Tuesday, February 12, 2013

passion & practice to be published!

Teaching Writing Grades 7-12 in an Era of Assessment:  Passion and Practice has just been published.  I have an hard copy in my hands I re-write these introductory remarks.  Quite exciting!  Pearson gave us the go-ahead to go into production in mid-fall 2012, with the book scheduled for publication  (correctly, as it turned out) on August 30, 2013.  Here's my own initial chapter:

Chapter 1

Passion and Practice: Personalizing the Theoretical*
by Jonathan Lovell


In introducing Teaching Writing Grades 7–12 in an Era of Assessment: Passion
and Practice with attention to the theorists and theorist-practitioners who served as
pioneering founders, my goals are twofold. The first is to demonstrate the practical
but profound influence of these founders on our practices as teachers of writing
today, especially in light of the emphasis on writing found in the Common Core
State Standards. The second is toput some flesh on the bones of these seminal
thinkers, showing how what they wrote was deeply enmeshed in what they did
as practitioners themselves. As Malcolm Gladwell (Outliers: The Story of Success,
2008) and Howard Gardner (The Disciplined Mind: What All Students Should
Understand, 1999) have helped us to understand, excellence in performing any
activity is dependent on a willingness to perform this activity over and over again.

The question for the authors discussed in this opening chapter is the question
all teachers confront, however much they believe in the essential nature of
repeated practice in relation to performance excellence: why might my students
wish to engage in the performative activity of writing? And why might they
wish to engage in this practice with not just dogged persistence, but with
genuine passion?

For readers of this book not fortunate enough to be familiar with the work 
of these founders, my hope is that my accounts will serve as a direct and
memorable avenue to understanding them. It is especially important that
this act of tough-minded homage be done during this “era of assessment,”
since the broad, comprehensive, and inspiriting view of language growth
espoused by these founders is presently in danger of being marginalized
or simply forgotten. While each account is embedded in a personal narrative, 
the events I relate are similar to those experienced by any teacher who confronts
challenges in his or her teaching, but is fortunate enough to be introduced to
new perspectives that transform his or her understanding of what students can
accomplish in their writing. While the teacher-authors represented in this book
reflect the direct influence of these theorists only occasionally, these seminal
thinkers contributed significantly to my own shaping of the San Jose Area
Writing Project’s Invitational Summer Institutes. It is these summer programs,
in turn, that provided such fertile ground for the rethinking of practices in the 
teaching of writing that you will reading about in the chapters that follow.

James Britten and the Value of “Expressive” Language

In 1969, in my second and final year of study at Oxford University, I happened 
to find a recently published paperback entitled Language, the Learner and the 
School by Douglas Barnes, James Britton, and Harold Rosen, all of the London
Institute of Education. What help might this publication provide, I wondered, for
a position I’d soon be assuming teaching English to 10th and 12th graders at an
independent day school in Wilmington, Delaware?

The perspective these researchers brought to their study was intriguing. What 
happens, they asked, when students move from being taught by a single primary
grade teacher to the six or seven different teachers of their subject-centered
secondary classrooms?  In asking this question, these researchers brought to
their observations a point of viewthat sounds strikingly contemporary: how do
students at the middle and high school levels come to understand the often quite
different “academic languages” used by their different subject area 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 already know and what they are in the process of

What gave particular resonance to the work of this group, however, in contrast to
the focus today on having teachers gradually lead their students to an increasing 
sense of command of the academic language of their respective disciples, was
the respect they had for how students expressed themselves when they met in
small groups to discuss what they were learning, independent of a teacher’s
guidance. I was sufficiently intrigued by the contrasts between the “expressive”
language the seventh grade students in the study used to convey their under-
standing of what they had learned and the academic language used by their
secondary level teachers that I vowed to conduct my own small classroom
experiment when I began my 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. In other words, it did not matter if I did not say a thing, 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 the United States. In response to the influential teaching and writing
of James Britton, author of Language and Learning (1970), 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.

In my position at Columbia University’s Teachers College for which I’d been hired,
my job was to organize an MA program in English Education for prospective 
secondary level teachers and create new EdD and 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," with my audience composed of the dozen or so MA
students I had begun to work with that fall as well as about 30 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 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, was
re-title my course "De-composition for Teachers of English." That was a subject
I knew something about.

I managed to make it through the first few Monday evening classes. Following the
graduate school model with which I was most recently familiar, I lectured to the 
class on the research by Douglas Barnes, James Britton, and Harold Rosen that I
described previously. As this research evolved in the late 1960s and early 1970s,
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.

