Founders of Writing from the Heart: Personalizing the Theoretical
by Jonathan Lovell
In introducing Teaching Writing in an Era of Assessment: Passion and Practice with attention to the theorists and theorist-practitioners who served as pioneering founders in the teaching of writing from the heart, my goals are two-fold. I am demonstrating the practical but profound influence these founders have had on our practices as teachers of writing, using my own experiences as a writing teacher as an example. Additionally, I am also putting some flesh on the bones of these seminal thinkers, showing how what they wrote was deeply enmeshed in what they did as practitioners themselves, and in the often profound influence they had on other teachers at very practical levels. For those readers who were not fortunate enough to be participants in the profession during the time these founders were active, my hope is that the personal accounts I give of my interactions with this group of highly original and influential thinkers will provide an avenue for others to come to understand them and their work directly and memorably. It is especially important that this act of recollection and tough-minded homage be done during this “era of assessment,” since the broad, comprehensive, and inspiriting view of language growth that was/is uniformly espoused by these founders is in grave danger of either being marginalized, or even more tragically, simply forgotten.
And so the story begins:
Scanning over the meager collection of books devoted to the teaching of English at the secondary level, my eyes lighted on a slim paperback publication entitled Language, the Learner and the School, by Douglas Barnes, James Britton, and Harold Rosen. I was nearing the end of my second and final year of study at Oxford University, visiting Blackwell’s Bookstore for any help their collection might provide for a position I’d soon be assuming in the United States, teaching English to 10th and 12th graders at an independent day school in Wilmington, Delaware.
The answer, I was discovering, was “not much.” Blackwell’s devoted only a small segment of its extensive Broad Street floor space to the general topic of education, only a shelf or so to English Education. There wasn’t much to choose from, but I had to start somewhere. I bought the slim Penguin paperback and brought it home to my digs on Woodstock Road, just north of the university, to see what help it might offer.
The perspective of the University of London Institute of Education researchers described in the book drew me in immediately. What happens, the researchers asked, when students move from being taught by the single teacher of their primary classrooms to the six or seven different teachers of their subject-centered secondary classrooms?
How do students understand the sometimes conflicting “subject-centered” academic language used by these different teachers? And how does the language these different teachers use to describe and explain their different subject areas compare and contrast to the language the students themselves might use to explain what they’ve learned in their various classes?
I was so intrigued by the differences between the “expressive” language the seventh grade students in the study used to convey their understanding of what they had learned and the academic language used by their teachers that I vowed to conduct my own small classroom experiment as soon as I began my own teaching. Rather than tell students what I thought they should notice about the short stories we were reading for our 10th grade curricula, I would take out my notepad and write down what they said. And I was prepared to wait quite a long time, in silence, before I said anything myself. Otherwise, so I reasoned, I could not be sure if what I was listening to was my students’ own “expressive” language or their desire to sound as much as possible like their teacher.
It turned out that my students did have to endure quite long spells of silence in those first few weeks of my teaching, and I’m not certain that I made very productive or beneficial use of the student-centered language that I learned as a result. What I did learn was that the majority of the students I taught were simply not very interested in talking about short works of fiction that had been “pre-packaged” by a publisher who cared little about what interested them, and who marched them doggedly through groups of stories according to what these works of fiction revealed about the salient characteristics of the short story genre. It did not matter if I did not say a thing, in other words, since the organization and academic focus of the anthology we were using spoke volumes “on my behalf.” While I gradually abandoned my experimental role as an observer and recorder of my students’ responses to the short stories they were reading, I did not forget the impact that reading those initial research studies had had on me as an eager and expectant young English teacher.
When I returned eight years later to the work of this group of researchers, their writing had become much better known, both in England and in the United States. Led by the influential teaching and writing of James Britton, author of Language and Learning (1972) and head of the English Department at the London Institute for Education during the mid to late 1960s, the world of English Education that I re-entered in the fall of 1977 was abuzz with discussions of “expressive writing,” writing-across-the-curriculum, and the development of writing abilities from the early to the later teenage years. I had been hired for my first university level position at Columbia University's Teachers College in New York City that fall, and my job was to organize an MA program in English Education for prospective secondary level teachers and create new PhD programs in the teaching of reading and writing.
I was qualified, however, for neither of these roles, having managed to get through my interview by doing some quick research in the field of composition studies, and somehow managing to persuade my interviewers that I knew what I was talking about. When the spring semester came around, however, I was in deep trouble. I was responsible for teaching a course entitled "Composition for Teachers of English," and my audience was composed of both the dozen or so MA students I had begun to work with that fall as well as about thirty hardened New York City high school English teachers who were taking the course to move up a notch on their salary scales.
What made teaching this course especially troubling for me, however, was my own writing. I was trying to complete the second chapter of my Yale University dissertation--a study of the work of the Pre-Raphaelite poet and painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti--but what I was in fact doing was crossing out sentences and paragraphs I’d written months earlier, and feeling like I was sinking slowly and inexorably into an ever-deepening verbal morass. What I really needed to do, I remember thinking to myself, was re-title my course "De-composition for Teachers of English." That's a subject I knew something about.
I managed to make it through the first few Monday evening classes, making up the course as I went along. Following the graduate school model with which I was most familiar, I lectured to the class about the research described above by James Britton, John Dixon, and Douglas Barnes that I’d stumbled into before I began teaching at the high school level. As this research evolved in the late sixties and early seventies, it paid increasing attention to the disconnect between the "expressive language" students might use to convey their initial responses to what they read, and the overly dry, academic language they were required to use in their writing, especially as they moved from 7th to 12th grades.
