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Spotlight on First-Year Composition: Erin Elizabeth Smith, Holland Prior, and Tori Lane

Erin Elizabeth Smith, Holland Prior, and Tori Lane, all experienced instructors in our First-Year Composition program, speak about their successful teaching practices.Erin Elizabeth SmithErin Elizabeth Smith is the Creative Director at the Sundress Academy for the Arts and the Managing Editor of Sundress Publications and The Wardrobe. She is the author of two full-length collections and the editor of two anthologies. Her poems have appeared in numerous journals, including EcotoneMid-American, Crab Orchard Review, Cimarron Review, and Willow Springs, among others. She teaches in the English Department at the University of Tennessee, and in 2017, she was inducted into the East Tennessee Writers Hall of Fame.

Holland Prior

Holland Prior is a doctoral student in rhetoric, writing, and linguistics, and her research focuses on women preachers. She holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from the University of New Hampshire and is an ordained minister with the Wesleyan Church.

Tori Lane

Tori Lane is a third-year PhD student and Graduate Teaching Associate. Her research focuses on the intersection between Affect and Queer theories presented in Slam Poetry. This is her fifth year teaching First-Year Composition courses. When not enacting her roles as student or instructor, Tori enjoys writing poetry, spending time with her community, and spending time with her tiny dog.


The Composition Office recently interviewed them to find out more about their experiences conducting draft workshops in their classes.


Our interview follows:

Could you tell us about the draft workshops you conduct with your students in your composition courses? Why did you decide to incorporate workshops in your course, and what are the advantages of doing so?

Erin: My background as a creative writer deeply influences the ways in which I center workshops in the classroom. In creative writing workshops, the workshop process is focused on the entire class looking at one piece that they have all read in advance with the instructor there to guide the discussion. This allows for the class to focus on a single piece and learn from the work of their peers. Often, it’s easier to figure out what could be made better in others’ work than our own as well as trusting our instincts for what we enjoy in the writing of our classmates.

Thus in my composition classroom, students have the opportunity to workshop one essay by each of their peers in a full-class setting. Everyone comes prepared to discuss the essay having spent the nights before reading and commenting on a draft of the work. This allows us to look at papers in different stages of development as well as to think about how their peers are formulating arguments, finding and incorporating sources, and ultimately convincing their audiences (or not) of the fundamentals of their theses.


Holland: I have a creative writing background, and workshops are a key component of my own writing process, so it is likely not surprising that I place a high value on the workshop environment in my classroom. Students benefit from reviewing sample papers and absorb a lot of genre conventions by analyzing them, but those sample papers are generally finished products. By workshopping drafts together as a class, students also gain insight into the composing process as they watch how their peers perform at various stages, which in turn helps them compose their own assignments.

I have always prioritized peer review in my FYC courses, but as I was planning my 102 course, I decided to experiment with full-class workshops and have been pleased with the results. When I hold individual writing conferences with students following a round of workshops, nearly every student explains how some element of his or her draft reflects an attempt to adopt or avoid something observed in a workshop draft. The full-class format also enables me to point out themes and issues I want everyone to learn from, and the lessons seem to “stick” more effectively when we all have a live example in front of us.


Tori: I do drafting workshops and peer review workshops. I call the drafting workshops “working workshops,” and remind the students that we are an intellectual community.

The working workshop allows me access to each individual’s drafting anxieties: the student who wants every sentence to be perfect before they move on to the next sentence, the student who has trouble organizing their thoughts, the student who fears the blank page, the student who is overwhelmed by the introduction or conclusion, and so on. In the working workshop, I walk around the room and, through my experience, the students will stop me with a question when I get close. Sometimes, the question is, “Am I doing this right?” Sometimes it’s more pointed, “Could you check my thesis and make sure it’s on track?” or “I’m not sure where this body paragraph needs to go.” For me, it takes about a minute with each student, and that little bit of reassurance helps them get into the flow, and over the hurdle of their inner critic. Often, once I answer a student’s question, I will address the whole class with that question and answer. If there is a student who doesn’t ask a question, I just stop by and ask, “How are you doing?” and usually, that will pull a question out of them.


How often, and at what point in the writing process, do you schedule these workshops? Do all the students get their drafts workshopped at one time or do they go in groups? How do you arrange all this in class?

