Donald Graves Address -Alan j Wright ALEA/AATE National Conference, DARWIN July 8, 2022

 Donald Graves Address

Reflecting Upon the Writing Revolution and the need for Rejuvenation

 

I feel greatly honoured presenting this year’s Donald Graves Address. Given the names of those who have previously presented here, I find myself in rare air and quite privileged to be called upon to celebrate the life work of Donald Graves. I am indebted to ALEA/AATE for this incredible opportunity to share Donald's immense legacy with you.

I realize I am part of a rapidly diminishing group of educators who actually lived and taught through the years of the writing revolution, Donald Graves set in motion. I was there when the research and writing he undertook, swept across the  writing world and into classrooms. It was a lived experience that began in the classroom and has continued to sustain me throughout my extensive academic life.

I  now stand in the ranks of the still committed, ancients. My passion for writing continues to shine brightly and I remain ever indebted to Donald Graves for the essential light he provided.  For me, it has never dimmed. I have for many years soaked up the wisdom of Donald’s wonderful words. I retain my immense respect for his wise teachings.

For me, it was a forever change. The findings of Donald Graves continue to influence my approach to the teaching of writing. Graves was a game changer, a stirrer, a visionary, who saw a widely expanded role for the writing teacher. He tipped the teaching of writing on its head -and that was a good thing.

As far back as 1982 Donald Graves was warning that writing programs consisting of assigned topics, foisted upon young writers, created a welfare system. The young writer was dependent on the teacher for ideas, genre choice, thinking. –He called this, linguistic oppression. It concerned him that young writers were compelled to make their voices replicate their teachers in order to gain approval.

All authority for the writing rested with the teacher. I am a survivor of this approach to writing. I often wonder how many of my former classmates have suffered a lifelong aversion to writing because of their experiences…

The revolution Donald Graves set in motion saw old ways of thinking replaced by respectful and empowering writing approaches. The irresistible energy of young writers and passionate teachers of writing,  propelled these fresh winds of change.

An effective writing teacher, according to Graves, saw what the writer knew and made it possible for them to reveal their knowledge. Telling them things such as,  ‘I like what you’ve done in that sentence, Tell me, where did you learn to do that?

Mild mannered Donald Graves wasn’t the quintessential revolutionary leader, but he stepped up and into the light, well-armed, with soundly based research findings based on intellectual rigour and extensive teaching experience.

Graves leaned in and took time to listen to children, closely noting how they went about writing. He slowed down teaching in order to deepen his understanding of learning.

This gave me a lasting insight-  identify one important thing a writer needs at a particular time and teach into that mindfully and explicitly.

Graves redirected attention from just looking at the writing, to how it came into existence on the page –the all-important process.  He understood writing was a craft. It had to be taught like other crafts, in workshop conditions. The writing teacher like the pottery teacher needed to practice the craft alongside learners. To this day, when I sit down alongside a young writer and strike up a writing conversation,  this message is singing in my head.

He was the living embodiment of a curious learner. He insisted children be given choice and time and teaching should examine their writing intentions.

He wanted teachers to create classroom environments supportive of independence and initiative. He knew that to motivate young writers, we must honour their struggle and perseverance, celebrates risk, and delight in their brave approximations.

He knew teachers who viewed themselves as learners, enjoyed new ways of teaching, those who knew the writing process well and took risks when engaging in their own writing, were more likely to offer children those same opportunities. Graves noted the language of experimentation and risk taking thrived in such classrooms. He knew the struggle all writers face. He shared the highs and lows that accompany writing.  Here’s Graves talking about his personal process as a writer.

‘There are days when nothing works. I write a line. It doesn’t fit. I try another line. A dead end. I clean my study , make phone calls, eat, return  and write some more. I don’t know what I’m doing, but the fingers still work on the keys. I wonder when the great breakthrough will come. Will it be just around the corner as it was on Monday, or a month from now as it was last spring? I come some days knowing the writing will go well, other days playing the keyboard as a lottery, never missing a day, but always hoping.’

It is this honesty that guided  me in the same direction. I have always tried to be totally honest when talking about writing with inexperienced writers. They deserve such honesty, and respect.

There are days when the words flow from my pen and sit on the page in exactly the right place. You can almost hear them click into place like pieces of Lego. It’s as if a tap has been turned on in my brain and the words pour out, smothering the blank page in raw, inky words. These days are joyful. I am often surprised how much I have written in a short time. Such a buzz. The child in me wants to exclaim –look how much I’ve written!

There are also those days when I feel I am pushing the words out onto the page. They appear reluctant to land in the light. It’s tough going. The barriers to my progress are only temporary. As a writer, I persist, knowing the full flow of words will return.

Donald Graves has been sitting at my shoulder for more than forty years.  When I first became aware of Donald’s work around writing, I had been teaching for a decade. I had always been a teacher who wrote, so this was quite affirming information. I was my Halleluiah moment.