While this body of research was indeed quite important, the lecture-discussion style in which I presented it to my class was a disaster: a modeling of just the sort of dry academic language that Britton, Dixon and Barnes were arguing against. Just how disastrous was revealed to me by a note my chair left on my desk a few weeks into the semester. "I thought I'd better pass along this letter written to Larry Cremin [the then President of Teachers College]," it read. "I wouldn't take it overly seriously, but it does suggest problems that might be worth addressing." A student in my class who was teaching at the innovative private day school to which President Cremin had sent his own children wrote the letter. In the letter, she referred to a lecture that Cremin had recently given on the need to bring a greater sense of professionalism to teachers at the K-12 level. An excellent way to start in this direction, she suggested, would be to fire a recently hired assistant professor who was teaching a course entitled "Composition for Teachers of English."
I felt numb. I'd been found out. In my imagination, visions appeared of a phalanx of emissaries from the president’s office coming into my next class, lifting me bodily from behind my podium, and carting me away. My students were cheering.
I was sitting disconsolately at my desk, expecting to momentarily find myself and my belongings unceremoniously dumped onto the street, when two of my graduate students walked into my office. "We heard you were having some trouble with that course in the teaching of writing," they told me. "We thought you might find this book helpful. We use it in our basic writing courses at City College and we’ve both found it very successful."
The book was Writing Without Teachers (1973) by Peter Elbow. I figured that at that point I had nothing to lose, so I began reading. What drew me in immediately was Elbow's account of himself as a writer. Like me, he’d had more and more trouble with his writing as he progressed from college to graduate school. What drove him into the world of teaching composition, he frankly admitted, was that he’d become hopelessly stuck in the writing of his own dissertation. Since his inability to write disqualified him from any potential job he might get teaching English Literature at the college level, the only job he was qualified for, ironically, was as an instructor of freshman composition.
But Elbow did more than write about his own travails as a writer. More usefully for me, he outlined a program for addressing the deep-seated doubts and failures of nerve and confidence that he suggested we all face as writers. Start by writing in short bursts, not letting your “editorial mind” prematurely censure what you’ve written. Try writing these short bursts at unusual times of day and in places you’re sure you couldn’t possibly write. "Writing in difficult circumstances" I came to call these writing exercises, practicing it by writing before I'd had my morning coffee, or on the New York City subway as it lurched its way from one end of Manhattan to the other.
But equally as important as this focus on getting one’s writing going were Elbow's insights into the importance of getting response to one’s writing. Just as the internal editor in our mind tends to censure our work prematurely, so do those who respond to our writing. And yet getting response is crucial to discovering what we have to say. "So rather than reading a writer's initial drafts silently," Elbow suggested, "have authors read aloud what they’ve written." Once through a first time so listeners gain a sense of the content of the writing, then once again a second time so they gain a sense of its emerging shape. Elbow further argued, quite surprisingly and innovatively, that rather than having listeners suggest revisions to the writer, they should describe the after-the-fact effect of hearing the author's words read aloud. Listeners could start by recalling words and phrases they’d remembered from the piece, then they should summarize the piece as a whole, and finally they should tell the author what hearing the piece read aloud led them to think about as they were listening to it. These “showing,” “telling,” and “metaphoric” responses should be written down by the listeners, Elbow suggested, then read aloud and handed to the authors who'd who had their pieces responded to in this interestingly non-judgmental fashion. In this way, authors could decide how to revise their writing so that it produced effects on listeners that they liked, or that they admired in other pieces they'd heard in their small groups of writers and listeners.
I was fascinated. I decided to put Elbow's approach to the test, producing a “composition manifesto,” as my students came to call it, for my next class. “We will write each week,” I announced to my class, “including your instructor." And I went on to explain that we would form small groups of five or six, read our pieces of writing aloud to one another, and respond in the ways I'd just learned from reading this fascinating new book. And we would document what happened to us and to our pieces of writing as we went through this process, using ourselves as objects of study to explore and examine this innovative method of writing instruction.
And, at least for me and the students in the class that chose to stick it out, our writing--and more importantly our appetite for producing and revising our writing--did indeed improve. Steadily, obviously, and often quite dramatically. I later came to see that what I was doing as a teacher of composition was creating a community of respectful and skilled listener-readers as much as confident and competent writers. That's what those elaborate rituals of response were all about: educating ourselves to the discipline of becoming the readers we’d always hoped for as writers. In the process of becoming these listener-readers, I further came to understand, writing was “brought out” of us--writing that responded directly to, and was in a sense the creation of, this new community of readers and writers.
Four years later, however, my family and I moved cross-country from Connecticut to California. My wife had been offered a faculty position at UC Berkeley, and in response I left my tenure-track position at Teachers College, assuming a one-year position at UC Davis, where I'd be teaching freshman composition. I was by then in my mid-thirties, having become devoted over my past four years at Teachers College to the teaching of writing and the field of composition studies. I thought I was pretty hot stuff.
At Davis, I wasn't.
There, I was one of forty-odd composition instructors. Some were graduate students in English, some were Davis residents, and a few like myself were PhD's in English looking for full-time tenure track positions elsewhere. Everyone taught the same course, using a session-by-session instruction manual based on Frederick Crews' Random House Handbook of Rhetoric and Composition. My three trice-weekly freshman composition classes met in one of the enology labs on campus. A large lab table spread across the entire front of the class, where I would be greeted each morning by the smell of souring grapes, made redolent by the Davis campus’s 100-degree September heat.
But the students. Products of California's affluent and protected suburbs, they treated composition instructors as service providers whose purpose was to insure that they, the service recipients, maintained their 4.0 GPAs. "What must we do on this comparison/contrast paper to get an A?" they would ask. Or "Could you tell us exactly what you want on this descriptive writing assignment?"
