Should we teach writing well or badly?

© Mem Fox

The Donald Graves Memorial Speech
Australian Literacy Educators convention, July 2012

Once upon a time—in 1992—I found myself in Donald Graves’ house in New Hampshire. Linda Rief, a friend of mine, was friend of his, so there we were, somehow, at his place, taking tea with God himself, and his wife, Betty. To put me at my ease, since I was so clearly awestruck, Don said lovely things about my book Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge and asked what I was working on. I told him it was a picture book called Time for Bed due for publication the following year.

‘Can you recite it?’ said Betty. ‘Let’s hear it!’

I began to recite it but was too nervous to remember the words. I asked if I might write it down. So they set me up in Don’s office with a little computer that was hot stuff at the time but can now be found only in museums.

‘Good grief,’ I thought. ‘I’m in Donald Graves’ actual office, typing on his actual typewriter.’ My fingers could barely find the keys. I came downstairs again and, feeling abnormally shy, read them the words that became Time for Bed.

Why was I so in awe of Donald Graves? So honoured to be talking about books and writing with him, and about the teaching of writing? Who was this kindly, inspiring, researcher, professor, and writer of 26 books whose methods had had such a profound and lasting effect on Australian teachers in the early 1980s, me included? What did he ask us to do? And how it was so different from what we had done before? As I wrote this speech, in honour of his influence and his passing, I came to a simple, surprising conclusion. All will be revealed.

I’ll be needing a few writing exemplars this morning in order to make my points (you might like to guess what text-types they are) so let me begin with something that appears on the surface to be inconsequential. [Read: Two Little Monkeys.]

But wait: there’s more.

Oh, that Mem Fox is a monkey!
She’s as cheeky as can be—
Much cheekier than monkeys up any big old tree!
That was only one book, but she has four—
four more new books walking out the door!

Before Donald Graves entered our heads and our classrooms we used to regard writing as a one-shot act, undertaken by students sitting in silence, and completed from beginning to end in one lesson, perhaps once a week, sometimes once a day, or for one piece of homework. The teacher gave a topic such as: ‘A day in the life of a button’; or ‘Finish this story,’ after supplying the first line. The purpose was to hand it in to the teacher for correction and grading, rather than for a genuine response to the meaning. This method of teaching writing had been around for many generations, was accepted entirely as the way things should be and was rarely questioned, although there always existed gifted, enlightened teachers working on their own, who taught writing differently.

In the late seventies and early eighties Donald Graves visited Australia many times and managed, with his famous tact and grace, and his evidenced-based research, to yank us out of our comfortable rut. He presented his research, told us a few home truths, gave us strategies and dared us to be different. We took up the challenge.


Only writers should teach writing

His first point about the pedagogy of writing—and this was the truth that threatened us most—was that only writers should be allowed to teach writing because writers alone understand the circumstances of creation. They know first-hand how writing happens and why. They have valid reasons for writing. They know about choosing a topic; they know about the early hunting and gathering of ideas and notes before pen finally hits paper or thumb hits i-Phone; (well, he didn’t actually mention the i-Phone but he would have had he known about them then.) Writers, he said, know about the sorting out of random information and how long it takes to get it settled into well-ordered paragraphs; and the necessity of rewriting draft after draft to get the right meaning across; and the work involved in writing an irresistible first line and a perfect set of syllables in the last line; and the anxiety over the possible response; the hope and terror involved; the intense conversations with others; the struggle to find what is called our ‘voice’; the precise choosing of words; the desire to achieve every aim successfully, to change the reader through the reading. Writers, he said, understand the difficulty, the joy, and the power. And with that inside knowledge writers are better able to teach writing with empathy and success.

Which meant, he said, that all of us who thought we were teaching writing had better become writers ourselves: not published writers necessarily, just writers.

What did we do as a result?

Although it terrified us, we set out to discover the difference between real writing and the stuff we had been trying to teach. We did become writers ourselves. We went to writing courses and created writing groups of our own and met in friends’ houses once a week, and wrote for real people whom we wanted to impress. We chose our own topics. We took the time we needed. We wrote in our own voices so our individual personalities could shine through. We chatted with each other about what we were writing or had written. We read our writing aloud to each other. We experienced highs and lows, and the surprising difficulties in getting writing write. (What? You mean writing is difficult?! We had previously scoffed at that idea.) We rejoiced in having real audiences and couldn’t wait for their responses. Becoming writers ourselves was the best in-service ever. It changed our lives; it changed our teaching; and it radically changed the outcomes of the students in our classes.

