Sunday, September 6, 2009

Revisiting Theory: Self Chat #1, Donald Murray’s “Teach Writing as a Process not a Product”

This fall marks my fifteenth year teaching English. The classrooms, districts, states, and ages of my students have varied, but here I am, fifteen years later, still teaching writing, reading, and critical thinking. Since the traditional teaching career lasts thirty years, I’m struck by this year fifteen, this mid-point between new teacher and indisputable lifer.

In a recent shifting of piles, I found the reading journal I kept for my Teaching of Writing course, taken at The College of New Jersey in the fall of 1993 with Michael Roberts. In it, my twenty-one year old self responds to articles discussing writing theory. I used brackets to record different insights as I continued to read across the semester. Our professor ran our class as a writing workshop, asking us to keep writing portfolios of varied pieces of writing in varied stages of development, so my change in perspective also came from experiencing the techniques as a student (many for the first time). For my fifteenth year of teaching, I thought it could be fun to shadow that journey from my mid career view point. I’m trying to find the articles and read them again, to rejoin myself in the pages of that 1993 journal to see what I think about the issues from this point in my teaching career. When I copy from my 1993 journal, I’ll be using blue italics…


Ideally, I think that Murray’s article, “Teach Writing as a Process not a Product,” is an excellent example of theory. I am cynical at how effective it would be in practice. Take for example a basic skills level class. Murray assumes in his Implication No. 2 that the student has the maturity to pick his own subject. Picture if you will the class of Compensatory Writing Skills. When asked what they would like to write about, a boy from the back jeeringly suggests sex. As I blush, he calls out, “What’s the matter Miz Nowak, don’tcha like sex? How do you guys think she likes it best?” I know that I personally would feel as though I had lost control. Memory is funny, but I’m fairly confident this exact thing did not happen to me. However, the semester before I wrote this example, my practicum experience put me with a self-contained special education class of sixteen year old boys. Suffice it say, I mastered very little that semester, but it did shatter many of my “We’ll read poems and cry together” illusions about teaching. It left me scared of deviating from worksheets, quite frankly. How are we to implement these implications at the high school level when the students do not bring with them the learned behavior and skills they need? Wow—why am I so ready to blame the previous teachers before I even get started teaching? Yikes! The ole’ “blame those middle school teachers” riff coming from my not-even-a-teacher-yet self. I find that disturbing. Perhaps it would be better to start with students choosing their subjects from a list, until they are comfortable within the choices of their new process of writing. We cannot jump in at the high school level with these wonderful examples of theory if the students are not used to them. They will respond with inhibition, embarrassment, and immaturity. The entire system of implementing writing needs to be changed within the alteration of product into process. [10/29/1993—Knee deep into our application of such theories, I have more confidence that students will be able to pick their own topics. As a student myself, I much more enjoy the opportunity to pick my own and feel I do a better job with them.] [11/30/1993—Now that we are at the end of the semester, I am sad to see how quickly I dismissed teaching writing as a process. True, perhaps the entire system of education needs to be changed, but if I am not willing to start, how can I ever expect changes to be made? That brings a tear to my eye…I hope I always retain a willingness to change…Students may respond with inhibition, embarrassment and immaturity—the first week or two. That is why I am there as the teacher, giving them the confidence, providing the security and controlling the environment in which to try.] Sigh. So much of the teaching I do now prepares students for state testing, which requires response to a prompt. Other assignments prepare students for college writing, where professors often give a focused assignment. I haven’t thought about 100% self-sponsored topics in a while. In my teaching practice, I most often let students choose from a list.

I heartily agree with No. 3, “The student uses his own language.” I think many students are limited by the widening gap between acceptable language and acceptable writing. All of his other implications seem very logical and hopeful, but I wish there were more details on how to avoid pitfalls. It is so easy to march into a classroom full of theory, and so difficult to march out with confident students and teacher. [9/8/1993—I feel a little better after reading Steven Zemelman and Harvey Daniels. Hopefully, A Community of Writers will provide me with all the realistic applications I will need…[11/30/1993—One of my biggest problems as an educator is that I try to prepare for the classroom like I would prepare for a test. I expect myself to walk in the first day and be able to solve all the problems. If I don’t walk into a classroom believing in theory, how can I expect to achieve anything new? I realize now that it is okay to come across pitfalls. I will probably learn more from my own pitfalls than Zemelman and Daniels could ever teach me.