They'd arrive at my office hours, graded papers in hand, asking me to show them which words, phrases, and commas they should change to upgrade their paper from a B minus to an A. Soon, they were coming up to me as I walked into class, asking me with an edge to their voices if I might "make the next assignment clearer," so they would "know what I wanted" and could "give it to me.”
I knew exactly what I wanted. I wanted to go to bed, pull the covers up over my head, and assume a fetal position. Most of all, I wanted to shake my students by their shoulders until their collective teeth rattled, saying to them: "Write about something that matters to you, for the love of heaven, or I will go completely bonkers!" I was not in the best frame of mind, that is, to be a conscientious and dutiful service provider for my ever-anxious freshman students.
I particularly recall driving to Davis one morning, numb with apprehension, with a pile of thirty "classification" papers sitting expectantly on the passenger seat. In these papers my students had been asked to "select a generic group of things and describe the features that distinguish the sub-categories that make up this group." Although I'd skimmed these papers the night before, I now had to re-read and grade them before my first morning class, one hour away. Every single paper, it seemed to me as I sat at my enology lab table working doggedly to complete this task, described the bicycles ridden on the Davis campus, and the various sub-categories into which these bicycles might be classified.
"What should we do, Sir, to get an A on this paper?"
"Write about something that matters to me," I wanted to scream, "or I assure you I will start swinging from the trees outside our classroom windows and loping across campus on my legs and forepaws."
I was in the middle of my first semester, my desk at home littered with piles of composition assignments I could not bear to look at, when I received a call from my former chairman at Teachers College. Because our decision to move to California was made quite late in the prior semester, my chair had decided to leave my position vacant for a year so that a departmental committee could conduct a proper search for my replacement.
"We have an interesting candidate for your English Education position," my chairman said. "I wonder if you could help us out." He explained that while the candidate's research had been in the general field of English Education, she'd focused her studies on elementary level students. "But it's first-rate stuff," my chairman said, "really first rate. Could you give this candidate a call, perhaps have her send you her current work-in-progress, and write an evaluation to the search committee of her appropriateness for the position?"
"Glad to," I replied, trying to sound confident and in charge of my life. "Do you want me to be an advocate for the position as well? I would suspect she's being courted by other universities." My chairman replied that he’d be pleased if I would, describing the candidate as a “rare find."
I called her the following weekend, and in response to her asking if Columbia usually called candidates as parts of their searches, told her that hers was an unusual case.
"'Unusual' good or 'unusual' bad?" she asked me.
"'Unusual' good," I said, mentioning my chair's reference to her as a "rare find."
"How would he know? What's he read of mine he likes so much?"
This is more difficult than I'd anticipated, I thought to myself. I wonder what she has written? So I asked her about her research.
She told me she was just now writing the fourth chapter of her dissertation. It was an account of the two years she’s spent as a participant-observer in a third and fourth grade classroom in southern New Hampshire. As she described her research, her voice became animated, recounting in lively detail both what she'd discovered and some of the frustrations of conveying the excitement of these discoveries within the rigid rules governing the writing of an NYU dissertation.
I asked her if she might send me what she’d written so far, telling her I’d enjoy reading what she’d just described, and that it would help me write a letter for the Teachers College search committee on her behalf. "How do I know you'll write in my behalf?" she asked me. "You haven't read what I've written. Only listened to what I've said about it."
I laughed, telling her she'd just have to take that risk.
The manuscript arrived a week later on a Saturday: 300 pages wrapped in brown paper. I started reading immediately. The content drew me in at once, fascinated. Here were third and fourth graders writing exactly as I wanted my college freshmen to write: choosing topics of consequence to them: experimenting with different modes of writing--narrative, poetry, drama--to express what they knew or wanted to explore about these topics; getting thoughtful and respectful feedback on their pieces from both their teachers and fellow classmates. And the writing that the students in these classrooms produced was absolutely stunning. Several years later, when I used the book that emerged from this dissertation, Lessons From a Child (1983), as one of the textbooks for a college level writing course I was teaching, a student came into my office shortly after the class had begun, asking anxiously. "You don't expect us to write as well as the kids in this book, do you?"
I wrote the author a postcard after reading the first chapter, telling her how much I admired what I had just read. Further responses followed, singling out passages for praise, raising questions, and occasionally making suggestions for revision. After every few chapters I wrote a longer response, summing up what I felt that section of the manuscript had accomplished and where I thought the author’s argument was taking me. For the next two weeks, this riveting narrative, a study that focused primarily on the writing growth of one student moving from third to fourth grade, held my attention almost exclusively.
Finally, I was done. It was as if I'd been in a kind of trance. I woke up, looked around, attended to the many papers that had been accumulating on my desk in my “absence,” and returned to the chore of teaching my Davis classes, now oddly at peace about my overly eager students and my own tepid commitment to them. I wrote an enthusiastic review of the candidate for my former department, which I first showed to my then middle school aged daughter. "It's well written, Dad," she remarked, "but this person does walk on the ground like the rest of us, doesn't she?"
The author of that small but seminal volume, Lessons from a Child, was Lucy Calkins. As it turned out, she was selected for the position at Teachers College, where she is still teaching today. Having written, among many other publications, the highly successful Units of Study for Teaching Writing (K-2 and 3-5), and having directed the influential Teachers College Reading and Writing Project over many years, it’s now clear that she does indeed walk on the ground like the rest of us, only a good deal more sure-footedly and quite a bit faster!
In the spring and fall of 1982, however, the University of New Hampshire based group through which Lucy Calkins was introduced to the field of composition research was just starting to gain wide attention. Its leader was Donald Graves, known at the time primarily through his authorship of the Ford Foundation monograph Balance the Basics: Let Them Write (1978). In this powerful study, Graves had pointed out that for every dollar spent on the teaching of writing, one hundred dollars are spent on the teaching of reading. Even more tellingly, he noted that for every dollar spent for research on the teaching of writing, one thousand are spent for research on the teaching of reading. His conclusion was that by not taking advantage of a child’s initial urge to write rather than to read, we significantly underestimate the power of the “output languages” of writing and speaking in favor of the “input languages” of reading and listening.