Peter Elbow and the Value of Respectful Listeners

While this 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, Barnes, and Rosen 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 President Cremin of Teachers
College,” it read. “I wouldn’t take it too seriously, but it does suggest problems that
might be worth addressing.” A student in my class who was teaching at the innova-
tive 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 teaching a course entitled "Composition for Teachers
of English."

As I was sitting disconsolately at my desk, expecting to find my belongings uncere-
moniously dumped onto the street at any moment, 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 CUNY basic writing courses and find the practices it
recommends work very well.”

The book was Writing Without Teachers (1973) by Peter Elbow. I figured at that 
point I had nothing to lose, so I began reading. What immediately drew me in was
Elbow’s account of himself as a writer. He’d had more and more trouble with his
own writing as he progressed from college to graduate school and had 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.

Elbow did more than write about his own travails as a writer, however. More use-
fully, he outlined a program for addressing the deep-seated doubts and failures of
nerve and confidence that he suggested we all face as writers, no matter our age or
grade level. Try writing in short bursts, Elbow suggested, not letting your “editorial
mind” prematurely censure what you’ve written. Try writing these short bursts at
unusual times of day or in inconvenient places. I came to call this approach “Writ-
ing in difficult circumstances,” and often practiced it by writing before I’d had my
morning coffee or on the New York City subway as it lurched its way from station
to station.

The most distinctive and important component of Elbow’s approach, however, is 
his insight into the importance of getting response to one’s writing. Just as the in-
ternal 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. Therefore, Elbow suggested that rather than reading a writer’s initial
drafts silently, authors should read their writing aloud to a small group of listeners:
once through a first time so listeners gain a sense of the content of the writing, then
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 effect of hearing the author’s words read aloud.

Listeners would begin by recalling words and phrases they’d remembered from the 
piece, then they would summarize the piece as a whole, and finally they would tell 
the author what hearing the piece read aloud led them to think about as they were 
listening to it. These “showing,” “telling,” and “generative” responses should be 
written out by the listeners, Elbow suggested, then read aloud and handed to the 
authors who had their pieces responded to in this objective fashion. In this way, 
authors themselves could decide how to revise their writing so that it produced the 
desired effects on listeners, or effects 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 “compo-
sition manifesto,” as my students came to call it, for the next class. “We will write 
each week,” I announced, “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, respond in the ways I’d just learned from reading this compelling new 
book, and document what happened to us and to our writing as we went through 
this process.

And for those in the class that chose to stick it out, our writing—and more impor-
tantly, our appetite for producing and revising our writing—did indeed improve: 
steadily, obviously, and often quite dramatically. I later came to see that what Elbow 
was proposing was the creation of a community of respectful and skilled listener-
readers as much as confident and competent writers. That’s what these elaborate 
rituals of response were all about: gaining steady and consistent practice in learning 
to become attentive and respectful listeners. And in the process of becoming these 
listener-readers, writing is “brought out” of us that responds directly to, and is in a 
sense the creation of, this new community of writers and listeners. One of Elbow’s 
most enduring legacies is that most 21st century K–12 teachers have come through 
college composition classes where peer response groups are the norm.

Lucy Calkins and the Value of Writer’s Workshop

Four years later, in response to a position my wife was offered at UC Berkeley, 
I left  my tenure track position at Columbia and assumed a one-year renewable
position at  UC Davis teaching freshman composition. At Davis, I was one of
40-odd composition instructors. Some were graduate students in English, some
were Davis residents, and a few like me were PhDs 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 students at Davis were quite different from those I’d taught at Columbia. 
Products of California’s affluent and protected suburbs, they treated composition
instructors as service providers whose main purpose was to ensure that they, the
service recipients, maintained their 4.0 GPAs. “What must we do on this compar-
ison/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 door, graded papers in hand, asking me to show them 
which words, phrases, and commas they should change to upgrade their paper from
a B+ 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 shake my students by their shoulders until their collective teeth
rattled, saying to them: “Write about something that matters to you, or I will go
completely bonkers!”

I recall driving to Davis one morning, numb with apprehension, with a pile of 30 
“classification” papers sitting expectantly on the passenger seat beside me. 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. As I sat at the table of the lab classroom I’d been
assigned, working doggedly to complete this task, it seemed to me that every single
paper described the bicycles ridden on the Davis campus and the various sub-
categories into which these bicycles might be classified. “What should we do,
Professor, to get an A on this paper?” “Write about something that matters to me,”
I wanted to shout, “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 department chair 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 upper 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 more confident than I felt. “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 when she asked if Columbia usually called 
candidates as parts of their searches, I 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.