Erin: These workshops are scheduled the three to four class periods before papers are due. Thus we are able to look at some essays in their very early stages (focusing on introduction, thesis and background), their middle stages (the points that back up their central argument), and in near completion (seeing the full arc of the argument). Students are able to choose at what point they want their essays workshopped in terms of thinking about where they often tend to “get stuck” or get lost in their sources. Some students want to know if their argument is working before they get into the nitty-gritty of how they back that up while others are more interested in having their fellow students look at a paper in its entirety to see how they build and argue their points.


Holland: I set aside a week during each unit of my 102 course—preferably in the middle of the unit—as “Workshop Week.” As I overview the three papers students will complete in 102, I explain that each student will submit a draft to be workshopped for one of those papers and have students sign up for their workshop dates during the initial weeks of the semester. This means that roughly 6-8 students will be workshopped per unit.

On the class date prior to their workshop, students are required to bring hard copies of their draft to distribute to each member of the class. At the end of their drafts, students list three questions they’d like their peers to address with their feedback. The rest of the class then has a few days to read their peers’ drafts and write feedback letters addressed to the author, which I ask them to submit via hard copy (to give to the author) and on Canvas (for me).

Depending on the class size or other constraints, I typically have 2-4 student drafts to workshop per class period, and while students are expected to read and come prepared to offer feedback on all of the drafts, I often divide the feedback among the students so that no one is required to write more than two feedback letters per workshop. (I offer bonus points to students who choose to write more than two letters, and many students do so).


Tori: I do both workshops for each major assignment—at the beginning and end of the rough drafting process.

The “working workshops” operate on a fairly loose structure. I allow them to listen to music with their headphones. I allow them to talk to each other as they work through what they’re doing. At the end of the class session, they submit whatever chunk of draft they have at that point in their writing process as a low-stakes writing assignment.

The Peer Review Workshop model is one I have used consistently for five years. After years of personal frustration with the peer review models I had been given as a student—where the drafts are silently read and often returned with a vague “good job” or focus on mechanical errors;  I wanted to offer my students something more engaged and pointed toward fulfilling the actual requirements of the assignment. The peer review process I use involves fairly strict rules:

  • Writer reads draft out loud to peers
    1. Audience listens for content. What is this argument about?
    2. Audience makes quick marginal notes +/- . What is working well? What is unclear?
    3. Writer DOES NOT SPEAK
  • Writer reads draft out loud again
    1. Audience marks specific areas where they have questions. Audience writes those questions in the margins of the draft.
    2. Audience may discuss the paper, their confusions and the parts they enjoyed, or thought were done well.
    3. Writer DOES NOT SPEAK.
  • Each author submits their rough draft electronically with at least THREE things they know they need to change based on the peer review feedback.

Additionally, I put the rubric on the overhead projector for guidance, and I will add specific details I want them to look for each assignment. For example, “Does the thesis answer the question for this assignment’s goals?” I tell them they are not allowed to speak for their paper’s goals because that work has to be done in the paper. I remind them, they aren’t following that paper around, and aren’t able to explain to each audience what the goal of each sentence is. The sentence has to do that work. The paper has to do that work. Ensuring they have at least three specific goals in mind for their revision holds them accountable for making those changes. Reading the paper out loud slows the writer down, and they notice many of the smaller errors (typos, grammar mistakes), and this allows the attention of the workshop to be directed toward the argument’s content.


How do students respond to your workshops? How do you create a friendly environment where students can share their work and get honest, constructive feedback?

Erin: By having a full-class workshop, it allows the instructor to serve as a moderator for all of the workshops; in smaller groups, it’s much harder to facilitate each group’s needs and many students can get feedback that isn’t as careful and useful to their paper’s particular demands. This also allows for the whole class to be involved, so while their smaller groups may not have the same interests, there is likely someone else in the class who can speak to similar problems, can discuss alternative articles to read, or who are making similar and antithetical claims.

I’ve found that when students really like a rhetorical move that another student is doing that they are much more inclined to try out that move themselves. While reading examples in books is an excellent way for students to learn new writing tools, the work their peers do is far more accessible and deal with topics that they also are working with. They are equally more likely to be able to see problems that they have in their own writing in the work of others and by articulating those problems, they become aware of how these issues may manifest in their own essay as well.


Holland: Preparing students for the first workshop day is the trickiest, as most will have never experienced a writing workshop and feel some anxiety. The best way that I have found to help students push through that initial anxiety and engage the workshop environment is to provide a clear structure. As that first workshop approaches, I explain the purpose of the workshop and my expectations, discuss what it means to give effective feedback, analyze a sample feedback letter with my students, overview the workshop format, and give students room to voice questions. The discussions about giving effective feedback are the most important element to a successful workshop, and I reiterate those discussions throughout the semester.

