Category: IRSYDHT

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.

File_000 (3)

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

From Ecology to Pathology: A Brief Exploration into the History of Adolescent Misbehavior

“Today’s kids have it too easy!” and “Kids were more respectful when I was in school” are two sentiments I routinely hear bandied about whenever the topic of adolescent behavior pops up. This type of thinking suggests two things. First, today’s society coddles children. Second, schools are failing in their duty of producing well-mannered (white/middle class) children. Be more strict and children will fall in line. The implication here is that struggling students can be either punished or incentivized out of misbehavior.

Schools often deal with struggling students by employing the crude language of rewards and punishments. If you show X amount of behavior Y you will receive the reward of Z. Stop talking so much and you’ll get some pizza. Cooperate more with others and earn a star. This is all pretty standard stuff and anyone who has worked in a school should be well-versed in behavioral improvement plans. That’s the problem. Teachers are well versed in this stuff because it’s become enshrined in our school culture. Teachers will also tell you that it doesn’t work. Students put on these types of plans often come from homes with fewer resources and smaller support networks.

I became interested in this subject after reading the excellent book Engaging Troubling Students by Scot Danforth and Terry Jo Smith. The book lays out a history of juvenile delinquency in order to provide a better alternative. I decided to synthesize Danforth and Smith’s opening section on disruptive behavior.

Disruptive student behavior has been around forever. Schools in the 19th century would often solve conflicts between teachers and students by actually fighting with bare fists (It’s true! Check out Dave Tyack’s One Best System). Danforth and Smith argue that while student disruption hasn’t changed over time, the ecology of the struggling student (the societal/familial/educational conditions) has.

By the 1900’s, the Common School movement had largely succeeded in placing most white children in some sort of publicly funded school. Academically, these schools favored Eurocentric humanism. Think Greek, Latin, belles-lettres, and the Western canon. In terms of behavior, turn-of-the-century American schools worked to inculcate students with Protestant values of hard work and obedience. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, the dawn of the 20th century was an extremely tumultuous time in American history. Massive immigration, technological growth, and the rise of mass media led to a society in flux.

Engaging Troubling Students locates the birth of juvenile delinquency in the crowded industrial ghettos of the growing American metropolis. City schools found themselves filled with students who knew little of American cultural mores. Politicians scrambled to bring unruly immigrants into the fold of decent society. The first group to respond to the problem of juvenile delinquency was the child-savers. Child-savers were wealthy, white, educated women who viewed struggling children as the result of “complex social and political problems requiring intervention at many levels” (16). Key here is the notion that child-savers conceptualized deviance as a largely social problem, not an inherently individual problem.

Struggling children weren’t necessarily seen as defective or malignant; their behaviors were a response to the inequitable realities of daily living. Social prejudices, unjust laws, and unsanitary living conditions don’t exactly set children up for success. So to combat this, child-savers attempted to improve the living conditions of the urban poor. They worked to increase access to health care, expand public welfare programs, and lobby the government for safer working conditions.

According to Danforth and Smith, all of this began to change in 1915 after physician William Healy published a book called The Individual Delinquent. Healy argued that while social and cultural factors may indeed play a role in behavior, defective character was inherently individual. Early mental health practitioners and politicians seized on Healy’s thesis. The public imagination began to see delinquency as a problem of poor psychological adjustment. Society needed to pathologize and treat the individual rather than focus on issues of social inequality. This change in diagnoses required a change in treatment.

The helping professions, psychology, psychiatry, and social work, stepped in to tackle the problem. Psychology and psychiatry used the new advancements in science and technology to refashion themselves as the official technicians of the brain. By allying their field with modernism’s unwavering faith in science, the new helping professions were able to expand their reach beyond the walls of the institution and into the homes of individual families. The mental hygiene movement (1890-1945) created a definition of juvenile deviance and troublesome behavior as an illness of the individual to be treated through pharmacology and medical intervention.

