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Book Review: The Literature Workshop by Sheridan Blau

This book hit the hardest on my burning question for the Institute – and more so the burning question for my next school year: How do I teach writing as a compliment to the literature that I will be teaching in my Sophomore Composition and Literature course? I had been brainstorming a variety of approaches to this, and Blau’s work supported my burgeoning philosophy as well as challenged and revised it. Blau’s audience is college professors who will be working with college students, so his methods will need to be adjusted for 10th graders; however, I now have some undergirding principles and several strategies for my instruction this year.

Blau focuses heavily on strategies that help students think about their thinking while reading literature. He does not want students to feel that they must have a teacher explain what a work of literature means; they should be able to work through confusion and craft meaning for themselves. This is not to say that any meaning goes, but that students will feel more invested in their learning if they have to go through the challenging process of interpreting literature and applying it to themes that are important in their lives.

Although I’ve tried to capture some of Blau’s activities in my blog posts, I’m definitely going to purchase this book to use as a tool for curriculum crafting for the upcoming school year. I’d like to adapt some of his assignments (which he provides directly from his course syllabus) and attempt some of his workshops with my students. The Literature Workshop is certainly an important read for high school and college educators, and it can probably be adapted for lower grades as well.

Book Review – Breaking the Rules: Liberating Writers through Innovative Grammar Instruction by Edgar H. Schuster

I read Breaking the Rules (BtR) into the first week of the ISI, and since I doubt others will review it, I think I’ll give it a shout out. After spending a year refusing to read entire academic books (grad school burnout), I broke my professional literature fast by reading BtR cover to cover and thoroughly enjoyed it (but I am a grammar fan).

Before I get started on BtR, I need to provide some background. As an English teacher who is fairly conscientious about grammar, I noticed something startling in the YA books I had been reading. Authors don’t always follow the grammatical rules that I know – even the most basic, obvious rules. Even more startling is the fact that clearly their editors are not following these rules either! How are my students supposed to learn correct punctuation if their favorite authors don’t use it correctly? If certain “rules” aren’t followed in real-world writing, what exactly IS important for me to teach?

My teaching demo answered some of these questions; however, Schuster does an excellent job of outlining the rules that actually make a difference in communicating the language of power. Schuster starts with a criticism of traditional grammar instruction, and then goes on to provide teaching activities to cover the grammatical terms that students SHOULD know. He then debunks some “myth rules” that grammar instructors tend to hold to while language is on the move. Of course, he does recognize that certain rules are necessary for students to rise in social power. He provides some information and activities for how to teach these necessary grammatical rules.

This book will improve my instruction in various ways: 1) It answers many of my questions about the state of grammar in contemporary literature and allows me to appreciate it rather than lament it; 2) it allows me to relax some of my grammar stinginess, which can lead to dejected writers rather than language investigators and crafters; and 3) it provides more possibilities for teaching grammar in strength-based, mentor-text formats.

I certainly did not agree with everything that Schuster wrote (“If in doubt, leave the comma out” – I think not), and he did not provide as many positive examples of grammar instruction as I would have liked. Thus, I’ll have to rely on teachers/writers like Jeff Anderson and Constance Weaver for these tips. However, I appreciated the analysis of grammatical philosophy. This book allowed me step back from my instruction to look at the bigger picture of grammar instruction.

Book Review: Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg

Although this book did not answer any of my burning questions, I decided to read it for the sake of my own writing craft. Last year, I had read several books by writers – Bird by Bird by Ann Lemott, Naming the World by Bret Anthony Johnston, Writing Magic by Gale Carson Levine, and several short pieces by young adult writers. I collected activities and added depth to my writing instruction. I copied sections of these pieces and crafted a unit called Writers Write about Writing. Students analyzed the techniques of authors and then wrote pieces about their own writing craft – what they currently do and what they could learn from these authors.

I expected Writing Down the Bones to be a book that I could add to my authors list; however, I was a bit disappointed. The chapters were short – great of photocopying – but the information was abstract and disjointed. I’m going to blame my own need for organization and concrete/practical examples, but I couldn’t find a chapter that I found absolutely phenomenal for student writers. I suppose that I might want to use a chapter or two for idea generation, which seems to be what this book mainly focuses on. I would also employ some of her strategies, but these would be boiled down from various chapters rather than one particular section. WDTB didn’t teach many of the elements of story, and it mainly focuses on finding truth and energy and writing from that “place”. While I agree with this, I just couldn’t find many practical activities for my students.