This monograph, along with the fact that Graves was receiving the David H. Russell Research Award for authoring this study and concurrently publishing his seminal work Writing: Teachers and Children at Work (1982), was creating quite a stir in the hallways and sessions of the 1982 NCTE Annual Convention in Washington, DC. As a rather wide-eyed attendee at this conference, I was greatly impressed with the energetic and dedicated coterie of younger scholars that Don Graves had drawn into his orbit: Lucy Calkins of Teachers College (discussed above), Nancie Atwell of Boothbay Harbor, Maine (soon to publish In the Middle: Writing, Reading, and Learning with Adolescents in 1987), Mary Ellen Giacobbe of Atkinson, New Hampshire (later to publish Talking, Drawing, Writing: Lessons for Our Youngest Writers in 2007), Linda Rief of Durham, New Hampshire (later to publish Seeking Diversity: Language Arts with Adolescents in 1992), and Tom Romano of Edgewood High School in Trenton, Ohio (soon to publish Clearing the Way: Working with Teenage Writers in 1987). But I was also impressed with what I took to be the fundamentally important perception about language growth on which much of the research and practice of this University of New Hampshire group was based.
This perception might be expressed by observing that while most parents would never dream of putting their hands over their children’s mouths if they uttered the words “mama” or “papa,” telling them not to speak until they could say the words “mother” or “father,” something analogous was happening quite routinely in the teaching of writing in our nation’s public school classrooms. Rather than recognizing and honoring children’s desire to write, as well as their confidence they had something important to say, and rather than learning the predictable patterns of “invented spelling” that children routinely use when they begin to write, teachers were closing the door on these nascent efforts at written communication, focusing their attention instead on handwriting, spelling, and the basic punctuation conventions of simple sentences. By imposing this adult perception of the “fundamentals” of written communication prematurely, teachers of younger children, and not a few older children, were unwittingly creating a nation of students who either hated to write or were convinced that they were terrible at the practice of this fundamentally important skill. It was just as if those parents had indeed put their hands over their children’s mouths when they began to speak. The analogous result would be that we would have raised a nation of children who would have been essentially chastised into silence.
That’s effectively what we’d done in our practices in the teaching of writing, specifically in this era of ever-increasing high-profile assessments. Rather than capitalize on the simplicity and depth of Graves’ innovative understanding of how students might grow as writers, and how we might assist them more humanely and productively in our practices as teachers, we were increasingly focusing on segmenting writing into component parts that were “testable,” and in the process largely destroying our students’ urge or desire to write.
I had the opportunity to try out this understanding of language development with my own younger daughter the following spring. Holly was in the second half of her first grade year at a public elementary school in Berkeley, California, and was having a terrible time with her reading. In order to provide her with extra help at home, her well meaning teacher was sending short mimeographed and stapled together “children’s books,” with stories that contained only the words the first graders had learned in school. My daughter hated these dry, often nonsensical stories and would simply refuse to read them, despite all the gentle prodding her father tried to provide.
After nights of frustration, I finally hit on the option that should have been obvious to me from my growing familiarity with the work of the University of New Hampshire researchers. I had Holly tell me the story that she “heard” behind the bare bones of the restricted vocabulary children’s book she was being required to master. As she told me the quite wildly invented “recreation” that was beginning to inform her understanding of her no-longer-so-simple story, I would write this longer narrative on the facing pages of her small mimeographed text. After a number of repeated readings, with much laughter, of this facing page “subtext,” Holly was gradually persuaded to “return” to the restricted vocabulary of her simple story and read it as a dim whisper of the story it was, so to speak, trying to become. This personal experience of the difference that a teacher could make by attending to the language capacities of a young reader or writer, rather than his or her perceived limitations, deepened my conviction of the importance of the work being carried out during the 1980s by teacher-researchers at the University of New Hampshire.
A few months after these enlightening experiments with my younger daughter, I applied and was selected for a position as an Associate Professor of English and Education at the University of Nevada, Reno. The commute was not ideal—I’d fly up to Reno on Sunday and fly back to Berkeley Thursday evening—but the community of public school teachers and university faculty to which I was introduced was eye-opening and inspiriting. One of my new position’s job requirements was that I collaborate with a group of K-college teachers who formed a professional development community known as the Northern Nevada Writing Project. While I had some familiarity with the Writing Project through my collaboration with Sondra Perl and Richard Sterling, the New York City Writing Project Directors while I was at Teachers College, my experience was still quite limited. As part of my on-the-job training for my new position at UNR, might I apply for the Bay Area Writing Project’s upcoming Invitational Summer Institute? I did, and was rewarded with the richest and most consequential professional development experience I’d known since becoming involved in the field of English Education.
I spent over four and a half weeks in the summer of 1984 in the company of 25 other K-college teachers on the UC Berkeley campus, under the direction of Jim Gray, founder of the Writing Project. Having now served as a director or co-director of 28 subsequent summer institutes, it seems clear to me that there is a compelling connection between the inspiration for attending to younger students’ beginning writing development among the researchers at the University of New Hampshire and the more or less concurrent founding of the Bay Area Writing Project at the University of California at Berkeley in the mid-70s.