The legacy of the mental hygiene movement is an unwavering focus on the individual. Protestant values of submission to authority and the need to work hard were refurbished, “stripping away Christian references while primarily upholding the same middle-class norms of behavior and attitude” (23). During this time, many public schools created special classes and remedial tracks for immigrant and unruly children. The burgeoning mental measurement movement (beginning with the appearance of the IQ test on the international scene) added scientific legitimacy to notion that certain children were just bad.

The next boon for classifying and diagnosing childhood misbehavior came in 1966 with the publication of Psychological Disorders in Childhood: Theoretical Considerations and a Proposed Classification by the Group for the Advancement of Psychiatry. Think about it as the precursor to the DSM-V. Mental health professions now had a comprehensive, formalized set of diagnoses to use on children.

Engaging Troubling Students end their brief history of juvenile delinquency by exploring the rise of special education programs in post-War America. “Types of disability were ‘diagnosed’ through the use of ‘objective measures’ and ‘clinical judgment'” (26). Social institutions rushed to categorize and label children. Education programs were framed as treatments. Federal legislation during the 1960s and 1970s spurred dramatic increases in the amount of children labeled as disturbed and the amount of teachers assigned to work with such students. Since then, the amount of children diagnosed with Emotional Disturbance (ED), Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD), and other disabilities has skyrocketed.

So how could schools cope with exploding populations of children with behavioral problems? Enter the rise of behaviorism. Behaviorists reduced the inner complexity of psychological life to a mechanistic process of external stimulus and response. For behaviorists, the key to improving troubling students was a matter of finding the right rewards and punishments. No lengthy interventions and no complex talk therapy. Schools rushed to devise systems of incentives to encourage desirable behaviors and punishments to extinguish behaviors considered problematic. This system should be instantly recognizable to anyone who has worked in a public school.

Let’s sum this up. The technological, cultural, and historical patterns of the 19th and 20th centuries disrupted American life.  Schools and the helping professions of the early 20th century responded to this disruption by attempting to inculcate dominant middle-class values of hard work and submission to authority. Students who struggled were labelled, tracked, and treated through increasingly scientific and technocratic programs. Larger cultural trends shifted blame from inequitable social institutions to the individual. As the population of struggling students grew, schools looked to the emerging field of behaviorism for help. The ease of incentive plans and behavior intervention programs cemented their place as the dominant mode of conceptualizing and interacting with juvenile misbehavior.

Ok, so if behavior improvement plans are ineffective, what’s the alternative? My next post deals with Danforth and Smith’s recommendations for implementing social constructivism in schools.

Thanks for reading!

I read so you don’t have to: Katie Wood Ray’s ‘Study Driven’ – Part 2, The Inquiry Based Approach to Writing

*The IRSYDHT series is a place for me to give detailed summaries of professional books I’ve read.*

Check out part 1 here.

So, here’s a chart that summarizes Katie Wood Ray’s Inquiry approach:

five steps

This post will run through KWR’s comments on each step.

1. Gathering Texts:
-Always be on the lookout for possible mentor texts. Always read like a writer on the lookout for something class-worthy. KWR recommends keeping hard copies of everything in a large binder.
-Length is part of the inquiry. Once you’ve gathered a good stack of a certain kind of writing, one of the questions you’ll ask is ‘How long are these?’ That way you and your students can discuss length in an authentic manner.
-Look through magazines (KWR recommends (USA Today), magazines (Muse, U.S. Kids, American Girl, Boy’s Life, Cobblestone, Click), picture books, the Internet (Rotten Tomatoes, East of the Web), and more.
-Make sure that children examine the graphical layout of a text along with its content.
-Go for breadth (enough examples so students can see a good range of writing in the world) and depth (a few texts that anchor the study, select these with care).
-Use authentic texts, not writing created for schools (textbooks).
-Go for high interest. Invite students to help you find them. Keep an editable Google Doc, perhaps.
-The text must be at least semi-readable.
-Each text must be a wonderful representative of the genre and pregnant with opportunities to study content and craft and process.