And what should we be doing now?

So if we ourselves haven’t written anything lately for an audience that makes us excited and nervous at the same time we might have forgotten not only how to write or why, but also how to teach writing. Might it be time to start a writing group, I wonder, to replace the reading group we currently attend.


Real writers are eager for collaboration

Becoming writers helped us to remember another of Don Graves’ insights: that real writers are eager for collaboration. They use other people’s brains to help them get their writing right: family members, friends, colleagues, editors, children, neighbours, writing groups, formal writing courses, and so on. They seek out others in an informal sort of ‘conference’ to bounce their writing off, to ask advice, to check for confusions in their writing, or things they might have left out, or ways of structuring a piece, or proof-reading, or even spelling, or—secretly—in the hope of a little praise and encouragement. We learnt all this by writing ourselves. We practically dragged people off the street to read our writing to, to beg for help, for ideas on how we might improve it.

What did we do in classrooms as a result?

We tried to forget we were in classrooms. We set up pleasantly furnished physical spaces (I remember a lot of baths with cushions in them)—social spaces that allowed children to feel more as if they were in a writer’s studio, working among friends. We allowed children to talk to us and to each other about what they were writing and why. We organised writing conferences with each child to discuss the writing in hand, allowing the child to lead the conference conversation, not the teacher. We wrote in front of children to show them our thought processes; we wrote collaboratively, with the whole class throwing in ideas; we modelled the ways writers talk about their work in progress:
What do you think of my lead? Would you want to read on or not?
Which part did you like the best?
What if I break that sentence into three sentences: that might work better.
Oh no, that’s so sad. I’m so sorry. Thank you for sharing.

And what should we be doing now?

But if we ourselves haven’t written anything for a while, anything public, that is, for an audience that causes our stomachs to flutter, how will we know the power of the of-the-cuff writing conference? We won’t be able to teach writing well unless we understand the need for such chatting in our own classrooms. So let’s do something alarming such as writing a light-hearted poem that sums up this term’s work—a poem to give to the parents on the last day of term. Now that might teach us about writing and how to teach it.

Writers choose their own focus

Donald Graves also alerted us to the fact that writers, on the whole, choose to write about their own current focus. They choose their topic. They choose their own genre. In other words, they know what they want to write and why: a journal, a letter to the paper or the pope, a novel, a protest speech, a blog—well, he didn’t actually mention a blog but he would have, had he known about blogs at the time—an appeal for funds, a family history, a child’s bedtime story, an application for promotion, to name a tiny few of the hundreds of genres available.

What did we do as a result?

It was revolutionary but we allowed children to write what they wanted to write about, what they knew about, what they cared about. We didn’t tell them the formulaic text-type they had to use, so we could all feel calm about the persuasive writing section of the Australian NAPLAN tests. (National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy tests,) None of us, let alone eight year-old children, can write persuasively unless we have real steam coming out of our ears about the matter in hand. Manufactured steam just doesn’t cut the mustard. Because we were writers ourselves we remembered that kind of thing; we knew it; we felt it first hand. So we drew out from the children what the children wanted to express instead of imposing our topics on them.

And what should we be doing now?

But what if we haven’t been writers ourselves lately? What if we’ve forgotten how awful it is to be told what to write and exactly how to write it, if we can’t recall the importance of an excited, inquisitive audience ourselves? We might like to sit back for a cool moment and take stock once again, and ask ourselves earnestly what the hell writing really is. And whether it bears any relation to the manufactured horrors we’re currently inflicting on the youngsters in our classrooms in the name of literacy education—deadly formulas on the ways of writing different text-types such as the persuasive, descriptive, narrative and so on. That’s not real writing. It bears no resemblance to writing. Teaching text-types outside the context of passion and purpose, audience and response sucks the lifeblood from natural, vibrant writing and kills it stone dead. Teaching text-types is not teaching writing and never will be, and we’re kidding ourselves if we think otherwise.


Real writing is a complex process

Another important lesson that Donald Graves taught us was that real writing is a much more complex process than a one-shot act; that it is literally ‘a process’, a predictable series of stages and drafts that most writers undertake between their first thought and their final piece, whether the piece takes an hour, or weeks, or several years to write.

