In the summer of 2015 I fell in love with Peter Elbow.
More specifically I became obsessed with the method he lays out in Writing Without Teachers, his landmark expressivist text published in 1973. Elbow positions his pedagogy as a corrective to the rigid structures of a traditional English classroom. He argues that we improve as writers by writing, not by practicing discrete skills. We should use writing to grow our ideas, not merely to record them. Writing Without Teachers articulates a method of writing instruction rooted in personal expression, freedom, and collaboration.
I had recently left a No Excuses charter school, a place where writing instruction meant test prompts, formulaic hamburger paragraphs, and grammar worksheets. At the time I understood writing to be a method of mental discipline, a way to force the mind to conform to conservative logics of perception and cognition. Although I wanted to engage my students with something more creative, I couldn’t see past the deficit ideology pushed by the school’s administration. Even when I allowed my students to dabble in poetry or expressive prose, it was always in the service of mastering literary techniques (I would come to learn later that the charter school’s approach to writing aligned with what composition scholars refer to as current-traditional rhetoric).
I stuck to many of my old assignments when I transitioned to a new school district a few years later. While I wasn’t enthralled with how I approached composition, I didn’t know how else to do it. During the summer of 2015 I purchased a battered used copy of Writing Without Teachers from an Amazon seller. I had just completed my second year of the Northern Virginia Writing Project‘s Summer Institute and decided it was time to get serious about composition. I fell hard for the book. Never before had I read sentences like
To improve your writing you don’t need advice about what changes to make; you don’t need theories of what is good and bad writing. You need movies of people’s minds while they read your words.
This is what I was craving: a composition pedagogy emphasizing dialogue, invention, and collaboration. The book was the opposite of everything I had been doing and I loved it. One of my favorite things about reading good theory is how it can resonate with you on a cellular level. Every chapter of the book spoke into being thoughts and feelings I didn’t even know I had. It set about centering my classroom around Peter Elbow’s ideas.
Some of the book’s strategies, such as freewriting, found an immediate home in my classroom. I told children to “just write,” modelling my own incoherent stream of consciousness on a document camera to reinforce the importance of writing without stopping. As someone who witnessed students wrestling with words on a daily basis, helping children to distinguish between creation and evaluation was paramount. We grew our writing by picking out the best shards from our freewrites and fashioning them into new ideas.
Elbow calls this process ‘growing.’ You start out writing X because you believe X. But by the time you’re finished X no longer feels right. You begin to see Y. Since encouraging students to discard whole sections of writing can be a tough sell, we started small, identifying our golden lines and lifting sentences from each other. The ability to grow an idea by writing, reading what’s on the page, picking out the best parts, and starting again still feels like alchemy to me.
While freewriting and growing an idea through multiple drafts have become standard practices in many English classrooms, I cannot say the same about Elbow’s concept of the teacherless writing class. Writing Without Teachers lays out the argument that a teacher’s position and status make it impossible for them to give authentic feedback. The teacher’s insider knowledge of the student and the assignment distorts the teacher’s perception. As a result, teacher feedback becomes artificial, divorced from the natural world of reader response. When I read non-student writing, for example, I’m creating meaning from the words on the page, not scouring every paragraph for errors or ways to improve.
As an alternative, Writing without Teachers builds the composition classroom around peer response. Instead of providing constructive criticism or making suggestions, the reader is responsible for explaining how the author’s words made them think and feel. I ate this up. I had my students practice Elbow’s specific response techniques with selections from their independent reading books before asking them to apply the same techniques to each other’s writing during their writing groups. My students enjoyed trying out each method of writing and responding, but I wasn’t able to build the entire class around them. As often happens I was trying out too many new things in the classroom. Changing everything all of the time is draining and ineffective. As my old charter school leader used to say, if everything is an emergency, then nothing is.
This was also the year I began removing grades and quizzes from my class. I became obsessed with rejecting everything around me. I eschewed any talk of writing standards or skills. No grammar. No vocabulary. No genre study. No rubrics. All that mattered to me was that students wrote a lot and talked to each other about their writing. The cultivation of unfettered personal expression above all else.
What I didn’t realize was that my new approach abdicated my responsibility as an English Language Arts teacher. I had nothing of substance to replace the traditional teacher identity I worked so hard to deconstruct. This realization wouldn’t hit me until a blog post by Paul Thomas led me to the work of George Hillocks. What I found within the pages of Hillocks’s Teaching Writing as Reflective Practice made it impossible to continue doing what I had been doing. Sick with guilt, I sent frantic emails to Paul Thomas, Sarah Baker (co-director of the Northern Virginia Writing Project), and my school’s assistant principal.
To be continued in the next post of this short series.