The manuscript arrived a week later: 300 pages wrapped in brown paper. I started 
reading immediately. The content drew me in at once. 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—and getting thoughtful and respectful feedback on their pieces from 
their teachers and fellow classmates. And the writing that the students in these class-
rooms produced was absolutely stunning. Several years later, 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. One of my students in that course 
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?”

The author of that small but seminal volume, Lessons From a Child, was Lucy 
Calkins. I wrote an enthusiastic review of her candidacy 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?”  As it turned out, she was selected for the position at Teachers College,
where she is still teaching. Having written, among many other publications, the highly
successful K-2 and 3-5 Units of Study for the teaching of writing and Pathways to 
the Common Core: Accelerating Achievement (2012), 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 more sure-
footedly and quite a bit faster.

Donald Graves and the Value of Learning From Our Youngest Writers

In the spring of 1982, however, the University of New Hampshire group through which Lucy Calkins was introduced to the field of composition research was just starting to gain attention. Its leader, Donald Graves, was 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 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 (1983), 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 cadre of young scholars that Don Graves had drawn into his orbit: Lucy Calkins of Teachers College (discussed earlier in this chapter), 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 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 instead 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 elementary school classrooms. Rather than recognizing and honoring children’s desire to write, as well as their confidence that they had something important to say, and rather than learning the predictable patterns of “invented spelling” that young 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 were unwittingly creating a nation of students who either hated to write or were convinced that they were “horrible writers.” It was just as if parents had indeed put their hands over their children’s mouths when they began to speak, with the analogous result that we were raising a nation of children who were being essentially chastened 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 have been increasingly focused on testing that segments writing into component parts, and in the process largely destroys our students’ urge or desire to write.

James Gray and the Value of Writing Teachers Collaborating Across All Grade Levels

A few months after meeting Don Graves and his impressive cadre of young teacher-
researchers, I assumed a position in English Education at the Reno campus of the
University of Nevada. One of my new position’s job requirements was that I
collaborate with a group of K–12 teachers who formed a professional development
communityknown 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, during my
time at Teachers College, my experience was still quite limited.

As part of my new position however, I was fortunate enough to be asked by the two 
co-directors of the Northern Nevada Writing Project (both high school teachers) to 
apply to the Bay Area Writing Project’s Invitational Summer Institute. I spent over 
four-and-a-half weeks during 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 invitational 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 concurrent founding of the Bay Area Writing Project at the
University of California at Berkeley in the mid-1970s.

Both the University of New Hampshire program under Don Graves and the Univ-
ersity 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 popula-
tions 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 all but certain that
administrators would fail to see their “teacher-workers” as valuable and insightful
sources of 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, draft, and revise their writing. In the Writing 
Project Summer Institutes, what builds this confidence in having something worth-
while to say is the evenly allocated time 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 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 came around 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 (one which evolved during the pre-1974
years when Gray’s summer programs 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 morning
sessions. Similarly, it was only in his later writings that Don Graves began to
understand 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.

Don Murray and the Value of Attending to the Practice of Professional Writers

I read Don Murray’s A Writer Teaches Writing: A Practical Method of Teaching Composition (1968), along with Janet Emig’s The Composing Processes of Twelfth Graders (1971), in preparation for my interview for the English Education position at Teachers College. What struck me in Murray’s accounts of his own practices as a writer was how authentic and (not infrequently) moving they sounded. His 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 by Murray’s book is twofold: 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 heartfelt instruction in this field of endeavor would come from someone who was himself or herself a passionate practitioner.