Two Little Monkeys took four years of writing, on and off, to get the rhythm right, to end up not mentioning the leopard by name, to pace the book’s tension in the right places, to work out an ending that wasn’t trite and so on. And my cheeky advert/poem must have looked as if it had been tossed off in a single draft but on the contrary, slight though it was, I wrote many drafts as I changed its genre (advert, or poem, or both?) corrected its rhythm and refined its descriptive, persuasive tone.

What did we do in classrooms as a result?

We said to children, ‘You don’t have to get it right first time. Have a go. Write something, anything. No, there’s no special length. You can’t re-draft a blank page so get something down and go from there. I’ll chat to you about it, never fear. I won’t let you sink. Are you ready to try it out on the class? OK, let’s do it and see how the others can help. No, you don’t have to finish it right now; put it away for a while, try something else if it’s not working for you. That’s what I do. Can’t spell that word? Invent the spelling. Write it anyway and we’ll get it right later. Say what you want to say, as this child did, in a letter to me:
I want to talk about Willford Gordon whatchamacalit oh you know what. I like your book because a little boy did a big thing like Mr.Drysdale because Mr.Drysdale is big. That’s all. By Roderick

And what should we be doing now?

If we are not writers ourselves we will not know, we will not be able to understand, we will not remember that writing is a process, a slow process, an arduous process requiring draft upon draft. And we might therefore teach in an asinine fashion, making ridiculous demands such as: ‘I want this handed up by tomorrow’; or: ‘why don’t you sit this NAPLAN writing test, my little honey bun?’ To become a writer in order to be a better teacher of writers, we don’t need to go crazy and meet our writing group once a week, although that’s fun: wine, carrot cake, gossip and all. But we do need to write a minium of one or two things a year for an audience that terrifies us. Imagine one or two staff members each week, reading a piece to colleagues at the end of a staff meeting. Imagine that sweat!


Writers need a purpose, an audience and a response

Another of Don Graves’ points was that writers don’t write well or willingly without an interested and inquisitive audience. He emphasised the requirement for a real audience but told us there are three key elements in the creation of every piece of successful written communication, from cave paintings to tweeting. (Well, he didn’t actually mention Twitter but he would have, had he known about it.) The three elements were audience, purpose and response. Without an audience to care about the meaning being expressed, he said, real writers don’t write: what would be the point? And if the purpose is merely for grading, again real writers don’t write: what would be the point? And if writers are hanging out for a genuine response to what has been written and receive no such response, they’re reluctant to write for that audience again, since what would be the point?

Can you see therefore, the heart-breaking pointlessness of battering children with text-types, none of which develop passion or competence in a young writer? Audience and response, dear people: nothing else matters: text-types are chosen naturally; they arise organically, as passion and purpose surface in a writer’s brain. I ask myself—and I ask you—how I am able to write in any genre I please without ever having been taught in my 66 years of life a formulaic text-type. Invite me back next year and I’ll tell you how…

Those of us who were writing real things for each other on a weekly basis in writing groups back in the 80s understood exactly how important audience, purpose and response were, especially response. We lived and died for the response, not only to the meaning we were trying to get across, but also to the way we had constructed it.

What did we do in classrooms as a result?

We made sure that children knew their writing would be read to or by others—to a real audience of live and lively listeners so that they would write with much more care and aching and attention and excitement. We had a writer’s chair for our young writers to sit in while they read aloud their work importantly and asked for comments or questions afterwards. We helped the writers choose their best writing and published it in little books that other children could borrow in class or take home and read to their parents. We had celebratory days for the launch of first publications with party food and a speech of congratulation from someone who mattered to the children. Audience was the spur, the purpose was for a response, and response was the reason for writing. We had no tests. We tried not to grade although of course we quietly, constantly assessed.

And what should we be doing now?

Perhaps we could ask ourselves, if we haven’t written anything lately, why that might be? Apart from journal writing which—as a solitary act of stream of consciousness written mostly for our own old age—lacks an immediate audience, we are probably not writing because we don’t have an interested or inquisitive audience in own lives, an audience that might awaken a desire to write, to write often and to write to the best of our ability.

