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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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?
As a general rule, I try to stay out of after-school clubs. This is mainly a self-management technique. My dizzying ADHD requires me to keep a pretty rigid schedule if I want to get anything done. For instance, here’s my M-F afternoon routine:
3:00 Arrive home
3:00-4:45 Write, look through books, eat lots of snacks, chew lots of gum, pet my dog
4:45-5:30 Do some form of exercise
5:30-7:00 Hang out with wife, make dinner, clean up, watch news
7:00-8:00 Mess around on the internet
Pretty intense structure, right? Today I’m ignoring that schedule and helping out one of my colleagues by hosting the Anime Club he normally runs every Tuesday afternoon (his wife just had a kid, so he’s on leave). I figured this would be a good time to get a blog post in. Ever since I started working on a couple of longer projects, I’ve had trouble keeping up with my weekly schedule. Therefore, I decided to write a slice of life post (read more about what these are here). What follows was written off the cuff with minimal editing.
A swarm of seventh-graders just poured into my classroom. I teach nearly half of the kids in here, but I barely recognize some of them. Unshackled by the boundaries of school (adult-child power hierarchies, formal language and behavior guidelines, etc.), the kids seem to be in a near-constant state of excitement. This only lasts for a few minutes, though. It’s funny how quickly the students replicate what happens in a class.
The two leaders of the club are frantically screaming at everyone to put their devices away, to sit still, and to stop talking. The language is more coarse (I quickly gave up trying to count the number of times someone told someone else to ‘shut up’), but there’s a definite method to the madness. There is an objective (pick an anime and watch it), a lesson plan (vote for an anime on Google Classroom, set up the desks, and load up the video), and group norms (try to stay seated and keep side talk to a minimum). It’s just like school! Only louder and with way more libidinal energy.
In the time it took me to write the last two paragraphs, I heard the following words and phrases: semen, nerdgasm, hentai, digs for the booty (?), boobies, and that’s what she said.
While their cultural references are obviously influenced by the current milieux (Netflix, YouTube, the internet in general), they’re also engaging in a form of adolescent identity development that’s been around since at least the 1950s. They’re feeling each other out, comparing themselves, and practicing the complex art of suburban teenagerdom. They make eyes at one another, pick up on or ignore each other’s conversational bids, and perform complex social calculations. It’s all just so interestingI think I need a shower.
At 3:30 the late bus bell rings and the students immediately disappear from my room, scampering off to various forms of transportation.
I think I need a shower.
Katie Kraushaar and I are currently collaborating on an article for hopeful publication in an upcoming issue of Voices from the Middle. The article is about the benefits of English teachers writing alongside their students. In the spirit of the article, I thought I would post my most recent piece of classroom writing. It’s a draft of a narrative scene (a short, self-contained scene of fiction/literary non-fiction with a beginning, middle, and end). We chose to focus on scene-setting, dialogue, participial phrases, and different types of leads. As a wannabe essayist, I’ve never spent much time with fiction. Posting this scene reminds me of the trepidation of viewership and disclosure that many of my students feel when I ask them to “share out.”
“Attention all teachers. Due to the increased amount of substitutes in the building today, will any and all available teachers please report to the cafeteria to assist with lunch.”
Mr. Samuels ground the heels of his marker-stained palms into his eyes, an oddly pleasurable feeling considering the backs of his eyelids felt like sandpaper. Sighing, he turned his attention to the stacks of notebooks on top of his desk. The ones sitting right next to yesterday’s Lord of the Flies quizzes and behind a pile of random folders from last week’s evaluations. He was in no rush to complete the work. Now that he no longer had to pick up his wife after work, he had the entire afternoon and evening to get things done.
His mind wandered through his memories, stopping to examine the images of his wife he’d stored there. The two of them chatting about their day. Standing next to each other and chopping up vegetables for dinner. They’d walk the dog together, read together, and close their eyes together as they drifted off to sleep every night.
But that was before the heart attack. After his wife collapsed on the floor one night, she had to be rushed to the hospital. The doctors told Mr. Samuels that his wife had a previously unrecognized congenital heart condition and wouldn’t last long. After that, he’d enjoyed stopping by the hospital after work, surprising her with fresh roses and peanut M&Ms, her favorite candy. As the school year went on, however, it became harder for Mr. Samuels to get away. Meetings with administrators, sit-downs with parents, and endless paperwork kept him chained to his desk.
The day before her release, Mr. Samuels received a voicemail. “Mr. Samuels? Hi, yes, this is Dr. Aikan from First Baptist Hospital. Your wife has suffered another heart attack. Please come as soon as you can.” The worst part about all of this was that he didn’t get the voicemail until after her passing. He had been stuck in another meeting when it happened.
