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Know Your Theory! – Process Composition Pedagogy Edition

This series of blog posts will provide an overview of the composition field’s relevant pedagogies. These posts will draw mainly upon A Guide to Composition Pedagogies by Gary Tate et. al. The book is divided into chapters based on the different pedagogies. The breakdown for each post will be around 1/2 summary and 1/2 my own reflections, analysis, anecdotes, and commentary. Although I’m writing these posts to help myself process through and reflect upon the field of composition, it’s my hope that any teacher of writing can find something of interest. Part 1 addresses collaborative writing pedagogypart 2 explores critical pedagogy in the writing classroom, part 3 describes expressivist composition theorypart 4 examines feminist composition pedagogy, part 5 concerns genre composition pedagogy, and part 6 looks at literature composition pedagogy.

Process Composition Pedagogy

I write in a scattershot format. I start out by writing out key concepts and interesting phrases on a blank document. Then I flesh out each concept, move things around, and try to let a structure reveal itself. My goal is to expand each concept and idea until it organically dovetails with what comes before and after. This requires a lot of hemming and hawing, indecision, and general consternation. At the bottom of each document I keep a “Misc. Ideas” section where I dump seemingly random thoughts. By the end my hope is that each paragraph and section successfully bleeds into the next, creating a narrative thread that ferries the reader along from point to point. I didn’t realize this until someone asked me to describe my personal writing process. With that in mind, this final post in the Know Your Theory! series describes process pedagogy. How do writers write?

I could reduce every composition theory explored in this series to a value statement. For example feminist composition pedagogy uses writing to address and achieve social justice in the classroom. Genre pedagogues bring attention to the different ways genre shapes our perception of and interaction with various forms of literacy. Each links writing with a goal larger than the writing itself. This is not the case with process pedagogy. Process pedagogy uses knowledge about how students write in order to improve student writing; writing is both the subject and the object. The idea behind process pedagogy is simple to understand: focusing on how we write improves what we write. The simplicity of the idea belies the semi-radical nature of process pedagogy. In order to understand that we need a glimpse of what was happening on the composition scene before the process movement kicked off.

The Spectre of Traditionalism

As an inner categorizer, my natural inclination is to reduce everything to discrete units so I can slot them into the appropriate categories. I also have a penchant for periodization. Many of my frustrations about trying to understand the composition field stem from my (and the field in general’s) inability to offer up a formalized chronology of major events. Even if I could cobble together some sort of linear history, the sequential logic of A -> B -> C ignores the complex vertical negotiations between institutions and teachers that bubbles and froths below any orderly history.

Ever since its beginnings at a Dartmouth College Seminar in 1966, process pedagogy has loomed large over the field of composition. It offered an appealing challenge to current-traditionalism, the dominant paradigm of composition instruction at the time. In order to understand the widespread appeal of process pedagogy, it’s first necessary to explore the methods of current-traditional instruction. My writing about current-traditionalism is in the present tense because it still lives on in many classrooms across the country. I say this not to disparage teachers but to point out that what we do in our classrooms often borrows from different bodies of theory at different times. Restricting yourself to a single theory is myopic and limits your ability to reach a diverse population of learners.

Current-traditionalism (CT), called so because it brings traditional beliefs into current classrooms, is defined as “formulaic notions of arrangements; an inflated concern with usage and style…no discussion of drafting, and a focus on grammatical and mechanical correctness.” Students in a CT classroom can expect to practice writing in the dominant modes of expository, descriptive, narrative, and argumentative. In terms of assessment and end goals, CT measures student writing against well-established pieces of professional writing. Compared to professional and published writing, student compositions naturally come up short. Since CT views writing as the combination of parts (thesis statement, topic sentences, concluding sentences) and axiomatic rules (avoid sentence fragments, watch out for comma splices, don’t split infinitives), creating a polished piece of writing means attending to the mechanics and usage of established grammar and genre.

A CT approach views writing as an assemblage of knowable parts. Take the paragraph, for instance. Current-traditionalism borrows its definition of the form and function of a paragraph from Alexander Bain’s seminar paragraph definition of 1866. Don’t be fooled by the archaic date and unfamiliar name; Bain’s definition of the perfect paragraph continues to hold sway. The picture below is a page from one of the many writing textbooks in my school’s English rooms (Write Source: A Guide for Writing, Thinking, and Learning).


Paragraphs should be written as mini composition in which every sentence must fall under dominion of the powerful and guiding introductory topic sentence. I mention the paragraph for two reasons: to highlight the ways current-traditionalism lives on in English classrooms and to provide a minor peak into the world of English textbooks (For a fascinating look into the ways textbooks have influenced English check out Textbooks and the Evolution of a Discipline by Robert J. Connors).

Much like every other composition pedagogy I’ve covered throughout this series of posts, current-traditional pedagogy is no one thing. It’s marked by the struggle “between stasis and change” that characterizes all pedagogy.  Mentioning CT’s status as a pedagogy-in-flux is important because it’s often viewed as a calcified set of beliefs and practices which no longer serve any instructional value. It’s also worth noting that teachers who employ pieces of current-traditional pedagogy are certainly not “bad” teachers. The more I learn about composition studies, the easier it is to understand why many K-12 English Language Arts teachers implement a variety of writing strategies, some in contradiction with each other.

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From Product to Process

The above image (from A Guide to Composition Pedagogies by Gary Tate et. al.) sums up the changes between current-traditionalism and process composition.  The ideological assumptions behind the process approach “represented an important shift in priorities, attitudes, and the use of class time.” Process pedagogy places a focus on the process of writing, on the various methods and strategies real writers employ to create a piece of writing. We’ve already discussed a few reasons why this change was so monumental.

Early process approach split the writing process into three main components. Donald Murray’s landmark essay Teach Writing as a Process, Not Product suggested the tripartite structure of prewriting, drafting, and revising that continues to hold sway today. While certainly not new (classical rhetoric’s five-part canon includes invention and arrangement), spending instructional time on prewriting and content generation before drafting was an important break from tradition.

The rise of process pedagogy paralleled newfound interest in the composing process of the student writer. Educators like Janet Emig, (The Composing Processes of Twelfth Graders),  Nancy Sommers (Revision Strategies of Student Writers and Experienced Adult Writers), and Muriel Harris (Composing Behaviors of One- and Multi-Draft Writers) produced groundbreaking scholarship investigating the ins and outs of the composition process.  How do students approach a new piece of writing? How do they move between writing process stages? How do the moves made by students and expert writers compare? Thanks to these and other efforts, we know that good writing requires copious amounts of revision, and that beginning writers spend the least amount of time on revising and editing. Process scholars have also helped illuminate the complex situational variables that inform how a student approaches a piece of writing. Location, purpose, audience, genre, and mindset are just a few of the factors that affect student writing. The fact that these ideas may seem obvious to us now is a testament to the near hegemonic influence of the process pedagogy movement.


Criticism and Push-Back

As with all schools of theory, early incarnations of process pedagogy were refined and rebalanced by academics and practitioner-scholars. Many of us might remember (or use) some form of a process wheel in our classes. We now know that there is no one process. Expecting students to move from prewrite to publish in a linear fashion misses much of the point of process pedagogy. For this reason later theorists stressed the recursive nature of writing.

Composition’s social turn, a move in the late 1980s/early 1990s to reorient the field to include issues of culture, ideology, and sociality, reminded compositionists that when it comes to writing, culture matters. Any effective English teacher must account for cultural differences in how children, families, and schools when planning for student writing. In Other People’s Children, Lisa Delpit offers a scathing critique of progressive teachers who engage children in peer critique and brainstorming while ignoring direct skills. Her book is a poignant reminder of the importance of a balanced approach to literacy.

Chances are if you teach English you’re familiar with some process pedagogy. Major education publishing houses like Heinemann produce scads of professional materials devoted to helping children flesh out ideas, revise drafts, and edit for standard grammar and punctuation. That’s why I’ve left the actual classroom component of this post until the end. I wanted to contrast process pedagogy with current-traditionalism because I think there’s incredible value in understanding where we come from.

