Pondering these questions led me to four writing ‘gurus:’ Donald Murray, Donald Graves, Lucy Calkins, and Ralph Fletcher.
Donald Murray: Teach process, not product
Murray believed that teachers should focus on teaching students the process of writing. He wrote about this in his 1972 article,”Teach Writing as Process Not Product:”
“What is the process we should teach? It is the process of discovery through language. It is the process of exploration of what we know and what we feel we know through language. It is the process of using language to learn about our world, evaluate what we learn about our world, to communicate what we learn about our world. Instead of teaching finished writing, we should teach unfinished writing, and glory in its unfinishedness. We work with language in action. We share with our students the continual excitement of choosing one word instead of another, of searching for the one true word.”
Murray believed that prewriting is “everything that takes place before the first draft” and that prewriting usually takes about 85% of the writer’s time. In prewriting the writer thinks about her audience and chooses a form that will carry her subject. Prewriting may include “research and daydreaming, notemaking and outlining, title-writing and lead-writing.”
Donald Graves: Students need time and choice
Graves believed that students need time to write: “If students are not engaged in writing at least four days out of five, and for a period of thirty-five to forty minutes, beginning in first grade, they will have little opportunity to learn to think through the medium of writing” (‘7 Conditions of Writing,’ Graves). He also wrote that students should be able to choose their own topics when they write.
Graves believed that if students have time to write every day, they don’t find it hard to choose topics. “If a child knows she will write again tomorrow – her mind can go to work pondering her writing topic.”
Lucy Calkins: Writing is the process of growing meaning
In her book, The Art of Teaching Writing, Calkins wrote that she has changed her definition of authorship and that it now includes living with a sense of awareness. She cited James Dickey’s definition of a writer:
A writer is “someone who is enormously taken by things anyone else would walk by.” Calkins wrote: “Writing does not begin with deskwork but with lifework.”
Calkins realized when she was teaching that if her students said “I have nothing to write about,” and she supplied them with a topic, then she was indirectly teaching them that their lives weren’t writing about: “We cannot teach writing well unless we trust that there are real, human reasons to write.” Calkins wrote that the writer’s workshop should be a place where students are invited to pursue their own projects in an environment that is predictable and stable. And when teachers listen intently to their students’ stories and celebrate their lives, this will motivate students to want to write more.
Calkins wrote that writing can bring people together and become a powerful force in reforming schools. When we know our students’ stories, “these youngsters begin to affect us and our teaching. We cannot avoid seeing them among the sea of children, and when faces and lives and stories emerge, our teaching is forever different.” And when students share their writing with each other, they can no longer look at each other the same way either: “In the workshop children write about what is alive and vital and real for them- and other writers in the room listen and extend and guide, laugh and cry and marvel.”
When discussing the process of writing, Calkins refers to the prewriting stage as “rehearsal.” People who consider themselves to be writers are in a constant state of awareness: “Just as photographers are always seeing potential pictures, so too, writers see potential stories and poems and essays everywhere and gather them in entries and jotted notes,” she wrote. Recognizing that writing is life work and not deskwork drastically changes how we teach writing. Instead of simply teaching students how to list topics and brainstorm ideas, we must teach them to be wide-awake when viewing the world around them. And the best way to do this is to write often. Educators have began to “advocate that students jot down things they notice and wonder about, their memories and ideas, their favorite words and responses to reading into a container of some sort.” Students should begin the writing process by “collecting bits and pieces- entries” in their notebooks; this will lead them to experience writing as a process of growing meaning. Calkins wrote that the first goal when teaching writing is to fill students with a sense of “‘I’ve got so much to say’ and ‘My life is full of possible stories.'”
Other points made by Calkins:
- Rehearsal for writing can involve brainstorming possible topics or mapping out a story, but the more important thing is to show students how to live “wide-awake” lives and collect their observations in a notebook.
- Teachers should demonstrate how they live attentively and establish rituals in their classrooms that encourage students to do the same.
- Refer to students as ‘authors.’
- Build a strong and safe classroom community.
Fletcher: Help each student discover her effective writing process
In his book, co-written with JoAnn Portalupi, Writing Workshop: The Essential Guide, Flectcher wrote that each writer has her or his own, highly personalized, way of getting words onto paper:
“Any one-size-fits all writing process would be not only inaccurate but destructive to students.”
Therefore, we don’t want to teach “the writing process; rather we want each of them to find a process that works for him or her.” Fletcher wrote that there are countless ways to prewrite (also called brainstorming or rehearsing) and that this stage should not be a rigid routine (filling out a story map, an outline or a graphic organizer). Students should be allowed to choose how they want to rehearse for a piece of writing:
“Prewriting should be a help, not a burden, for writers in school.”
In order to help students determine an effective process, they should be shown various ways to prewrite:
- Jotting down a list
- Conferring with a fellow classmate about a story she wants to write
- Paging through a book
- Sitting and thinking
- The writer’s notebook
Fletcher wrote that the writer’s notebook encourages kids to “live like a writer” by having its focus on thinking, dreaming and gathering during all the hours that the students are not in writer’s workshop. The notebook should be a place where students can play and generate ideas and dream- it should not be a place for the teacher to assign formalized prewriting.