Remembering Donald Murray

When I received this assignment from a few years ago, I could not have been more proud. Donald Murray is one of my heroes. Like Murray, I have been a journalist and an educator and I am proud of my work in both fields.
In the age of the Common Core, in a time when misguided ideas of literacy circulate faster than best practice, it’s good to remember the principles for writing instruction that men like Murray and Donald Grave set forth.
If there ever was a golden age of literacy instruction, Murray and Graves were two of it’s giants.
I hope to write more about Donald Murray in the coming weeks, including a close look at what we can still learn from A Writer Teaches Writing. In the meantime, please take a look at the is synopsis of “Teach Writing as a Process, not a Product.”


A Call for a Transformational Approach to Grammar Instruction

This week, in case you missed it, some of us celebrated National Grammar Day. Don’t blame yourself if you didn’t notice. Following the crowd favorite, Read Across America Day, and the commercial favorite, National Pancake Day (I’m 85 percent sure the International House of Pancakes made that one up), it is easy to understand how you may have missed it. Hopefully, we can make up for that now.

Here’s the premise I would like you to consider for the next few minutes: We need a transformational approach to teaching grammar that will make it an essential part of literacy instruction once again.

Now, I’m not suggesting our schools bring back Warner’s English Grammar and Composition, that dense little book of rules and drills that followed me through my schooling. I don’t want to go back to the HBJ Language textbooks and workbooks I used when I started teaching either.

Drill and kill grammar taught in isolation doesn’t work. Every study on the subject conducted over 30 or 40 years came to that conclusion. For years, I tried grammar mini-lessons incorporated into my writing workshop, but those lessons always seemed forced and were always too hit or miss. I never saw the returns in better edited final pieces.

I abhor Daily Oral Language just as much as grammar books. Jeff Anderson, the author of several books on effective grammar and mechanics instruction, including Mechanically Inclined and Revision Decisions, points out the flaws in DOL. This routine typically involves displaying for students an error-laden sentence and asking them to suggest the corrections. The problem with this, Anderson states, is that by showing students flawed sentences we reinforce the mistakes, not the corrections.

Anderson recommends a model I have found particularly effective. He shows students mentor sentences and invites them to notice the craft, structure and stylistic elements in the sentence. Then, he asks students draft their imitations of the mentor. Finally, he has them attempt various revisions to see how alterations change of the effectiveness of the sentence.

When you follow Anderson’s instructional model — or that of Carol Weaver who pioneered this path — you begin to see grammar not as a set of rules and restrictions, but rather as a tool for crafting pieces with a sophisticated writing voice behind them.

This is the only method I have ever employed that produced noticeable changes in the way students write. For several years, my teaching partner Lisa Sassano and I used the mentor and imitation method as the foundation of our writing instruction, and it produced remarkable improvements in the way our students wrote. I was able to convince a few other teachers to adopt out version of the Anderson method, and they produced the same result.

My only regret is that more teachers don’t teach grammar this way. These lessons only take about 10 minutes a day if they become a regular part of your instructional routine. If you are like most ELA teachers, grading essays isn’t your favorite pastime. Teachers, I often say, are the only people who get paid to read bad writing. Editors at least have the option of rejecting a piece for quality, and they can do that quickly. Sadly, teachers have to read until the very end.

When students begin to master craft, voice and style, when their stories and essays take on some authentic rhetorical sophistication, their writing pieces are no longer a chore to grade. You look forward to the work and walk away with a sense of pride in your instruction.

All this is good stuff, I hope you will see, but it isn’t the best reason for pushing a transformational approach to teaching grammar, mechanics, and craft.

Grammar is the mechanism — the metaphorically mechanical nuts and bolts — that give a piece of writing its voice. You may have come across this line from Stephen King’s On Writing: “What is writing? Telepathy, of course.” As teachers, we shouldn’t ignore the importance of that line. Writing is a means for putting thoughts onto paper, and the paper is simply a medium for conducting thoughts from the mind of the writer to the mind the reader.

Grammar plays a vital role in this process. Grammar brings clarity and coherence to writer’s thoughts and the writer’s voice. Clarity and coherence are essential for both interpersonal communication and interpersonal communication. Without grammar, we can not clearly share our thoughts, and often we can not understand the thoughts ourselves. We have a mind full of fragmented ideas, instead of a fluent inner monolog.

We need to teach grammar so our students can write and speak with abundant clarity. But we also need it so our students can think in cogent language. A sentence, a paragraph, a story, or essay must have its own internal logic as clear and functional as lines of code in a computer program. That’s what effective grammar instruction provides: logical lines of code on paper and in our minds.

Therefore, I call for a transformation in grammar instruction. We must abandon the thought that grammar is strictly rules to drill into the heads of our students. We also need to stretch beyond grammar as a writer’s toolbox for crafting clever sentence.

We need to see grammar as the vehicle for creating clear and coherent thinking for all aspects of communication, including a rational, coherent inner monolog. Our instruction needs to follow this model so we can lead our students to the highest level of reading, writing, and thinking.