 I developed a thirst for more knowledge, more reading. I wanted to grow my understanding of how to best teach writing and Donald was speaking with such clarity.

The research changed classroom teaching immeasurably. It held at its core a  respect for children as learners. So much of what effective writing pedagogy involves rests easily upon the foundations of what Donald Graves taught us. It was indeed revolutionary. Donald was daring us to do things differently.

Graves helped me become a more sensitive observer of children’s writing. I learnt how important it was to show impressionable young writers how much I valued writing. I valued it enough to be a writer myself.

 By writing alongside developing writers, I understood their struggles. I began to share my writing, and the rewards that flowed my way. I made my processes visible in the hope they would learn from my experiences as a writer.

It became a time of numerous new projects and endeavours in my own professional life.

With my friend and colleague, Barry Schmidt we launched Tooradin Writer’s Week, where 1500 young writers were able to share time with writers, illustrators, storytellers, script writers –leaders in children’s literature. Budding young writers and illustrators had the chance to meet living, breathing authors. Authors who inspired them to greater efforts. It was a time for writer’s camps, my very first writer’s notebook and a chance to work with Barbara Kamler, a Graves researcher. Our collective efforts were recognized in the International Year of Literacy Awards in 1990 where Margaret Whitlam shook our hands and said well done, you two. This had been ignited by sparks created by Graves. 

When I read  Donald Graves’ Writing- Teachers & Children At Work, I found my truth. I most certainly found inspiration. Within its pages Graves envisaged such powerful actions as rehearsal, drafting, revision, editing and publishing for our youngest writers. Radical at the time. He considered it important for children to understand the writing process, not just teachers. This book glows with his love of children, writing and teaching.

Graves believed teachers could only answer children’s questions when they knew the writing process from both the inside and the outside. Inside meant that teachers needed to be writing alongside children in order to fully understand the challenges writing presented.

Outside implied a clear knowledge of the research surrounding writing and how that informed classroom instruction. 

‘‘Write yourself. Invite children to do something you're already doing...You can't ask someone to sing a duet with you until you know the tune yourself.’ 

‘Children want to write- They possess a desire, an internal compulsion to write.’ Graves made this simple, yet significant statement back in 1983. He believed the teacher-writer was vital for the development of effective writing. A continuing challenge is to foster conditions that support a child’s urge to write. While working in New York some years back I saw this urge to write on display:

 ‘A young girl from the Bronx in New York was given a writing assignment for homework. After school she walked home to her family’s apartment only to discover that the electricity supply had been cut off because the account had not been paid. It was wintertime in New York and darkness arrived early. The urge to write was strong and so the girl walked out into the street and sat under a street light to complete her homework as requested. The girl had the perfect excuse for not writing, but the writer within refused to be denied.’

Alan j Wright, Igniting Writing, When A Teacher Writes

The urge to write is glaringly obvious in some classrooms. I have seen it so many times where a palpable sense of community has been mindfully fostered by a teacher/writer.

The lament when asked to stop writing. The audible groans, -oh, do we have to ? The request to continue writing later in the school day. The request to take their writer’s notebooks out into the school playground, so that the writing buzz might continue to course through them.  This doesn’t happen by chance. It grows from a classroom where writing is an essential part of each and every day’s learning. Writing has become the glue that binds the writers within that classroom into a community. The challenge for all of us who teach writing is to create and sustain the conditions that support a child’s urge to write.

To this day where teachers exercise such control over writing they are asking student writers to write dishonestly, as Graves put it. These young writers exist on a writing diet of one dishonest piece after another, merely to meet curriculum requirements. The writing program is neat, tidy and totally controlled by an adult, frequently a non-writer. The resultant writing lacks any driving force.

Graves observed that in this scenario, student writers  rely entirely on the teacher’s decisions regarding:

  • ·         The need to write
  • ·         When to write
  • ·         What to write
  • ·         To whom they should write
  • ·         How to write
  • ·         How the writing should be judged

Graves noted teachers were extinguishing the spark of originality and divergent thinking. He knew the power in children’s writing resided in them owning topic and action. In this scenario, the writer cannot rehearse. They have to wait upon the teacher to tell them what they can write about on that day. They sit like sparrows in a nest waiting to be fed.

I can still vividly recall being given the structure and form for writing a letter from a book titled, ‘Let’s Use Better English’ when I was in Grade 3. We wrote our letters in our English books, earnestly following the form we had been instructed to follow. Our teacher was the only person who read them. They were never sent to a reader. This was artificial writing and it has annoyed me all these years, as you can plainly see. We just stuck to the plan laid out by the teacher.

This need for control often has its origins in the teacher’s own writing history. Actions are based on limited experience of what writing entails. Teaching tends to over emphasise the surface features of a text. It's about the writing, not the writer.

