Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Remembering Donald Graves

In 1984, I was finishing my undergraduate degree in Speech and Language Pathology and I was struggling with some major decisions.  I was asking a lot of questions:  Was this the path I really wanted to follow?  Were my grades good enough to get into graduate school?  If not, what was I going to do with a degree in Communication Disorders?  In my heart, I knew I wanted to teach, but wasn’t sure how to go about getting another degree.
     Then one day, my girlfriend [now wife] brought me a copy of a little brown book Writing:  Teachers & Children at Work and said, “You’ve got to read this… it’s an amazing book!”  I watched her finding joy in the work she did with children day after day, so I read it!  I was hooked from the first paragraph, “Children want to write.  They want to write the first day they attend school.  This is no accident.  Before they went to school they marked up walls, pavements, newspapers with crayons, chalk, pens or pencils…anything that makes a mark.  The child’s marks say, ‘I am.’” 
     And, as I closed the book, I knew… I had to teach.  She was right, that little brown book was full of insights about learners, writers, and process.  After graduation, I got my graduate level certification in elementary education.  So, you might say my career was launched by two important mentors:  my wife Susan and Donald H. Graves.  And Writing: Teachers & Children at Work still holds a special place on our professional shelf.
     I first met Donald Graves in person in November of 1987 at a workshop in Castle Rock, Colorado.  Our district invited him to spend the day with a group of teachers from each elementary school.  Luckily my principal, Laura Harmon, chose me to attend [Laura had the uncanny knack of putting people in the right place at the right time].  That workshop changed the way I looked at writers and writing.  I took our little brown book and had it signed, “To Susan, A used book—the best kind.  Hope to meet you someday.  All the best, Don Graves.”  And, trust me, all these years later, that book has been used.
     Since that initial meeting, I’ve spent time learning from Don on several occasions.  In the “good old days” the PEC [now PEBC] used to sponsor week-long summer institutes in writing and Don facilitated several of them.  Seeing Don became one of the rituals in my teaching career.  Every time I knew he was in Denver, I was right there.  I never grew tired of hearing him share his work.  I schlepped donuts and coffee to attend PEC summer institutes for “free” [before I was a staff developer].  I drove with friends through a blizzard on I-25 just to hear him speak for two hours at North High School.  I sat in Stephanie Harvey's family room listening to Don talk to a small group of colleagues about his latest thinking.  I last saw him at CCIRA a few years ago [thanks Carol for getting him here one last time].  I have devoured his books, taken voracious notes when he spoke, and sat in awe as he told stories of his work with writers.  Don’s work strengthened the underpinnings of what I believe about writing and writers.  I wasn’t a writer until I met Don Graves.
     Now, here I am, sitting at my kitchen table with all his books within reach, saddened by the news of his death.  I’m thinking about his stories of his wife Betty, of a sea of children, of jogging, of… of everything.  But I’m also happy.  Happy to have met him.  Don made everyone feel like his best friend.  And like thousands of teachers, and tens of thousands of children, I have been changed because of his legacy.  That’s the good news.  Don lives on.
     In my copy of Build a Literate Classroom, Don wrote, “To Patrick.  How well I remember our first meeting down the valley.  Seems as though you are everywhere.  What a delight for me to be together again.  Enjoy!  Don Graves.” [June 1981]  And, really doesn’t it seem like it is, in fact, Don who is everywhere… is there a teacher of writers whose life he hasn’t touched?  His voice ruminates through Katie’s work, through Ralph’s work, through Shelley’s work, through Penny’s work… there’s not one teacher of writers, who understands how important our work with young writers is, that doesn’t ground their work in Don’s body of work.
     There’s always an echo of Don’s voice in our minds when we sit down to confer with a child.  We imitate Don when ask a writer, “What’s that for?” or “How did you know how to do that?”  We learned from Don that there’s a time for silence after hearing a child read his writing, when a simple touch on the shoulder is enough.  We also learned from Don to “nudge” a child to rethink her work, to add depth to the writing.  We learned from Don to tell our stories… in ten-minute spurts he told us.  We learned from Don to take action, to tackle genre, to know our students well.  We learned from Don that it takes energy to teach and to find that energy in our work.  We learned from Don to find joy.   And, we learned from Don that teaching is not testing and that we must help children develop as long thinkers.  We learned from Don that if we want to teach writers we have to be writers ourselves.  We learned these things and so much more.  Aren’t we the lucky ones?
     And now what?  I think I’m going to do some rereading over the next few weeks, remembering what Don taught me that perhaps I’ve forgotten… in my notebooks, in articles, and in his books.  I’ve already started.  Tucked inside my copy of Experiment with Fiction, I found a letter Don wrote to me in June of 1991.  In it he says, “So, we have had a career together.  Do you wonder where it will all end up?  Who cares.  We’re going to enjoy the trip together. 
     It is getting so every time I come to Denver I look for you in the crowd.  The first time you emerged was at the session we had at Castle Rock a number of years ago.”  
   And Don goes on to say, “Thanks for the enclosed quote.  Yes, a loud yes, the legacy we leave is no idle thing.” 
     Don, you were right.  The legacy we leave is no idle thing.  Thanks for the grand legacy you’ve left us all!  I’ve enjoyed the trip.  Where will it all end up?

