Becoming a Teacher of Writing: George Hillocks and the Power of Disruption

This is the second part of a three-part series exploring my growth as a teacher of writing. The first part can be found here.

Many teachers of writing act as though writing is best done under some sort of compulsion, involving surrender to mysterious psychic powers that take place over the task of producing text. They believe that this state may be attained in a number of ways and order classroom activities accordingly, dimming lights, listening to emotive music, writing freely without inhibition

I was a quarter of the way through George Hillocks’s Teaching Writing as Reflective Practice when I read the above sentence. I put the book down, twirling my highlighter between my fingers as I attempted to come to grips with what I had just read. While I’d never lit candles in my classroom, my students would attest to my use of emotive music and inhibition-free writing. I started pacing back and forth in my living room, grinding the end of the highlighter between my molars until the blooming ache in my jaw forced me to stop. The opening of Teaching Writing as Reflective Practice was an indictment of everything I thought about teaching writing.

In my previous post, I described how I had willfully abdicated my role as the lead architect of student learning in my classroom. “Just write” became my mantra. No activities, no strategies; just the student, the pencil, and a sheet of paper. Any feedback students received from me or their peers took the form of “your piece made me think/feel X.” Students were writing more than ever, but I was laboring under the illusion that fluency was all that mattered. Just write.

Hillocks refers to this style of pedagogy as the “natural process,” the belief that the most effective way to become a better writer is merely to write more. This is exactly what I had spent the entire school year asking kids to do. I felt nauseated from guilt. Why didn’t I realize that Peter Elbow’s ideas (as presented in Writing Without Teachers) were no longer cutting edge? In my head my classroom was a space of raw expression and powerful freedom. I quickly understood that anything can feel revolutionary to the untrained mind.

The rest of the book outlines Hillocks’s “environmental approach,” a complete pedagogy combining creative activities with structured writing assignments. The ideas contained in the book triggered an immediate change in my brain. Within days I’d thrown together a flash-fiction genre study focusing on genre-specific writing skills and what Hillocks calls “gateway activities.” Gateway activities differed from the mini-lesson of a more standard writer’s workshop model.

Instead of using portions of a mentor text to help students isolate, analyze, and then apply examples of strong descriptive writing, I took a page from Hillocks and asked students to describe a series of eight generic waterfall pictures. The rub was that they weren’t allowed to use any color words or reference specific parts of the picture (e.g., the one with the cave). Students then traded papers and had to match their partner’s description to the correct waterfall image. We then engaged in a similar activity using shells. While my classes enjoyed the gateway activities, I was too scattered to check whether or not students’ use of description actually improved.

By the end of June I was a wreck. My classroom had become an uneven mess of freewriting, gateway activities, and genre study. In an attempt to get some closure, I reached out to my writing mentor Sarah Baker to ask her about Peter Elbow’s status in the academy. “Peter Elbow is old-school,” she said in an email, “his work is a required read, but we have to figure out what it means and how to use it within the current contexts.” She recommended that I pick up A Guide to Composition Pedagogies, a primer on writing instruction, to help me begin to understand the field of writing pedagogy. I loved the book so much I ended up writing a series of posts devoted to exploring its concepts.

I learned that Peter Elbow’s concerns with student voice and authentic writing were in many ways a response to the current-traditionalism pervasive in classrooms leading up to the sixties. And that he is/was just one part of a larger theory of writing complete with its own thought leaders, epistemology, and critics. For the first time I witnessed the depth and complexity of composition. I began to see how the instructional methods I employed in my classroom privileged certain ways of knowing and communicating and being-in-the-world. A Guide to Composition Pedagogies introduced me to what being a teacher of writing really meant.

In the introduction to Teaching Writing as Reflective Practice, George Hillocks reminds us that teaching is a transitive verb; it takes a direct object. In my final post, I’ll bring the reader up to the present moment and describe what that direct object is for me.



  1. dogtrax

    The waterfall activity reminded me of an activity I used to do (called The Monster Exchange), and then found I had little time for. I hate that the load of expectations squeezes out some activities that might lay the groundwork for better and stronger and more detailed writing later on. Maybe it is time to reconsider …

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Becoming a Teacher of Writing: At Peace with Pedagogy | Mr. Anderson Reads & Writes

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