The Story Workshop® Approach
Design and Implementation
Conducted in diverse classes from grade school to grad school in Chicago, Illinois, the Story Workshop program emphasizes reading, writing, speaking, listening, and thinking relationships. In this section, Schultz describes the general philosophy of the approach.
"What's the story here?" is a question often asked of a fictional, expository, or technical piece of writing. By that we mean what's the message, what makes sense and engages the reader. In the Story Workshop approach, the term story is understood to mean those forms that we commonly identify as stories: written fiction, written nonfiction, and oral storytelling. However, and very important, the word story is further understood to mean the basic organizing movement of words and meaning in any form of verbal or written discourse. "What's the story?" is a question that we could ask of the Story Workshop approach itself in the teaching of writing. How do Story Workshop teachers use its activities and formats to bring about the integration of reading, writing, speaking, and listening in the social situation of the classroom? The Story Workshop approach puts an equal emphasis on process and outcome, which is the common-sense necessity of any writer.
The Story Workshop approach encompasses "seeing in the mind," voice, a sense of audience, and movement. Participants are seated in a semicircle facing a director, an arrangement that facilitates both coaching and listening during the exercises. The Story Workshop approach capitalizes upon a group process and sense of audience to develop the individual writers. It uses a distinctive repertoire of Oral Reading, Recall, Oral Telling, In-class Writing, Readback, and other exercises and time-period formats.
The Story Workshop approach relies upon the director's side-coaching. In the presence of an immediate audience, this coaching helps students focus their thinking, voice, and sense of movement and form. Participants and teacher explore the interplay of inner speech, listening, and communicating with an audience through oral and written language.
Seeing in the Mind and Voice
In the videotape, "Voice Permission in a Story Workshop Writing/Reading Class: From Grad School to Grade School," viewers can see how students are coached on all levels to "see it" and "tell it so others can see it" orally and in writing. When the Grade 4-5 segment opens, Story Workshop director Devon Polderman is coaching Vicki to "see" the character in Kafka's story "The Bucket Rider." (See the video clip, Bucket Rider).
Many elementary school principals and teachers have initially thought that this Kafka story (and other adult literature) would be beyond the students, "over their heads." But coaching to see the events of the story helps students focus on the language and the meaning of the story, making such literature not only accessible but also enjoyable to students on all levels. In addition, giving students permission to use their voices and to hear the voice of the story makes dramatic learning possible. The events of the stories come back and are reinforced in subsequent activities called Recall, with the teacher coaching to bring together seeing, voice, and a sense of audience, which, again, is central to the success of the learning activity. Writers often speak of "finding my voice" or "finding the voice of story." They generally mean finding a way to get everything that goes into writing to start working together and produce a desired effect. Nevertheless, the explicit use of the word voice is significant: It identifies the physical voice that people speak with and listen to. It shows how important it is for teachers to give students permission in the writing classroom to use that voice, to write down one's speech, to sound one's writing (silently as well as out loud), to sound and absorb the mature language of accomplished writers; all this is particularly useful in helping students engage in writing and reading. The speaking-writing-listening connection makes coherently useful all of the concepts of voice in the teaching of writing and in evaluating writing.
For elementary students, "classroom voice" is at first limited to the language of school and students' own speech. In a Story Workshop class, with its active encouragement toward finding greater and more varied voice permission, the classroom voice gives way to a more complex and effective form of written voice that combines the language of school, literature read in the class, and language used in informal and formal situations outside of school.
For example, in an elementary school in a working-class suburb, the teachers and principal originally dissuaded students from writing about any kind of violence, believing it would encourage violence in the school and in the students' lives -- even action-adventure stories by students who enjoyed writing. However, after the Story Workshop experience, the teachers found that far from encouraging violence, such permission brought about an informative and useful perspective on school and other social violence. In certain instances, the writing even served as an early warning for violence in a student's home life.
A Sense of Audience: Working in the Semicircle
To form a semicircle, the students face a director who sits at the point that would be the center of the completed circle, with a few feet between the director and the students in the end positions to the left and the right. The semicircle may work effectively for as few as 3 and as many as 24 students -- or more if class size makes it necessary. In an elementary school situation, the teacher should break up the gender groups and the clusters of buddies by telling the students to sit boy-girl-boy-girl alternately, as much as possible, all around the semicircle. Similarly, the teacher should break up any other common denominator groups that have become comfort zones.
The director should be able to turn toward any of the students. Each student can see everyone else in the semicircle in direct and peripheral vision. In this way, subtle peer audience expressions and the important nuances of the oral/gestural telling are observable and hearable to the audience. In this way, students can speak while looking at an audience of peers and the teacher -- not the backs of heads while facing the teacher -- and they can listen without craning and shifting awkwardly to see and hear another student.
This seating arrangement makes possible the clearest and most heightened awareness of what each person does expressively when telling, writing, reading -- gestures, body stances, facial expressions, tonal inflections, and so on. It creates a supportive context for exploration of the processes important for airing student work in various stages of development.
Role of the Teacher/Director
The director is an expressive and lively teacher. Each director will have a different style, growing out of personality and the needs of a workshop. Some may be very demonstrative in acting out scenes with students, while other directors may tilt a finger or a pencil to call upon students in the semicircle.
Simple imperative demands (as in coaching sports, theater, or a hands-on activity) make it possible for the student to bring capacities together and produce expressive language. The director uses coaching language such as "See it!" and "Listen to the voice of the story in your voice!" and "Let it move! What happens next?" (See "Replication Details" for more information and examples of coaching language.)
To hear Story Workshop directors Devon Polderman and John Schultz reflect on the processes described in this section, see the video clip, Reflection on Recall.