It is often said that writing develops courage. It also takes courage, a clear knowledge of writing,  plus a fair degree of self-belief on the part of the teacher, to mindfully empower student writers. 

Graves said it all when he wrote, ‘What is not valued by teachers is seldom introduced into the lives of children.’ We need it for ourselves and then we need to invite children to do this transformative thing with us. The power lies in the value we as educators assign to writing.

Graves was very clear on teacher response to writing. He felt feedback needed to be specific, to be effective. He felt praise was often meaningless to the point of being banal, manipulative and diminishing of the child writer.  ‘Good job, well done ‘ sprinkled liberally like sugar on breakfast cereal  produced a false dependency. When a child approaches the teacher asking,  Is this good?  It is the end product of such meaningless praise.

Graves understood the importance for the writer to be able to identify when they had written effectively. When feedback is specific and targeted to the individual writer, the writer is gradually convinced they have something worthwhile to share. Something they can articulate themselves. Praise for effort yes, feedback for writing specifics. Help the writer to see what they have achieved.  I find myself frequently responding thus:

‘ I notice in your writing today, you used the strategy –show don’t tell to describe the character’s response to being upset, This allowed me as a reader to visualize exactly what was happening.’ I hope to see more of  this, It’s such a powerful writing move. You should keep doing this as a writer.’

In contrast, Donald Graves wrote that a lot of his early writing was red penned to death.

 ‘I bear the scars of the skill fanatics.’ He said. ‘No matter how hard I strived to present my most accurate writing efforts across the page, there was always the endless imposition of ‘don’ts’ and ‘nevers’ and ‘should haves’ waiting to cut me  down. There was never any reference to the quality of my ideas, my intent. I was only reminded of my constant failures.’

Sadly this was  my own school experience. Teachers told me what to write, never, how to write. They were brain coded for telling, not showing. The feedback never more than a mark out of ten in a circle.

I found it re-assuring that Donald loved poetry, as I do. In fact he published an anthology of poems, as I have done. He wrote about poetry as I have done. Donald had a poet’s heart. He and his wife, Betty frequently exchanged Billy Collins poems before their evening meal. He saw poetry as big thinking in a small space. He was as W H Auden said- a person passionately in love with language.

In his 1992 book, Exploring Poetry he wrote,

 ‘Poetry is not a genre ‘on a hill.’ It is for all who wish to write about what they care about, to relive scenes, recall images and savour experiences that otherwise pass fleetingly through their minds.’

 I am confident Donald would identify with the words contained in my 2016 poem. ‘Writing Time With Miss Dungeon.

Writing Time With Miss Dungeon

In Grade 5

Our teacher Miss Dungeon

Would ask us to write

She called it-

Composition

She gave each of us a book

A book she called

-A composition book

Every Thursday

Straight after lunch

Was composition time

We all knew this because Miss Dungeon

Would stand in front of the class

And using her very loud voice

That made the windows rattle

Announce

OPEN YOUR COMPOSITION BOOKS!

With pencils poised

We would sit silently

Waiting

Waiting

Anticipating

Until Miss Dungeon

Standing at the front of the room

Giant like on a raised platform

Looked over her spectacles and announced the weekly writing topic-

Autobiography of an Ant

START WRITING NOW!

No smile

No Frown

START WRITING NOW…

A few kids began writing

Some stared out the window

Some froze at their desks

And the rest of us stared at the blank white page of our composition book

No one looked at Miss Dungeon

No one dared to look at Miss Dungeon

YOU’VE GOT TWENTY MINUTES

START WRITING!

The room fell silent

Pencils scratched wobbly words

Blank pages slowly filled with ant words

Miss Dungeon prowled the room

Gliding along the aisles between our desks like a shark

A grey nurse shark

Suddenly the silence was shattered

ADD MORE DETAIL!

ADD MORE DETAIL!

Miss Dungeon demanded

Jabbing her finger

Spearing the page

Sharing her rage with a bewildered writer

After twenty minutes Miss Dungeon bellowed

STOP WRITING!

-CLOSE YOUR BOOKS

-PASS THEM TO THE FRONT

We put our pencils down

We sigh with relief

We stop thinking about ants

She will return our ant stories

Covered in red ink

And a mark out of ten

And we will all await the next topic

When next Thursday

We will do it all again

Composition

A new topic

Thrown our way by Miss Dungeon.

©Alan j Wright 

Graves described writing as a problem solving activity. He wanted young writers to see themselves as successful problem solvers. For this to happen they need to be equipped with a broad range of problem solving strategies , so eventually they can apply this knowledge independently.  We must teach into this space and broaden the armoury young writers bring to writing on a blank page. In fact, we should aim to promote within each writer a belief that a blank page is an invitation, not something to be anxious about.

In order to have young writers understand and apply a broader range of problem solving strategies, the most experienced writer must demonstrate their use. it is important to ask –Have my writers seen this enacted by a more experienced writer?

