Teaching Writing: Leo Tolstoy and Lucy Calkins Writing Workshop

Social Justice Art Teacher
14 min readApr 15, 2021

Abstract: Writing Workshop (1996) is a patented writing instruction program for Kindergarten through sixth grade used by public schools in the United States. Writing Workshop instructs compositional writing using this sequence of actions: a teacher models metacognitive strategies in their own writing, explicit explanation, followed by student independent work, and routine sharing. Leo Tolstoy’s “Are the Peasant Children to Learn to Write from us? Or, Are We to Learn form the Peasant Children?” (1862) advocates a similar writing curriculum. A writing lesson should contain the following elements: choosing a theme, assigning words to ideas, finding a place for words within a composition, not repeating nor leaving out words and lastly, thinking and writing at the same time. Tolstoy and Calkins reject prescriptivist ideals of typical teachers. Teachers are not to make many corrections, and to stray from “direct teaching”. Teachers should use metacognitive strategies such as “Think-Alouds”. They urge teachers to view students through the lens of a constructivist educator. Lessons should include sharing. Classrooms and students should be arranged liberally. Both Tolstoy and Calkins’s writing instruction emphasize process and ultimately, freedom in the student writing process.

Tags: writing, curriculum, Leo Tolstoy, Yasnaya Polyana, Lucy Calkins, Writing Workshop

Introduction to Writing Workshop

Writing Workshop is a patented writing instruction program for Kindergarten through sixth grade and is used by public school teachers in the United States. Knowledge of the program is required for many teacher-credentialing exams and is taught at many university-based teacher preparation programs. Writer’s Workshop was made popular by Lucy Calkins and the Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University in New York (1996). Writing Workshop has developed from the work of other teachers and education researchers, though nowadays most teachers attribute the Writer’s Workshop to Calkins.

Writing Workshop is based on scaffolding, a socio-cultural theory of Vygotsky, where teachers provide supports for student learning and gradually remove them. Calkins identifies Writing Workshop as “follow[ing] the ‘gradual release of responsibility model’ of teaching” (Calkins 3). First, teachers model a strategy used in writing using Think-Aloud and metacognitive narration. This first part is known as the “mini-lesson”. After the Think-Aloud, students are invited to “share the pen” with the teacher and try the skill in a whole group setting. Next, students are released for an extended block of time to try the strategy on their own. After about 45 minutes, students share their work either in the front of the class, in a small group, or using a different method that the teacher chooses. The teach, release, and share format is repeated daily. Students choose their own topics to write about, implementing the new skill at will when composing.

At the core of the program, Calkins writes, “students need extensive opportunities to write on topics they care about, they need explicit and sequenced instruction that helps them progress along a learning continuum” (Calkins 2). Above all, Writing Workshop is designed to give students time and space for writing,. The curriculum has changed over the years, most notably in 2006 when it was republished to match the Common Core standards, but the same underlying principles remain in effect.

Introduction to Leo Tolstoy and Writing Instruction at Yasnaya Polyana

Much is known about Leo Tolstoy’s career as a teacher. Through letters to friends, diary entries, and articles published in Yasnaya Polyana magazine (published 1862–1863), his school was a short-lived yet successful endeavor. Yasnaya Polyana is the name of Tolstoy’s estate, school, and pedagogical magazine, meaning “Bright Glade” in Russian. The school was held in three rooms on his estate. “Some peasants travelled distances of twenty to thirty miles every day to bring their children to school… enrollments increased from 22 in the first year to over 70 in the second” (Murphy 61). Students learned arithmetic, reading, writing religious studies and art. At first, instruction at Yasnaya Polyana school was taught by an Orthodox priest, then by three university graduates, and often by Tolstoy himself. His school was designed for the peasants who lived on his estate and was extended to those in neighboring villages as well.