I am willing to believe that I am ignorant in some ways of writing and that a second reading of Writing Down the Bones would be beneficial when I become more enlightened. But for now, I found it an interesting read that provided some novel approaches on idea generation and what to keep and what to “Samurai.”  

Writing Activities from Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg

I have started reading Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones. I completed a few of her brainstorming activities below:

1. List of Obsessions – things you just can’t keep out of your head. Don’t repress them; write about them as compost or composition!


  • Comparing myself to others
  • My cat
  • How perfect my family is
  • How unfair my husband is at times
  • Interesting details of my world
  • Nature
  • Grammar
  • Bathroom experiences

Write for five minutes:

I genuinely believe that my family is perfect. Sure, every family has its faults, and ours might just be how perfect we see ourselves. It regularly comes up in cousin conversations. The fact that we label many activities “cousin” activities should tell you something too. Just to give you some idea of how perfect we are, let me list some reasons: We all chose humanitarian careers, we all are high achievers, we all have a strong tendency toward moral goodness, we are all beautiful and intelligent, we all have high self-esteem and high self-worth, and we all love each other. We’re catty sometimes, and sometimes intimidated by the perfection of each other – at least I am. However, somewhere in our gene pool and the collective wisdom of our parents, our family has produced some remarkable offspring.

2. Mixing up language – Goldberg recommends that we give honor to the things of this world besides ourselves. Our writing sometimes surround US rather than all of the other items in our world. She suggests listing nouns, covering them up, and writing verbs that relate to a profession.

Nouns                                                                                                Verbs related to a photographer




Hot tub

Ugly tan pillows with geometric patterns that match so perfectly

Light switch










Holds down






  • The dandelions snap furiously as I pass by, trying to capture every movement of this moment.
  • Crickets focus on the dimming light, searching for just the right moment to begin their gollumping chorus.
  • The stairway searches up into the darkness.
  • The window watches life inside and life outside, forever doomed to be both and neither.
  • The ugly tan pillows with green geometric patterns that match so perfectly align themselves on the couch, waiting for their fate, hoping, like orphans, that they will not be left behind.

Writing for five minutes:

The ugly tan pillows with green geometric patterns that match so perfectly align themselves on the couch, waiting for their fate, hoping, like orphans, that they will not be left behind. Too fade and worn to be sent to Goodwill, these pillows knew that moving was their only chance for survival. Somehow their ugliness matched the ugly waving pattern of the couch, and it was decided. The pillows will go. They will continue to be abused, sat upon, heated with the bottoms of overly-warmed laptops, eaten upon, spilled upon, left abandoned on the floor, kittified, attacked, and smashed into uncomfortably complex positions for better sleepability. These pillows would go, and they would be happy to.

3. First lines – write interesting first lines that can be turned into pieces later

  • “Playing Bingo is not for wussies,” Nehemiah croaked.
  • The jungle gym became an endless maze that Juniper lost herself within.
  • Fountains followed her throughout the flaming plaza.
  • Pigs fly; why don’t you?
  • Sleep drew down the shades of her eyelids, tucking her mind into darkness for the night.

No writing for this one…I went to bed.

The Literature Workshop – Blau

Chapters 6 – 8

Chapters 6-8 did restore my sense that students CAN do this work at crafting meaning and meaningful writing about literature.

Chapter 6 includes a workshop that can be done to introduce the idea of saying something about literature:

Activity 1 – Students read a short piece silently

Activity 2 – Students read aloud using Jump-in reading (like popcorn reading)

Activity 3 – Pointing – students pic a sentence that they think is most important from the piece. Everyone shares them popcorn style (students can share more than one or repeat theirs when it feels necessary)

Activity 4 – Writing about a line (Write a quickwrite about a line and what makes it important)

Activity 5 – Sharing in writing groups

Activity 6 – Report Out and Publishing (publishing just means making it public or reading aloud to the full group)

Activity 7 – Extending the workshop from practice to theory – showing how the students interpretations relate to already established theories (feminist, psychological, moral/ethical, Freudian, family dynamics, role analysis, developmental levels, verbal analysis, style analysis, etc.)

In Chapter 8, Blau outlines the writing assignments he uses to encourage students to become readers, interpreters, and research collaborators on texts.

Assignment 1 (A1): Reading Logs

A2: Reading Log Audit

A3: Reading Process Research Paper

A4: The Interpretation Project

A5: Interpretive or Critical Paper on Short Fiction

A6: Portfolio Assignment

I clearly need to own this book so that I can steal/transform his assignments into usable practices in my high school classroom. I’ll have to find some way to get my hands on it when I’m immersed in curriculum planning this year. I’m sorry to see it go!