Allow them to see how a more proficient writer goes about such matters as:

  • ·         Brainstorming
  • ·         Harvesting Ideas
  • ·         Making Choices and Decisions
  • ·         Planning a Writing Project
  • ·         Centring and Preparing to write
  • ·         The use of a range of Pre-writing strategies
  • ·         Rereading
  • ·         Storytelling and Rehearsal
  • ·         Revision
  • ·         Proofreading & Editing
  • ·         Making Publishing decisions regarding not just how, but where.
  • ·         How Grammar  & Punctuation supports writer & reader (Contextually)
  • ·         Using Literary Elements and Wordplay

Graves understood modelling and demonstrating aspects of writing craft changed his relationship with a class. His credibility rose when he made these strategic actions visible.

There is a growing sense within the writing group that we are all in this together. These problems are knots to be untied, rather than errors. When a sense of community is present in the classroom trust grows,  the members help each other, model for each other and move forward together as writers.

If we approach the issue of problems from this position and let them see us write and act in this way, they begin to see the hidden ground of writing, the tricks up the magician’s sleeve.

We possess the power to demystify writing through our mindful actions, exposing young writers to one of the most valuable ways to appreciate and apply, the craft of writing

Graves instilled within me the desire to always enter a classroom with the mysterious air of someone who was about to unfold something quite profound and full of wonder. I frequently begin by leaning in and speaking slowly, and deliberately –'What I’m about to share with you is something that will make your writing more powerful, more reader friendly. What I am about to show is not just for this lesson, this day, but something you can bring with you every time you write, that’s how powerful, how important this is…'

I also remind them that every time they enter the classroom they should bring with them all the reading and writing they have done. Allow that to influence what you write today…

No one needs to feel they are teaching writing alone. We must search to discover trusted mentors, our personal writing heroes.  They  provide inspiration.  They become our unwitting collaborators. They become members of our teaching and learning team.

We can then show student writers the pathway to follow…

Bring your very best books, your most admired writers into the classroom and take the opportunity to write under the influence. Use mentor texts to coax your own words to emerge, your own voice to rise.

I took a photograph of a bicycle in Rome on Via del Pellegrino, close to Rome’s famous produce market, Campo de Fiori. Upon returning home to Australia, I had the photo enlarged and now it sits prominently on the wall in my home. The enlarged print reminds me that one does not become a cyclist merely by looking at a picture of a bicycle. No, we must clamber onto that two wheeled contraption and push off on our perilous, first journey. It may be short lived and may involve a sudden ending. Our initial efforts are most likely accompanied by a high degree of uncertainty, and lots of white knuckled gripping of the handlebars. We wobble and shake in our desperate attempts to control the direction of the seemingly unmanageable contraption. Our efforts are concentrated towards avoiding fences, potholes, power poles, - people!

 Learning to ride a bicycle may also involve a few mishaps. It is most unusual not to experience the occasional ‘prang.’ -the kind of accident that separates rider and bicycle and occasions cuts, scrapes- a few bruises. A bit of bark off our knees. Despite these setbacks, the inexperienced rider generally persists and a measure of control begins to develop. The bicycle yields to the will of a determined rider. Eventually the ability to swerve around an errant dog, a muddy puddle, another cyclist, emerges and the journey becomes more controlled, more predictable.

I frequently find myself reminding young writers of these facts and drawing an analogy with learning to write. Wobbly at first, the writer starts out with great uncertainty and a lack of control. Through practice, persistence and good old fashioned stickability, the writer develops greater self-belief and control over the direction the writing takes.

 This is a message we not only share with developing student writers, it’s a message for writers of all ages. The message here is a simple one. -Just as you did all those years ago, - climb back onto the bike and start pedalling. -On your bike squire. There you go…

Brave writers (and bike riders) can be any age. It just requires the necessity of daring.

 In this way we assert freedom and the power to act. Words lead to more words and so the journey is underway. A bit like riding a bike actually.

STORY TELLING

Graves was a story teller. His books, hold within them anecdotes, character sketches and recounts. His poems reveal memories and traditions. He believed that telling our stories informed readers and writers alike. He saw story telling as essential for teachers growth, as well as their joy in teaching. Storytelling humanizes us and transmits culture. Donald reminded us to share our learning stories too.‘This is what I learned and this is how I learned it.’

Writers are often story tellers. They sometimes tell their stories many times before they commit them to the page. I know this to be true. My own writing is richly informed by my stories.

I urge everyone to search and record your own unique stories and share them. Model story-telling to the impressionable young writers smiling back at us. Stories from our experience, family stories, stories overheard or passed on.

CHOOSING SUITABLE TOPICS, GENRES

Graves believed children needed to hear their teacher speak aloud about aspects of writing process. Topic choice, writing the lead, choosing a better word, reorganizing sentences, rereading, solving problems could all be demonstrated in this way. The child writer can then select and apply elements from the teacher’s process, relevant to their own writing.