Tolstoy’s pedagogical works are all based off of experiments and anecdotes from the classroom at the school at Yasnaya Polyana, operating between the years of 1859–1862. At the time, his pedagogical writings were received as impractical. They also criticized the state of education in Russia and abroad. In a letter from the Minister of the Interior to Minister of Education, Tolstoy’s education writing was denounced as educationally unsound, as they advocated “new teaching methods and principles for the organization of schools for the common people” (Murphy 62).

Much of his writing is cultural commentary; few articles exist about actual curricula used at the school at Yasnaya Polyana. Curriculum is most notably found interwoven in the articles “On the Methods of Teaching the Rudiments”, “Are the Peasant Children to Learn to Write from Us?”, and “The School at Yasnaya Polyana” (1862). Tolstoy published a primer that might have been used at his school as well.

The entirety of “Are the Peasant Children to Learn to Write from Us?” is written in narrative style, with anecdotes of student and teacher interaction, but becomes prescriptive at the last four paragraphs. Tolstoy states four key objectives that a writing lesson should include. He gives concrete instruction on how to teach writing. He prefaces the four points, stating this is a method or in Russian, “можно назвать приемами”. Tolstoy approaches the topic with humility, nevertheless didactic.

The first part of the method instructs teachers to “give a variety of themes, not inventing them specially for the children, but propose such as appear most serious and interesting to the teacher himself” (Wiener 223).

Предлагать самый большой и разнообразный выбор тем, не выдумывая их собственно для детей, но предлагать темы самые серьезные и интересующие самого учителя.

He emphasizes to not only offer topics for student-written compositions but to select ones that are interesting to the teacher as well. This highlights that themes should appeal to both adults and children. This is the first rule. It instructs against any kind of imposing attitude on behalf of teachers on students writing, to offer a variety, instead of insisting that students write about one topic. Themes should appeal to both the student and teacher. A teacher is to consider the universality of themes they offer before writing instruction.

The next point is to “give the children children’s compositions to read, and give them only children’s compositions as models, for children’s compositions are always more correct, more artistic, and more moral than the compositions of grown people” (Wiener 223).

Давать читать детям детские сочинения и только детские сочинения предлагать за образцы, ибо детские сочинения всегда справедливее, изящнее и нравственнее сочинений взрослых.”

This says that in order for children to write, they should be exposed to the writing of other children. Though the thesis of “Are the Peasant Children to Learn to Write from Us?” is that students are to teach teachers how to write, through this we can assume that with a teacher present, they should use student work to guide further student work. This ideal is preferred over teacher work or previously published work.

The third and most important point, he writes, is “when looking through a pupil’s composition, never make any remarks to him about the cleanliness of the copy-book, nor about penmanship, nor orthography, nor, above all, about the structure of the sentences and about logic”.

(Особенно важно.) Никогда во время рассматриваю я детских сочинений не делать ученикам замечаний ни об опрятности тетрадей, ни о каллиграфии, ни об орфографии, ни, главное, о постройке предложений и о логике.

He warns teachers to stray away from the typical role of an “instructor” but to take on one of an observer or mediator. Tolstoy does not want teachers to make typical remarks regarding penmanship or orthography. Such sentiment is controversial in education even today.

The fourth point Tolstoy argues is that a lesson should be structured in this order: select “one out of a large number of ideas and images presented”, “[choose] words for it”, “[remember] it and [find] a place for it”, not to repeat but to build upon the previous idea and “[think] and [write] at the same time” (Wiener 223).

во-первых, из большого числа представляющихся мыслей и образов выбрать одну; во-вторых, выбрать для нее слова и облечь ее; в-третьих, запомнить ее и отыскать для нее место; в-четвертых, в том, чтобы, помня написанное, не повторяться, ничего не пропускать и уметь соединять последующее с предъидущим; в-пятых, наконец, в том, чтобы в одно время, думая и записывая, одно не мешало другому.

These four components to Tolstoy’s method in teaching writing are key to a successful writing lesson. “Are the Peasant Children to Learn to Write from Us?” elaborates each component with stories of Tolstoy’s students. The entirety of the article takes on an anecdotal, if not reflective tone, save the last four paragraphs.

