but praising their effort or willingness to try new steps can help them work toward important growth.

When praising student effort, we may be simultaneously praising a specific point of accomplishment in their work—as suggested in the

“praise” part of the PQS response. Noticing as a teacher or peer coach where a craft step is well used or at what point the student made a kind of writing breakthrough is important.

I have visibly seen the glow that comes over a student’s face when told of the pride in their work felt by their parent or teacher. We can say,

“I am proud of the effort you put into this paper,” or, “I am proud of the breakthrough you achieved by persisting in solving the problem.” These statements allow us to be proud of someone’s effort or achievement with-out making it a blanket judgment of the person.

Conducting Writing Circles

The PQS protocol offers the “partially scripted” steps and words for response that students recovering from trauma may especially need—as speakers and as listeners. However, in my classroom experiences, I have found the language and steps of this protocol to be the guidance we all need. Through practicing this protocol, teachers and students alike teach ourselves how to be respectful responders so that we effectively nurture and coach. The soothing assurance that response will always begin with the positive is much needed by all students in the room.

Teachers are sometimes their own biggest problem in relation to response to student writing. I have met many teachers who must do the equivalent of biting their tongue in order not to correct spelling or com-mas as soon as they see a piece of writing. If they give in to this habit or impulse to immediately correct, then research suggests, and I deeply believe, they are simply satisfying their own obsession, rather than helping the student writer. So, practicing the PQS pattern of response rigorously can be difficult for teachers. I sometimes say to teachers, for emphasis,

“When a student shows you a piece of writing, the first thing you say must be positive.”

However, we also need to teach our students to be such responders, so that learners can benefit optimally from coaching they receive from one another. My additional classroom recommendation for response, then, (in addition to the use of the PQS protocol), is to establish student writing circles in your classroom that also utilize this pattern.

Writing Circles

Teaching students to be effective peer coaches might seem like a tall order, especially with certain groups of students. However, unless we take the extra time and trouble to teach them these approaches and skills, there is always going to be a bottleneck in the classroom in which students are literally or figuratively lined up, waiting for the relatively rare opportunity to be coached by the teacher. Also, learning to be effective analysts of each other’s writing is powerful as a tool for becoming more critically analytical about your own writing. And finally, although the teacher knows the most about writing, sometimes it is the advice of a peer that strikes just the right chord with the writer and opens up new possibilities for revision.

I have found writing circles to be effective with groups as young as first graders, and I am familiar with these circles working well on up through high school and college. In all settings, to begin I recommend that the teacher guide one small group of four in a “fishbowl” modeling of writing circles for the whole class. The teacher ideally solicits a volunteer small group, but, if need be, a group can be required to demonstrate for the good of the class. The guide sheets I have adapted for my own classroom use are based on but not exactly like those in Jim Vopat’s book Writing Circles (2009). These classroom guide sheets are presented at the end of this chapter.

The students agree on a timekeeper/leader for the day, and they establish which writer(s) will share by listing “Writer 1” and “Writer 2” at the start of the session. At the start of a series of sessions, writers might volunteer for the Writer 1 and Writer 2 slots, but in subsequent sessions, a new leader will be named each time, and the remaining writers, whose work has not yet been shared and discussed, will fill the Writer 1 and Writer 2 slots.

If a writer does not want to share their writing but only be a responder in the group, that can be accepted as a temporary, or an occasional, role. We would prefer that writers feel “ready” to share their work. But, ultimately, some sort of balance must be sought, one that asks writers to expect to share on a regular basis with their writing circle group members.

In the first-grade classes I was recently working with, the teachers used a fishbowl approach in an ongoing manner so that only one writing circle was operating at a time in the class. The remaining members of the class stood around the circle and observed this one group, and they shared their ideas also at the conclusion of each point (praise, question, suggest).

However, even as early as second grade, I have been directly present where writing circles throughout the room readily succeeded. The first day

I taught writing circles to second graders, we did have a day of marginal chaos after the fishbowl session. Some groups were able to function right away, while other groups floundered, and all the while one little boy was almost perpetually wandering along behind me earnestly repeating, “Our group needs help!”

Each time he appeared in my wake, I assured him that I would shortly be over to help his group, and I kept this promise. In general, I tried to maintain a good-natured demeanor about the relative chaos, assuring the students that we were starting a new and somewhat difficult step. I let them know that I expected confusion while we practiced, and I promised that once we learned how to do them, the writing circle sessions would become a valuable part of our writing workshop classroom.

