I spent a lot of time with Donald Murray this year, working my way through his books and essays. One of my biggest takeaways is that neither I nor my students need to have all the answers before we begin writing — and that is such an encouragement to anxious student writers! In this post, I share four ideas for weaving the language of exploration and discovery into the writing process.
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.