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. And it’s Murray’s message that reverberates in my mind today as I ask the participants in our San José Area Writing Project Summer Institutes to use their end-of-institute evaluations 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

     "After we settled down and got a chance to get to know one another, we got 
      along great. We discussed how we wanted feedback. Some wanted 50%
      positive / 50% constructive; another wanted it “ruthless”; another only wanted
      us to tell her she was a good writer. So we settled on 50/50 and nothing mean.
      It was healthy to compromise. After we read one another’s work aloud, passed
      it around, commented, made changes, brought it back—rinse, wash, repeat—
      we were all so much closer. We saw improvements and wonderful work come 
     from places we didn’t even know existed. It was amazing. I hope to create and 
     foster the use of writing groups in my own classes this coming year because I
     feel it was such a valuable experience for finding out that I was a writer.
     Correction—that I am a writer. I have rekindled something long shoved off
     as youthful pretentiousness. I believe that if I can create a safe enough space
     within small groups, I can create a safer space in the whole classroom."
    — Melissa M, 11th–12th 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 of 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 the
predictable onslaught of “hard-wired” approaches to the teaching of writing in our
public school classrooms in the name of aligning our curricula to the Common Core
State Standards, it is helpful to remember Don Murray’s frequent admonition that
creating writing worth reading involves a process that is by nature messy, unpredic-
table, and idiosyncratic.

Ken Macrorie and the Value of Bringing Voice to Research

If Don Murray represents the typical New Englander in his dedication to a strong 
work ethic shading toward dogged persistence, Ken Macrorie represents the
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, both in his stance toward writing and in his own writing
voice, the spirit and voice 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 Macrorie was a good deal more 
involved than Murray, five years his junior, in working within traditional organiza-
tions 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 13 years, both before and after his retirement from WMU, at the
Bread Loaf 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

In terms of this chapter, however, it is Macrorie’s re-conceptualizing of the writing 
of the traditional research paper that will illuminate his many contributions to the 
field of writing instruction. The book that introduced many 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 middle school teachers Brandy Appling-Jenson and Carolyn 
Anzia, as well as 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 freshman composition 
classes at San José State University. 

Like most college level freshman composition programs, San José State requires 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 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. I was not 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 is where Macrorie’s understanding of what it means 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, comes
to the fore. I can’t recall if Macrorie also suggested a  gallery walk to heighten
interest in these initial searches, but that’s what I did with my San José State
freshman classes. Everyone wrote down his or her research question on a large
piece of poster paper (with one nervy freshman writing in his, “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 easel sheets if one knew something about the content
of the search or if one had a suggestion for the author about how he or she might
pursue the search.

The next steps were to “research one’s topic” and to keep a running record of the 
steps one took to move closer to discovering answers to his or her research question. 
At least one interview with one informant was required for the search, and I custom-
arily prepared for these by setting a question for the class as a whole and then bring-
ing 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, I 
would generally take the class on a short “field trip” around the building in which the 
class was being held. Then I would ask everyone to select a setting they found mem-
orable 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. They would start with what they knew or didn’t know 
about their topic, follow this with an “argument” that explained to their readers why
 the question they were pursuing was important to them, document the steps they 
took to learn the answer(s) to their question, and conclude with a summary of what 
they had learned by the time “the whistle blew” and they had to end their search. 
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 surprised me, however, was the vibrancy and liveliness of my students’ voices 
in the papers they submitted. I sent a batch of these papers to Macrorie himself, then 
living in retirement in Las Cruces, New Mexico. He wrote back a few months 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 complained that he could not fully under-
stand how my students managed to survive my “barrage” of instructions (a “running 
syllabus” I provided for my students, made up of single-spaced narratives describing 
each successive class), the papers they wrote clearly demonstrated that I must be 
doing something right. “They are a delight,” he wrote. “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 an authentic quest, placing the student writer at its center.

James Moffett and the Value of the “Ladder of Abstraction”

In focusing on James Moffett’s contributions to the field of composition instruction, 
I return to my early days teaching 10th grade in Wilmington, Delaware, then fast-
forward to my final two years teaching Composition for Teachers of English at 
Teachers College. 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.

In my teaching in Wilmington, 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 significant difference in 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. 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 predetermined position was the
pervasive influence of the five-paragraph theme. As described by Janet Emig in
The Composing Processes of Twelfth Graders (1971), 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 compo-
     sition 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; however, when my
10th graders wrote an argumentative 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, argued any number of my 10th graders. To prove it I will devote my first
paragraph to a thesis stating that he was guilty, then will write three body para-
graphs in which I will locate details from the play that support my thesis, and 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 “opinion 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 persuade my students, at least in their writing, to unleash
themselves from the safety and security of their predetermined 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 ver-
sion of this same 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 graduate students in the Teaching 
of English to Speakers of Other Languages Program at Teachers College. “This 
business of a student-centered approach to writing development is perhaps a defen-
sible strategy for English speakers,” 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 observe would be the
blind leading the blind.”