2. Setting the Stage
-The goal here is to establish predictable routines. Each study starts with a short stack of texts that show writers doing whatever it is you want to study.
-Make sure the students understand that you will expect them to finish a piece of writing that shows influence of the study.
-Students need to have routines down pat. Think about beginning of the year mini-lessons that help students know how to research, get in and out of groups, collaborate, confer with teacher, and use independent time wisely.
-Preview texts, read a mentor aloud, talk with students, chart things.
-Create a handout with requirements and expectations. A sample is below:

-From their first encounter with the text, you want students thinking, ‘I’m going to write something like this.’ This is key.

3. Immersion
-First off, students should read what they want to read during independent reading time. Immersion in a genre is for specific times when you expect students to partake in intentional reading.
-Plan ahead of time how long the immersion phase will last. Typical immersion time goes from a few concentrated days to a week(s).
-Create guiding questions! As students read, you want them to begin making notes of things they are noticing in response to the text. If you’re in a craft/process unit, your questions will be narrow: how do writers use punctuation in powerful ways to craft their texts?, for instance.

If you’re in a larger genre study, then go with the same three questionsWhat kinds of topics do writers address with this genre and what kinds of things do they do with these topics?, What kind of work (research, reflecting, etc.) does it seem like writers of this genre must do in order to produce this kind of writing?, and How do writers craft this genre so that it is compelling for readers?
-Remember, you are teaching students to go through this line of questioning for everything they read.
-Students can write down their noticings on the text, on charts, on sticky notes, in their writer’s notebook, etc. Consider charting the whole-class discussion yourself.

4. Close Study
-After reading deeply and widely in immersion, it’s time to dig in with your students and become articulate about how writers craft this genre so that it is compelling for readers.
-Just like with the Immersion phase above, have a plan in mind for how long you want the Close Study phase to last. If you don’t set a limit, it’s easy to get lost in this phase. KWR recommends at least a few days.
-Remember, the point is to get students Writing under the Influence (see below).
-Consider moving between three different ways of working:

1. Working from a whole-class list of student noticings across texts: Make a giant list together and select an issue or two from the list. You won’t know exactly what it is until you’ve done it with students, so take the leap of faith.
2. Returning to individual texts for close study: Spend a few days as a class on a single text. This means the text must be “teaching full” and able to carry the weight of lengthy discourse.
3. Working with a specific question in mind. (i.e. What particular language is striking? What can we learn about language from studying this?)

5. Writing under the Influence
-Set a date when you want students to begin their Writing under the Influence draft.
-Writing workshops include significant stretches of time when children work independently as writers. They shouldn’t be spending all of the time on their “main” draft.
-Balance “main” drafting with independent writing.
-Students need to do as much talking and visioning as possible before they begin writing under the influence.
-Make sure students have what KWR calls “back-up work,” other pieces of student-generated writing that they can return to whenever they’re stuck, bored, etc. BUW is anything a student wants to write. The bigger the better. You don’t do much with BUW.
-Make sure students show a record of their process. Have students reflect on what it is they’ve done, how they’ve done it, what craft and process growth they’ve made, etc. This is essential!
-Revision and editing should only take a few days at the end. Focus on the issues you’re seeing during your conferring.
-Today’s draft can become next unit’s BUW.

That concludes the summary of KWR’s five-step Inquiry process. I’m going to include additional pertinent information below.

Evaluation: Remember, teach the writer, not the writing.
-Think about asking students to show evidence of: working through the process (evidence of work spent wisely, attention paid to dates), choosing and growing an idea (evidence of deliberate topic selection, using the writer’s notebook to grow an idea, etc.), drafting and revising (evidence of thoughtful planning for drafting, being engaged in purposeful revision, etc.), and finishing (evidence the writer paid careful and strategic attention to spelling, etc.).