I have noticed that Lucy Calkins’s Writing Workshop, written more than one hundred years later, actually contains the same essential principles as Tolstoy’s writing. In the following sections I attempt to highlight the similarities in language and pedagogy between the two works. Both contain a student centered approach, student-guided lesson planning, a need for metacognitive narration strategies, and a centering of the student voice.

A Variety of Themes

The first of Tolstoy’s curricula in “Are the Peasant Children to Learn to Write from Us?” is that teachers should provide a variety of themes for students to write about. Tolstoy arrives at this conclusion after several writing lessons with eleven-year-old students Semka and Fedka. He documents their dialogue and reactions. He noticed that his student, Semka was a literal writer, “describ[ing] that which was before his eyes” whereas Fedka “saw only such details as evoked in him the particular feeling with which he looked upon a certain person” (Wiener 195). Tolstoy laments that statements he makes during the lesson greatly affect the boys’ motivation for writing. He ponders how to help the boys preserve their original artistic merit through his instruction. He considers a teaching method would honor the drastically different writing styles in his students.

After several days of failure in teaching the boys to write in a way that preserves their original intention, Tolstoy arrives at his preferred method of instruction. On this day, “I proposed to them to write a composition and so told them several themes. I told them a very entertaining story about the theft of some money, the story of a murder the story of a marvellous conversation of a Milker to Orthodoxy, and I also proposed to them to write in the form of an autobiography the history of a boy whose poor and dissolute father is sent to the army, and to who the father later returns a reformed, good man” (Wiener 205).

Я предложил им писать сочинение и рассказал несколько тем. Я рассказал весьма занимательную историю воровства денег, историю одного убийства, историю чудесного обращения молокана в православие и еще, в форме автобиографии, предложил написать историю мальчика, у которого бедного и распутного отца отдали в солдаты и к которому отец возвращается из солдатства исправленным и хорошим человеком.

He introduces themes as mere suggestions, followed by a Think-Aloud. Think-Aloud is an established classroom strategy where the teacher takes the place of a student, modeling metacognitive strategies through narration of the process (Davey 44). A Think-Aloud can take the form of making a prediction, describing something, or sharing an analogy. It is used ubiquitously in modern reading and writing curriculum.

Tolstoy performs a Think-Aloud for the children, opening with “‘I should write like this. I remember that when…’” He simply narrates the internal dialogue going through his own mind. When Tolstoy verbalizes his thinking process, he instructs how to begin a writing composition in a liberal manner, allotting choice to the students. Think-Aloud strategies are embedded in Lucy Calkins’s Writing Workshop curriculum as well: “talk about the task as if the students are doing it with you” (Calkins 65). Both Tolstoy and Calkins give a script for how teachers can go about verbalizing the thinking process.

Providing a wealth of topics is a requirement in Writing Workshop.
“Children will especially invest themselves in their writing if they write about subjects that are important to them. The easiest way to support investment in writing is to teach children to choose their own topics most of the time” (Calkins, 31). This is such a necessity that Calkins writes “it is hard to imagine an argument against letting children choose their own topics… When children have the opportunity and responsibility to choose their own subjects, they are… more apt to be invested in their writing “ (Calkins 32). Teachers who currently use this curriculum in their classroom are encouraged to do the same.

Tolstoy’s interaction with Fedka and Semka exemplifies that notion, as they wrote until night, refusing to stop even to talk. The teacher walked them through possible topics but ultimately left it up to them. As a result, vibrant and interesting stories flourished and Tolstoy praised them for their ingenuity, even publishing them in Yasnaya Polyana journal.

Children’s Writing as Models

The second point Tolstoy urges teachers is to utilize student voice as examples for instruction, as their compositions are “more correct, more artistic, and more moral than the compositions of grown people” (Wiener 223). The question proposed by the article’s namesake is answered in his commentary of the writing of children versus adults.