Even by the end of that first day in second grade, I felt I was already hearing helpful, intelligent conversations in the different groups. Students would be deliberating out loud whether it would be better for the writer to add a new section on such and such or to simply expand an existing section with more details—precisely the kind of response and reflection that I had hoped for.

Michael’s Story

Over the next few weeks, I observed the second-grade class growing more and more at ease with the experience. One student, Michael, who had never previously shared with his peers—regardless of whether the opportunity was in the writing workshop or any other subject—volunteered to share as Writer 1 for the second session of his writing circle group. Michael volunteered so matter-of-factly that the teacher and I only knew of it by hearing from his excited group afterward. Part two of his story came soon after, when it was time for students to be selected to read aloud before a visiting group of parents and friends. The teacher drew names from a jar. When his or her name was read aloud, the stu-dent could say “yes” or “no, thank you” with respect to their willingness to read aloud on the celebration day.

Most students said yes readily, but when Michael’s name was drawn and read aloud by the teacher, there was a sudden suspense in the room as eyes turned toward him. After only a brief pause, he said “yes,” and the classroom burst into spontaneous applause.

To make that moment explicit—a second-grade boy who was known for not sharing became willing to share with not only his class but also with a visiting group of parents and friends after only a few weeks of writing circles—writing circles that carefully adhered to the PQS protocol.

Complementing Teacher Conferences

Not only are individual responses like Michael’s helpful—and joyful— in their own right, but the auxiliary benefits are many of constructing a classroom environment in which students can get thoughtful and helpful feedback from their peers on an ongoing basis and are rescued, as I have pointed out, from waiting in line for the moment when the teacher finally has time for a conference with them.

The goal, of course, is not to replace teacher conferencing with writing circles, but rather for writing circles to companion with and supplement the teacher conference. I would argue that even if a teacher sees each student only once per month in a conference over a nine-month school year, those nine conferences are a powerful boost in coaching for the student to receive.

As to how often to do writing circles, there are a variety of possibilities.

A teacher might devote Friday each week to writing circles. Or a teacher might pause and spend one entire week on writing circles if much of a class

now has drafts to share of a particular writing project. Once established, and after some practice time, the students can help select when to work in writing circles by letting the teacher know they feel the time is right.

The instructions on the guide sheet direct the leader to begin by asking the writer to read their piece aloud to their group. After the paper is read aloud once, the leader responds, “Thank you. Please read it again.” This reading of the paper twice may seem laborious—and, indeed, you are free to choose a one-reading approach, of course. However, I have always found students to be receptive to this, and I feel I see the improvement in their responses after two hearings. In the case of very long pieces of writing, we found it quite workable for the writer to briefly tell about their piece overall and then read a section that they wanted the group to hear and respond to.

A compassionate classroom environment based on a respect agreement is important. If this respect incorporates the mindfulness concept of namaste, that is an even fuller providing of classroom culture—and an additional reminder of kindness. The PQS response protocol helps implement this respectful approach. A nurturing response to writing becomes an essential part of this classroom respect that helps support risk-taking, which in turn brings out the best in our student writers. And, though important for all students, this may be the crucial step needed for sustaining and growing connections with students who have experienced trauma.

Discourse Review: Restorative Conversations

Here are the important review points for establishing the concept of namaste as the basis of a respect agreement and foundation for your writing workshop. And here are reminders of the core issues of the PQS protocol for responding to writing. First, the word namaste carries, most of all, a sense of reverence for the basic personhood of the other as an individual. It is a request and a reminder to place the intention of kindness in all of our classroom interactions. Ongoing in life, there are choices of how to relate to another person. Usually, if we are sufficiently aware, we can see that one choice may be more kind than another. Here we are practicing and teaching ourselves to make the kind choice.

Students who have experienced trauma sometimes do not hear teacher instructions the first time because the student is particularly noticing the tone or physical gestures. Being sure to pair up our tone and gestures with a respectful discourse is important. Providing a collaborative dialogic environment that allows for student questions and includes opportunity for pair sharing of understandings can also be important to helping these students enter the action.

Similarly, in utilizing the PQS protocol, it is important to achieve consistency. When we inadvertently start with suggestions, or when we offer minimal positive noticing and move instead to extensive suggestion-mak-ing, that is rightly received as negative judgment by the writer.