Learn the Process by Living the Process
-Students need to live through the writing process (planning, drafting, revising, editing, publishing) many times throughout the school year. They should be talking about their process and writing about their stories of writing like a writer.
-Consider units of study on the process: using talk as a tool to improve writing, where writers get idea, using a notebook as a tool to improve your writing, what writers think about and do during revision.
-When planning for a process study, use a similar format of immersion, close study, and writing under the influence. Students can work on any genre as long as they’re immersed and under the influence of a particular process question or aspect.
-The Internet is a great place to find interesting quotes and anecdotes from writers about their own craft and process.
-Just like in a product study, give students an assignment sheet up front with the expectations and dates.

Turning Talk into Text:
-This method requires the teacher to create a new order of experience, a new curriculum that comes from the students.
-Use their talk to find your content. For instance a student observation about illustrations turns into a piece of curriculum on how writers should think a lot about the placement of text with illustrations.
-What you study comes from what they notice. This is essential (and perhaps the hardest part).

This book is amazing. It’s one of the most effective professional books I’ve ever read. KWR weaves in theory, philosophy, activism, and pragmatism into a single book. I cannot recommend this enough! 

In addition to housing mentor texts, this website is also regularly updated with new material. In fact, KWR Tweeted that many people will be adding to the mentor text list starting in the end of August.

I read so you don’t have to: Katie Wood Ray’s ‘Study Driven’ – Part 1, Groundwork for an Inquiry Approach

Study Driven: A Framework for Planning Units of Study in the Writing Workshop
Katie Wood Ray

book cover

TL;DR:In this book, Katie Wood Ray lays out a complete vision for implementing an Inquiry-based approach to writing. The study driven framework grounds student writing in real-world examples. Student discourse becomes the curriculum. The following chart summarizes KWR’s five-step approach to an inquiry method. Students read authentic writing, determine what makes each genre tick, then write under the influence of the genre.

five steps

I will explore and summarize the book throughout two blog posts. Part 1 lays the ground work. Part 2 goes through the process. 

Chapter 1: Introduction
Framing writing instruction as ‘study’ represents an inquiry-based stance to teaching and learning. An inquiry stance repositions curriculum as the outcome of instruction rather than the starting point. In this particular set of practices, the students’ noticing and questioning around the gathered texts determine what will become important content in the study (the teacher doesn’t determine this in advance), and depth rather than coverage is the driving force in the development of this content.

Although this idea of “uncovering curriculum” isn’t new, it takes on heightened significance in an age when school districts expect teachers to map out dense scope-and-sequence plans and curriculum maps before children even enter the building after Summer Break.

Student responses to teacher questions aren’t just filler to provide a moment of engagement before the teacher tells the students what they should actually think. The teacher is obligated to do something with student responses. They are the important stuff, not the way to get to the important stuff. There is no content until the children start talking. There is no study without the students.

Chapter 2: Making a Case for Inquiry Study
This chapter explores a few popular alternatives to teaching from an inquiry stance.

-Guided practice: Use school-world examples of writing. First, teachers give a generic definition of the kind of writing they want students to be doing. Then, the teacher gives the students a graphic organizer or two to use when creating this type of writing. The teacher next models an example, writing a piece to lead her students. Lastly, students are let loose to write their own.

-Partial inquiry: Use real-world examples of writing. But instead of studying the texts with students, teachers would have previously planned out where they wanted to go with each text. This model allows teachers to plan units of study ahead of time for use in their own class or someone else’s. I’m reminded of the standardization work many counties expect from their teachers. In my county, for example, teachers use PLCs to create common end goals for a given unit.

-Lesson-Delivery: Traditional. Teachers assign writing for students to complete, turn in, and get back with a grade. There is no study or learning in this stance, simply mindless compliance. Teachers often ground this type of writing in “mythrules,” those desiccated writing rules that don’t really exist outside of a classroom setting. For instance, every paragraph in a piece of expository writing must begin with a main idea/topic sentences. This part-to-whole orientation provides teachers with a sense of comfort and control. Managing a classroom becomes much easier when you know exactly what everyone should be doing ahead of time.