Perhaps you might think of something you want badly for your school, something that will have your own voice heard so loudly and clearly that the response will deliver your dreams. Like this email for example, which came to me earlier this year from a parent in a remote school in Queensland. It’s such a brilliant piece of persuasive writing, and filled with such voice that I’m going to let you read it yourself since that will be faster than my reading it to you, but before you read it let’s ask ourselves if this adult writer knows the formula we are now all obliged to teach about the qualities of persuasive writing. I bet she doesn’t even realise that such a sterile formula exists yet what could be more successful than this?

Dear Mem

This is most likely your first letter from Ero*******a – The furthest town from the Sea in Australia. We are far far far away from the big smoke in South Western Queensland and we have a very small school with five wonderful big hearted kids.

Like most Queensland children, they have now seen firsthand the effects of flood (the entire town was submerged to varying degrees) and unfortunately they have also seen the effects of drought.
In October, these five children are hoping to travel on camp to Brisbane and visit the Qld Museum, Science Centre, spend a day on one of the Queensland Police Boats etc. To make this possible, we like all schools, have to fund raise but with only five kids, it makes it a little bit hard and let’s face it, door knocking in an area like this is not really possible unless you have a pilot’s licence. Now, the kids don’t always miss out living out yonder, let’s take the end of year Christmas play, the kids not only get a lead role but five or six…

A brain storm was had by the parents and it was decided that a one off monster raffle would be held. We plan to start the raffle in late April with the raffle rounding up in early June. We have planned various avenues of advertising including email, social media networks and flyers at local venues such as post offices, grocery stores etc (These local venues are 106 KM from us…

So here is the big ask…donations……Anything that could be raffled for example a mobile phone, vouchers, products (large or small), seconds/old stock and non productive staff members…well you get the drift….We are in need of a big item to draw in the crowds and I don’t really want to auction my hubby (the local cop, well I do, but have been told it is illegal and then there will be a fight when the winner wants to return him and for some strange reason the house has been packed up and I can’t be located)…

We hope to hear from you soon and should you require further information, please contact Mel on (That is Mel…on …not Melon but if you are willing to donate, I am fine with being called just about anything) ****** alternatively, the P and C email address is ******************* . Contact can also be made via the Ero*******a State School on *************.
Thank you so much for taking the time to consider our request and we hope to hear from you soon.

Warmest regards,

The Ero*****a P and C Association

Mel must have loved writing that. I certainly loved reading it and was spurred into immediate action on her behalf. Every macro and micro thing that Donald Graves taught us about writers and writing can be found in her hysterically funny email.

This speech, too, though very different, has all the hallmarks of Donald Graves’ teaching. I found it difficult and challenging and took almost a month to write and re-write it. A friend asked me once how it was going and I said, ‘Fine, really—it’s sort of finished, but it’s boring. All I have to do now is make it interesting.’ Good grief, I thought: All I have to do now is make it interesting. The task was enormous. I thought: I’m a grandmother now. I’ve lost it. I even ended up in hospital for four days although they tried to tell me it was a viral infection not an ALEA presentation that had caused it.

What I had forgotten, in the creation of this presentation, as I forget almost every time I sit down to write, is that the writing process never changes. I had forgotten that it’s never quick; it’s never easy. I had also forgotten that it never fits comfortably into this text-type formula or that, whether it be picture books or tub-thumping convention-centre protest pieces about the teaching of genres outside the context of a reality that has meaning for the child. I had forgotten, in my anxiety to get things right, the essential writers’ maxim of: ‘Why would I write if I knew what I were going to say?’ By writing this speech, harking back to the core of Donald Graves work, I re-learnt what writing really is, and rediscovered a key insight as to how it might be better taught: by teachers becoming writers themselves.

In case you need to re-visit my opinions may I guide you to a pre-historic article on my website: Notes From the Battlefield (1988). I consider it the best thing I have ever written. (I know! I peaked early.) And should you be further interested, may I alert you also to the book English Essentials which I wrote with a colleague, Lyn Wilkinson. It explains to teachers, students and others what real writing is and how to do it well.

I could not have written this talk had Donald Graves not touched my writing/teaching life so deeply. But here I am finally, at the end of it —my speech, not my life! — having been carried on his wings as I paid grateful homage to his work, hoping that I have made a small difference to your thinking, your teaching, your students, and your own varied lives. Thank you so much.