Both the University of New Hampshire program under Don Graves, and the University of California Berkeley/Bay Area Writing Project program under Jim Gray, began with the perception that there were talents and abilities among their target populations that had gone largely unnoticed because these quite different populations had not been given the opportunity to “see” the emergence of their own abilities in a concrete and convincing manner. In the case of young children, this was largely because most teachers believed that several small “steps” needed to be mastered before younger writers could “walk” with confidence as mature writers. In the case of practicing teachers, the worker-supervisor model under which the field of public school teaching continues to function today made it highly unlikely that administrators would see their “teacher-workers” as sources of valuable and insightful knowledge. Looked at from this perspective, neither the young writers in Don Graves’ initial studies of elementary school children in Atkinson, New Hampshire nor the mostly middle and high school teachers who made up the Bay Area Writing Project’s initial 1974 Invitational Summer Institute were accustomed to being heard or listened to with the idea that they had something important to say, something important to teach the rest of us.
In the University of New Hampshire research studies, what gives young writers the confidence they have something to say is the time and the patience their teachers provide for them to think through and draft and revise their pieces of writing. In the Writing Project summer institutes, what builds this confidence in having something worthwhile to say is the amount of time—generally about an hour and a half—that every participant is given to present a workshop demonstration of a “best practice” in the teaching of writing to the other participants in the institute. Both practices accomplish similar goals. They begin with individuals who are uncertain or deeply skeptical that their “words” are worth listening to, and they provide these individuals with an attentive and respectful audience, an audience that helps to bring forth the very “words of consequence” that the young writers or selected teachers are half-convinced they do not possess.
It is no accident that both programs have come round to a belief in the fundamental importance of teachers as writers. The forerunner to the Writing Project, as Jim Gray explains in Teachers at the Center (2000), led to the somewhat accidental creation of “afternoon writing groups” in which small groups of teachers write and get response to their writing. This now-standard feature of all Writing Project summer institutes was an unanticipated outcome--during pre-1974 years when Gray’s summer institutes were located on the UC Davis campus and were NDEA funded--of several high school teachers’ desire to “try out” some of the practices in the teaching of writing that had been presented during the “practice oriented” morning sessions. Similarly, it was only in his later writings that Don Graves began to understand and stress the importance of teachers consistently bringing their own experience as writers to their conferences and mini-lessons with their students. A major legacy then of Don Graves and Jim Gray is this focus on teachers as writers.
This same focus on teachers as writers marks the contributions of three final founders of “writing from the heart”: Donald Murray, Ken Macrorie, and James Moffett. All three exerted a profound influence on the ways that teachers of writing thought about their practice, and all three were models of the fundamental importance of linking the teaching of writing inextricably with the practice of skilled writers.
It was Don Murray’s A Writer Teaches Writing: A Practical Method of Teaching Composition (1968) that I read, along with Janet Emig’s The Composing Processes of Twelfth Graders (1971), in preparation for my 1977 interview for the English Education position at Teachers College. I was not then familiar with the term “process writing” or with the notion that a piece of writing might go through several stages between inception and finished product. What struck me in Murray’s accounts of his own practices as a writer, however, was how authentic, and not infrequently, how moving they sounded. His own words fairly leapt off the page, and it was clear to me that the urgency and vitality of what he had to say were directly related to the honesty with which he described, and often dissected, his own practices as he moved slowly and often painfully from initial draft to final product. The “lesson” conveyed to me by Murray’s book was two-fold: writing is far more messy and labor-intensive than had been generally acknowledged by traditional approaches to the teaching of writing, and the most convincing and heart-felt instruction in this field of endeavor would come from someone who was himself or herself a passionate practitioner.
While I was not fully aware of it at the time, I’m certain today that it was Murray’s call to arms in this respect that led me to insist, in my “composition manifesto” to my Teachers College students, that we would all write, “including your instructor,” and that we would reflect on what we’d learned about our own writing in relation to our teaching of writing, as we progressed from draft to draft on our various pieces of writing. I’m equally certain that it’s Don Murray’s message that reverberates in my mind today as I ask the participants in our San Jose Area Writing Project Summer Institutes to use their end-of-institute evaluations, in part, to describe their experiences with their afternoon writing response groups, and to reflect on what they will take from these experiences to their classrooms in the coming year. Two of the participants’ responses from our 2011 summer institute indicate the power of the connection that teachers begin to make once they see themselves as writers teaching writing:
In the afternoon writing groups I discovered several important things. Most important to me was that I was able to express my thoughts and feelings through my writing and sharing with my group without hesitation or apprehension. My group gave me positive feedback and useful ideas on how to improve my writing pieces.
Because of this positive experience with writing groups I will use this form of working in small writing groups or possibly with a partner in my classroom to help students get positive and useful feedback from their peers, of course, after a lot of modeling. Assigning a set time for our afternoon writing groups made it possible for writing to happen. In this way I will be sure to include in my lessons writing time, not just district writing on demand or reading prompts but good old fashioned “just write” about anything.
--Mary C, First Grade Teacher
My experience with my afternoon writing group was very cathartic. We would meet after each morning session and debrief everything. Most of our afternoons were spent talking and reminiscing. After writing and reading so much, but having little time to comment… most of us were bursting at the seams to share… anything and everything. We found ourselves sharing stories, life experiences, quotes, comments, concerns, etc. We would jot down ideas, etc. then parade home with “homework” and writing assignments. It turned out that this was what led to the majority of the creative spark for me. I would take most of this home, let it percolate, and then start my actual writing around 10 pm or so.
I think the biggest experiences I will take to my classroom for this coming year are the options that were provided by our Afternoon Writing Group facilitator and the fact that, sometimes, you just have to talk about things before you write. Sometimes I assign things without talking through them. I think it would help to allow students to sit in writing groups of about 3 or 4 to bounce ideas off one another before they start writing. This could help get their creative spark lit.