This sharing of process helps the teacher know what to look for when observing the child writer. Observation becomes purposeful.

The process of choosing topics needs to be modelled as well as being articulated. I have lost count of the number of times I have been asked- Where do you get your ideas?

The inexperienced writer needs to see a teacher wrestle with such decisions. How do you discover the true topic you wish to write about? Let them see how you arrive  at writing’s launching pad.

Your discussion, thinking, reading drawing, listing, brainstorming – all that informs your choice of topic, your pre-writing process. Going back through older pieces of writing in order to inform new topic choices. Excavating new ideas from old words.  Graves promoted this.

The power of writing lies in ownership of topic and action. If teaching takes no account of this Graves suggested- the person is removed from the print.’

Writing everyday enhances a young writer’s capacity to think and problem solve. The writer begins to experience less difficulty in finding suitable topics. We stop hearing- I can’t think of anything to write about.

The teacher is telling the writer -you can handle this, I have every confidence in your ability to think. I have shown you how other writers land on a writing idea.  You have tangible strategies for finding writing treasure.

Gradually, Self-doubt is replaced by self-belief. Doling out sentence starters and writing prompts only entrench dependency. They send a message. I don’t have faith in you to think of suitable ideas for your writing. Young writers need to understand that the writing they are doing is important for somebody. It’s about audience, not a wall.

Why won’t they write, they say. Why are they lacking in motivation?

The term reluctant writer is erroneously thrown about. These writers are not reluctant. Inexperienced yes. Lacking confidence, probably. Children will write when they feel a strong sense of self efficacy; when they feel a sense of impending pleasure and satisfaction and they possess a sense of agency of themselves as writers.

From my own experience, writing in the middle years of secondary education  has been historically approached from the position of read and respond or, here’s the topic, now write me a paragraph, a page.

  • ·         Too much in the way of cold start writing.
  • ·         No think before ink.
  • ·         No opportunity to rehearse
  • ·         No choice of topic or genre.

The logical outcome of repeated doses of this type of experience is -disengaged writers. The energy for writing quickly evaporates. At a time when the adolescent learner is seeking increased autonomy and independence, why is the curriculum interpreted in ways that strip control away? This appears counterintuitive if the aim is engagement. Students are writing to get it done, placate the teacher.

Donald Graves regularly encouraged young writers to articulate their writing intentions. He wanted young writers to give voice to the intended direction of their soon to emerge, writing.  It is said, the more we articulate our intentions, the more likely we are to actually pursue them. This  kind of targeted talk needs to be embraced within classrooms. It further promote the growth of agency.

With time and practice young writers become increasingly more skilled and confident at performing critical writing actions. Donald Graves understood this. He witnessed this. He heard it shining through in the words young writers began to articulate. They became valued informants.

The implication of all this, is that we must strive to set up opportunities for meaningful talk. I am regularly amazed by their revelations:

  • I’m not here to learn, I’m here to astound and amaze
  • Alan, the more I wrote, the more I remembered
  • I’m writing about James Bond because he has a great smile and is good at assassinating people!

With encouragement and practice, young writers begin to share the stories underpinning their writing ideas. They reveal the extent of their problem solving capabilities. These revelations inform the curriculum we must deliver, the demonstrations we must share. Graves knew the potent power of directed talk.

Donald graves declared- Teachers find time for writing by taking it. They quarantine it. They make a statement that they value it. However, that time is when  the teacher uses it to help the young writer take control of what they do. We should try to quarantine some time in our lives for writing.

Stir your interest in what it means to be someone who writes. Share what it means to write with less experienced writers. Let them know what it delivers. Opportunities to tell stories to different audiences is an act of rehearsal. So too the many beginnings we undertake in our writer’s notebooks. Notetaking, reading and researching, locating, building a picture of what we need to write. It’s all part of that search for words and inspiration.

Listing and brainstorming are critical to writing more effectively. Drawing, taking photos, making maps, talking to other writers, recording conversations, helps build a clearer picture of the writing terrain. Such actions lift the quality of writing emerging on the page.

Creating time for these actions bears fruit. If there’s a place for planning the writing then this is where it resides, not in one size fits all graphic organizers. As Donald so wisely reminded us- ‘What we pay attention to, we re-inforce.’

Planning should be differentiated. Sometimes the writer needs us to get the heck out of the way – just let them write! There are those times when we need to support the writer to scaffold their thinking in order for clarity to emerge around the writing proposal. ‘I know what I want to say, I’m just not sure where to begin.’  We as educators need to be able to see these differing needs and respond accordingly.

‘Keep writing until your best words appear on the page.’ -Young writers need to hear this.