This is my final post in the Know Your Theory! blog series, and I hope you’ve enjoyed reading them.

Additional Resources Consulted:
Current-Traditional Rhetoric: Thirty Years of Writing with a Purpose by Robert J. Connors
Process Pedagogy by Lad Tobin
Coherence in Paragraph-Level Structures by Marc Pressley


My Mind is a Farm: On Reading and the Cultivation of a Pedagogy

One of my favorite bloggers/thinkers, Benjamin Doxdator, recently wrote a post about reading. On the topic of professional growth, Benjamin notes that “While we will find a strong push for teachers to take risks by blogging or tweeting more, we also need encouragement and support to read more widely.” In that spirit, I wrote this post to share the books that have informed my personal pedagogy. Who I am as a teacher is a direct reflection of what I read, and this post is a celebration of influences. It’s also a chance to flesh out an analogy about how my mind operates.

My evolution as an educator and my life as a reader have always been intertwined. When I worked at a charter school, I positioned myself as a technocrat. Steeped in the language of meritocracy, grit, and strategies, I limited myself to reading only test prep booklets and the works of Doug Lemov and Paul Tough. On the rare occasions I did allow myself to travel outside the literature of quantified pedagogy, I stuck to the books of my teacher training. These include the classic works of scholar-practitioners like Jim Burke, Nancy Atwell, and Lucy Calkins.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was functioning as a closed system. I could only teach as far as my knowledge would let me. This insular pattern didn’t change until the summer of 2015 when Amazon’s algorithm suggested I might be interested in reading Maja Wilson’s amazing book Rethinking Rubrics in Writing Assessment. On a lark I purchased it. The book was a revelation. Wilson’s blistering critique singlehandedly changed the way I think about education. Not only did it introduce me to many of the themes that would come to define my pedagogy, standardization, accountability, and composition, it was a blast to read. It was also the first time I emailed an author, a trend that continues to this day.

From that point forward I was hooked on books about education. I yearned to learn everything I could about what I was doing in the classroom, why I was doing it, and whether or not I should continue it. It’s difficult to believe that only two years have passed since I read Wilson’s book. I’ve come to rely on books as my primary vessel for evolution. I’ve come to know the issues that matter to me as an educator and as a human being.

The Mind as a Farm 

I’ve written about education analogies before. But I can’t seem to think of a fitting analogy for my reading process. The analogy of a farm is the closest I’ve come. The contents of my mind represent a gigantic field. The pliable soil seems to be accepting of all seeds. Seeds represent the various concepts, ideas, and facts that I try to cultivate. For every book I read, I toss a seed into the loamy mulch. The contents of the seed determine where I plant it, and every seed has its place. My garden has a plot devoted to education history, to critical pedagogy, to composition pedagogy, and so forth. If you looked at the garden of my mind from a helicopter, you would see small islands of vegetation amidst a sea of brown soil.

My hope is that, over time, as the roots of each plot grow rhizomatically, they become interconnected. The more I read, the farther the roots of that particular plot extend. Right now my garden contains very few connections. But this is starting to change. For instance, when I consider the 80s and the rise of standards and accountability, I also think about the conservative turn of the 1970s. Roots are comingling.

This requires continuous work. I can’t spend too much time tending to a single plot, or the others will become desiccated and perish. After I read a book on composition pedagogy, I scamper to the education history plot before hightailing it to the critical pedagogy plot on the other side of the field. Undergirding this analogy is fear. If I don’t stop moving and dividing my attention among multiple plots of land, parts of my farm will shrivel up and die.

The remainder of this post explores the crops currently growing on the farm of my brain.

The Core


Regardless of what I’m writing, reading or speaking about, the above books are never far from my consciousness. The Teacher Wars introduced me to the rich field of education history. Through The Allure of Order, an in-depth analysis of the three major education reform movements of the modern era, I became obsessed with issues of rationalization, reform, and accountability. The Struggle for the American Curriculum and The One Best System opened me up to the wonders of curriculum studies and the interplay between culture and education.

The most influential book from The Core is De-testing and De-grading Schools. I have wonderful memories of the first time I read the essays in the collection. It was electric. I paced back and forth while reading them. I emailed most of the authors, eager to find out more. And, to my amazement, some of them even wrote back. It was like discovering the coolest club ever. I could subsist forever on these books alone. They inform everything I do.

Writing about Writing


In the summer of 2015 I picked up a battered copy of Peter Elbow’s 1973 landmark text Writing Without Teachers. So enamored was I with Elbow’s notions of freewriting and peer response that I dedicated the 2015-16 school year to putting his ideas into practice. At the time, I didn’t realize that composition pedagogy was a distinct thing. People taught writing differently, but that was about as deep as I got. It wasn’t until a mentor of mine recommended A Guide to Composition Pedagogies that I began to understand the complexity of the field. I inhaled it slowly, but thoroughly. I comprehended few of the book’s references, but I figured you have to start somewhere.

Determined to build this new schema, I trolled through the book’s alluring bibliographies, hunting down cheap copies of anything that seemed interesting. I’ve only read about half of the books pictured above. Like I said in the introduction, I don’t like to spend too long on a single topic. I have some of the basics down (early universities and grammar schools focused more on speaking than writing; writing gained more emphasis during the 19th century as written standardized tests blossomed; the birth of The Writing Project and the process movement in the 70s and 80s pushed a more authentic approach; the 80s-2000s have been a variegated patchwork of back-to-basics instruction and choice-driven workshop models), but that’s about it. Luckily, I’m in no rush.

Critical Pedagogy and Theory

CP and Theory.PNG

The more I read about critical pedagogy, the more powerful it becomes. Critical pedagogy is another massive field, combining knowledge from philosophy, critical race theory, feminism, sociology, and economics. For me, critical pedagogy recognizes that education typically functions as a form of cultural domination. The idea that schools celebrate certain dispositions and knowledge bases blew my mind the first time I encountered it. Therefore, I’m hesitant to brand myself as a critical pedagogue. I’m just not there yet in terms of the required scholarship and dispositions.

In terms of theory, the Apple and Biesta books were exhilarating reads. But without the background knowledge of critical theory and philosophy to back them up, it’s tough for me to justify the cost/benefit ratio required of reading more of their books at the current time. So I’ve mainly been sticking to a newer crop of critical pedagogy books. For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood and Pose, Wobble, Flow combine radical pedagogy with the lived reality of teachers on the ground. They keep the heavy theory in the background, focusing instead on what we can do to dismantle systems of oppression while at the same time keeping our jobs.

Accountability Politics


In the last couple months, accountability has become one of my favorite topics to read about. It encompasses everything I’m interested in: history, theory, assessment, standardization, and teacher power. Reading about accountability has helped me think about standardized testing beyond the typical opt out rhetoric.

By the time I entered the teaching field in 2008, testing had become entrenched in K-12 schooling. I blamed conservatives. Or, more specifically, I blamed George W. Bush. I naively assumed No Child Left Behind was a partisan creation, and that Republicans had a monopoly on standards-based reform and accountability politics. Now I know that’s just not true. For instance, the Clinton administration pushed Goals 2000, a set of national education goals focused on “high standards” and measurable improvement. I put scare quotes around high standards because my accountability readings have also helped me think through the complex process and history of education standards. There’s so much to learn, and trying to discuss accountability feels like a fish trying to describe the water.


What’s Next?


When the 2016-17 school year started, I vowed to myself that I would only read young adult fiction. Since I teach middle school, it makes sense that I prioritize books that I can recommend to my students. This much-needed course correction has started to pay off in my daily interactions with students. I’m slowly growing my knowledge and getting to a place where I can say, “Liked that book? Then you’ll love this one!” In my mind, middle grades and young adult literature exist on their own farm, separate from everything else. I approach this reading in the same way. I consciously shift genres often, rarely reading sequels or books on similar themes back to back.