Reading Reflection – The Literature Workshop (Blau)

Chapter 5 (continued)

The end of Chapter 5 was a bit depressing in that it undid all of the beautiful enthusiasm I took from the beginning of the chapter. Basically, Blau recognizes that students often have a difficult time interpreting a story beyond the simple “This story was really funny” or “This was a good story.” And these were college freshman and sophomores! How would I expect my sophomore English students to do any better? Blau did believe that lack of interpretive skills can come from complex causes; however, he felt that it is often a question of will. Are students willing to put the proper attentiveness and intellectual work into interpretation?

In order to increase student attentiveness and intellectual effort, Blau suggests creating interpretive frames based on theoretical positions. A well-trained teacher can use literary criticism as the foundational theory; however, students are not members of those critical communities, so it is hard to do well. Fortunately, many theories for human behavior/life experience/the plights of humanity/problem-solving exist. Helping students tap into these theories through other literature or prereading activities (I think of a survey format) will allow them to read the literature with an interpretive focus. The literature can be accommodated or assimilated into theory.

I believe that Chapter 6: What s Worth Saying about a Literary Text will give me more ideas on how to move students towards interpretation. I’m excited!

Reading Reflection – The Literature Workshop by Sheridan Blau

Chapter 5

I was supposed to skim ahead to the writing sections; however, I couldn’t help slowing down to read Chapter 5: Where Do Interpretations Come From?

I found this section fascinating because I am trying to rework the Sophomore Comp. and Lit. curriculum at our school (thanks to the willingness of our English department). Very much like the process of writing, I am in the brainstorming phase. I’ve been collecting ideas, research, insights, strategies, wishes, and passions to somehow craft a challenging, enlightening, perception-shifting course. One of my ideas for reading relates to a quotation: “You should be a different person when you finish a book.” That is an approximation because I cannot remember where I saw/heard/found it. In any case, I want students to think of all of the roles they play in life, what they are, what they love, what they are experts in, what they want more about. As we read books, I will explain to them that who I am influences what I get out of a book. If I read a book multiple times during my life, it might change the trajectory of my life in very different ways during each reading. While reading, I’ll expect students to pay attention to how this book might change their lives and write about this change.

What about symbolism or allusions or theme? you might ask. Well, Blau’s work with literature circles supports my demotion of those. Blau quotes Robert Scholes: “By asking students as they read to look for and analyze such elements as irony, theme, symbol, tone, and so on, [Scholes] says we erect a screen or alternate text ‘that stands between the literature students read and their own humanity'” (102). I really want students to experience and share that sense of change to their humanity as they read.

Now, I still have to teach various literary terms; however, that will be a follow-up assignment or alternate assignment. The literature terms assignments might be the icing on the cake that says, “Look! You found so many of these elements when you were searching for your humanity! You recognize them because they help to make an impact that leaves you changed!” (Um…I don’t think icing talks…but that is what it would say if it did.)

I have several ideas for ways to help tap into looking for interpretations (or the evocative meaning) and realizing that multiple interpretations will arise in any text. So much to think about! Thanks, Sheridan Blau!

The Literature Workshop (Blau) – Chapter 1 & 2 Reflection

The Literature Workshop by Sheridan Blau

The first two chapters of The Literature Workshop use activities and scenarios in order to demonstrate the handicapping that occurs in the traditional model of literature instruction and the possibility of a new model. Often in college,  the literature professor is importing knowledge onto his/her students. Students learn that they cannot understand literature on their own, without the aid of their professors. However, a literature workshop model puts the effort of understanding back on the students. It allows them to struggle with difficult texts and use their own rereading strategies and their classmates to find/form meaning.

One major benefit of the literature workshop is the development of metacognitive awareness in students. Students can explore what they know and what confuses them. Confusion is lauded because it is a pathway to deeper thinking. When students understand what confuses them, they self-confess that simply writing out their questions and rereading allows them to understand the text more. Asking questions allows them to rethink and to hypothesize answers, looking for evidence of their answers in the text. Through rating their understanding, students can become aware of how their understanding of literature grows through rereading and conversation. Students can no longer say, “I don’t understand it!” and quit. They will be able to see the various strategies will increase understanding.

Great philosophy and classroom activities in these first two chapters; however, I think I’m going to skim ahead to the writing chapters in the book in order to answer some more of my own questions about using literature as a springboard for writing.