Why You Should Let Writing Objectives Drive Reading Instruction (Sometimes)

I spent a good part of one summer working with a group of  clever teachers creating units of study for writing instruction. The writer’s notebook became the centerpiece for our classes, and we created notebook work that would help students develop writing muscles. We selected genres for focus, then started to collect mentor and touchstone texts. We discussed how to teach students to find craft and how to model our writing for them. The curriculum team planned assessment for both full process and on-demand writing, and chose appropriate rubrics.  Finally, we packaged all our work in dandy Understanding By Design templates.

Of course, there is always a glitch.

Throughout the curriculum project, we continued to trip over one question.  If we implement all these great ideas to teach writing, where we will find time to work on reading.

Fortunately, we weren’t stumbling around in the dark on our own. We had a consultant to lead us. Her name is Erica Denman; she trained at Teacher’s College, Columbia University, and if you want to improve the writing instruction in your school, hire her.

Erica offered a simple solution to our stumbling block: Sometimes it’s a good idea to let the writing drive the reading.

Writing to improve reading isn’t exactly a new idea. Using writing to drive the reading end of the curriculum is a little more outside the box.

The concept has tremendous merit.

At the core of effective writing instruction are the mentor texts we use to learn various genres. When students study mentors, they read with specific purposes: to find the voice, to learn the craft, and to deconstruct the structure. Students engage in much higher levels of thinking than they do if when they read to just to find out what happens in the story.

From Erica Denman, I learned that teaching students to work from mentor texts teaches them a valuable method of problem-solving that they can apply to many situations. When you have a task to complete, and you don’t know how to complete it, find examples of someone who has accomplished the same sort of task before, and learn from them.

I do it all the time. I would much rather work from the picture on the box than from a set of instructions when assembling almost anything, from a grill to a lawnmower. (Although, I confess, that method doesn’t always work when putting together a machine that has to work. The guts of writing piece are more visible than the inner workings of a small, internal combustion engine.)

Teaching students to analyze and write from mentors takes writing instruction a giant step above just a set of instructions for a five-paragraph essay or a three-page short story or a ten-page research paper.

When students start to see writing tasks as a form of verbal problem-solving rather than just a chore to complete, they take a leap forward in crafting meaningful writing pieces.

They start to read and think like problem solvers. The writing itself is just a way to present their solution to an audience.

Right now, one of my high school classes is working on a literary analysis paper examining which character or characters are to blame for the deaths of Romeo and Juliet. They have the play to analyze, and they have commentaries to read. That gives them content.

I also have them reading Roger Ebert’s brilliant movie reviews available on to learn voice and New York Times book reviews to learn structure.

Through this process, students learn to ask the valuable questions:

  • What is the writer doing?
  • Why is the writer this?
  • What does the writer want the reader to think here?
  • How would I do it in my writing?

Too often we fall into this pattern: we decide we want to read The Witch of Blackbird Pond. We read the text, perhaps using techniques from Harvey Daniels or Kylene Beers or Cris Tovani as our pedagogy. All good stuff.

Then, we get to the end of the book and decide we need an assessment. We pick a writing topic and assign it. Eventually, we collect a finished piece, and we curse ourselves for ever making the assignment when we have to grade 50 putrid essays about Kit’s attempt to confirm to Puritan society.

Here’s a alternative approach: Decide on a writing genre — perhaps argument or analysis. Select a book or books. Then teach the students to read with the writing task in mind. That adds deeper and more authentic purpose to the reading. As your students work through The Witch of Blackbird Pond, you toss in various supplementary readings on topics like Puritans, Quakers and all sorts of witch hunts.

When your class gets to the end of the book, they examine mentor essays about the teenagers searching for identity or conformity versus rebellion. You might find good examples in NPR’s “This I Believe”  and “This American Life” collections.

Both the reading and writing improve from taking this approach.

A writing-driven genre study approach works wonders when teaching poetry, drama, short story and non-fiction. Students learn to read the genre by learning to write it.

Writing becomes more than a task; it becomes more than an assessment; it becomes more than test prep; it becomes more than filler between reading units — all stations it has held in the past.

Writing facilitates clear, analytical thinking about reading at levels reading and discussion only could never reach.

Now for the promised, mandatory disclaimer: Writing should not drive all reading instruction.

Writing has its limits.

I believe the number one rule that should drive all instruction is authenticity. We don’t always read so that we can write. Sometimes we read just to be entertained. Sometimes we read just to satisfy curiosity. Authentic purpose for reading should always be at the core of our instruction.

To accomplish all reading purposes, we need to teach students how to monitor their comprehension and how to fix it when it breaks down. Many students struggle to engage with texts, and we have a primary responsibility to teach them how to do that.

All reading and reading instruction should center on what our students need at that moment. All other goals, objectives, standards and essential questions come in second to helping our students with whatever difficulties they face at the moment.