Ever since then, everything had changed. Mr. Samuels had started staying at school later and later, throwing himself into his work in order to keep away thoughts of his wife’s death. After a couple of months, he was spending every night in his classroom. Tonight, he realized surveying the paper explosion that was his desk, would be no different.
Later that evening, Mr. Samuels wrapped himself up in the sleeping bag his wife had purchased for him during their final Christmas together. In his dreams, he slowly drowned underneath an endless tide of notebooks, lessons, and a flatline.
In the summer of 2015 I fell in love with Peter Elbow.
More specifically I became obsessed with the method he lays out in Writing Without Teachers, his landmark expressivist text published in 1973. Elbow positions his pedagogy as a corrective to the rigid structures of a traditional English classroom. He argues that we improve as writers by writing, not by practicing discrete skills. We should use writing to grow our ideas, not merely to record them. Writing Without Teachers articulates a method of writing instruction rooted in personal expression, freedom, and collaboration.
I had recently left a No Excuses charter school, a place where writing instruction meant test prompts, formulaic hamburger paragraphs, and grammar worksheets. At the time I understood writing to be a method of mental discipline, a way to force the mind to conform to conservative logics of perception and cognition. Although I wanted to engage my students with something more creative, I couldn’t see past the deficit ideology pushed by the school’s administration. Even when I allowed my students to dabble in poetry or expressive prose, it was always in the service of mastering literary techniques (I would come to learn later that the charter school’s approach to writing aligned with what composition scholars refer to as current-traditional rhetoric).
I stuck to many of my old assignments when I transitioned to a new school district a few years later. While I wasn’t enthralled with how I approached composition, I didn’t know how else to do it. During the summer of 2015 I purchased a battered used copy of Writing Without Teachers from an Amazon seller. I had just completed my second year of the Northern Virginia Writing Project‘s Summer Institute and decided it was time to get serious about composition. I fell hard for the book. Never before had I read sentences like
To improve your writing you don’t need advice about what changes to make; you don’t need theories of what is good and bad writing. You need movies of people’s minds while they read your words.
This is what I was craving: a composition pedagogy emphasizing dialogue, invention, and collaboration. The book was the opposite of everything I had been doing and I loved it. One of my favorite things about reading good theory is how it can resonate with you on a cellular level. Every chapter of the book spoke into being thoughts and feelings I didn’t even know I had. It set about centering my classroom around Peter Elbow’s ideas.
Some of the book’s strategies, such as freewriting, found an immediate home in my classroom. I told children to “just write,” modelling my own incoherent stream of consciousness on a document camera to reinforce the importance of writing without stopping. As someone who witnessed students wrestling with words on a daily basis, helping children to distinguish between creation and evaluation was paramount. We grew our writing by picking out the best shards from our freewrites and fashioning them into new ideas.
Elbow calls this process ‘growing.’ You start out writing X because you believe X. But by the time you’re finished X no longer feels right. You begin to see Y. Since encouraging students to discard whole sections of writing can be a tough sell, we started small, identifying our golden lines and lifting sentences from each other. The ability to grow an idea by writing, reading what’s on the page, picking out the best parts, and starting again still feels like alchemy to me.
While freewriting and growing an idea through multiple drafts have become standard practices in many English classrooms, I cannot say the same about Elbow’s concept of the teacherless writing class. Writing Without Teachers lays out the argument that a teacher’s position and status make it impossible for them to give authentic feedback. The teacher’s insider knowledge of the student and the assignment distorts the teacher’s perception. As a result, teacher feedback becomes artificial, divorced from the natural world of reader response. When I read non-student writing, for example, I’m creating meaning from the words on the page, not scouring every paragraph for errors or ways to improve.
As an alternative, Writing without Teachers builds the composition classroom around peer response. Instead of providing constructive criticism or making suggestions, the reader is responsible for explaining how the author’s words made them think and feel. I ate this up. I had my students practice Elbow’s specific response techniques with selections from their independent reading books before asking them to apply the same techniques to each other’s writing during their writing groups. My students enjoyed trying out each method of writing and responding, but I wasn’t able to build the entire class around them. As often happens I was trying out too many new things in the classroom. Changing everything all of the time is draining and ineffective. As my old charter school leader used to say, if everything is an emergency, then nothing is.
This was also the year I began removing grades and quizzes from my class. I became obsessed with rejecting everything around me. I eschewed any talk of writing standards or skills. No grammar. No vocabulary. No genre study. No rubrics. All that mattered to me was that students wrote a lot and talked to each other about their writing. The cultivation of unfettered personal expression above all else.