The books pictured above are my stockpile for summer, the next time I see myself reading non-fiction with any seriousness. I like to leaf through them in the minutes before I fall asleep at night, allowing myself a brief flirtation with the books to come.

My journal as a reader has altered who I am inside and outside of the classroom. I want to visit museums of education and take tours of old school houses. I feel a sense of connection to the educators who came before me, and a desire to do what’s right.

So, what are you reading? Any good recommendations?


Becoming a Teacher of Writing: At Peace with Pedagogy

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

The previous entries in this series follow a basic format of “I used to think X. Then I read Y and thought Z.” Although I regularly found my pedagogy being interrupted by whatever new theory I was reading, there was a certain linear security to my growth. I didn’t have to critique any claims or synthesize competing perspectives, just move from one system to the next. Dogma can be narcotizing to higher order thought. But the more I read the harder it became to sustain a singular methodology. In the last couple of months I’ve had to open myself up and attempt to honor multiple interpretations of composition pedagogy.

Instead of exploring the ramifications of a single scholar or book on my professional growth, this final post in the series explores how I came to rebuild my definition of what it means to be a teacher of writing through a variety of authors and perspectives. This is ultimately a story of turning outwards towards the community, of connecting with others, and of giving up the search for the elusive all-encompassing pedagogy fit to rule them all.

To review: by the end of the 2015-16 school year my composition pedagogy was in shambles. Fueled in part by a desire to escape the rigid prescriptivism of my early years working at a No Excuses charter school, I had launched myself into a form of teaching nearly devoid of direct instruction. Students read, wrote, and discussed, but I rarely tied their learning to specific skills. “As long as they’re reading and writing,” I told myself. Fluency above all else. And while this is of course true to a certain extent, as George Hillocks wrote, teaching requires a direct object.

Without that direct object, I was close to becoming the teacher caricatured in the opening chapter of Lisa Delpit’s book Other People’s Children.Delpit explores the failures of a particular brand of white progressive teaching. Talking about a certain teacher, one of the author’s friends says

What do they think? Our children have no fluency? Our kids are fluent. What they need are the skills that will get them into college. He needs skills, not fluency. 

I had struggled with how to handle direct instruction and skills in my classroom ever since removing grades, quizzes, and tests from my teaching.  I could guide children through the writing process all day, but if I wasn’t explicitly teaching students the literacy skills America would judge them by, I was derelict in my duty. The return to skills was bolstered by my reading of Class War: The Privatization of Childhood by Megan Erickson. Like Delpit, Erickson’s argument seemed tailored to my situation. She excoriates the contemporary unschooling movement, writing

Why do we assume that clear boundaries, a schedule, and a sense of hierarchy are so threatening to students? Why must the individual’s vision be so carefully and serenely sheltered from other people, who are experienced in this framework as interruptions? There is value in being pulled out of a daydream.

While this particular quote doesn’t touch on skills directly,  it tapped into that part of me that used my understanding of expressivism as a retreat from my duties as a public school teacher. The writings of Hillocks, Delpit, and Erickson pulled me back into the reality of the classroom. It was time to reinsert skills and direct instruction into my pedagogy. But this time it would be on my own terms, in a way that made sense to me and reflected my agonizing yet productive journey through theory and reflection.

By the time I came to this realization summer was almost over. I put down the theory and returned to a portion of my book shelf I’d spent the last year ignoring: books by scholar-practitioners (Georgia Heard, Tom Romano, Katie Wood Ray, Penny Kittle, etc.). I cracked open my most recent purchase, Writing with Mentors by Allison Marchetti and Rebekah O’Dell.

The book offered an approach that incorporated almost everything I was looking for. It taught students the craft of writing through authentic genres and real world pieces. It was inquiry based and used student understanding to drive much of the instruction. The book also contained robust suggestions for handling classroom topics like grammar, media literacy, and lesson sequencing. Writing with Mentors keeps most of its theorizing underneath the hood; any analysis of the book’s contents, however, would uncover a pedagogy rooted in authenticity, inquiry, and collaboration. I ate it up.

With WwM finished and only two weeks left until the start of the school year, I had to act quickly. I chose my final book: Make Writing by Angela Stockman. I’d watched the maker movement saturate EduTwitter, and even though I’m wary of education trends, Stockman’s work has always been exemplary. Make Writing surprised me with its understated critique of the ways many teachers (myself included) have taught writing. Stockman illustrates how simple materials (white boards, sticky notes, wall space), tinkering with text, and a sense of play can reinvigorate the traditional writer’s workshop model. In the introduction, Stockman explains that Make Writing is about

pursuing outcomes in ways that support writers who need to move, build, mix, tinker, blend, sculpt, shoot, smear, and tack their writing together. Physically. Making writing obliges teachers to access the voices of those we serve and listen hard.

If one of my goals was indeed to push every student to learn to use writing to express themselves and shape their world, then I needed to put in place strategies that would help me reach as many young writers as possible. Stockman’s book helped me shake off my Peter Elbow asceticism, the belief that becoming a better writer required little more than sitting down, writing, reading, and rewriting. Just because I wasn’t interested in pipe cleaners doesn’t mean my students aren’t.

With Make Writing and Writing with Mentors finished, I felt ready. With a week to spare, I decided to reward myself with a copy of Karen Surman Paley’s I-Writing: The Politics and Practice of Teaching First-Person Writing. I-Writing combines theory, composition history, and ethnography to make a case for the value and complexity of first person writing. Surman Paley made it possible for me to identify as a social expressivist; I was able to reconcile my predilections for the personal with the political necessities of certain forms of knowledge. I felt at peace with my pedagogy.


“You seem to have a lot of epiphanies,” my mom said after reading a draft of my previous post. Her observation highlights my tendency to enshrine everything I read or come across as capital T Truth. I read something, become obsessed with it, preach it as gospel to whoever will listen, and then reorient everything in my life around it. Until the next book I read forces me to go into a spiral of guilt and the cycle begins again.

Up until now, every epiphany carried with it a total brain dump, an out with the old/in with the new mentality that forced me to repeatedly rebuild my schema from the ground up. At the end of every summer, my wife asks me whether or not I’m going to reuse any of last year’s lesson materials. Every year she becomes slightly more exasperated with my stubborn insistence that everything must be new. Some of this stems from a fundamental insecurity about my value as an educator. When you never feel good enough you become mired in the belief that your professional salvation can be found in the next book, in the next article, in the next technique.

Instead I’m learning to stand still, stick with something, and engage with the community. Allison Marchetti (Writing with Mentors) reads every panicked email I send (how many noticings should the kids be listing? When do I introduce the concept of touchstone texts? Am I doing this right?), responding always with patience and guidance. Similarly, Angela Stockman allows me to pick her brain about all things writing and making. Lastly, Katie Kraushaar listens to my lesson ideas and then improves upon them. How fortunate I am to connect with and learn from such wise colleagues.

Since the end of summer I’ve made the switch from theory to young adult literature. I miss wading through dense fields of text, spending hours on seven or eight paragraphs. I love the hermetic splendor of relying on nothing but the page, a highlighter, and my brain. But I know I’ll be back; my copy of Peter Elbow’s Vernacular Eloquence isn’t going to read itself.



Know Your Theory! – Literature and Composition Pedagogy Edition

This series of blog posts will provide an overview of the composition field’s relevant pedagogies. These posts will draw mainly upon A Guide to Composition Pedagogies by Gary Tate et. al. The book is divided into chapters based on the different pedagogies. The breakdown for each post will be around 1/2 summary and 1/2 my own reflections, analysis, anecdotes, and commentary. Although I’m writing these posts to help myself process through and reflect upon the field of composition, it’s my hope that any teacher of writing can find something of interest. Part 1 addresses collaborative writing pedagogypart 2 explores critical pedagogy in the writing classroom, part 3 describes expressivist composition theorypart 4 examines feminist composition pedagogy, and part 5 concerns genre composition pedagogy.  