Writing deserves to hold a position at the centre of the curriculum for it requires us to generate ideas, organize thoughts, encode ideas into clear language,  juggle multiple things (spelling, punctuation, facts and instructions), co-ordinate fingers to keyboards or to form letters on a page, plan and monitor the quality of our work, marshal materials (pencils, pens reference notes, computers) and time.

That makes writing a complex task. It’s a huge orchestra for any writer to conduct! So writing assists us to practice being organized and effective. Writing also requires a deal of concentration and mental effort -energy, focus and persistence..

TIME

Immersion and duration therefore are essential elements of an effective writing workshop framework. The more sustained the writing duration, the more the mind’s clutter falls away. Time on task erodes the unproductive preoccupation with matters that can wait. Writing then draws upon the sharpened senses of the fully engaged writer.

I recall my early efforts to encourage and support teachers to devote time to writing alongside students. Some enthusiastically embraced the call and later remarked how much more satisfying their teaching had become.

 Others quietly considered their position, while a few pushed back informing me that it was okay for me to write with young learners because I had more time. A fact I was blissfully unaware of. I  tried a different tack -sharing my growing collection of notebooks with student writers. They showed much enthusiasm for buying into this aspect of the writing life. They asked to read my notebooks during independent reading. They made requests for notebooks to their teachers and parents. Children turned up to class with their notebooks under their arms. 

I began to open up my notebooks for teachers to see for themselves the sorts of entries they could collect. Notebooks began to find a home in the classroom writing program and beyond.  Teachers began to talk and act like writers and their credibility as teachers of writing rose considerably.

The next step was to nourish those notebooks and establish the important fact that they belong to the writer. Surrounding the notebook with integrity has been critical to its special place as a writer’s resource. How the notebook is perceived by both teachers and students is a critical consideration in establishing how it’s viewed over time.

The notion of ownership was a Graves mantra. The notebook a tangible example of ownership. It is meant to be a safe place for embryonic ideas to collect before the writer is ready share. A place to take risks, conduct writing experiments and explore the writing terrain. A teacher may influence how the developing writer views the notebook by sharing the types of entries found in their own notebooks, but at no stage should they attempt any action that looks like a hostile takeover.

Our role is not to tame the words that enter a young writer’s notebook. The notebook should at all times remain a slightly wild place for a writer to work with words. We convince them through our own actions that the notebook they own is hungry to receive their words.

Here are some notebook reflections from a group of Year 5 writers at the end of twelve months of writer’s notebook ownership. They stand as testimony to the value of the writer being free to explore the writing terrain. They write with a strong sense of voice exuding the vitality of agency. Let’s take a look…

‘What do I like to write about you ask?  Daring knights, beautiful princesses, ferocious dragons, trolls, tall castles, crazy foods, odd characters, peculiar places and anything else to do with fantasy. That’s why my writer’s notebook is special to me. I can write about anything, absolutely anything. My writer’s notebook lets my imagination go free without anyone telling me, you can’t do that.’

‘I write for hours. It’s like getting my brain and putting it in a notebook. It’s like my words are crashing onto the pages. It’s like throwing words against paper. It’s like planting a small seed and looking at it as it grows into a big tree.’

 ‘Reading helps me with writing a lot, because when I read books, it gives me great ideas. It gives me great words. It’s like the author talks to me and says, ‘Hey, look over this, I have a great idea for you,’ and my mind just suddenly overflows with ideas.’

When teachers descend upon notebooks, the notebook owner begins to see it as just another workbook. Integrity fades. The unique status of the notebook evaporates. Risk taking, experimenting shrink away, replaced by teacher pleasing, and safe writing. The words might just as well be written in invisible ink. Strive to broaden the audience, expand the purpose. Validate the writer.

Let’s surround the teaching of writing with integrity-. Let’s not water it down its richness, or condense it into commercial programs- writing that comes in a box with sequential scripted lessons and simplistic prompts on cards. Let’s  resist publishers who ignore the research that drives writer’s workshop and all that we know regarding choice and voice as key drivers.

When the teaching of writing is reduced to predetermined writing prompts , sentence starters and black line master sheets,  it loses its sheen. Commercial writing programs encourage intellectual atrophy and some employ a kind of voodoo pedagogy. It is not authentic when genres are presented in silos

Then, there are those who have appropriated the word ‘science’  in order to add a legitimacy to their claims. They too are nibbling at the edges of writing pedagogy, wresting control of writing  from students with suggestions that current writing instruction lacks rigour, and is devoid of explicit instruction. It is an approach vested in handbooks, linear control and related grammar exercises. It reminds me of  the pre-Graves era, paying  little  respect to what writers actually do with those twenty six magical letters.

Let me be clear, the answer to being an effective writing teacher doesn’t  lie in the unquestioning adoption of some expensive, commercially produced, neatly packaged program glibly suggesting teaching writing is ‘easy’ with our simple to follow sequence of lessons.