What I didn’t realize was that my new approach abdicated my responsibility as an English Language Arts teacher. I had nothing of substance to replace the traditional teacher identity I worked so hard to deconstruct. This realization wouldn’t hit me until a blog post by Paul Thomas led me to the work of George Hillocks. What I found within the pages of Hillocks’s Teaching Writing as Reflective Practice made it impossible to continue doing what I had been doing. Sick with guilt, I sent frantic emails to Paul Thomas, Sarah Baker (co-director of the Northern Virginia Writing Project), and my school’s assistant principal.
To be continued in the next post of this short series.
Welcome to the Northern Virginia Writing Project’s 2016 Invitational Summer Institute! I’ll be blogging the demonstration lessons and the various activities occurring during our four-week duration. Find out more about the NVWP and the National Writing Project.
Today’s final demo lesson comes from Jen Orr. She’s going to speak with us about the power of audience!
Quickwrite: In the context of writing, what does audience mean to you?
There is a simple answer: audience is whomever reads/hears your writing. If I am the mouthpiece for something than the audience is the that which receives my message, whatever that message may be.
We share out. Others wisely mention the rhetorical functions and how audience/perceived audience affects the choices we make as writers.
Rapidfire! Quickwrite: Write about a dream or plan for your future. Choose an audience for your writing: yourself, parents, boss, or your best friend.
My plan for the future. Hmm. My goals are all pretty non-specific, something which you’re not supposed to do when making goals. So let’s make them more specific. My plan for the future is to continue teaching at the middle school level. As of now I’m planning to get my National Boards certification. I also want to be published. I want to work on my confidence and do a better job practicing what I preach in terms of self-esteem, confidence, and rationality.
I’m writing for myself, here. Pretty much all of my writing begins here. I was reading a book last night that talked about how we first write-as-writer and then write-as-reader. The former involves following your own train of thought, the stream of consciousness stuff. And then the latter involves going back and making rhetorical choices to make the piece worthwhile and organized for the reader.
We share out. Many of us write to spouses and wives. Jen says writing for an audience is much harder than, say, performing for an audience. Performance gives immediate feedback, whereas the writing process does not. Our audience is contained by our immediate knowledge of that audience. In many cases we know very little about our audience and how that should affect our writing. This is even less so for children, Jen reminds us.
We go into a discussion examining all of the things we write on a daily / weekly basis, and then how our audience for each piece affects our writing. For most of my emails I try not to indulge my more prolix tendencies. What about Facebook? How does audience affect what and how we post? What about Twitter?
Jen tells us that before she taught she didn’t write. Since she entered the classroom, however, she’s written for a variety of sources. We are in awe!
Quickwrite: Write about a way someone has helped you.
Awesome! I love writing about this topic. I’m going to write about Sarah Baker, Our Fearless Leader. She approached after my first Summer Institute and asked if I wanted to be a part of it the following year. She guides me on all aspects of composition. I think it can be so rare in life to find someone who has unyielding faith in you. I’m a pretty quirky guy with a lot of particularities; Sarah is one of the few people who has stepped in to help guide me. She looks past my hyper energy and engages with me on an intellectual level. It’s wonderful and life affirming to have someone so invested in supporting you. She is one of my mentors. My experience working with her has give me confidence that I have something to say that’s worthwhile, and that I have valuable skills to contribute outside of the four walls of my classroom. How powerful it is to see yourself through someone else’s eyes. She has been an indispensable resource during the last few years.
Who was my intended audience? When I was writing it, I started to imagine that I was reading it to her. This made me rewrite a lot of it to try and speak in more global / universal terms.
Jen starts her K-1st graders out writing collaboratively. They then publish the book for the classroom library. She also makes small printouts for each book to give to each author. That way they have a ‘published’ copy of their own writing. It’s easy to move this practice into the secondary level. Her school’s librarian came up with the idea to put Jen’s classroom’s books in the school library. Love this! How powerful it is to have other students pick up and read another student’s writing. The trend then spread to other teachers across the school.
She hangs the writing in the hallway, something I really enjoy doing. They start out as shared letters written to other classes. Jen says after you start doing this regularly, children begin finding audiences themselves. They write to each other, other teachers, family members, and administrators. You can partner with other teachers. Have struggling writers create informational books for younger grades. She has a class blog where every week two kids come and dictate whatever they want to write about the class. Families would share the blog with other family members in other places. Every class had three or four editors that were in charge of approving each post.
Again, we are in awe. I have no excuse not to do more of this in the upcoming school year. This is the final blog post about the Northern Virginia Writing Project’s Invitational Summer Institute’s demonstration lessons. I hope you were able to gain some new ideas from all of the wonderful presentations.
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.
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.
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.