Literature and Composition Pedagogy

Last year a colleague of mine asked me to define the purpose of English. What is the essence of the discipline? What is its content? I fumbled for an answer. On a basic level students in my class read and write. They analyze texts, investigate language, and use literacy to interrogate themselves and their world. Yet other disciplines could claim the same basic objectives. In social studies, for instance, students use similar techniques to explore history and understand the push and pull of civilizations. So what makes English unique?

Anytime I tell someone what I do for a living, they invariably ask me about the books we’re reading. What novels do I ask children to read these days? I tell them that my classes don’t take part in too many whole-class novel units (Practitioner-scholars like Donalyn Miller and Penny Kittle have helped cement the notion of student choice as a dominant theme in secondary English classrooms across the country). If you’re not reading William Faulkner, George Orwell, or any of the other white male authors from the canon, what do you all do in class?

We read and write. Literature and composition share a complex history together. The contentious relationship between the two deals with fundamental issues of literacy, education, and democracy. Your employment of literature in the classroom depends upon how you answer bedrock questions about the connection between curriculum and society.

Debates over curriculum and education’s purpose have been around in earnest since at least the Common School movement of the mid 19th century. Humanists wanted a classical education of Greek, Latin, and belles lettres. Social efficiency educators pushed for streamlined coursework in order to match up school curriculum with the skills demanded by employers. Progressives wanted school to prepare kids to be citizens, revolutionaries, and public servants. Literature can transform itself to meet any of these diverse needs.

But that’s not what this post is about. It’s about how teachers have struggled with integrating reading and writing for over 200 years. Unpacking the relationship between composition and literature benefits from a basic understanding of the growth of English as a discipline.

Up until the late 1800s there was no English. Universities offered rhetoric/oratory (speech) and belles lettres (literature studied for its aesthetic appreciation). 18th and 19th century academia was firmly situated within an oral culture. Although students were required to write, their compositions were to be memorized and delivered before the class. Writing was rarely taken beyond a rough draft. Students wrote only as preparation for the main event of presenting a beautiful and eloquent oration.

Charles Eliot, Harvard’s president during the late 19th century, introduced a system of electives that dethroned the dominant standardized university curriculum. Schools began offering different courses for students. As new courses opened up others receeded. The birth of English coincides with the downfall of certain higher education stalwarts such as Greek and Latin. As the influence of humanist curricula (Greek, Latin, the ‘classics’) continued to wane in the late 18th century, English rose to prominence as a new mainstay of the higher ed experience.

In time oratory lost its belletristic flourishes and became rhetoric. Rhetoric “gradually lost its oral emphasis, finally giving way to the exclusively written focus of English composition.” Now bereft of the traditional focus on oration, new composition classes needed something to study. So students began producing early literary criticism. Courses in literature moved towards the canon, employing literature as a high-brow product fit only for those pursuing a life of the mind.

By the early to mid 20th century, English departments were split between the study of literature and the teaching of writing. The legacy of separation and distinct curricular spheres for reading and writing remains potent in English classrooms today.

In a previous post I mentioned how it took 15 years for feminism to move from academia into composition classrooms. A similar case might be made for the relationship between composition courses and English Language Arts classes at the secondary level. Although anecdotal, I would offer that secondary teachers often privilege reading over writing. When writing is taught, it’s often approached through the lens of writing for high stakes tests. Test writing is a legitimate genre with its own conventions and forms. The fact that testing ends up narrowing the English Language Arts curriculum his should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with public education.

I think it’s fair to make the modest assertion that we are in the beginnings of a lit/comp renaissance. The rise of the mentor movement in secondary education offers English teachers an effective way to combine literature and composition. By mentor movement I mean the proliferation of books, websites, and articles focused on mentor texts. Popular practitioner-scholars are bringing renewed attention to the benefits of integration. Combine this with our 21st century understanding of a text as essentially any cultural artifact and you have new crops of teachers helping students read as writers, dissecting the moves authors make in order to enact them in their own compositions.

It’s my hope that the mentor movement, in tandem with what we know about textual artifacts from Cultural Studies, Genre Pedagogy, and Critical Pedagogy, will help students both analyze and create works of real power and meaning.


Know Your Theory! – Genre Composition Pedagogy Edition

This series of blog posts will provide an overview of the composition field’s relevant pedagogies. These posts will draw mainly upon A Guide to Composition Pedagogies by Gary Tate et. al. The book is divided into chapters based on the different pedagogies. The breakdown for each post will be around 1/2 summary and 1/2 my own reflections, analysis, anecdotes, and commentary. Although I’m writing these posts to help myself process through and reflect upon the field of composition, it’s my hope that any teacher of writing can find something of interest. Part 1 addresses collaborative writing pedagogypart 2 explores critical pedagogy in the writing classroom, part 3 describes expressivist composition theory, and part 4 examines feminist composition pedagogy


Genre Composition Pedagogy

In a piece of historical fiction an author sets an imaginary plot against a specific historical setting. Realistic fiction involves characters and conflicts that could have actually occurred. Autobiography is someone’s factual telling of their own life story. At the middle school level this is how I’ve taught genre. However, contemporary understanding sees genres as rhetorical acts situated in specific contexts rather than a static set of conventions for students to memorize and mindlessly employ.

Carolyn Miller’s 1984 influential article “Genre as Social Action” defines genre as “rhetorical actions based in recurrent situations.” Authors, faced with similar writing tasks (recurrent situations), make similar stylistic and formal decisions (rhetorical actions). Over time readers come to recognize and expect certain conventions in a certain genre. For example I wouldn’t expect an autobiography to include a chapter on the author’s experiences transforming from a human into a mythical creature. A magical transformation goes against autobiography’s social contract as a genre rooted in the real. When teachers help students understand genre as rhetorical action they help students navigate the cultural expectations of public writing. To understand how a genre works is to gain access to the socially accepted forms of expression and discourse.

Three Broad Pedagogical Approaches to Genre Composition
As with the other composition pedagogies in this series, genre pedagogy has no one true way. The chapter breaks down genre pedagogy into the three following methods.

1. Teaching Particular Genres
2. Teaching Genre Awareness
3. Teaching Genre Critique

These three methods are not mutually exclusive. Incorporating all three approaches in a classroom creates students who are empowered to act rhetorically “within and beyond the situations they will encounter throughout their lives.”

Teaching Particular Genres
Giving students the tools to identify the characteristics of various genres is perhaps the most obvious and common method for teaching genre. Students learn a genre in order to write it. The genres we teach speak to perspectives we privilege in the classroom. Deborah Dean notes that the “genres we select favor and develop certain perspectives more than others.” For instance, Dean explains that focusing on five-paragraph essays promotes a certain type of logic, distance, and formality. Teaching mainly personal narratives favors individualism and chronological thinking.

Teaching students about genre characteristics often requires the use of explicit instruction. Although some warn against the use of direct instruction, the authors note that teaching students skills in an explicit manner doesn’t have to be formulaic or rote. Other scholars such as Ken Hyland and Lisa Delpit argue that explicit instruction in genre conventions is essential for supporting and empowering certain population groups like second language learners.


Teaching Genre Awareness
If teaching particular genres seeks to introduce students into the public arena of literacy, another genre pedagogy, genre awareness, seeks to provide students with techniques for learning any genre. Genre awareness pedagogy “treats genres as meaningful social actions, with formal features as the visible traces of shared perceptions.” A genre awareness approach requires students to collect samples of the genre, identify the larger context and rhetorical situation in which the genre is used, identify patterns in content and form, and analyze what these patterns reveal about the situation and larger context surrounding the genre. Once learned, students can apply the genre awareness approach to learning any genre.

Sample assignments include asking students to analyze a genre and then create a “mini-manual” to instruct others on how to read/write that genre. Sarah Andrew-Vaughan and Cathy Fleischer have developed the Unfamiliar Genre Project. The assignment cycle requires students to select an interesting genre, collect representative samples of it, keep a research journal, write their own version of it, and more.