-Study-Driven Inquiry: KWR posits that an inquiry stance is better than these other forms of instruction. It teaches students about the particular genre or writing issue that is the focus of the study, and also to use the same habits of mind experienced writers use all the time. They teach them how to read like writers. Instruction is grounded in how texts actually function and how authors really use words.

Big Shift – What role should modeling play?
Teacher modeling is an essential component to writing instruction. Teachers often use model more in the noun sense than in the verb sense. They want their writing to serve as a model for what the students will write. An Inquiry stance, on the other hand, uses real-world texts as the examples. This allows teachers to model the process, not just the creation. Teachers can make their thinking public about what decisions they’re making, the how and the why and the where of the writing process. Students learn to write from reading rather than teaching.

Closing thoughts on teaching from an inquiry stance:
-asks students to read like writers, developing a habit of mind that will potentially teach them how to write well throughout their lives
-ensures that the content for writing is grounded in realities of both the writing process and product
-expands the teacher’s knowledge base
-helps students develop a guiding vision for writing before they engage in revision
-asks the teacher to model the process, not the product

“When what you know about ‘people who write’ becomes what you know ‘as a person who writes,’ what you know changes.” (32)

Chapter 3: Before Revision, Vision
This chapter makes a case for helping students develop a vision for their writing.

Students should always be able to answer the question, ‘What have you read that is like what you are trying to write?’ For purposeful revision to take place, students must have a clear vision of what they want to accomplish in the first place. The content that each writer decides to pursue can be individual, but the vision for the piece comes from the larger world of writing. Students should look at a range of kinds of writing they can do inside a particular mode or genre and then decide what kind of article they want to write.

Before vision, intention:
One of the key responsibilities of the writing teacher, therefore, is to help each student develop intentions as writers. This means developing purpose, passion, and reason to write something.

This leads to a tension: whole class genre study forces the intention to come from the vision of a kind of writing, and not the other way around. This is important. KWR accepts this tension, however, for two reasons. First, the tension is grounded in the reality of some writers’ real world experiences. Many authors must meet deadlines and create different types of pieces that start from somewhere else other than within. Second, genre study exposes students to the wide variety of writing that exists in the outside world. Genre study helps students fulfill intentions they might not have known existed in the first place.

“Units of study other than genre (like one on punctuation) should therefore be carefully folded into the year.” (54)  

Chapter 4: Understanding the Difference between Mode and Genre
This chapter explains how to use ‘mode’ and ‘genre’ to help students compose meaningful pieces.

Modes describe the meaning work that a writer is doing in a text. They come from the influence of traditional studies in rhetoric. Genre is the thing people actually make with writing.

mode and genre

If there are clearly defined and professionally accepted labels for the kinds of writing teachers want from their students, use them. But this often isn’t the case. Don’t shy away from certain kinds of writing because you don’t know what to label it. As long as you can gather a stack of texts fulfilling similar intentions, then you’re good. Let the definition come from the characteristics those texts share. Clarity of vision comes when writers say as much as they can to describe the kind of writing they have in mind.

Different Modes at Work (within the same text)
Authors often use several modes in a single piece of text to accomplish their purpose. Most pieces, regardless of the genre, switch off between description, persuasion, narration, and exposition. KWR states that although this might be commonly understood, schools have a tendency to gloss over complexity of modes within a single text. KWR argues that this oversimplified notion of mode is detrimental to curriculum.

The fix is simple: use genre (instead of mode) as the point of departure for a piece of writing. So instead of teaching students to do persuasive writing and descriptive writing, have students write opinion pieces and book reviews and novels and commentary. Know what kind of thing you want students to write, then show it to them. So, start with genre.

“The thing to remember is that mode is a descriptive device, not a prescriptive one.” (61)

Part 2 coming tomorrow! Thanks for reading.

I read so you don’t have to!: Family Dialogue Journals 101 – Creating Strong Bonds with Families

Using Family Dialogue Journals to Honor Family Knowledge and Cultivate Strong Community
A summary of the professional book Family Dialogue Journals by JoBeth Allen, Jennifer Beaty, Angela Dean, Joseph Jones, Stephanie Mathews, Jen McCreight, Elyse Schwedler, and Amber Simmons

TL;DR: A Family Dialogue Journal is a journal that travels back and forth between school and a student’s home. Teachers, students, and family members engage in a written dialogue about issues pertinent to both class and home life. 

