The Writing Classroom as a Workshop

I want a classroom where more happens, more matters—and where, in a literature class, the texts we read make a difference to students.

– Peter Elbow


For any of us who are caught up in the debate between lecture or discussion, sage on the stage or guide on the side, Peter Elbow offers another way to look at the experiential classroom. In “Breathing Life into the Text,” Elbow proposes that even though the act of talking is a form of experience, it doesn’t necessarily involve the affective life of the students. We may look to our own experience of a riveting and successful discussion for inspiration but then find out that we aren’t able to always successfully reproduce it in the writing classroom. Instead of merely a discussion-oriented class, Elbow suggests that we organize our classes like a workshop to help students understand the phenomenological experience of reading.

To this end, he offers four activities that can supplement in-class discussion.

1. Write before you read

Concerned that putting reading before writing in a course suggests that writing exists to serve reading and readers are separated from the high holy station of the artist, Elbow gives writing prompts to students on a theme in the text before reading it.

2. Movie of the Reader’s Mind

To help students experience how reading is a process and not an instantaneous and magical event, Elbow has students describe their mental experience of a text one section at a time.

3. Embody the Text

Elbow suggests that we have students embody the text in some way, whether through reading it aloud, performing a wordless skit, or transforming it into a dialogue. In this project, he does not limit students to a linear experience of the text but promotes play, perhaps even parody.

4. Respond as Writers

For this last activity, Elbow has students to write an imaginative piece that engages an element of the text. For instance, they could write a poem about a season or time of year when reading Sonnet 73. Elbow takes a decidedly dialogical view of writing here and notes that using the text as a springboard and emulating it in some way operates as a form of interpretation.

Pedagogical Application

In a note at the end, Elbow has this to say about translation:

Nowadays we tend to assume that the goal of translation is to get present readers to enter the language and culture and world of the original text: to be “true” to the original. But for most of the history of our culture (for example, in the eras of Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Pope)–and for many cultures than ours–the goal of translation was quite the opposite: to transform the language and culture and world of the original text into those of our own.

I want to combine this understanding of translation as transformation with Elbow’s fourth activity where students use other texts as a springboard for their own. In my fairy tale class, we will read Sir Orfeo (listen to it below) along with Ovid’s version of Orpheus and perhaps Terrance Hayes’s “Cocktails with Orpheus.”

Each of these texts provides a variant on the myth. Both Hayes and the anonymous poet of Sir Orfeo tell us that Eurydice did not perish. For this writing prompt students will engage the text in a similar way and make it their own

Short Writing Prompt

Pick a scene from any of the versions of the Orpheus myth we’ve been looking at. What would it mean for the story if the scene had happened differently? What if Orfeo had been taken under the ympe-tre instead? Or what if Orpheus had not turned around? Change a pivotal aspect of your chosen scene and rewrite it. (1-2 pages)

This low-stakes assignment prepares students to write a later higher-stakes creative project and gets them thinking about the importance of changes in different versions of a narrative. The following short analysis paper will call on students to examine the significance of Heurodis returning with Orfeo in the end.


  1. How do you read a text for the first time? What in your own experience would be beneficial to show students? What would be confusing? What are your bad reading habits, and how do they affect your teaching?
  2. Elbow notes that students have accused these experimental writing activities of being artificial. What’s your evaluation of his four supplemental activities? If they they are artificial, how would you revise them?
  3. When did a text you read for a class make a difference in your life? What was the context of your reading? How was the text presented? How were you prepared or not prepared for it?

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