Writing Explorers: 4 Ideas for Approaching Writing as Discovery in Your Class Tomorrow

Have you read Donald Murray?

In my career, I had read a lot about Donald Murray. Tons that was inspired by Donald Murray. Oodles that has flowed out of the legacy of Donald Murray, but I’m ashamed to say that until the last month, I had never read the man himself. Until Penny Kittle told me to. And, as you all know by now, I will do anything Penny Kittle says.

Once I started, I couldn’t stop. I’ve read three books in about four weeks. My mind is blown. I am bathing in his words — words that are as fresh and startling today as they were 45 years ago when he first advocated for a better way to teach writing.  Make yourself a New Year’s teaching resolution — go to the source. Read Donald Murray.

Beyond his trailblazing as a teacher of writing, Donald Murray consistently amazes me with the direct simplicity of his message. He articulates truths that I haven’t articulated for myself and much less for my students. But truths that unlock the mystery of the puzzle that is writing. Among many treasures, Murray reminded me that a writer rarely know what she wants to say and then sits down to write. Rather, the process of writing teaches the writer what he wants to say:

“For most writers the act of putting words on paper is not the recording of a discovery but the very act of exploration itself.”

-“The Explorers of Inner Space”, 1969

While this is something I have known and felt as a writer, it isn’t something I have ever offered to my students. At least not in so many words. And what encouragement this might be for them! How many of my students would be able to dive into the deep end of their thinking if they believed that they didn’t need to know what they wanted to say first? If they felt free to “explore the constellations and galaxies which lie unseen within [them] waiting to be mapped with [their] own words”?

It’s a beautiful idea.

So how do we bring this down to the ground of our classrooms? How can we help our students understand that writing is discovery in a way that changes their writing? Here are four possibilities.

Weave discovery into the everyday language of the classroom.

Rather than giving a grand speech about the nature of writing, we can begin simply, using the language of discovery and exploration in our daily classroom routines.

Since reading Learning by Teaching, I now phrase daily notebook time invitations as explorations: “Explore this chart today”, “Explore your memories of …”, “Explore the theme of this poem in your own piece of writing…”  As my students finish their daily notebook time, I invite them to share by asking them, “What have you discovered today?” When my students set out to flash draft a commentary, I encouraged them, “As your write, be aware  of what you are discovering about your own opinions.”

The idea that we are explorers through our thinking and our writing is subtly infusing itself into every aspect of our classroom life.

Use the idea of discovery to launch a writing conference.

I’ve written before about my fear of writing conferences, so I am always excited to add a full-proof conference starter to my repertoire. Now, in addition to, “How’s it going?”, I’ve added, “What have you discovered?”

Depending on the student, I might ask, “What did you discover during today’s mini-lesson?”, “What have you discovered after re-reading your flash draft?”, “What are you discovering about this genre?”

I love this conference starter because it drives my students to give more fully realized responses (particularly those who are prone to give one word responses like, “Fine”). It also prompts the writer to consider what is new to them in their writing — new techniques, new ideas, new revelations about their personal writing process, new approaches to writing.

And these “discovery conferences” can also bring to light the places where a writer is struggling. “I am discovering that finding evidence to support my claim is really hard,” one student recently told me. Suddenly, I knew that we needed to go back, review the lesson, and then ensure that he was working on a topic on which he could be successful.   

When students offer a deeper, more thorough response, we always have a more effective conference. Framing our conversation in terms of discoveries helps us get there.

Have students respond to Discovery Checkpoints throughout the writing process.

Allison and I use brief, written checkpoints throughout the writing process as another way to take our students’ writing temperature — to find out what’s working and what’s not, to see where students need help or clarification, and to confer with every writer in the room simultaneously.

Essentially a writing-conference-in-writing, a checkpoint might ask your students to respond to a few questions:

  • What have you discovered about your topic so far?
  • What strengths are you discovering in this piece of writing?
  • What are you discovering about the challenges of this piece of writing?