--Katie N, 9th-10th Grade Teacher
Both these responses demonstrate the significance of Don Murray’s insistence that teachers of writing not only “talk the talk” but also “walk the walk.” As we face increasingly formulaic approaches to the teaching of writing in our public school classrooms, spurred on by concerns with whether or not we are preparing our students successfully for “writing-on-demand” statewide tests, it is helpful to remember Don Murray’s frequent admonition that creating pieces of writing worth reading involves a process that is by nature messy, unpredictable, and unceasingly difficult.
If Don Murray represents the typical New Englander in his dedication to a strong work ethic shading towards simple dogged persistence, Ken Macrorie represents the constitutional irreverence of the typical westerner. He never met a grammar rule he didn’t like . . . to break. Born in the Mississippi River town of Moline, Illinois, Macrorie frequently evokes in his stance toward writing, and in his own writing voice, an echo of Mark Twain: “Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot. By Order of the Author” (preface to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn). It therefore comes as something of a surprise that during his long career Macrorie was a good deal more involved than Murray, who was five years his junior, in working within traditional organizations in the field of English Education. He was a Professor of English at Western Michigan University from 1961 to 1978, where his focus was on teacher training (or “re-educating teachers trapped in unproductive teaching methods,” as he put it). He served as editor of NCTE’s professional journal College Composition and Communication from 1962 to 1964, when it was regarded as the leader of the assault on the “current traditional” paradigm in writing instruction. And finally, he served for thirteen years, both before and after his retirement from WMU, at the renowned Breadloaf Graduate School of English, a summer master’s program conducted under the auspices of Vermont’s Middlebury College, where he taught practicing high school teachers to become writers and to take that knowledge back to their classrooms.
In terms of the focus of this chapter, however, it will be Macrorie’s re-conceptualizing of the writing of the traditional research paper that will serve to illuminate his many contributions to the field of writing instruction. The book that introduced most of us to Macrorie’s boldly original reconsideration of research writing was Searching Writing (1980), or as the book was more helpfully re-titled in 1988, The I-Search Paper. In Chapter 6 of this book, you will read how two middle school teachers, Brandy Appling-Jenson and Carolyn Anzia, and one high school teacher, Kathleen González, have adapted Macrorie’s I-Search Paper strategies for their own classrooms. In this chapter, however, I focus on the impact Macrorie’s original text had on my teaching of my initial freshman composition classes at San José State University in the fall of 1987.
Like most college level freshman composition programs, San José State required the completion of a “research paper” as part of every student’s introductory level writing requirements. On the one hand, I understood the rationale for this requirement, since such “academic” writing would be routinely required of students as they moved on to higher level university classes. On the other hand, I was all too aware of the pull my students would feel toward simply “lifting” their material from previously published sources, and was not myself unsympathetic to this pull. It’s one we have all felt to one degree or another, after all, and it’s especially understandable when beginning level college writers are placed in academic environments where they have very little notion of what constitutes authentically compelling academic writing. This dilemma is compounded for beginning level college students, moreover, by the fact that their instructor in a college classroom is often far more knowledgeable about a given topic of research than they are themselves. Wouldn’t it make sense, in such a situation, to “make use” of writing that had already passed muster, so to speak, rather than venturing into the dark and uncharted waters of academic prose on one’s own?
This is where Macrorie’s understanding of what it meant to search, whether for an obscure bit of evidence that might illuminate a larger academic argument or for something as relatively mundane as the best price on a car stereo system, came to the fore. He urged writing instructors to start small, to begin by making such searches interesting and relevant to the lives of one’s students. I can’t recall if Macrorie also suggested a Graffiti Board Gallery Walk to heighten interest in these initial searches, but that’s what I did with my own San José State freshman classes. Everyone wrote down their research question on a large piece of poster paper (with one nervy freshman writing in his, somewhat predictably, “what is the meaning of life?”) and then everyone in the class did a gallery walk past these posters, writing graffiti-like comments on these “Graffiti Boards” if you knew something about the search’s object or if you had a suggestion for the author about how he or she might pursue the search.
The next steps were to “research one’s topic” (which I translated for my students into “find out what you can, over the next few weeks, about the object of your search”) and to keep a running record of the steps one took to move closer to discovering answers to his or her search/research question. At least one interview with one informant was required for the search, and these I customarily prepared for by setting a question for the class as a whole and then bringing in an informant that the class could collectively interview. A further requirement was for a “saturation report,” where the researcher would describe a setting that had come to be significant in his or her search. As with the whole-class interviews with a pre-designated informant, I would generally take the class on a short “field trip” around the building in which the class was being held, and ask everyone to select a setting they found memorable and describe that setting in a way the rest of the class might recognize.
The culmination of the I-Search paper was for students to write a narration of their pursuit of their question, starting with what they knew or didn’t know about their topic; an “argument” that explained to their readers why the question they were pursuing was important to them; the steps they took to learn the answer(s) to their question (including the interview and the saturation report); and a conclusion that summarized what they had learned by the time “the whistle blew” and they had to end their search; and what their next steps might be, should they be fortunate enough to take up this search once again at a later date. Needless to say, issues with plagiarism were simply non-existent with such a rich and compelling experience of “researching” a question of one’s own choosing. What quite surprised me, however, was the vibrancy and liveliness of my students’ voices in the papers they turned in.
I was so impressed with the papers I read that I sent a batch to Macrorie himself, living then in retirement in Las Cruces, New Mexico. He wrote back a month or so later, explaining that it took him some time to read through what I’d sent him and asking me to please send less next time. While he could not fully understand, he went on to write, how my students managed to survive my “barrage” of instructions (I used what I called a “running syllabus” with my students, writing a one page single-spaced narrative anticipating what we would be doing for each successive class), the papers they wrote clearly demonstrated that I must be doing something right. “They are a delight,” he concluded. “So loose in the saddle, so lively, so uncluttered with the usual hogwash of freshman compositions.” I could hardly have asked for a more satisfying recognition of my students’ writing abilities, nor a more compelling argument for the value of re-conceiving the research paper as a authentic quest, placing the student writer at its center.