Teaching genre awareness attends to genre’s ideological and social contexts as well as its rhetorical and textual features. The goal of the process is to develop within students a nuanced and rigorous understanding of “how, why, and for whom” they write. Students use pieces of writing as objects of genre analysis. Helping students see writing samples as objects for strategic analysis instead of models for emulating requires a significant time commitment. In her book Scenes of Writing: Strategies for Composing with Genres, Amy Devitt recommends helping students gain access to social situations, develop interview skills, and make observations. This is a far cry from telling students why Ender’s Game is an example of science fiction.

Teaching Genre Critique
True to its name, genre critique seeks to train students to think critically about existing genres in their cultures. The ability to analyze a genre brings with it the ability to “subvert, legitimize, or revise” them. Genre critique fits squarely within the larger tradition of critical pedagogy by calling attention to the way every day cultural practices often constitute various systems of oppression.

Genre scholars Richard Coe and Anne Freedman use the following meta-rhetorical questions to help students tease out the ideological implications tangled up within genres:

1. What sorts of communication does the genre encourage? What sorts does it constrain?
2. Who can – and who cannot – use this genre? Does it empower some while silencing others?
3. What values and beliefs are instantiated within this set of practices?
4. What are the political and ethical implications of the rhetorical situation constructed, persona embodied, audience invoked, and context of situation assumed by a particular genre?

Students learning this type of critique pick apart a genre, analyzing it for roles and expectations in order to create a new piece of writing that violates that genre’s tenets. The authors give the example of a syllabus. What roles for students and teacher does a traditional syllabus enact? How could students remix this genre to subvert the positions of power implied within a formal syllabus?

In “Genre, Antigenre, and Reinventing the Forms of Conceptualization,” Brad Peters says that the goal of genre critique is for students “to acquire – rather than acquiesce to – the grammar of a genre.” Taking a page from Cultural Studies, this type of perspective treats the genre as a cultural artifact ripe for analysis. For instance what can a food label tell us about how our culture views issues of consumption, transparency, and government regulation? A pedagogy of genre critique teaches genre not to help students internalize characteristics but to show what forms of discourse are possible. Genres “create an opening for students to realize that what has always been is not what must always be.”

Wrapping Up
I’ve always taught genre as a set of criteria for students to memorize. As I’ve grown as an English teacher (and read authors like Katie Wood Ray) I’ve induced students to explore a genre through an inquiry-based approach rather than a transmission model. I now understand the power embedded within and enacted by genres. Next year I’m looking forward to helping students investigate shared understandings and create their own meanings by applying a more robust understanding of genre pedagogy.

Know Your Theory! – Feminist Composition Pedagogy Edition

This series of blog posts will provide an overview of the composition field’s relevant pedagogies. These posts will draw mainly upon A Guide to Composition Pedagogies by Gary Tate et. al. The book is divided into chapters based on the different pedagogies. The breakdown for each post will be around 1/2 summary and 1/2 my own reflections, analysis, anecdotes, and commentary. Although I’m writing these posts to help myself process through and reflect upon the field of composition, it’s my hope that any teacher of writing can find something of interest. Part 1 addresses collaborative writing pedagogypart 2 explores critical pedagogy in the writing classroom, and part 3 describes expressivist composition theory.


Feminist Composition Pedagogy

Just like critical pedagogy, feminist theory contains within it a broad range of practices, assumptions, techniques. However feminist pedagogies typically share a common goal of bringing about social justice through specific teaching and learning methods. Every wave of feminism has expanded and complicated the definition of social justice. In terms of composition studies, feminist pedagogy seeks to use literacy to “interrogate and transform social relations.” It is a practice well suited for investigating social and political categories of difference such as race, class, and gender. This post explores a number of important concepts in the feminist composition classroom.

Gender Differences and Experiences
Feminism’s primarily white/cisgendered focus came under attack during the 1960s when scholars and activists began elevating black and lesbian voices. What started out as a women’s suffrage and abolition movement in the 19th century now fights for social justice on issues of race, class, gender, ability, sexuality, and migration. Feminism didn’t move into Composition Studies until the 1980s. Work during this early period focused on “experience as a legitimate form of knowledge, the inherent gender differences and effects on writing” as well as encouraging women to write from positions of power and authority. Early feminist compositionists wanted students to understand experience as a construct instead of some essential, private truth.


Diverse Discourses and Practices
In the 1980s and 1990s, postmodern and poststructuralist notions of subjectivity, agency, and textuality infused feminist composition with experimental prose and multilayered structure. Feminist pedagogues looked to complicate and subvert the single viewpoint approach favored by academic writing by introducing new methods of argumentation. Scholars like Catherine Lamb advocated for collaborative and cooperative academic discourse that valued and highlighted a panoply of voices and perspectives. Ann Berthoff  and Terry Myers Zawicki pushed students to write through hesitations and to use writing as a vehicle for knowing, rather than a simple method of recording thought. Students in a feminist composition class often mix genres, modes of writing, and perspectives in a single piece.

Feminist compositionists work to dislodge traditional univocal academic discourse. Through alternative models of composition and revision, these scholars brought attention to the difference and complexity of literacy. Collaboration and shared linguistic ownership undercut traditional notions of power and authority by “creating spaces for marginalized voices.” Donnalee Rubin’s important study Gender Influences: Reading Student Texts called attention to the the way gender biases affect the way teachers respond to student writing. Influenced by this study, many feminist educators engaged students in non-competitive activities and helped females to move from “private discourse to public pronouncements.”

Conflict and Difference
As mentioned in the introduction, feminist pedagogy is an “orientation to learning and knowing charged by social justice commitments.” Embracing conflict is a dominant theme for feminist compositionists. In “Feminism and Composition: The Case for Conflict” Susan Jarratt argues that feminist teachers should use conflict as a tool for calling attention to and ultimately challenging the racist, sexist, and classist foundations of the contemporary classroom. Similarly bell hooks views conflict in the classroom as a “catalyst for new thinking, for growth.” Conflict becomes a way to help students confront the dominant sociopolitical beliefs that help define and bracket their experience. Feminist compositions look to conflict to help disrupt and critique mainstream narratives of issues of race, class, and other categories of difference.

A portion of feminist composition’s use of conflict in the classroom comes from the notion that there is no “purely democratic, utopian space available to us in face-to-face or virtual realities.” Borrowing and continuing from Cultural Studies, feminist compositionists submit a wide range of textual objects and discursive practices to rigorous critique.


Listening to and Grappling with Emotion
In the late 1990s feminist compositionists began addressing the role of emotion in the classroom. They did so by situating emotion and affect in the social and political. Emotion is “bound up with judgment, belief, ideology, and social life broadly conceived.” Any investigation into larger issues of dominance, power, and identity must therefore progress in some way through the fabric of emotion. Feminist scholars like Michelle Payne call attention to the way traditional social construction theory has largely ignored emotion. As a result emotion is often seen as a private force bound up in the individuality of the body. Critical discussions of gender, identity, and emotion are crucial when dislodging stereotypes of female instability and irrationality.

The act of listening plays an important role in the feminist composition classroom. In Rhetorical Listening, Krista Ratcliffe uses listening to help students “recognize resistance, analyze it, and when necessary, challenge it.” It’s a way to identify and think critically about the narratives that shape our reality. The human body is not a hermetically sealed unit containing emotion. Instead feminist compositionists see affect as relational and social. The body is both a site of lived experiences and an amalgam of competing social forces. Teachers would do well to help students locate their own affective experiences within the larger social forces of the classroom and society.


Corporealities and Wrapping Up
The last decades of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st have witnessed the growth of queer and disability studies pedagogy. Like feminist pedagogy, queer and disability studies positions the body “as a locus from which to develop praxis.” Performativity, the way we express, reproduce, or subvert normative categories of identity, also plays an important role in the current feminist classroom. Feminist pedagogues use writing to help students contextualize their identity. What are our cultural norms regarding categories of difference? How do we choose to embody or disrupt them?