Donald H. Graves 1930-2010
"We learn more from hanging around someone who does it than from being told how it’s done." A. Kohn


  1. Thank you for writing this wonderful tribute Patrick, it's a moving personal reflection on the influence of this great man on your career and life. There are so many things you mention that remind me of Don including your comment that he "made everyone feel like his best friend". All who met him will miss him. Trevor Cairney

  2. Thank you for sharing this wonderful tribute. I never met Don Graves, but I have read his work and been inspired and haunted by his teaching. I will be revisiting them now also. I teach kindergarten and often hear teachers talk about how "they can't write." I teach kindergarten and it is my favorite part of the day. They do love it and they love to "share themselves." Their love for writing inspires me to be a better teacher of writing.

    Thanks again for this. I am sorry for the loss of your friend and colleague and for the loss of an incredible writing teacher. Fortunately he lives on with his words and will continue to influence writers, young and old, for years and years to come.

  3. My favorite undergrad class in the late 80s required the reading of Writing: Teachers & Children at Work . I still have the book - it's the only book left from my college years. A few years ago, I wrote a book about fostering learner independence - I made reference to this book, Energy to Teach, and Inside Writing. Donald Graves has influenced my professional beliefs and practices for over 20 years. His influence will never end.

  4. He was such an amazing educator that really understood children and teachers in an elementary classroom. Every time I read a new book, I thought ...this is a person that I would love to meet. Hopefully, that day will be in heaven and I can thank him for working his whole life to encourage readers, writers and thinkers everywhere. He valued the stories that children have to tell and how conversation and conferring get to the heart of what we need to be doing in our classrooms. Thank you so much for your tribute.

  5. HI Patrick-
    Such a lovely and thoughtful tribute to our Don. I treasure my collection of Don letters. PRE-email, we popped letters back and forth to each other during the 2 years Mark and I live in Houston. His spirit lives on in countless schools and classroom. We are blessed to have Don in our lives.

  6. Thank you, Patrick, for this beautiful piece of writing. It captures Don in so many ways. He was a treasure. I am passing this on to the family because I know how much it will mean to them.

    Clearly Don led you to find the writer you are...

  7. Patrick, this is a wonderful tribute to Don. To be happy for all he has taught all of us. Every time I see a child in a classroom, sitting so seriously, pencil in hand, putting pictures and words on paper, I think -- Don Graves is sitting on his shoulder, as he so often is on mine, nudging this little boy or girl with sincere words "Tell me more.... Tell me more." It is sad that life is so short-- but so many, many of us have been so lucky to have learned so much from Don. He will be sitting on all of our shoulders as we continue his legacy as we write and read, and as we let children show us how much they have to tell us as they write and read. Thank you.

  8. Thank you all for your wonderful comments!

  9. Donald Graves was a man I knew extremely well even though I barely spoke to him 5 times in my life. His brilliant work has given us so many tools: so much vibrancy as teachers, so much faith in children and what they can do. We will miss you Donald Graves, but thank God you put so much of yourself on the page. And thank God for DVDs and the internet; if we ever need a boost you are still there to help and guide, energize and inspire. You barely knew me, but you impacted my life as a teacher and a person in huge ways. I mourn your loss as I would a dear dear friend or family member. We are so lucky, those of us who have read your works and heard you speak and learned from you how to be more intelligent, compassionate and skillful teachers. Thank you, Don. You gave so many gifts to the world and so you will live on. My heartfelt condolences to his family and legion of caring friends and colleagues.
    Janet Fagal Skaneateles, NY

  10. I remember reading that same little brown book, and realizing 'This is how my kids can all write different things at the same time!' At the time, I was team teaching with two friends in a pre-primary/Grade 1 classroom. We began by creating time for each of us to have a small group to work with, to play, to try out what Don was pushing us to do! What magic. Now all these years later, his books and talks remain a cornerstone for my writing practice with my older multi-age students. We have been fortunate over the years to have him here in Winnipeg to share his passion and knowledge with us. The last time I saw him was several years back at a conference in Toronto. He shared a group hug with our little Winnipeg contingent, embracing us all with his incredible warmth and love. Thank you, Patrick, for this lovely tribute, and yes, Linda, he will forever sit at our shoulders...