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Saturday, July 30, 2016

30 Years Ago and the Kaypro, Phone with Cords, and Writing Workshop

Thirty years ago, I talked on a phone with a long cord that I could carry from the kitchen into the living room and even the bathroom. I bought my first microwave and worried about radiation.  I gave my son a "portable" computer to take to college: a Kaypro II that weighed 26 pounds and was about sixteen inches long while the screen couldn’t have been more than 10 inches wide.

In my high school classroom those 30 years ago, on Monday I assigned students topics for their five paragraph essays, collected them on Friday and spent Sunday night grading like mad so I could hand them back the next day. Knowing the reputation of the red pen, I corrected those run-ons and punctuation errors with a green felt tip pen, softening the demand of “get your writing right!”

And then thirty years ago in the summer, most of my colleagues in Thornton High’s  English department spent two weeks with Colorado Writing Project. We wrote on topics of our choice, shared our work with each, received smart feedback from our mentor, Judy Gilbert, and studied Nancie Atwell’s In the Middle and Dan Kirby’s Inside Out. We fell in love with writing and the teaching of it.

And together the next few years we figured out how to bring choice, time to write, a variety of ways to respond to drafts, and teacher modeling into the classroom. We devoured Tom Romano’s Clearing the Way and Zemelman and Daniels’ A Community of Writers. We mined Donald Murray’s wisdom and taught our students about the myriad decisions writers make. 

We figured out what a writing workshop looked like in a high school setting. 

And our classrooms shifted but not completely. Some of us held on tenaciously to practices that we were convinced also mattered.

Meet the five paragraph essay.

In the 10th grade Introduction to Composition, we taught the comparison/contrast essay, the cause/effect essay, and the precis. Sure, students selected their topics, and we worked on strategies for generating ideas, but the structure was a given: first paragraph had to hook the reader and end with the thesis, the next three paragraphs had to support the thesis, and then that closing paragraph had to pull it all together. Simple! So students created webs or free wrote to generate ideas. We had choice, and, yep, response. Every Wednesday students brought drafts to their workshop group, and I modeled. Yep – I wrote those god-awful essays side by side with them.

A couple of years passed. I applied for a sabbatical leave to work on my masters and took the year off to study. Borrowing my son’s old Kaypro II, I headed to Fort Collins to further my studies in writing pedagogy. One of the first books we read in Bill McBride’s Theories of Composition class was by Knoblauch and Brannan, and in that book, the researchers  slammed the five paragraph essay as an artificial structure that existed no where outside of school. Knoblauch and Brannan were my nemesis. “Why,” I argued over and over, “can’t we have lively writing within the five paragraph essay? What’s the deal here? After all, students need to learn the structure of an essay.” Even as I worked at synthesizing what I was learning from Ken Macrorie, Linda Flower, and Peter Elbow, I fought with Knoblauch and Brannon. If I’d had an email account, I might have sent them an angry missive, but email was rare then.

I still remember the great epiphany – the moment it hit me that the formula was outmoded and ill-conceived and that Knoblauch and Brannon were right. It was after dinner and while studying another chapter of their book when that proverbial lightening blot hit me. I had to stop privileging form before ideas, and writing didn’t begin with structure unless it was a limerick or a sonnet.

Again my high school classes changed. In Intro to Comp, we kept a writer’s notebook, learned strategies for drafting and revising, experimented with structure, and read each other’s work.  We played with organization and experimented with leads and closings. We played, worked hard, and celebrated our work.

Sometime about then I bought my first cell phone though I rarely used it and thought about buying my first Apple. I no longer feared my microwave and set up my AOL email account and wondered about buying a fax machine.

No longer did my classroom look the same as a few years earlier. Students sat in small groups and collaborative work really required the thinking of all students. I wrote along with them: stories, poems, essays, biographies. I chucked those formulaic assignments along with the overheads that described the opening paragraph and listed transitions to start each of the body paragraphs.

Over the years my writers workshop evolved. Genre shaped the curriculum, and mentor text grew our craft. We wrote for a broad range of audiences, from the principal as students argued that they had earned the right of an open campus to their senators when some disagreed with our entry into the Gulf War.

Today I rarely use my landline (didn’t even know that’s what it was called a few years ago). I carry my cell everywhere so I can check emails and recipes and snap pictures. Not too long ago I ditched my fax machine. It no longer served a purpose.

And yet….

And yet….

And yet this is what this essay is about.

Thirty years ago our high school English department learned about writing processes and the writing workshop. For a decade or more we studied what it meant to grow the adolescent writer and figured out how to teach grammar in context. So given the long history and the research base about teaching writing, why is it that when I walk into high school classrooms across the nation and, literally, the world, I watch hard working, smart teachers assign an essay topic, explain the structure of the five paragraph essay, and grade those essays on Sunday night, sometimes in red ink, sometimes in green, and sometimes online? Why is that I see students’ eyes glaze over when their teacher explains once again the importance of having a strong thesis before moving forward with drafting? Why is it that I see learning targets that urge writers to "wrap up their essay in a tidy package and bring it home to the reader"? Why is it that I don’t see students writing side by side with their students? Why am I not seeing writing workshop as the norm and instruction in the multiple processes for composing?

