Saturday, June 22, 2013

Children WANT to write! - Donald Graves

I wrote a tribute to Donald Graves when he died.  If you know me, you know that I've been a fan of his since my wife, Susan, first introduced me to his groundbreaking work Writing: Teachers and Children at Work.  It is the first book on teaching that I read that "spoke" to me... humbly and sincerely.  It is the book that changed the course of my career path from Speech and Language Pathologist to classroom teacher.  It is the book that still sits proudly in its rightful place among my professional text.  It has since 1984. 

In 1987, I met Don for the first time in Castle Rock, Colorado because my principal, Laura Harmon, had the foresight to send me to a workshop in the old Cantril Building.  A newbie teacher with a heart for reading and writing got to spend time with a master.  I've never forgotten that first meeting.  Thank you, Laura.

Enter Children Want to Write:  Donald Graves and the Revolution in Children's Writing  edited by Thomas Newkirk and Penny Kittle.  It's a collection of "his writing, research videos, and presentations to teachers."  It's a must have for any teacher.  It's a treasure trove of his work with writers and writing.

It's shocking to me how many teachers don't have the name of Donald Graves rolling off their tongue when they speak about young writers and writing.  If it isn't, is should be... he was not only revolutionary, but a visionary whose passion for the craft of writing and the crafters of that writing (children) is unsurpassed.  It's on Don's shoulders that we, as teachers of writers, should stand!  In the first chapter of the book, Tom writes:

"To revisit Donald Graves' work connects us to an extraordinary moment in literacy education, a quiet revolution that overturned assumptions about what children could (and couldn't) do.  It was a revolution that drew on the creative energy--and sheer boldness--of young teachers and a visionary principal.  They did it together with no road map.  Together they learned to observe, ask good questions, and wait for answers.  John Keats called this quality a 'negative capability'--the capability for "being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.
     This uncertainty scares a lot of people, now.  Or it seems an irresponsible luxury in this time of perpetual 'crisis.'  There is no shortage of programs, scripts, or 'alignment' specialists who promise to free us of this responsibility to make decisions.  When I visit schools, I can almost sense teachers ducking and dodging as these programs, tests, and 'data' come their way.  The overcrowded curriculum and the interruptions that Don mocked are even more prominent now.  The testing culture is oppressive.
     So we hope this book is a bracing dose of clarity.  This work still represents a horizon of the possible.  It is still a revolution, one that Don incited with that wonderful, unqualified sentence--'Children want to write.'"

Writing isn't a mystery.  Writing isn't a lock and step sequence of events that magically mixes and matches the 26 letters of the alphabet onto the page.  It isn't a "unit " in which a writer's pencil falls gracefully upon the page and because it's packaged in pretty publisher quality paper, success is guaranteed.  It isn't.  It isn't a rubric-based system of "teach this" and "score this" and watch as the mysterious writing wand suddenly turns children into writers who, because they have a plan, write brilliantly.  It isn't a half hour a day of drill and kill and skill, turning writers words into swill upon the page.  It isn't a five-paragraph essay.  It isn't.  It isn't a clearcut continuum of standards that are scooped out of a pot of "skills and strategies" then thrown upon paper in a neat and tidy sequence by someone who, for the most part, probably doesn't write.  It isn't a program packaged with bells and whistles, "say this" and "model this."  It just isn't. 

Writing is the work that writers do.  Don knew this.  In every word he wrote and from every child (adult) with whom he conferred, Don learned that the work of a writer is... well... WRITING!  He knew that it we have to teach "to the intention of writers, not curriculum guides or standards."  On page 57, Penny writes, "Don defined a writing classroom as a place where we experiment and learn.  The 'we' is critical of course:  Graves believed that the teacher must practice and demonstrate a deep understanding of writing craft, and in fact, called the teacher-writer the chief 'condition' for effective writing."

I don't think Don would have disagreed that we should help writers reach high standards.  In fact, if you ever took a workshop from him, you KNOW that he nudged writers to write.  Over the years, I took several workshops with him and during every one of them I was expected to write, to listen to other writers, to talk to other writers, to experiment, to revise, to "give it a go" with a strategy or skill.  Last week, Susan and I were talking to our friend Jo Franklin about all the times we sat in one of his workshops with clear expectations and notebooks in hand, wanting to write because there was no doubt in his mind that we could!  And, I remember sitting with him on the lawn with my friend, Randi Allison, talking writing and writers, children and learning, people and places.  There was always a natural and sincere curiosity swirling about Don. 

So, it's with excitement and furor that I recommend "his" latest book!  And, I'm so thankful that his dear friends Penny Kittle and Thomas Newkirk went on an archeological dig through his work to put together an amazing tribute.  I needed this book!  When I read "First Grade," I was taken back to 1992 and I heard Don's voice reading this poem to us, here in Denver... I'll be forever grateful for your wisdom in putting this book together.

For those of you who knew Don, you'll reminisce and remember.  You'll hear his voice float through the pages.  The video clips will remind you of a friend who's gone, but not forgotten (I have a sneaking hunch he's still observing in a few classrooms now and then).  The writing will "re-energize" you and perhaps encourage you to write, and more importantly, stand up for writers.  This compilation is classic Donald Graves. 

For those of you who never met Don, you'll get to meet him.  You'll hear the voice that caused thousands of teachers to revision the teaching of writing.  The video clips will give you a glimpse into the heart and mind of the man who taught us well.  The writing will re-energize you and perhaps encourage you to read more of his writing... to see what real writers in real classrooms should be doing.  This compilation is classic Donald Graves. 

Classic Graves.  Thank you Penny and Tom.  Thank you, dear Don!  Children DO want to write...

1 comment:

  1. How I miss this dear,dear friend! I HAVE to buy this book!