From here, you can use this information to clarify previous writing lessons, add new lessons to the docket, group students with similar struggles for small group instruction, and prioritize students who need a full writing conference right away.

Ask students to reflect on their discoveries at the end of a writing study.

Similar to a Discovery Checkpoint,  ask your students about their final discoveries as they complete a piece of writing. When my 9th graders finished their commentaries, I asked them to respond to two questions in their author’s notes:

  • After writing a commentary, what did you discover that you didn’t know before?
  • After writing a commentary, what skill or skills did you discover that you could not do before?

In addition to giving me valuable information about students’ learning, these responses also helped students reframe their work as a process of exploration with discovery as an outcome. Here are a few I got from students in response to their commentaries:

First, from Bella:

  • I discovered a lot more about my topic. Smoking is a very vast topic with a lot of points to learn about. I learned how smoking works, and I learned diseases cause by smoking and why those happen. Overall, I think this workshop taught me a lot inside and outside the english classroom. I even saw my dad smoking the other night and was able to whip out, “Be careful, 6,000,000 people die a year from smoking.”

  • Before writing this, I was thinking that I was going to have to just keep repeating myself to make it look long enough because I wouldn’t have enough information. Boy, was I wrong! Once I researched a ton, I found that I CAN write a paper without just repeating myself, and that I am able to keep fresh ideas flowing.

From Patrick:

  • I discovered that I could write a paper where I have more information in it. Also, I discovered if I put facts in my paper it will make my paper better because it is backing up my opinion.

  • I discovered that I could write long and lengthy sentences without them being run on sentences.

From Kay Kay:

  • [I discovered] that people’s opinions actually do matter and need to be heard to make a difference in the world.

  • I learned how to break up a run-on sentence to make it more appealing to the reader.

From Zach:

One thing I discovered while writing my commentary is that the way you word and structure your sentences really matters. I noticed when editing mine that if I changed certain sentences, my point became more clear. In this type of writing I learned that wording and structure make you seem much more convincing. I’m not sure if this comes directly from the commentary, but I also learned that reading sentences out loud helps to prevent run-ons from Mrs.O’Dell. After writing the commentary I discovered that I could add digital evidence into my piece like links and pictures. It was something new for me, but I really liked it and I thought it made my writing more in depth.

You can probably tell from their responses that these students are all at very different points in their growth as writers. However, their responses also reveal that every writer — the strongest, the weakest alike — have made discoveries through the process of committing their ideas to paper. Their writing reflections made this transparent to both the student and me. Some of these (like run-on sentences) were discoveries born out of many lessons, but most of them weren’t! 

And this is no small thing. As we teach the writers in our room, we are teaching the people in our room. We are teaching them who they are and who they want to become. Donald Murray writes,

“When we discover what we have said we discover who we are. In finding your voice, you discover your identity.”

By bringing exploration and discovery to the forefront of our writing classrooms, we nudge our students toward the discovery of their own ideas as well as the techniques of great writing. But, more importantly, we nudge them toward the discovery of who they are entirely. And what more important discovery could there be?

How do you use the ideas of exploration and discovery in your writing classroom? How might these ideas play out with your students? Leave us a comment below, find us on Facebook, or connect with us on Twitter (@rebekahodell1 and @allisonmarchett).

Screen Shot 2015-11-23 at 2.56.21 PMLike what you’ve read here? Check out our new book, just published by Heinemann, Writing With Mentors: How to Reach Every Writer in the Room Using Current, Engaging Mentors Texts. (Available here and here and here — wherever your holiday gift card takes you.)


  1. Love Donald Murray. Now go read everything by Donald Graves. These are the true pioneers of writing instruction and we need to read all of their work and hold them high on a pedestal. We stand on their shoulders. Thank you for sharing your enthusiasm!

  2. This is a great post. Perfect time to begin a new year. What book of his would your recommend one start with?

    1. Thank you! I started with LEARNING BY TEACHING. It’s a collection of essays, so you get a great range of ideas and broad taste of his voice. It’s also the one Penny Kittle recommended to me when I asked her where I should start.

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