The feminist classroom should challenge, subvert, and push students outside of their comfort zones. There is no set of essentialist feminist pedagogical tools. This type of learning methodology poses active questions, questions norms, and views categories of difference through multiple perspectives. Students will collaborate to construct meanings and pursue critical inquiry. Although this book concerns college students, it’s never too early to introduce students to feminism’s critical perspectives.

Know Your Theory! – Expressivist Composition Pedagogy Edition

This series of blog posts will provide an overview of the composition field’s relevant pedagogies. These posts will draw mainly upon A Guide to Composition Pedagogies by Gary Tate et. al. The book is divided into chapters based on the different pedagogies. The breakdown for each post will be around 1/2 summary and 1/2 my own reflections, analysis, anecdotes, and commentary. Although I’m writing these posts to help myself process through and reflect upon the field of composition, it’s my hope that any teacher of writing can find something of interest. Part 1 addresses collaborative writing pedagogy and part 2 explores critical pedagogy in the writing classroom.


Although I’ve written multiple blog posts about Peter Elbow’s work, I didn’t realize the intensity of my inner expressivist until reading this chapter. Although I worshipped at the altar of Peter Elbow and Donald Murray, I never bothered to fully name what I was doing. I just assumed it was a stylistic choice. While this is certainly true, every choice we make in the classroom is guided by theory. This brief pedagogical journey has already helped me reframe, reevaluate, and alter many of my instructional practices and beliefs. Many staples of the composition / English Language Arts classroom, for instance freewriting, revision, and peer response, developed out of the expressivist movement. This post attempts to provide a brief summary of the field.

The Anti-Textbook
Expressivism began in the anti-textbooks of Donald Murray, Ken Macrorie, Peter Elbow, and William Coles. Each author offered counter-approaches to the current-traditional paradigm of composition pedagogy. The Current-Traditional mode of composition (dominant in the years between World War II and the Vietnam War) emphasized a type of academic writing rooted in ‘formal’ grammar, empiricism, and the notion that language exists to record a priori reality.

In the holy trinity of expressivist anti-textbooks, Murray’s A Writer Teaches Writing, Macrorie’s Telling Writing, and Elbow’s Writing without Teachers offered a composition pedagogy antithetical to Current-Traditionalism’s central claims. Students were encouraged to eschew formal, academic English and to write from their unique individualistic voice. Expressivists saw writing as much more than a mere medium for observable phenomena. Instead they argued that the very act of writing was itself essential to growing and developing an idea. An author ‘grew’ their writing by operating in the dialectical space between their evolving intentions for the piece and an audience’s sustained reaction to it. Ideas weren’t thought of and then written; they were inseparable from the act of creation. Expressivism is a pedagogy of invention and inward discovery.

A Theory of the Personal
Expressive theorists place great emphasis on the personal. Peter Elbow’s early works established voice as a central concern. Voice becomes the primary mechanism for interacting world the world and constructing meaning. Like Elbow, Murray contends that the process of making meaning through writing is a continuous dialectic between opposing impulses: exploring/clarifying, collecting/combining, and reading/writing. By engaging with these antithetical forces a writer is able to grow their piece in a recursive process of generating, structuring, and evaluating. For expressivists the writing process does not and should not follow any sort of linear process.

James Britton’s Composition Taxonomy
The theoretical origins of expressive writing pull from the work of British academic James Britton. In the 1970s Britton developed a taxonomy of language based on function. Composition, he argued, had three main modes: expressive, transactional, and poetic. Expressive language was the language of the self. It reveals as much about the speaker as it does the topic. Friends, teachers, and trusted adults comprise the audience for expressive writing. When writing in this mode the author is a spectator, stepping outside of daily politics to reflect on what’s going on around them. Transactional writing, on the other hand, is the language of the participant. This includes writing for school, civics, journalism, courts, etc. Writing transactionally means writing to convey information. The third mode, poetic, is the language of art. Poetic compositions treat language as an object to be manipulated for aesthetic purposes. Writing that exists for its own sake.

For Britton, all writing developed out of the expressive/spectator matrix. His research found a severe lack of expressive writing at the college and university level, where faculty saw personal writing as low-brow pabulum. To ignore expressive writing within the classroom, Britton contended, was to do a disservice to students. He argued that any piece of successful writing must straddle the lines between expressive/transactional and spectator/participant.

Reception, Critiques, and Defenses
Scholars from diverse theoretical fields have critiqued expressivist pedagogy as atheoretical, indulgent, and rooted in a progressive impulse that, however well intentioned, does a disservice to certain populations of students. Scholars like Lisa Delpit discuss the disconnect between expressivist practices (peer review, journaling) and the need for students of color to learn and master the language of formal academic discourse. Students of color are already fluent in their own vernacular, she argues. Asking black students to spend class time journaling, giving peer feedback, and locating the center of gravity for a piece would be better spent on the direct instruction of how to think, speak, and write for a white academic audience. She persuasively argues that children of color must learn to navigate the racialized, classed, and gendered codes of power that fuel our society. In his book Teaching Writing as Reflective Practice, Scholar-practitioner George Hillocks critiques what he refers to as the “natural process.” Hillocks takes expressivism to task for its abdication of direct instruction.

Neo-Expressivism and Contemporary Issues of the Field
These attacks led expressivist scholars to develop and refine their pedagogy. For example the works of Byron Hawks and Paul Kameen attempt to frame expressivism (now referred to as neo-expressivism by some) as a powerful tool for combining the personal with social justice issues of race, class, and equity. Karen Surman Paley’s work  praises contemporary expressivism as an effective method for blending personal and academic discourse. Self-assessment, a popular trend in education for as love as I’ve been paying attention, also draws on expressivist notions of writing to learn, reflection, and personal growth.

Moving Forward
To enact expressivist pedagogy as originally outlined during the 1970s would be unethical. But to ignore the advances and refinement in the field would be to miss out on a powerful and influential body of theory. Many of today’s neo-expressivists use the self as “a site of invention and a catalyst for change.” Regardless of your pedagogical orientation, there is much to gain from promoting activities that process and construct reality through the prism of the personal.

In order to help myself understand Britton’s functions of language I consulted James Britton and the Pedagogy of Advanced Composition by Karen Pelz and Cross-Disciplinary Writing Programs: Beginnings by Randall Freisinger.

Know Your Theory! – Critical Pedagogy and Composition Edition

This series of blog posts will provide an overview of the composition field’s relevant pedagogies. These posts will draw mainly upon the excellent A Guide to Composition Pedagogies by Gary Tate et. al. The book is divided into chapters based on the different pedagogies. The breakdown for each post will be around 1/2 summary and 1/2 my own reflections, analysis, anecdotes, and commentary. Although I’m writing these posts to help myself process through and reflect upon the field of composition, it’s my hope that any teacher of writing can find something of interest. Part 1 (Collaborative Writing Pedagogy) can be found here.


This week’s post examines critical pedagogy from the perspective of the composition classroom. Critical pedagogy envisions a society devoted to issues of social justice and freedom. If traditional education is about raising the individual to improve society, then critical pedagogy recognizes the need to improve the society in order to raise the individual. To this end critical pedagogies look to engage students in analyses of how cultural practices and institutions (including schools) replicate certain power dynamics and social hierarchies.

Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed is the ur-text for critical pedagogy. This 1970 work introduced several important concepts such as the banking model of education (the notion that traditional schooling positions students as passive receptacles, teachers as cultural arbiters, and knowledge as demarcated units of discrete information), schooling as an instrument of cultural domination (curriculum and instructional practices that value specific types of knowledge) and critical consciousness (questioning the nature of lived experience and the unspoken norms governing our society).