I did away with grades in my middle school English classroom last year. The process of de-grading and de-testing brought with it a number of logistical and pedagogical challenges. How would parents know what their child was up to in English class? By removing grades I had removed the primary mechanism of keeping families involved in their child’s education. I needed a way to keep parents engaged without relying on letters or numbers.

I attempted to create a system where students wrote to their families every day. Every lesson ended with five minutes of reflective writing on the day’s objective. What did they learn? What was the point? What components of the lesson did they find enjoyable? (This was before I read teacher scholar Joe Bower’s wonderful blog post questioning the dominant logic of writing down a fixed, measurable lesson outcome on the board every day.) While I thought the activity had its merits, my students hated it. They took every opportunity to let me know how they felt about it during our end-of-year portfolio conferences. I don’t blame them. Since I didn’t start until the third quarter, I hadn’t set a precedent or routine for the writing. I  wasn’t able to have a vision for the writing, either.

Without grades, every family would be left in the dark unless I found a way to somehow invite them into the class and engage with what their child was learning. I knew I had to improve my system for the upcoming school year.

Family Dialogue Journals provides an excellent introduction into the world of family journaling. At its core, family journaling attempts to build classroom community by engaging teachers in written dialogue between students and their families. This post will provide a summary of the useful information in this excellent book.

Chapter 1: Why Use Family Dialogue Journals?
What is a Family Dialogue Journal (FDJ)? Although there isn’t a single “best practice” approach, every FDJ has at its core an ongoing written conversation between teacher, student, and family. With more and different skills required of students and teachers, parents need to know what their children are learning. FDJs provide a way to let parents really know and take part in their child’s learning. FDJs can act as as a two-way bridge, not only sharing information with families, but soliciting and incorporating family knowledge and into the curriculum.

Benefits of implementing FDJs include:
-Families connect to life in the classroom
-Family voices contribute to the curriculum
-Teachers extend curriculum through authentic sources of cultural and linguistic diversity
-Students learn about their families’ experiences and opinions
-Students who speak more than one language develop biliteracy
-Teachers provide writing craft lessons for authentic communication
-Students refine questioning skills, develop critical literacy, and engage in social-justice issues in their lives and community

FDJs carry with them some ethical and logistical concerns. There is no single best approach to incorporating them or dealing with the myriad issues such communication can create. Different family schedules means some children might need to use a faculty member to write to instead of a parent. Opening up a space for dialogue means being prepared to handle whatever comes out. Be ready to read things that will throw you off guard. Have discussions with any child and family that pops up on your teacher radar for any reason.

“This families-as-funds-of-knowledge stance involves a shift from thinking about what families can’t/won’t/don’t do to what families do, how they do it, and how children can learn with and from their families.”

Chapter 2: Getting Started
The second chapter explains how FDJs can serve a variety of purposes. For instance, they can be used to increase family participation, value family funds of knowledge, and incorporate critical thinking skills. The chapter discusses the importance of communicating the purpose and function of the FDJ to families from the start of the school year. The authors did this by writing home letters, speaking with families during school events, etc. Set a strong foundation to make sure everyone understands that the purpose of the FDJ is more than just busy work. Teachers should also communicate about the FDJs with administration to make sure everyone is on the same page.

There’s no one way to schedule and facilitate FDJs in the classroom. Use journals on a one or two week cycle. Create the questions yourself or allow students to come up with a few. Make sure to bring students into the problem-solving process if you see something not working. Sharing is equally flexible. A few students can share to the whole class each day. Students can share in small groups if time is an issue. After responding, a student can call on his or her peers to ask clarifying questions or to speak on a related topic. In terms of responding, try to write a few sentences in every FDJ every cycle. Be prepared for families to not always answer. Sometimes family responses will be short. It’s all part of the process. Flexibility is key.