Donald Murray’s piece introduced me to the idea of writing as a process, and I embrace that concept fully today. It tickles me how I skip commenting on eight of the ten implications. The whole concept blew my mind, I think, so I’m not sure I even understood what the implications would look like in application. I’m confident I didn’t understand No. 1, “The text of the writing course is the student’s own writing.” I don’t follow it, Mr. Murray. I think No. 1 assumes students have a background as readers, which many of my students do not. Even in my writing courses that do not teach from literature, I use texts beyond students’ own writing; in fact, I’m required to by department and state policies. Some of them are textbook samples of other students’ writing, some of them are newspaper articles or short stories, and I use them to cultivate students’ inner ears for language and its possibilities.

I like No. 4, which advocates the drafting process, but I’m not sure what Murray means by “Each new draft, of course, is counted as equal to a new product.” Counted how? Scored? We don’t grade drafts, anymore than “a concert pianist is judged on his practice sessions,” right? Fifteen years in, I feel mired in a culture where students perform the tasks I “pay” them to do, by making it “count.” I give credit for a draft, in a pass/fail sort of scoring method, but no, drafts are not “counted as equal to a new product.” Final drafts are weighted more heavily in the grading formula than drafts, and at this point, I’m not sure how to escape such a system.

No. 5 strikes me as charming but unrealistic. Since much of my teaching of writing is test format driven, I don’t encourage students “to attempt any form of writing which may help him discover and communicate what he has to say.” The concept attracts me, but my teaching reality has much more of a locked step curriculum, and we all work on mastery of academic essay structure rather than writing in variable forms. I can see how this is like teaching people how to cook one dish without educating them on flavors or the chemistry of heat and fats. The people can cook that one dish convincingly, but they may not have transferable cooking skills should they wish to vary the dish. I’ll chew on No. 5; I’m back here revisiting this theory for just this kind of idealism.

I recognize my teaching in Nos. 6, 7, and 8. It’s like revisiting my birthplace, finding my 1993 self and realizing here is where much of how I teach writing today was born.

Gosh, Nos. 9 and 10, huh? What’s not to like? Except I’m not consistent about either concept despite finding them appealing. It’s like my resolution as a parent to redirect rather than yell. Good idea—difficult to practice consistently…There are points in the semester when differentiated process time (as advised in No. 9) gets tossed. “People, we’ve got to move on! We need to be at point X by such and such a week.” And whoo-boy, do I have rules and absolutes despite liking the philosophy of No. 10’s “There are no rules, no absolutes, just alternatives.” Nuanced directions foster miscomprehension in my experience, so I go for absolute directives: “Don’t use second person.” “Use MLA format.” And please forgive me, I’m pretty stringent about a paper’s heading, too. I like to think of myself as a process leaning teacher, but the sheer volume of papers and students has led me to rely heavily on some strict policies.

I find my last November comment sweet: If I don’t walk into a classroom believing in theory, how can I expect to achieve anything new? I realize now that it is okay to come across pitfalls. Oh, to be twenty one and anticipate changing public education without thinking pitfalls are okay and inevitable. I’m still not fully prepared for the test of new students. I still don’t have all the answers. I’m more comfortable climbing out of pitfalls, and I do think I learn quite a bit from them. Meeting up with myself in 1993 reminds me that the things I do well today came from the courage to try new things. I need to nurture my willingness to continue to do so…

co-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Teacher


Anonymous said...

Evaluating the steps leading to a final copy may be time-consuming
and certainly at times redundant, each draft, in a way, is a new
version of the original – if not in content, at least in mechanics.
Unlike the pianist metaphor, the effort to complete a polished
product is often in a race with whatever else interests the student.
If we wish students to carefully reread, proofread, edit, and revise content, we may have to offer an incentive – grades. A student who wishes the grades will take more time to differentiate
the stages of writing, and as a result, learn the process.

aram said...

thank you very much for posting this.


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