While I did not agree with these strongly held opinions about the writing develop-
ment of adult ESL students, I could not challenge them effectively as a practitioner 
since my own experience was limited to a single summer’s teaching, many years 
earlier, in Hong Kong. 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?

Appropriately enough, the answer came right from Moffett’s Teaching the 
Universe of Discourse. “Start by understanding how difficult it is,” Moffett might
be imagined as saying, “to theorize about best practices in the teaching of writing
to ESL adults.” To do so convincingly, according to the theory set forth in
Moffett’s book, involves not only imagining a large general audience of readers,
but also the writer’s ability to hypothesize “what could happen” in many future
ESL classrooms beyond those in which one has actually taught. These imagined
admonitions come from a theory of discourse that Moffett had been developing
since his early years teaching English to high school students in New Hampshire.
As presented in the collection of articles that formed the basis of his book, this
theory posits that all acts of written communication can be understood as occurring
at one point or another on 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. 

A writer writing notes to himself or herself about an object or event that is close at 
hand—“what is happening”—would be engaged in writing that represents the 
closest possible “distance” between author 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 represents the greatest
possible “distance” between both subject and audience.

It did not take me long to realize, given this perspective on writing argumentatively, 
that I was asking my Teachers College TESOL students to write persuasively from 
something akin to the farthest points “out” on both sides of Moffett’s abstraction 
ladder. I was asking them, that is, to tell “what happens” in adult ESL classes
while addressing a wholly imagined audience of general readers.

Assisted by a sequence of mimeographed writing assignments then circulating 
among those familiar with Moffett’s work (later published as Active Voice: A 
Writing Program Across the Curriculum, 1981), I began to design a sequence
of writing assignments along the lines suggested by Moffett’s “ladder of
abstraction.” My primary 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 firsthand. I also hoped, however, that I might
unsettle some of the fixed notions of conventional, grammar-oriented writing
instruction that were held by my TESOL students.

I started by asking my students to write from the perspective of a speaker on a soap-
box in Central Park advocating 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-toface conversation was no 
longer possible. I advised that the conversation be continued, but this time as an ex-
change of medium length letters (I suggested four; most students wrote six to eight).
Finally, as this sequence of writing assignments evolved as I taught it for my fourth 
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 argu-
mentative 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 an-
other 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 ex-
tended correspondence with one another. 

What I do know is that I stopped hearing about the indispensability of a grammar 
based approach to the teaching of 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 toward 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.

Lessons Learned From the Founders of Passion and Practice

The chapters of Teaching Writing Grades 7–12 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 the founders I’ve just discussed, 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 12 years, with their emphasis on educational policy
focusing exclusively on “accountability” as measured by test scores, have
unquestionably been difficult and frustrating times for these teachers, the teacher
writers in this book have each found ways to “make their writing curriculum work
for them,” to borrow Tim Gunn’s mantra 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 José
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, 1987.

Barnes, Douglas, James Britton, and Harold Rosen. Language, the Learner 
   and the School. Hammondsworth, 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 Primary Writing: A Yearlong Curriculum
   Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2003.
____________ . Units of Study for Teaching Writing, Grades 3–5. Portsmouth, 
   NH: Heinemann, 2007.

Calkins, Lucy, Mary Ehrenworth, and Christopher Lehman. Pathways to the 
   Common Core: Accelerating Achievement. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2012.

College Composition and Communication. Journal of the National Council of 
   Teachers of English. Urbana, IL.

Elbow, Peter. Writing Without Teachers. New York: Oxford University Press, 1973.

Emig, Janet. The Composing Processes of Twelfth Graders. Urbana, IL: National 
   Council of Teachers of English, 1971.

Gardner, Howard. The Disciplined Mind: What All Students Should Understand
   New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999.

Giacobbe, Mary Ellen. Talking, Drawing, Writing: Lessons for Our Youngest 
   WritersPortland, ME: Stenhouse Publishers, 2007.

Gladwell, Malcolm. Outliers: The Story of Success. Boston, MA: Little, Brown 
   and Company, 2008.

Graves, Donald H. Balance the Basics: Let Them Write. Ford Foundation, Papers 
   on Reseach About Learning, 1978.
______________ . Writing: Teachers and Children at Work. Portsmouth, NH: 
   Heinemann, 1983.

Gray, James. Teachers at the Center: A Memoir of the Early Years of the 
   National Writing ProjectNational 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. Boston, MA: 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.

* Portions of this chapter appeared in different form in the Winter 1996 and 
   Summer 1999 issues of California English.

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