Writing is not suited to something resembling a recipe. As much as I love cooking, we are not baking pies here! Writing is recursive in nature, not rigidly linear. No program can predict what might occur in a writing classroom.  No one can pre-determine the most appropriate teaching decision.

We are there to be observers, participants and when called upon, we must be ready to improvise  Thinking is our lifeblood. We are stirred, inspired to act. We must maintain the spirit of resistance. We must stand up for ourselves and all those young writers who deserve daily opportunities to create and develop their personal writing voices.

No one ever knocks on my door in the morning and hands me my topic for the day. I never wake up thinking -today I must practice writing expository text. I am happy to tell young writers –'don’t write about things you don’t care about.’  I beleive Donald would approve of that one.

Writers begin with the spark of an idea and it is this kind of cognitive energy we must encourage among inexperienced writers. Curiosity, joy, engagement and stamina are possessed of a fragility. We must passionately protect these things with our teaching actions. They lead to the essential green shoots that mark the growth of a writing community.

The single greatest way to motivate young writers is to bring your own curiosity for learning, your enthusiasm into the classroom and put it out there for everyone to see.  In such actions you are honouring the legacy of Donald Graves.

Our time in the classroom is precious, it should bring joy. It is that important. I want young learners to be in no doubt that I am a partner in the learning and like them, I am a reader and a writer. It is at this point the words of Regie Routman mingle with those of Graves. Regie aimed straight at educators with this observation in her book,  ‘Literacy At The Crossroads’

  ‘If we want our students to be thinkers, researchers, collaborators, readers, writers, and evaluators, then they need to see us thinking, researching, collaborating, reading, writing and evaluating. We need literally, to live the life we’re asking them to lead.’

The message is abundantly clear. We need to become who we want them to be. Be joyfully literate as you go about your important work. That joy will spread without a doubt. You control the climate. Celebrate loudly when you see evidence of this action among your developing writers. After all, what is teaching without celebration? Use observation to spot small, yet significant victories among your writers. Writing ceases to be a ‘school thing.’ 

It is a joy to watch a writing teacher asking powerful, respectful questions.  It is a mindful, practiced art and remains deserving of our continued attention. It is here we begin to see the emergence of the metacognitive writer. Graves wanted children to be able to use their writing time well. He believed in progressively delegating responsibility for the writing to the young writer so they would learn to operate without constant direction and supervision.

His goal, such a worthy one –independent, self-directed writers. He wanted to share power in the classroom knowing it would allow him to demonstrate how writing works, to have meaningful writing conversations and work with small strategy groups, where necessary.

I love the word ’nudge,’ It has been used with increasing regularity around the teaching of writing. Graves believed in the importance of nudging young writers.  Why is this important to write about? It was in his opinion, an important way to show young writers how to raise expectations of themselves.  Based on close observation, discussion and careful reading of their texts, the writer was given a gentle nudge to explore further. The art of nudging young writers is something worth acquiring. Nudging involves subtle invitations to venture somewhere new and potentially exciting. Make sure you’ve been there first to check out just exactly what treasure lies there for the brave young writer.

Within the classroom we must strive to create conditions where challenge is welcomed. If we see learning as work, so will young learners. Our efforts must be directed towards seeing what children are capable of in the face of authentic, intelligent, literate challenges.

Graves understood the power of reading and its influence upon writing. His research discovered that when children develop reading stamina from sustained periods of reading in school, they were more likely to read beyond the classroom. He saw reading and writing as intimate collaborators. The implication here is that we as educators must show them how to read like writers. We can employ the quality writing of trusted authors to highlight elements of craft, tone, style and structure.

We must strive to demonstrate our own love of language and exult in wordplay. We issue constant invitations to explore the literary landscape. This is the cognitive apprenticeship our children deserve. Help them to breathe in books and breathe out words.

We should be able to say with great conviction to the inexperienced writer- like you, I’m a reader and a writer and here is something I noticed another writing doing that might help you. 

Graves knew that for writing outcomes to improve, the learner needed to spend  a great deal of time engaged in reading quality literature. That said, I note with concern the often glaring disconnect between what kids are reading and what they are choosing to write. I have spent many years curating an extensive personal library of poetry books because that is my preferred genre.

I clearly recall a conversation with a young writer who told me she was writing a horror story, so I asked her what horror stories she was reading for inspiration. She told me-none. She seemed surprised by my question. Please continue to encourage young learners to read the books that connect to their worlds and their interests, but also encourage them to read what they wish to write. That way we can more easily ask the question –What have you seen that is like what you are trying to write?

Donald understood the notion of agency long before it became a catch cry. He knew writers needed a genuine sense of their own potential and he identified essential actions teachers should take to assist young writers to attain that potential.

Graves understood this well and his actions were always geared towards building self-belief- what we now call agency.