Calkins shares a similar sentiment. “Children become better writing partners and better writers if they are encouraged to contribute their stories, opinions, thoughts, and ideas to a community of writers” (Calkins 31) echoes the idea that students need to be immersed in the writing of others. Both Tolstoy and Calkins foster a collaborative atmosphere in their classrooms. Both have a protocol for enabling student talk, from reducing teacher need to correct, to bringing student work to the forefront. Tolstoy published student voices in Yasnaya Polyana journal.

Both Tolstoy and Calkins state that their writing instruction is based off of interaction and a community created by student writers. Tolstoy creates that by allowing students to write in various positions or shut away from the teacher, for as long as they want. Sharing is an underlying feature in both curricula. In Writer’s Workshop, everyday is to end with ten minutes of sharing.

Straying away from the traditional role of a “teacher” or “corrector”

Prior to coming up with the finalized writing curriculum, Tolstoy admits to making certain instructional mistakes. His mistake is making corrections and suggestions to student writing, which ultimately discourages organic compositions. “The fault is all my own, for I could not… from suggesting to him and telling him how I should have written. If there is a certain triteness in the introduction, when describing persons and dwellings, I am exclusively to blame for it. If I had left him alone”… (Wiener 207) This is his reflection to his initial reaction to Fedka’s story “A Soldier’s Life”. He regrets it immediately.

И виноват в этом один я, который не мог удержаться при писании этой главы, не мог удержаться, чтобы не подсказывать ему и не рассказывать, как бы написал я. Ежели есть некоторая пошлость приема при вступлении, в описании лиц и жилища, то виноват в этом единственно я. Ежели б я его оставил одного, то[…]

Tolstoy strays away from imposing instruction on student writing because he recognizes that writing is a process for the student to express themselves. Teachers mistake imperfections in grammar and orthography as something needing to be corrected; Tolstoy suggests this is necessary in the process and mistakes are part of natural development, not only in growth, but in writing.

Tolstoy generalizes teachers: “We mistake the progress of these sides of his being for the aim, and cooperates in this development only, instead of aiding the harmony of the development…. We are so impatient with irregularities which are near to us and so firmly believe in our ability to correct them, we are so little able to comprehend and value the primitive beauty of a child that we, as fast as we can magnify and paste up the irregularities that strike our vision — we correct, we educate the child… the less [a student] ought to be educated, the more liberty he needs” (Wiener 220, 222).

[…] самое движение вперед этих сторон его существа мы принимаем за цель и содействуем только развитию, а не гармонии развития […] самое движение вперед этих сторон его существа мы принимаем за цель и содействуем только развитию, а не гармонии развития.так нетерпеливы мы к близким нам неправильностям и так твердо уверены в своей силе исправить их, так мало умеем донимать и ценить первобытную красоту ребенка, что мы скорей, как можно скорей, раздуваем, залепляем кидающиеся нам в глаза неправильности, исправляем, воспитываем ребенка […] Чем больше испорчен ребенок, тем меньше нужно его воспитывать, тем больше нужно ему свободы.

He urges teachers to be patient with mistakes and emphasize freedom in writing. This is not unlike the constructivist educator approach of the 1990’s, that Writing Workshop applies. Constructivism is the philosophy that students construct their own meanings from their own lives, through experience, and learn by interacting or reflecting with it. Writing Workshop was received with acclaim because it provided a reprieve from “direct teaching”, where a teacher lectures in front of the classroom.

Structure of Writing Lesson

Tolstoy strays from a set detailed schedule and instead lists the components that a writing lesson should include. Tolstoy wrote that he was “afraid that the discipline of the classes, schedules, and graces might, imperceptibly to the students, so restrict their liberty as they would submit to the cunning of the nets of order set by us, and that they may lose their right to choice and protest” (Blaisdell 90). Despite preconceived notions of traditional schooling, he remains prescriptive in how a writing lesson should be structured.