Freire’s theory situates him as a social constructivist; for him, knowledge is a socially constructed linguistic product. He is therefore interested in language as a mechanism of both domination and possible resistance. Although language as domination is certainly not a new topic (see Lisa Delpit and Gloria Ladson-Billings, for instance), contemporary scholars such as Christopher Emdin and Gert Biesta continue to explore how curriculum, speech, and agency operate in the classroom.


American critical pedagogy hit its stride during the 1980s as a radical response to conservative reports on education such as A Nation at Risk  and Action for Excellence. The rise of neoliberalism during the 1980s produced reactionary and canonical works by academics such as Henri Giroux, Ira Shor, and Peter McLaren. These critical pedagogues worked to bring light to the ways schools functioned as sorting mechanisms to perpetuate inequality.

Through the works of these and other scholars, American critical pedagogy aims to inspire students to reimagine what it means to build a society based on democratic values and the respect for difference. Critical teachers wrestle with four central questions:

1. What does a critical classroom look like?
2. Can we create democratic classrooms within traditional institutions?
3. Is the goal to produce radical student activists? How?
4. Is Freirean pedagogy applicable to American schools?

Classroom Practice
While early American critical pedagogues like Giroux produced canonical texts that galvanized educators (check out Schooling and the Struggle for Public Life or Critical Teaching and Everyday Life), many teachers expressed frustration with the inattention to classroom practice. The authors consider Ira Shor to be an important exception. His books Empowering Education  and When Students Have Power bridge theory and practice with activities, anecdotes, and critical reflections. Shor invited a group of students to meet with him regularly after class to evaluate the day’s session and activities. Doing so allowed teacher and student to negotiate together the various contradictions inherent in the critical classroom.

Can Classrooms Be Democratic?
Thinking about democracy as a set of static actions and chunks of knowledge (voting, awareness of laws and various judicial and legislative processes) ignores the concept’s need for continuous renewal, deliberation, and public contestation. Democracy as a mode of being rather than a series of skills to be imparted and enacted. Democratic classrooms are not ones in which the teacher abdicates all power. Especially in terms of the secondary classroom, where I teach, the teacher must remain “in charge.” The contradictions of teaching for critical resistance in a highly structured environment remain one of the biggest challenges to any critical educator. It is possible, and indeed highly recommended, to engage students in as many decisions as possible while still allowing for professional control and guidance.

Producing Student Activists
It should go without saying that education is highly political. The content we teach, the methods we use, and the perspectives we highlight are political decisions. That said, the image of the classroom as an overtly political arena doesn’t sit right. My experiences de-testing and de-grading my classroom last year let me see first-hand the way many students (and adults) push back against any sort of explicit proselytizing. At the time I naively thought I was liberating both students and myself from a mechanistic and reductive assessment system. I openly spoke with them about my decision in an attempt at transparency. While my intentions might have been in the right place, my actions served mainly to polarize the class. Certain kids celebrated it while others dug in their heels and became hostile. I had forgotten that critical pedagogy is a process, not something to be delivered.

Freire in America
Poststructuralist and feminist educators have made valuable contributions to liberation pedagogy by unpacking Freire’s uncritical empowerment rhetoric. For, as the authors explain, to empower someone suggests an agent who empowers and a willing object who receives power from another. This setup mirrors Freire’s own banking analogy of education mentioned above, where power moves unidirectionally from teacher to student. We hear echoes of this when educators seek to “give minority students a voice,” a statement that ignores the fact that children already have voices.

As originally conceptualized, Freire’s critical pedagogy positions power as a commodity to be traded around and horded. As academics like Foucault have persuasively articulated, power is more of a verb than a noun. It is “exercised instead of owned.” Contemporary theory helps us reject the binaries of teacher/student, us/them, and oppressor/oppressed. We now understand identity and power to be relational constructs that “form (and reform) at the intersection of multiple axes of difference and power.” Viewing students as objects in need of saving is paternalistic and deleterious for teachers and students alike. Scholars working within poststructuralism, feminism, and critical race theory have successfully expanded upon Freire’s original aims to create a more inclusive rhetoric of power and resistance.

What Does This Mean for Teachers?
This brings us back to the aforementioned point about what critical pedagogy looks like in the composition classroom. While the authors refrain from providing many examples of what critical pedagogy might look like in a composition classroom, providing specific instructional strategies isn’t necessarily the purview of the book (or this post). Critical pedagogy is a practice, the routine contestations of power, value, and authority. The critical writing classroom asks students to examine the systems of academic discourse that bolster certain voices while devaluing or silencing others. Much of schooling’s “common sense,” assessment policies and grades, assignments, norms, and readings must all be scrutinized under a critical gaze. We can help students become aware and critical of the hegemonic forces informing our modern life. What better place to start than in the writing classroom?



Know Your Theory! – Collaborative Writing Pedagogy Edition

The National Writing Project is an amazing thing. I’ve been fortunate enough to be a part of the Northern Virginia chapter of the Writing Project’s Invitational Summer Institute for the last couple of years. The Invitational Summer Institute is an intense four-week experience where educators get together to talk about all things writing. I’ve transitioned from completing the program (becoming a Teacher Consultant in the process) to co-directing the four-week institute.

For this summer’s ISI I’ve appointed myself Theory Czar. To that end I’ve flung myself into the exciting realm of composition theory. This new series of blog posts will provide an overview of the composition field’s relevant pedagogies. These posts will draw mainly upon the excellent A Guide to Composition Pedagogies by Gary Tate et. al. The book is divided into chapters based on the different pedagogies. The breakdown for each post will be around 3/5 summary and 2/5 my own reflections, analysis, anecdotes, and commentary. Although I’m writing these posts to help myself process through and reflect upon the field, it’s my hope that any teacher of writing can find something of interest. 

Know Your Theory! – Collaborative Writing Edition


The first post in this new series discusses collaborative writing pedagogy. Simply put, collaborative writing theory attempts to explain the benefits, pitfalls, and rationale behind asking students to write together. The chapter begins with a reference to the model of solitary authorship promoted during the Romantic era (late 1700s to the mid 1800s). This is when many colleges in the United States began offering coursework in composition. Consider the Romantic trope of the tortured artist toiling away in isolation, producing masterworks out of his or her suffering.


The notion that a text is the result of a single author persisted in composition pedagogies until poststructuralist theorists like Michel Foucault infamously heralded the “end of the subject.” This stuff gets complex pretty quickly. In terms of collaborative writing pedagogy, all we need to know about the advent of postmodernism is that we no longer understand a text as a freestanding object created by a single person. Writing is always an act of collaboration. The chapter offers the following strategies for thinking through collaborative writing assignments in the classroom.

Delay Students’ Collaborative Writing:
Collaborative writing is difficult and should therefore not begin until the school year is well under way. In the time leading up to the task of collaborative composition, be sure to implement a plethora of social constructivist tasks: group work, peer review, class discussion, and even collaborative revision. It’s also worth mentioning that although every class benefits from community building activities, any teacher with her eye towards collaborative writing should invest a significant amount of instructional time on developing strong interpersonal relations and a positive class identity.

Design the Assignment for a Group, Rather Than Redesigning an Individual Task:
A mistake I’ve only recently begun to remedy in my own practice is the art of creating and assigning effective group work. Tasks given to a group need to be designed for a group. This means a significant increase in difficulty: for instance tasks that are labor intensive, require specialization, and/or involve deep levels of synthesis. The collective brainpower of the group means a higher zone of proximal development. A higher ZPD should mean more difficult tasks.

Discuss Methods and Problems of Collaborative Writing before the Project Begins:
Spend time ‘pulling back the curtain’ on the the basic methods and common pitfalls of collaborative work. This means discussing power dynamics based on race and gender (i.e. females doing all of the work). Go over consensus-building strategies as well as ways to help students actively listen to each other instead of resorting to adversarial majoritarianism.