In focusing on the final founder of writing from the heart, James Moffett, I return to my early days teaching at The Tower Hill School in Wilmington, Delaware, then fast-forward to my final two years teaching the Teachers College course in “Composition for Teachers of English” described earlier. My purpose in doing so is to illustrate the profound influence that the theorists discussed in this chapter have had, and continue to have, on the practice of writing at all levels, and also to illustrate how these theories might be practically applied in actual, concrete teaching situations.
At Tower Hill, I enjoyed and was stimulated by teaching my 12th graders, but it was my 10th graders I truly loved. They were at such a volatile and important stage in their intellectual and emotional development, and I came to believe that if I taught wisely I could make a big difference to their lives. What was at issue, to my mind, was whether or not I could persuade my 10th graders to entertain more than one point of view on a given subject. I used to put it to myself in fairly simple terms: either I will be successful in this endeavor over the course of the year or my students would become . . . Republicans--a segment of the adult Wilmington population that I believed was already far too numerous.
What frustrated me in trying to come up with teaching practices that would serve to jostle my 10th graders from their often quite strong allegiance to a single pre-determined position was the pervasive influence of the five paragraph theme. As described by Janet Emig in The Composing Processes of Twelfth Graders, the “Fifty-Star Theme,” as Emig nicknamed the five paragraph theme, was both frustratingly persistent in the secondary level English language arts curriculum and wholly unrelated to any real purpose or practice in the larger world:
Why is the Fifty-Star Theme so tightly lodged in the American composition curriculum? The reason teachers often give is that this essentially redundant form, devoid of content in at least two of its five parts, exists outside their classrooms, and in very high places-- freshman English classes, business communication, and in the “best practices” of the “best writers.” This fantasy is easy to disprove. If one takes a collection of writers who current critical judgment would agree are among our best, can one find a single example of any variation of the Fifty-Star Theme? The answer is no. (97)
I found I could persuade my 10th graders to “inhabit” a point of view different from their own by engaging them in dramatic re-enactments—a practice I took great pleasure in when I came to teach my unit on Romeo and Juliet--but when my 10th graders wrote an argumentative or persuasive paper, all the intellectual and emotional suppleness they displayed in their dramatic re-enactments went out the window. Was Friar Lawrence to blame for Romeo and Juliet’s tragic deaths? He certainly was, so argued my 10th grade students, and here is how we will prove it to you. We will devote our first paragraph to a thesis stating that he was guilty, then we will write three “body” paragraphs in which we will locate details from the play (or more likely from Cliff Notes versions of the play) that support our thesis, and we will finish with a concluding paragraph that reminds you that Friar Lawrence was indeed guilty of the tragic deaths of Romeo and Juliet. While I found myself, not too surprisingly, assigning more and more dramatic re-enactments and fewer and fewer “persuasive papers” for my 10th graders as I progressed from my first to my third year of teaching, I never found a satisfactory way of addressing the deeper question of how to dislodge my students, at least in their writing, from the safety and security of their pre-determined positions.
Eight years later, at Teachers College, when I began teaching my “Composition for Teachers of English” course for a third time, I faced a similar but more vexing version of this same “I dare you to challenge my pre-determined opinion” mind-set. My writing course now used both Peter Elbow’s Writing Without Teachers (1973) and James Moffett’s Teaching the Universe of Discourse (1968) as its primary texts, and had become well enough known and highly enough regarded to attract a small but vocal population of TESOL graduate students. “This business of a student-centered approach to writing development is perhaps well and good for English speaking students,” they argued, “but it simply will not work with our ESL adult populations.” These TESOL teachers were quite clear that what their students needed were clearly structured lessons with a strong focus on grammar and conventions. “How are they going to avoid making mistakes in their writing unless we, as their teachers, point these out to them?” they would ask. “And if we were to put this Elbow nonsense to use in our classrooms, all we’d be doing is having the blind lead the blind.”
While I did not think these opinions about the writing development of adult ESL students were necessarily correct, I could not challenge them effectively as a practitioner since my own experience was limited to a single summer’s teaching in Hong Kong in the mid-60s. How might I introduce points of view that gently questioned these quite plausible pedagogical certainties? How might I do so without claiming more than I could reasonably claim on the basis of my own quite limited teaching experience with adult ESL learners?
Conveniently enough, the answer came right from Moffett’s Teaching the Universe of Discourse. Start by understanding how difficult it is, I imagined Moffett suggesting to me, to theorize about best practices in the teaching of writing to ESL adults. To do so convincingly involves not only imagining a large general audience of readers, but also the ability to hypothesize “what could happen” in many future ESL classrooms beyond those in which one has actually taught.
These imagined admonitions came from a theory of discourse that Moffett had been developing since his early years teaching English to high school students at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire. As presented in the collection of articles that formed the basis of his book, this theory posited that all acts of written communication could be understood as occurring at one point or another of a “ladder” of increasing abstraction regarding the “distance” between the author and his or her subject on the one hand, or between the author and his or her reader on the other (see Figure 1 below). A writer writing notes to himself or herself about an object or event that was close at hand--“what is happening”--would be engaged in writing that represented the closest possible “distance” between author and both audience and subject. Conversely, a writer presenting a theory about “what might happen” in a periodical designed for a general readership would be engaged in writing that represented the greatest possible “distance” between both subject and audience. It did not take me long to realize, given this perspective on writing an “argumentative” paper, that I was asking my Teachers College TESOL students to write persuasively from something akin to the farthest points “out” in both directions of Moffett’s abstraction ladder: telling “what happens” in adult ESL classes while addressing a wide (although wholly imagined) audience of general readers.