Common Missteps: Supportive Coaching Moves

I have been in classrooms where students have difficulty with the first step of noticing and remembering something positive from a writing piece. I will then step in and model, showing how I do this. I will also utilize other strong students in the room—invite them into the group for a short time so that they can show how to do this part. I remind the students that we are practicing to do this—that it is okay to have difficulty, but that, in time, we will have sharpened our ability to notice and remember from another’s piece of writing.

Later, after working together for a bit, students may fall into a rut with their positive suggestions so that they become repetitious. “Add more detail” is a suggestion that first of all must be attached to a specific place in the writing. It is the task of the person making that suggestion to say, “Add more detail …,” and to then add “where” in the piece they recommend detail be added. Even so, if one craft step becomes what students are responding to, the teacher can intervene and model, for the whole class or for one writing circle group, other types of suggestions the teacher would make as a responder. Further, the teacher can remind students to consider noticing positively, and/or to make suggestions about, the latest craft step that the teacher has taught in a mini lesson.

Finally, students sometimes fall into a type of questioning that is actually negative comment. Either “Why did you write it that way?” or, “Why are you writing about that?” could be useful questions at a certain point perhaps, but more often among novice PQS responders, they are accidental negative attacks. One way to help students adjust out of this is to state for them, “Let’s move away from the ‘why’ questions we have been asking into ‘how’ or ‘what’ questions.”

“How would you like readers to feel?” Or, simply, “What happened after that part happened?” can be much more productive questions.

It is not the job of students to automatically know how to do these things. Rather, it is the job of students to risk-take and try out these new practices. Then it is the job of the teacher to diagnose strengths and weaknesses of the student practice and to respond with further coaching to help the students move forward.

Reflection on Audrey and Michael

We may wish that students automatically felt safe in our classrooms, but that is often not the case. Others of us may think the students need to get tough because “life is not a bowl of cherries.” But actually, we ourselves are somewhat able to be tough in dealing with life’s challenges only because of the people in our lives who treated us with kindness at key moments in the past. Kindness and love build resilience—harshness harms the development of resilience. And only when we are direct about our caring do students realize they are safe to take risks in our presence.

Appendix A: Guidesheets for Writing Circles: Guide Sheet/Record Sheet for Writing Circles

Leader/Timekeeper: (Name)

(Makes sure everyone is ready. Reminds people to use PQS response protocol—and makes sure they respond with “remember” and “like” first. Asks writer to read their piece aloud. After the writer finishes reading, the leader says, “Thank you. Please read it again.” Then the leader invites responders to respond (immediately after hearing the second reading for younger students or, for older students, after they write a PQS note.)

1) First Writer: (Name, piece of writing)

2) Second Writer: (Name, piece of writing)


  1. Writer reads their paper—or key parts of their paper. Writer can explain parts not read. Writer can ask for help with one part if they want.
  2. Responders use the PQS response protocol. (Responders may make “notes” to get ready to respond.)

(P) What do you remember? What parts do you like? Where is craft?

(Q) What are you curious or confused about? (Questions)

(S) Suggestions—your one or two best suggestions.

Comments on Writing Circle: Reflecting on Writing Circle Time: (Put this in your notebook/journal or on a sheet your teacher provides.)

1) What happened in writing circle, and also the best part?

2) What did I learn?

3) Ideas for improving writing circle?

Response Sheet for Writing Circles

Leader/Timekeeper reads aloud each category (P, Q, and S) to invite responders to join the conversation for each of the three steps (or, with older students, the leader may read each category twice—once so respond-ers can write their response note, and once so responders can present their responses—aloud to the writer—after writing their response notes).

1) Positive Response: What do you remember best from this piece?

What parts do you like best, and why? What is most interesting to you about this piece? What craft techniques or steps do you see being used by the writer?

2) Questions: What are you curious about in relation to the topic of this paper? What are you confused about? What would you like to know?

3) Suggestions: Based on what you think is the writer’s purpose, what are your best one or two suggestions, especially for what the writer should:

• Add to the piece? Does it need a new section, or is there a part that should be made longer?

• Take out of the piece? Is a part unnecessary or repeated?

•• Or change? Is there a part that could be revised with a recommended craft step to improve it?

DMU Timestamp: July 18, 2020 13:26