On workshop days, we arrange the chairs and desks/tables in a circle and begin the conversation about each draft by going around the circle and having each person share something from the draft that he or she found well done. (As an added challenge and community-building exercise, I tell students they cannot repeat what someone else has said!) From there, the conversation shifts to responses to the three questions the author listed, and then to general discussion about the draft. I keep the tone encouraging and supportive, and students follow suit. To wrap up the conversation, I ask the author if he/she has any questions to ask in follow-up to the discussion, and then everyone passes their feedback letters to the author.

Once we complete the first workshop day, the rest proceeds pretty smoothly, and by the end of the semester, students often tell me that the workshops were their favorite element of the course and were highly influential in their learning and development.


Tori: The students respond surprisingly well to this workshop model, and often write about it in the course evaluations as the most beneficial part of the class. I think because we do this together as a process, and my continued insistence that we are an intellectual community helps ease the anxieties first-year students have writing college papers. Additionally, encouraging them to pay attention to areas of confusion tempers the notion that they are doing the paper “wrong” or “right,” or “good” or “bad,” and encourages them to improve upon what is there rather than strive for a “perfect” paper.


Do you have any suggestions for teachers who might want to start incorporating workshops into their classes? What are some things to do/not do? 

Erin: Doing this style of workshop does take up a significant amount of class time (six weeks on average), but what can happen here allows for much more hands-on learning. Instead of creating a lesson on comma usage, you can respond to how commas are being used in a particular paper to point out the ways in which it’s being done correctly, or, alternatively, the pitfalls we can fall into with how they’re used. It gives you real-world examples on a daily basis of how students are mastering composition writing but also ways that the whole class could be thinking about their writing in new and exciting ways. Also, since students are often writing on similar topics, it gives them new insights on how their peers are looking at the same ideas, which can open up counter-arguments and expand on the arguments that they are already writing.




“Sweat the details.” Make a schedule in advance, post it on Canvas, stick to it, and communicate with the students clearly. At the beginning of each unit, I remind students of who will be submitting drafts for that paper’s round of workshops, and I then send individual email reminders to students about a week before their workshop draft is due.

Have students submit hard copies of their drafts. When each member of the class has a hard copy of the draft, the feedback given is more helpful, and the workshop conversation is more focused and effective. I do have students post their drafts on Canvas for anyone who was not present to receive a hard copy, but the consensus among my students has been that they like having hard copies of workshop drafts.

Keep track of the time. For a 75-minute class period, I will workshop four student drafts, allotting 15 minutes per drafts with a little bit of buffer time. For a 50-minute class period, I will workshop 2 or 3 drafts.

Debrief immediately. I always try to conclude a few minutes before the class period ends so that I can dismiss the rest of the class and have a brief conversation with the students whose drafts were workshopped that day. While I do adjust these conversations based on what I observed during the workshop, my main goal is to have the students respond to two questions: 1) What did you hear during your workshop? and 2) What are you going to do next as you think about revising your paper?


Don’t talk too much. I let students know that the goal of the workshop is to receive feedback from their peers and that I expect them to be prepared for each workshop. I do chime in with feedback that I want the entire class to hear, but I try to keep my voice to a minimum and serve as a conversation facilitator.

Don’t let a few students dominate all of the workshop conversations. There are usually a few students in any given class who are happy to be quite vocal during workshop conversations and a few who would prefer to remain invisible, but a workshop functions best when everyone is engaged.

Don’t forget to put a draft workshop statement in your syllabus. My 102 syllabus statement briefly introduces the workshop concept and notes that students who are not prepared for their workshop, do not submit their drafts on time, or who are not present for their workshop will receive a grade reduction on the final assignment.


Tori: I think the most important thing to keep in mind, as an instructor, is that the students will work out a lot of their own writing issues amongst themselves. Allowing the students to see how their peers are digesting the assignment rather than relying on one central authority gives them the freedom to create their arguments from their own thoughts, and I think that’s central to their development as academic writers. In the peer review workshop, I will field for questions they have, but most of my work is to make sure the writer isn’t speaking. I’ll stop them and tell them to write it down, and use that information to revise. I think it’s important to have a sense of humor about how frustrating it can be for them while reassuring them it will make their paper better. I’ve laughed off several eye-rolls, empathizing with the frustration, but also encouraging them to use that frustration to make their paper better. In the working workshops, I think the most important part is addressing individual questions to the collective, and holding myself accountable for some of their confusion while simultaneously demonstrating that all questions are valid.



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