“It takes resolve, perseverance, and creative thinking to maintain some semblance of regularity in completing the journals, sending them home, and carving out time for sharing responses the following week.”

Chapter 3: Generating Journal Entries
Generating effective questions requires constant collaboration and reflection by both teachers and students, especially during the beginning of the FDJ process. Teachers can use journal entries focus on literature. Incorporate the FDJ into whatever topics your students are reading about. Link the FDJ prompts to your essential questions and enduring understandings. Use the journal to help your students learn more about their family’s heritage.

Creating effective, productive questions is an art. Help students learn this essential skill by teaching it and practicing it.

Questioning mini-lesson

Questioning mini-lesson

Chapter 4: Going Home
The authors of the book required their students to take their FDJs home every Friday. They wrote to a variety of family members in and out of their primary residence: moms, dads, grandparents, siblings, uncles, aunts, etc. Be sure to have Google translate and/or any school linguistic resource on hand. Families should be allowed to respond to the FDJ in whatever method, language, and format works best for them. If the journal isn’t making it home or if you aren’t getting any responses, don’t be afraid to talk with the student to find out why. Make sure that you have effectively conveyed the function and expectation of the FDJ. Many families might not know what they’re supposed to do, or how they should go about doing it. Remember that this type of family communication will be as new for them (most likely) as it is for you!

“View each lack of a response as an opportunity to better understand a student and/or family, to adapt the process for an individual or the whole class.”

Chapter 5: Sharing Responses
Sharing increases motivation for students to complete and return their FDJs. As mentioned above, sharing FDJs can come in many formats. Work together with students to develop sharing norms and spend time practicing them. Don’t just assume that this comes naturally. Think about creating mini-lessons on selecting the sharing order and how to ask and answer questions. Consider making group jobs like timekeeper and material manager. Stay in the moment and open to discussion on anything that comes up. It’s likely that your sharing processes will evolve with classroom needs and students’ input.

“The written dialogue is reason enough to pursue FDJs with students and families; orally sharing the journals makes the process even more meaningful. Together, written and verbal sharing create personally relevant academic conversations where all parties can learn about and from one another.”

Chapter 6: Creating Connectional and Critical Curriculum
Connectional curriculum (a term new to me) links classroom learning with families and communities. This doesn’t mean parents helping out with math homework or signing a reading log. Connectional curriculum grows from what we learn about each student’s family’s experiences, jobs, histories, and opinions. The authors also make a case for using FDJs as a vehicle for social-justice. This type of critical curriculum supports the questioning of dominant cultural practices while encouraging action on a wide variety of social topics.

Use family knowledge to build community: students can learn about the history of their name, for instance, or find connections with the familial circumstances of other students.

Connect curriculum to FDJ entries: What do you know/celebrate about Earth Day? Can you show me how you would solve 59 divided by 4? Where on the map did your family stories take place? Have you ever written poetry?

Lastly, help students use their FDJs as a springboard for developing a critical lens.


“Through the FDJ process, we are better able to 1) take into account student interests, 2) incorporate family funds of knowledge, 3) build on the vast resources of cultural and linguistic diversity within and beyond our classrooms, and 4) encourage critical thinking about social issues.”


FDJs became a critical component of a dynamic classroom for each of the teachers involved in this book. Teachers were able to deepen relationships between every stakeholder in the education process. Families, administration, teachers, and students were all connected through intentional writing and sharing.


The book ends with a few miscellaneous suggestions for incorporating the FDJs.
-Use the journals for particular units
-Teachers can alternate who uses FDJs throughout the year
-Schoolwide implementation
-Make FDJs multimodal by allowing images and technology to facilitate the conversations

“As with anything worthwhile, there will be trial and error, pitfalls and setbacks. During such struggles, we tried to reflect and discuss with families, students, and other educators. All the while keep the purpose front and center: creating a dynamic family-school learning community.”

I can’t wait to begin the FDJ process this September! Thanks for reading.

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