  1. Selecting one out of a large number of ideas and images presented
  2. Choosing words for it and cloth-place for it
  3. Remembering it and finding a place for it
  4. Not repeating nor leaving out anything, and in the ability of combining what follows with that which precedes, all the time keeping in mind what is already written down
  5. Thinking and writing at the same time

из большого числа представляющихся мыслей и образов выбрать одну

выбрать для нее слова и облечь ее

запомнить ее и отыскать для нее место

в том, чтобы, помня написанное, не повторяться, ничего не пропускать и уметь соединять последующее с предъидущим

наконец, в том, чтобы в одно время, думая и записывая, одно не мешало другому.

For Tolstoy, writing instruction relies on student-generated creativity. The emphasis is on words — choosing words, remembering words, not leaving out words.. His passion for writing is visible in what he hopes to share with students; unlike a traditional teacher, the emphasis is on process, not product. This sequence fails to mention production or the need to finalize a piece of writing.

Similarly, Calkins outlines what a Writing Workshop block should look like, with how much time each part should take:

  1. 10 minute mini-lesson
  2. 40 minute work time, 5 minute mid-workshop teaching
  3. 10 minute share

The Calkins model does not mention the requirement of producing a complete composition in the allotted time. Interestingly, both Tolstoy and Calkins agree that the first part of the lesson should be teacher led — Calkins with a mini-lesson, Tolstoy with a teacher presentation of themes to students.

On Classroom Physical Space

Both Tolstoy and Calkins write about how a class should physically be arranged during writing time. Despite almost a century’s difference in publication, both authors idealize how a classroom should be set up to maximize both student collaboration and comfort while writing.

Writing Workshop offers suggestions and encourages teachers “to think about the room arrangements that support students working for long stretches of time and allow you to move among the students” (Calkins 39). The curriculum provides suggestions for tables, chairless tables, table lamps, or in small groups. She recommends that teachers do not line up desks in long lines, where the teacher cannot easily interact with students. There is no rigid formula for how to arrange students in a classroom.

Tolstoy envisions classroom space similarly, that students “sit down wherever they please: on the benches, the tables, the window-sill, the floor, and in the armchair” (Wiener 231). Students naturally gravitate to more collaborative spaces during writing time. During this block, “students seat themselves in a more orderly way, but they keep getting up, in order to look at the copy-books of the others, and to show theirs to the teacher” (Wiener 232). This is a phenomenon that Tolstoy states is natural, but not without the liberating environment both authors foster in their writing curricula. It is no surprise that students write better when they choose their own arrangements.


As a classroom primary school teacher, I have used Tolstoy’s writing about Yasnaya Polyana school to guide my own pedagogy. His instruction is timeless. Few articles provide the depth of teacher instruction found in “Are the Peasant Children to Learn to Write from us? Or, Are We to Learn form the Peasant Children?” and that is not to be ignored. With the advent of new state curriculums and privatization of education, one can find the remarkable similarities between Writing Workshop and Tolstoy’s writing lessons reassuring.

Works Cited

Blaisdell, Bob, translator. Tolstoy as Teacher: Leo Tolstoy’s Writings on

Education. By Leo Tolstoy, Teachers & Writers Collaborative, 2000.

Calkins, Lucy. A Guide to the Common Core Writing Workshop: Primary Grades. Heinemann, 2013.

Davey, Beth. “Modeling the Cognitive Processes of Reading Comprehension.” Journal of Reading, vol. 27, no. 1, 1983, pp. 44–47

Murphy, Daniel. Tolstoy and Education. Irish Academic Press, 1992.

Толстой Л.Н. Кому у кого учиться писать, крестьянским ребятам у нас или нам у крестьянских ребят? // Л.Н. Толстой. Собрание сочинений в 22 тт. М.: Художественная литература, 1983. Т. 15. С. 10–33.

Wiener, Leo, translator. Tolstoy on Education. By Leo Tolstoy, University of Chicago Press, 1967.