What is there about our profession that keeps us the same so that even as teachers use “” and No Red Ink and text message students on their phones, their classrooms look like mine did over 30 years ago? Was Seymour Sarason right when he complained that the school system itself creates an “intractability to significant reform and change”?

Does each generation need to learn anew? Do we really grow as a profession? Why was it easier to move from the ditto machine to the print option on laptops than it is to move from a teacher-centered writing classroom to a writing workshop?

A phone with a long cord, anyone? I've got one somewhere in an attic, one I used over 30 years ago.


  1. Totally, totally, totally agree with you in theory, and as far as my own writing goes. Trying to figure out how to teach kids to write authentically and also satisfy all of the stupid testing requirements! :((((

    1. What if you opted for authenticity? When students understand that they need to write for audience and purpose, they should be able to think about those who score their tests as their audience and then write appropriately. Also when you look at the Beating the Odds studies from Applebee and Langer, you'll see that those schools that beat the odds on tests have done a minimal of test prep (some but not a lot) and have been immersed in authentic literacy.

  2. Stevi, even if you write this in five-paragraph-essay format, and wrap it all up in a tidy package, I'll read anything you write. And also, I used green pen, too, so you make me laugh. One thought, at least based on my personal experience and working with teachers: it takes years to gather the confidence and risk the vulnerability of the workshop - of trusting that when you relinquish control, the lessons and the material and the AUTHORITY will still be there. You're so overwhelmed by the management of the scene that allowing these people to do their own thing seems outlandish, risky, SCARY. So while thirty years have passed for you, and for me, when I left the classroom, eleven years, where I was at the point when I could say, "Seriously, people, why aren't you doing this?!", with many of the teachers we work with only one year has passed for them, or three, or, if we're lucky, more than five years. It's funny that even while what we know as "a profession" has changed, almost nothing has changed for that brand new teacher staring down a class of teenagers for the very first time. For me, that is the question. How do you develop a structure (I won't say foolproof, because what on earth in the classroom is EVER foolproof!) that provides comfort to teachers and learners so they can jump into the real work, the authentic learning? In addition to that, when you're working with students who might really respond to concrete writing instruction and formats; who experience success with communicating their thoughts for the first time when given a structure; who perhaps don't have rich reading histories/models of their own to draw upon, workshopping can kind of feel like a luxury you can't afford.

    To be clear, I agree with you completely. I'm so interested in this topic that I'm responding without ANY structure and bursting with ideas and questions of my own. So often (not always!) when we begin teaching, not only are we inexperienced in the classroom but we're also kind of inexperienced in life. Teaching tests who you are as a person, not just who you are at work. It's hard to possess the confidence of authority and surety a classroom like this appears to require when you're just starting out.

    To conclude my rambling response, I had a student in AP Literature the last year I taught who was totally unsure about himself and his writing, and I told him to trust himself - much like what you said in your response comment above. He raced in after the AP test to tell me he had written his entire free-response question by comparing _Remains of the Day_ to a Keisha song. I was like, "Oh, yeah, great...(OMGOMGOMG)" He got a 5 on the exam. We still talk often to this day, our bond was so strong after such an ostentatious and amazing exam victory! Haha! Miss you, Stevi!

  3. Love the juxtaposition of technology timelines and the evolution of your writing pedagogy. In elementary I'm still trying to keep it real, whether it's the form of a persuasive piece or the topic of a research report, difficult to do when external forces demand alignment with "units of study" materials and timelines.

  4. Believe that part of this very repetitive pattern is due to the "plus ca change, rien ca change" phenomenon. Unfortunately (in most respects), I sincerely doubt that this is confined to education.

    In my literacy classes, I am using techniques I used 25 years ago, and subsequently dismissed.

    Admittedly, these are intervention classes. So most of these students need more perceived structure than others. On the other hand, some of them appear quite bored with the "same old, same old" sometimes. To be frank (here at least), I can hardly blame them.

    If anyone else has any other suggestions other than three or five paragraph essays, I would love to hear (read) them.

  5. Stevi, you always make us think. You and I have talked about this question for years. I wish I had a good answer. Lissa's ideas that new teachers are overwhelmed and that workshop seems beyond their reach makes sense - except they should be learning workshop in their college courses. Hopefully, universities will put them in classrooms that have good writing instruction when they do their student teaching. I also think teachers underestimate their students when they give them formula. "This kid can't write, so I will give him/her a structure. Then they can fill in the blanks. What do they get? Boring writing, and kids don't lealrn to think. I believe good instruction and good mentor texts make the difference. A student doesn't need a formula; a young writer needs to see how good writers write. And I could go on. Instead, I think I will work on the CWP schedule for this summer.