Figure 1: James Moffett’s Ladder of Abstraction*
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Self to self
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Self to another person (outer verbalization);
familiar, trusted audience
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Self to known group; familiar audience
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Self to anonymous group; remote audience
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Generalizing and Inferring
WHAT WILL, MAY, COULD HAPPEN
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Assisted by a sequence of mimeographed writing assignments then circulating among those familiar with Moffett’s work (soon to be published, in 1981, as Active Voice: A Writing Program across the Curriculum), I began to design a cumulative sequence of writing assignments along lines suggested by Moffett’s ladders of abstraction. My professed purpose was to present a practical application of Moffett’s theory of discourse so that everyone in the class could experience this rather complex theory first-hand. My subversive goal, however, was to see if I might unsettle some of the fixed notions of conventional, grammar-oriented writing instruction that were held to so vehemently by my TESOL students.
I started by asking my students to write from the perspective of a speaker on a soapbox in Central Park who was advocating for practices in the teaching of writing that were the opposite of those presently held by the author. What would such a speaker say to defend his or her position? What arguments and examples would such a speaker use to convince his or her listeners of the compelling nature of his or her point of view?
Next, I asked my students to write out a dialogue between this strident soapbox speaker and themselves, toning down the stridency of the speaker’s stance so that the conversation might be civilized and even-tempered.
Third, I asked my students to imagine that the speaker moved upstate so that face-to-face conversation was no longer possible. I advised that the conversation be continued, but this time as an exchange of medium length letters (I suggested four; many students wrote six to eight).
Finally, as this sequence of writing assignments evolved as I taught it for my second and final year at Teachers College, I asked my students to step back and imagine they had just discovered this exchange of letters and had decided to edit them for publication. They would provide a preface in which they told readers something about the backgrounds of the two writers, insofar as they had been able to “unearth” these personal backgrounds in their “research.” They would also say something about the importance of the topic these two letter writers were addressing—a level of importance that led them to decide to publish this consequential exchange of views.
As it turned out, I never did add the final step I had originally envisioned for this sequence: transforming this final “edited exchange of letters” into a formal argumentative essay. I think what we all realized by the time we became “editors” of these two correspondents’ exchange of letters is that the forcefulness of one or another of their opening points of view was far less interesting than what motivated them to adopt their initially antagonistic stances and what led them to engage in extended correspondence with one another. What I do know for sure is that I simply stopped hearing about the “one right way” to teach writing to adult ESL students, or to non-ESL high school students in New York City public schools for that matter, and I did hear a great deal about the “characters” that my students had brought into being as a result of the seriousness with which they assumed their roles as editors. What I would say today is that this particular sequence of writing assignments utilized my 10th grade students’ ability to “inhabit” the role of someone other than themselves, putting this talent in the service of helping us all to view those holding opinions diametrically opposite to our own with greater understanding and sympathy. And isn’t that what “teaching towards adulthood” is all about? This is the contribution that Moffett helped us realize: we were all teaching writing in a wider “universe of discourse” where our roles were to help our students and ourselves come into greater awareness of our capacities not only as writers but also as more fully developed human beings.
The chapters of Teaching Writing in an Era of Assessment: Passion and Practice that follow introduce a wide range of teaching practices that have been refined and modified over the years by middle and high school teachers committed, as were these founders of writing from the heart, to the centrality of writing in their English Language Arts curricula and to the potential of each of their students as writers. While the last twelve years, with its emphasis on educational policy focusing exclusively on “accountability” as measured by test scores, have unquestionably been difficult and frustrating times for these teachers, they have each found ways to “make their writing curriculum work for them,” to borrow Tim Gunn’s memorable dictum from Project Runway. Since each of these teachers is also a writer, as well as a colleague with whom I’ve worked directly in one or another of the Invitational Summer Institutes of the San Jose Area Writing Project, they also represent a group about which I’m especially proud. Not only have they found a way to bring their passion for writing and the teaching of writing to their students, they have also found the time, energy and commitment to bring what they have learned to the wider audience of this book’s readers.
References and Resources
Atwell, Nancie. In the Middle: Writing, Reading, and Learning with Adolescents. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook, l987.
Barnes, Douglass; Britton, James; Rosen, Harold. Language, the Learner and the School. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1969.
Britton, James. Language and Learning. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1970.
Calkins, Lucy. Lessons from a Child. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1983.
____________ . Units of Study for Teaching Writing, Grades 3-5. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2007.
_____________ . Units of Study For Primary Writing: A Yearlong Curriculum. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2003.
College Composition and Communication. Journal of the National Council of Teachers of English. Urbana, IL.
Elbow, Peter. Writing Without Teachers. Oxford University Press, l973.
Emig, Janet. The Composing Process of Twelfth Graders. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English, 1971.
Giacobbe, Mary Ellen. Talking, Drawing, Writing: Lessons for Our Youngest Writers. Portland, ME: Stenhouse Publishers, 2007.
Graves, Donald H. Balancing the Basics: Let Them Write. Ford Foundation, 1978.
______________ . Writing: Teachers and Children at Work. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1982.
Gray, James. Teachers at the Center: A Memoir of the Early Years of the National Writing Project. National Writing Project, 2000
Macrorie, Ken. Searching Writing. New Jersey: Haydon Book Company, 1980.
____________. The I-Search Paper: Revised Edition of Searching Writing. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook, 1988.
Moffett, James. Teaching the Universe of Discourse. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, l968.
____________. Active Voice: A Writing Program across the Curriculum. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook, 1981.
Murray, Donald. A Writer Teaches Writing: A Practical Method of Teaching Composition. Houghton Mifflin, 1968.
Rief, Linda. Seeking Diversity: Language Arts with Adolescents. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1992.
Romano, Tom. Clearing the Way: Working with Teenage Writers. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1987.