________________ CM . . . . Volume XIV Number 15 . . . .March 21, 2008


The Writing Circle: A Powerful Classroom Structure That Supports Writers and Promotes Peer Interaction-From Brainstorming and Sharing Drafts to Finding Their Unique Voices and Becoming Confident Writers.

Sylvia Gunnery.
Markham, ON: Pembroke, 2007.
96 pp., pbk., $24.95.
ISBN 978-1-55138-217-3.

Subject Headings:
English language-Composition and exercises-Study and teaching (Elementary).
English language-Composition and exercises-Study and teaching (Secondary).
Group Work in Education.


Review by Pat Sadowy.

*** /4


Helping students to improve as writers has long been a fundamental goal of schooling. Teachers work hard to be better teachers of writing, always looking for ways to motivate students and build students’ skills as well as their own teaching skills. It is toward such ends that Gunnery presents her orientation to writing instruction, an orientation that has grown out of her own experiences in writing, in teaching writing, and in being a student of writing. Her vision is based on students working in small groups that she calls writing circles. After introducing her basic orientation, she provides a rationale for it and shows teachers how it is intended to work. The remaining chapters provide specific support for teachers as they support novice and developing writers. Gunnery’s main foci are prewriting and revision. She devotes a full chapter to each, as well as devoting a chapter to the complex task of development of voice in writing. Her book is directed to teachers, and I see it being useful for work with middle years classes, high school classes, and formal or informal writing courses with adult writers.

      Writing circles are excellent structures for middle years children and older teens if applied in the open spirit that Gunnery intends. She does not advocate a forced "circle time" each day but suggests that eventually students will learn to flow in and out of their circles as necessary, opting at other times for independent writing time or one-to-one time with a classmate or teacher. The degree of choice and the opportunity to show genuine responsibility are key elements in the growth of students as persons overall, as well as writers.

      The book has many strengths. The style and length make it accessible. The content is practical and clearly supported. The tone is positive, hopeful, and encouraging. Overall, the suggestions are very respectful of learners, opening instruction to allow them much freedom in their own learning. However, Gunnery does not negate the crucial role of the teacher in a writing circle model. She delineates the teacher’s role clearly. This is especially important in a model that can appear to an onlooker to be an abdication of teaching. Gunnery acknowledges firmly a place for direct instruction, for boundaries, and for expectations. She clearly connects a writing circle program to curricular goals.

      While Gunnery offers some ideas for assessment, with strength in student self-assessment, her book is not a complete manual for all aspects of writing instruction, nor is it intended to be. It is more an enticement towards altering one’s point of view toward greater student interaction and greater student-and-teacher interaction. For those teachers whose direction is already toward interaction, this book is a scaffold for implementation. Teachers who come to this book, whether experienced or not, will already have had some introduction in their pre-service education to basic concepts such as the writing process and writers’ workshop models, as well as literature circles. Gunnery’s work can help to hone that knowledge and activate it in a practical way.

      At least as far back as 1974, when James Gray and his colleagues initiated the Bay Area Writing Project, writing instruction for teachers has had group sharing as a central element. Although writing circles are not new, Gunnery’s vision goes beyond writing circles as response groups. While much writing circle time is certainly to be spent on the sharing of members’ own works for response, Gunnery advocates that there should be opportunity, too, to investigate together such questions as: How do published authors begin their short stories? What initially motivated certain individuals to become writers? How do authors of novels write dialogue? Writing circle members might research such questions as they occur naturally within their groups and might then present findings to the class as reports or strategic mini-lessons.

      The book contains only 88 pages within its chapters, and several of these pages are summary sheets or reproducible forms, both very useful for the teacher. A novice teacher could easily read the book over a couple of times and then begin to plan a writing program for the coming year. An experienced teacher could use Gunnery’s ideas to modify aspects of an existing program. The structure of the book, using many subheadings and with each subsection delineated by dotted lines, suggests that an experienced teacher could focus on any one subsection at a time and incorporate its ideas into pre-established plans that have been successful.

      Gunnery’s book is supported by a thorough index and a small bibliography that includes some of the pedagogical classics (e.g., Nancie Atwell, Harvey Daniels, Donald Graves) as well as other more personal materials that illustrate Gunnery’s values. Her ideas come across as invitations rather than mandates. If implemented, they would likely serve to improve students’ products and also students’ enjoyment of writing time and would do so for the weakest and the most competent. Early in the book Gunnery claims, "The writing circle is neither an ‘enriched’ nor a "remedial" experience–it is, at the same time, both these things" (p. 6). Writing circles benefit all writers, and anyone who reads it will see the many ways in which her entire book is a celebration of diversity.


Pat Sadowy is a Senior Instructor at the Faculty of Education, University of Manitoba, where she teaches curriculum and instruction courses in language and literacy at the middle years level.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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