Choose the Type of Collaboration:
The authors mention dialogic and hierarchical collaboration. Dialogic work involves students working together on every aspect of a project, whereas the latter involves breaking a task down into discrete components and assigning each part to a different group member. Dialogic work brings with it all the joys of messy discovery; hierarchical methods are more efficient and timely. Many types of collaborative writing require an interplay between dialogic and hierarchical teamwork.

Anticipate Problems:
Working collaboratively leaves us open to the reality of rejection. As one of my old bosses used to say, “Rejection of your ideas does not mean rejection of you as a person.” This is tough enough for anyone to do, regardless of age. Talk to students about this.

Anticipate and Prepare for Student Resistance:
Many students oppose group work. In my limited experience, I think much of this resistance is the result of unchecked power dynamics. “I’m the one that ends up doing all the work,” is a common (and valid) refrain. And some students do their best work when writing in isolation. It’s your job as the teacher to decide when to require group work. The chapter recommends helping students see how prevalent collaboration is in the work world, how individual writing improves from having worked with others, and how thinking through complex tasks with others typically increases understanding for everyone.

Let the Class Decide How the Groups Will Be Constituted and Discuss the Pros and Cons of Each Possibility:
Grouping students for successful collaboration is tricky. Students, like anyone, want to work with their friends. It’s important to stress to your class that while everyone enjoys working with people they know and feel comfortable with, doing so can leave certain students feeling unloved and unwanted. Additionally, we live in a world of others. It’s our duty to make sure students have the tools necessary to work successfully with all manner of individuals.

Give the Groups Autonomy in Deciding Their Methods and Timetables:
Creating and adhering to schedules and milestones is both essential to healthy collaboration and a key component of self-management. It’s important to devote class time to helping students through this process. As always, never assume that students know how to do these things.

Prepare for Dissent within the Groups and Prepare to Manage It in Two Dimensions: The Instructor and the Students:
The authors explain that successful collaboration allows for group cohesion, creative conflict, and the protection of minority views. Welcome rather than dread dissent. Tell students to anticipate in advance the presence of conflict and to welcome it as a sign of creativity and generativity. Handling dissent will require the direct instruction, scaffolding, and modelling of specific strategies. The authors recommend pulling from the academic traditions of “counterevidence” and “minority opinions.” Managing disparate ideas effectively is a great way to practice thesis, antithesis, textual evidence, etc.


As common sense as collaborative writing seems, I must admit I do remarkably little of it. I think there are probably many reasons for this: a culture that uses competition to pit students (and teachers) against one another, our education system’s strain of individualism, the difficulties of interdependency, and the challenges of devoting class time to something that won’t explicitly show up on a high-stakes exam are but a few examples. However collaboration has never been easier. Something as simple as a shared Google Doc allows multiple authors to work on a single text with only a few clicks. A cursory internet search yields a plethora of decent, free resources to help students work together. Although I’m not entirely convinced that collaborative composition is robust enough to carry the theory/practice weight of a full-blown pedagogy, the ideas presented in this chapter are certainly worthy of thought and implementation.

The Dangers of Knowing A Little: Pseudo-Journalism and Education Discourse

I recently saw an article from The Atlantic making the rounds on my various social media feeds. After reading a handful of teachers respond positively to the article’s claims, I wanted to offer an alternative perspective. The article in question, “The Writing Revolution”, presents an informal case study of a high school’s writing program. Students at New Dorp High School were struggling to grow as writers and thinkers. Administration and teachers tried multiple strategies to rectify the deficit, but nothing seemed to work. It wasn’t until the school emphasized grammar and sentence construction that the quality of student writing skyrocketed.

Author Peg Tyre suggests that New Dorp’s problems are endemic to American education  (“But the truth is, the problems affecting New Dorp students are common to a large subset of students nationally.”). If only students were taught the basics of grammar and spelling, the article suggests, American students would be at the top of the international report cards.

In my eight years of teaching, I’ve learned how potent this argument is. I’m not entirely certain why, but the rhetoric of “Kids these days can’t write. If only they did X, then we wouldn’t be in such a mess” seems to appeal to a wide audience.

As far as I’m concerned, the article is demonstrative of how America’s media reports on education. First off, it’s written by someone who hasn’t spent time as a classroom teacher. According to her website, Tyre is the “influential” author of “widely praised books” on education such as The Good School: How Smart Parents Get Their Kids the Education They Deserve. Experience as a classroom teacher should be a prerequisite for anyone writing an article about the details of classroom instruction.

“The Writing Revolution” follows a structure recognizable to anyone familiar with the history of American school reform. It begins with an invocation of crisis (today’s children can’t write), relies on superficial statistics (“Other research has shown that 70 to 75 percent of students in grades four through 12 write poorly”) and promotes a conservative, back-to-basics program (“The Hochman Program, as it is sometimes called, would not be un­familiar to nuns who taught in Catholic schools circa 1950”).

The article does contain some useful takeaways. Tyre notes how many teachers of writing are unfamiliar with composition pedagogy. And writing across the content areas receives a shout-out, as does the primacy of writing in the educational enterprise in general. Unfortunately, the positive aspects of the article are buried underneath paragraphs of garbage such as,

Fifty years ago, elementary-school teachers taught the general rules of spelling and the structure of sentences. Later instruction focused on building solid paragraphs into full-blown essays. Some kids mastered it, but many did not. About 25 years ago, in an effort to enliven instruction and get more kids writing, schools of education began promoting a different approach. The popular thinking was that writing should be “caught, not taught,” explains Steven Graham, a professor of education instruction at Arizona State University. Roughly, it was supposed to work like this: Give students interesting creative-writing assignments; put that writing in a fun, social context in which kids share their work. Kids, the theory goes, will “catch” what they need in order to be successful writers. Formal lessons in grammar, sentence structure, and essay-writing took a back seat to creative expression.

I’ve never come across the idea that writing instruction went through some sort of shift 25 years ago. And the notion that teaching the general rules of spelling and sentence structure improves writing is unfounded by research. In fact, Constance Weaver provides compelling evidence that strict adherence to the superficial aspects of writing produces inferior writing. “Some kids mastered it, many did not.” What does that even mean?

Another paragraph states that,

‘At teachers college, you read a lot of theory, like Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, but don’t learn how to teach writing,’ said Fran Simmons. How could the staff backfill the absent foundational skills their students needed in order to learn to write?

Pedagogy is inherently political. One informs the other, whether you think so or not. Expressivism and process pedagogy, the methods of writing instruction mischaracterized throughout the article as some sort of liberal indulgence, are in reality complex bodies of knowledge, each with their own traditions, political contexts, and historical significances.

Grammar is not an either/or situation. Teachers haven’t forsaken grammar at the altar of student choice. Scholar-practitioners like George Hillocks and Jeff Anderson and Lisa Delpit and Peter Smagorinsky and Constance Weaver have long advocated for contextualized, rigorous, and meaningful grammar instruction. This is an incredibly complex challenge. Creating units of study that engage students in authentic grammar study, teach the concrete building blocks of language, introduce students to real-world genres and audiences, and instill a love of literacy is the highest form of teaching. I am nowhere near mastering it. Not even close. Providing instruction at such a high level can only come from intense reflection, deliberation, and intention.

Asking kids to start sentences with conjunctions is easy, making them care about it is not.

Yes, we want students to be better writers. Yes, we want teachers to be the best they can be. Only a fool would think otherwise. But that doesn’t mean the chicken-little histrionics on display throughout this article are valid. Instead of pointing the finger at incompetent teachers, it’s worth investigating why many of us feel uneasy with grammar and composition pedagogy. Perhaps it’s related to crushing accountability mandates, scripted curriculum, increasingly technocratic teacher preparation programs, market-based professional development, or the utopian demands placed on us.

Lastly, education is a combination of academics, politics, and economics. Any article or pundit promising school improvement without addressing all three factors is peddling snake oil. Teachers, we must make our voices heard. We will disagree, and that’s a good thing. Only good can come from the dialectic of conversation. But we cannot stand by while imposters tell our story.