Writer’s Telephone – an Information-Gathering, Idea-Nuturing Strategy

I feel like I’ve been engaged in a pedagogical ancestry project recently — mapping my teaching forebears through generations.

In floods of professional books, blogs, Tweets, and chats, these ideals into which I have become so deeply entrenched sometimes lose their original source. Like a game of

educational Telephone, the message gets translated and retranslated, filtered through multiple voices and perspectives. I need the original message. I need to get back to the roots of this family tree.

I like to imagine Henry Louis Gates passing me books across my desk. “You got mentor texts from Katie Wood Ray,” he’d say, passing me Study Driven. “You got flash drafting from Lucy Calkins.”  And then he’d pass me Learning by Teaching and A Writer Teaches Writing: “But your teaching bloodline begins here — Donald Murray.”

As I dive deep into Murray, as I get back to the roots, I am learning so much that I didn’t know I was missing.

Among the many, many aha moments I have had in my Murray-centered travels is the necessity of dedicating time for students to nurture ideas and gather information before any writing takes place. He writes, “Few teachers have ever allowed adequate time for prewriting, that essential stage in the writing process which precedes a completed first draft…Writing teachers, however, should give careful attention to what happens between the moment the writer receives an idea or an assignment and the moment the first completed draft is begun” (“Write Before Writing”, Learning by Teaching, 32).

So, with my students, I’ve been trying to linger here — to linger in the prewriting, the idea gathering, the information finding. I’ve been working to help students find the stuff of your writing to the point that, as Virginia Woolf said, the writing is “impending in me: grown heavy in my mind like a ripe pear; pendant, gravid, asking to be cut or it will fall” (“One Writer’s Canon – 1982”, Learning by Teaching, 50).

Today, I share just one foray into writing-before-writing. Information-gathering is a process, not a single activity. But this is one my students love and ask for again and again. While I call it a “silent seminar”, my seniors call it “writer’s telephone”.

Using Writer’s Telephone

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Books That Move Us: Independent Writing by Colleen Cruz

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This past fall at NCTE, I think startled Colleen Cruz when I gasped and, like a true fangirl, exclaimed, “Ohmygosh! Independent Writing! I read it on the plane! That book is major. REALLY major.”

She was completely lovely to me but probably surprised to hear me raving about one of her older titles. I picked up Independent Reading after reading Colleen’s new title, Unstoppable Writing Teacher, which is a gem. In it, she references the independent writing projects she undertakes with elementary school students.

“Yessss,” I thought. “That’s exactly it. The thing I want my students to be able to do. Truly independent writing.” So, I ordered a copy and took it with me to NCTE.

By the time we landed in Minneapolis, I had five pages of notes in my notebook — written edge-to-edge and up the sides. And as Allison unpacked in our hotel room, I sat on the bed and read her every one.

Independent Writing fired me up, made me want to run back to Virginia to try new projects with my students, and turned me into an independent writing project evangelist.

60-Second Book Review

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Colleen Cruz looked around her fourth-grade-classroom and realized that while her students were creating strong writing in their workshop studies, they were never writing entirely for pleasure. Sure, her students were becoming good writers, but they didn’t see writing as a part of their daily, personal, outside-of-school lives. They didn’t yet see themselves as writers.

So, while still teaching whole-class genre studies, Cruz began loosening the reigns and opening the possibilities, allowing students to “make or write anything they wish[ed].”

In Independent Writing, Cruz walks readers through a year in her classroom, from introducing independent writing projects, to setting up the physical classroom space to support this work, to helping students use their notebooks and study mentor authors as inspiration for their own writing. This book is FULL of charts, calendars, sample student handouts and worksheets. Like the very best professional books, Independent Writing is practical in the extreme, ready for you to pick up and implement in your classroom tomorrow.

My Big Writing Takeaways

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#TheEdCollabGathering: Unearthing Discovery & Play

Did you know that on April 2, Chris Lehman and the generous geniuses at The Educator Collaborative are giving away a whole day of brilliant, free PD that you can watch from home in your jammies? 

We would love to have you join Allison and me from 11-12pm as we talk about bringing play back to the secondary English classroom through Notebook Time.  Here’s a post we wrote for The Educator Collaborative and a little bit of what you can expect in our session! 

Screen Shot 2016-03-15 at 8.21.15 PM.pngEvery year, on the first day of school, we end class by handing a Post-It note to each student and inviting them to pose an anonymous question — about our class, about our outside-of-school lives, about us as teachers, about anything they would like.

They are timid at first, wondering if the free and open invitation is real. Then, after a few moments, they begin pouring out their wonderings. And many of these wonderings are fears:

“How much writing will we do this year?”

“Are you a hard grader?”

“Will writing count as a big portion of our grade in this class?”

“How do you want me to write?”

“What kind of writing do you like?”

Somehow, somewhere in their education, they have learned that writing has a formula that is regulated by a series of invisible checklists. They have learned that writing is black or white, right or wrong. And they have learned that those metrics change teacher to teacher.

And have you read the writing by these same students? It’s careful. Strategic. Stilted. Lifeless. Inauthentic.

This isn’t what we want for our student writers. We want them to be daring explorers and brave pioneers of their own experiences and ideas. We want them to take on new territory, experiment with words, even take a risk that doesn’t pan out every once in awhile.  In A Writer Teaches Writing, Donald Murray asserts that “behind each writing purpose is the secret excitement of discovery: the word, the line, the sentence, the page that achieves its own life and its own meaning. The first responsibility of the writing teacher is to [help students] experience this essential surprise” (8).

Read more on The Educator Collaborative Blog! 

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.
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