The term independent writing is commonly used in classrooms. But is it really independent writing? Or are they working independently on an assigned writing project? If they are asking - is it okay to write about a given topic, or asking how much should I write, independence is illusionary.

I can tell you this with great certainty- Writing has provided me with a way to remain young at heart. It has allowed me to maintain a life of active, curious learning.  Almost forty years of gathering my scattered thoughts and observations in my writer’s notebooks has allowed me to capture the footprints of my journey academically and personally. It has informed the writing life I have embraced. It has given me hope and I thank Donald Graves and all my other unwitting collaborators for lighting that flame within me. There exists in his research findings, his words and theories, a timeless resonance and the secret lies in the fact that it was grounded in practical ideas, and tangible actions.

 Donald Graves' words reside inside me. They go with me every time I enter a classroom and talk to young writers and their teachers. They remain as an affirmation of effective teaching practice around writing. I continue to return to base when knots arise in my thinking. Donald Graves sustains me when naysayers and gloomsters appear on the writing horizon with their sterile and contrived writing recipes. He alerted me to dangers of orthodoxies. I can spot them easily. I am nudged and provoked to continue to be the kind of writing teacher Donald urged all of us to become.

I strongly urge you to carry Donald’s words and actions into the classroom with you. When taught by teachers who read and write in a genre promiscuous manner, student writers begin to follow the lead and challenge themselves. They develop as writers armed with a range of genres to convey their ideas.

 My learning from Donald Graves continues to evolve and impact, It shows no sign of ending soon. He has provided a clear scaffold to support the implementation of authentic writing instruction and we must do everything possible to honour this valuable legacy.

‘Demonstrating and modelling how we as adult writers connect to the world around us is a vital lesson for our students. We need to explain how we see the potential in things for writing each and every day. We need to demonstrate how we harvest ideas, how we excavate memories and how we connect and learn from other writers.’

Alan j Wright

Igniting Writing –When A Teacher Writes

Effective teachers demonstrate and make explicit through targeted instruction, the essential elements and techniques required to write effectively. Their instruction is continually informed by assessment and moderation of writing samples.

As Donald Graves said many times ‘The enemy is orthodoxy!’  He rightly concluded that orthodoxies are trotted out as shortcuts to what we know are complex processes. They mitigate against deeper thinking;  clouding the issue with often meaningless jargon and expectations.  Classroom charts that trumpet ‘Words to use instead of said,’ for example, said is a perfectly apt word to use. The vast majority of our utterances are merely said. Roald Dahl used said quite regularly. It did his writing no harm.  Would he now be scolded ?  Not everything needs to be ‘up-scaled’ for the sake of it. Not every paragraph consists of five sentences. Sentences can begin with ‘and.’ Adjective can arise after the noun.

The very best way to honour the legacy of Donald Graves and his incredible contribution to the teaching of writing is to recommit to the world class principles surrounding effective teaching in this vital area. It is Donald’s faith in children as learners that should deliver each of us the courage to continue to be passionate advocates of their right to make choices and raise their writing voices.

This means we continue to teach sensitively and creatively and in accordance with the needs of young writers.

  • ·         Encourage and support young writers to pursue authentic, purposeful writing projects
  • ·         Pursue your own personal writing projects
  • ·         Teach the writing processes mindfully
  • ·         Encourage the setting of  writing goals
  • ·         Teach mini lessons informed by the needs of young writers in front of you
  • ·         Teach the writer, not the writing
  • ·         Conduct writing conversation that start where the writer is
  • ·         Be a teacher who writes and a writer who teaches
  • ·         Make your reading and writing life visible
  • ·         Be consistent and predictable
  • ·         Praise for effort, encourage problem solving
  • ·         Celebrate success- individual and collective
  • ·         Mindfully connect reading and writing
  • ·         Interconnect each of this principles

I am known for my love of trivia and factoids. My head is filled with such information, some of it useful, some of it highly questionable. I once wrote three pages on the fact that it is illegal to take a bear onto a beach in Israel. Such was my curiosity. When reading Ralph Fletcher’s wonderful book on keeping a Writer’s notebook –Breathing In, Breathing Out.

I noted how Ralph also recommended collecting these tiny nuggets of truth, as he called them- so here are a few more:

  • Donald didn’t really discover what writing could do until he was 44 years old.
  • Donald  published 25 books in 26 years.
  • Research into writing was his fifth career. Before that, he had been in the US Coast Guard, a minister, a counsellor and a teacher/Principal.
  • He regularly wrote for 30 minutes before breakfast.

Fittingly, I will allow Donald to deliver the final words:

 ‘I found out that if students had one good teacher of writing in their entire school life, irrespective of grade level, they could be successful writers. Be that one teacher.’


With gratitude and joy...

Alan j Wright

Annual Donald Graves Address

ALEA/AATE National Conference, Darwin, Australia July 8th, 2022

 ©Alan j Wright






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