Letters to Gracia: Learning About Teaching and Writing Instruction
by Gary S. O'Malley - May 14, 2007
This personal reflection describes the transition from young student of writing to veteran teacher of writing. Written as a tribute to a former teacher, the author chronicles four decades of experiences on how writing instruction supports learning, leadership, and teacher education.
We all have favorite teachers. For me, I remember last names: Halvarson, Torasson, Oncken, McDougal, Plocinek, Pittman, Kallenbach, Butler, Foley, Ansley, and Marshall. Each welcomed me into their classroom: high school choir, sophomore speech, junior high English, high school physical education, third grade, sophomore biology, sixth grade, music theory, educational leadership, educational measurement, and language and literacy. I remember their poise, energy, confidence, wit, patience and conviction. The best of the best, though, has a first name: Gracia, a college English professor who still influences my thinking about teaching and writing instruction thirty years later. Gracia would be embarrassed by any notoriety; yet, recognition of her work provides a tribute to the many educators who impact, unknowingly, the future work of their students. The body of this narrative, four letters written to Gracia but never sent, chronicles four decades of experiences and insights on how writing instruction supports learning, leadership, and teacher education. This opportunity to reminisce tells the story of changing perspectives as a reluctant young learner transitions from a student of teaching and writing instruction to a veteran educator using writing instruction to inform teaching practice. This article begins with a description of Gracia and her classroom and concludes with a postscript summary of lessons learned.
GRACIA AND HER CLASSROOM: DECEMBER 1972
The room is cold, as usual, and the six of us wait without speaking at the oak table that covers most of the floor in the upstairs classroom of Old Main. I look down from the only window and catch sight of her laughing as she walks, bundled up with our papers across her chest, and that scarf twisted twice around her neck. She walks in late, as usual, smiles, and huddles us together. As she talks about herself, her life, and her writing, the six of us become one listener and the room warms.
Born in Min-nee-so-dah, Gracia spoke proudly of her father, a Lutheran minister, and of the Scandinavian heritage that influenced her writing. Gray-blond hair fell straight past her face to just above her large shoulders. Gracia was sturdy like the oak table in our classroom, strong enough to support each of us as we talked about things that seemed, at that time, so very important. By sharing her life, she encouraged us to think out loud about our own lives.
She challenged our writing seminar to battle with significant questions that deserved attention. Gracia encouraged us to discover revision strategies that emphasized paragraphs and ideas rather than sentences and words. Reminders like too much preaching, not enough proof, or sloppy attention to conventions detracts from your message or more here became sage advice for students working to demonstrate an understanding of how good writing could become better. She helped separate self-editing from self-criticism and she redirected passion toward purpose. We were expected to know our audience and know our subjects. We learned to write with precision and accuracy about important topics.
Our work extended beyond writing instruction and composition theory. Gracia expected us to read Moffet, Macrorie, Ong, Winterowd, Booth, Gibson, Becker, Guth, and Weaver. We studied oral cultures, literary criticism, and language development. We were intimidated by this diverse and complicated curriculum, yet Gracias instruction appeared simple and practical. She insisted we suspend judgment, consider other perspectives and embrace unresolved contradictions. We were asked to identify priorities within our content area and engage in conversations as if we were connected to a larger community having similar discussions elsewhere. Gracia brought us together as a group, demanding clear thinking and quality work; later, she promoted individual identities, expecting us to share our knowledge with others.
SAYING GOODBYE: MAY 1974
I send my best wishes as I graduate next week from college. Your classroom was a forum for challenging and clarifying ideas. Somehow, you helped direct emotion into insights and self interest into community service. You were incredible. You helped me begin to share my own thinking with the confidence that my opinions mattered. For that, I will be forever grateful. I will always remember you.
I start my first real job this fall teaching English. I wonder if I have the stamina to manage a classroom, especially one where students are asked to think about their writing. Am I smart enough? Will my students like and respect me? Will my colleagues support me? Will I be successful? Teaching looks like a very difficult and demanding job with so many things to consider all at the same time. Thank you for the suggestion to read more Piaget, Dewey and Bruneryou remembered I have a minor in psychology! Wish me luck on my journey to discover if I am made for this thing they call teaching. I promise to keep you informed of my progress. Sometimes I wish I could be a student the rest of my life.
TEACHING AS WRITING: AUGUST 1984
This is my tenth year in the classroom and I am still teaching high school students lessons I learned from you. I have 156 students though, not six, so I must manage groups before I can assist individuals. I wonder how you would individualize instruction in a large group setting and what strategies you would use to bring a sense of community to this diverse and unique collection of adolescents.
Teaching is about relationships among people and writing is about relationships among ideas. Teaching is like writing: the organizing and managing of lessons; the nuisance of moving conversation forward without dictating destination; the handling of twists and turns of spontaneity and serendipity; and the building of rapport and respect among students and between students and instructor. My lessons are like short stories: I balance content, context and individuals as if they were plot, setting and characters, hoping my students will agree to participate completely, confident enough to make mistakes. Maybe classroom management is like writing instruction: navigating the starting and stopping, adding new information, summarizing, making judgments and moving forward. Maybe the discipline of learning is like the discipline of writing: chaos to clarity, rethinking priorities, measuring influence and changing perspectives. Teaching my students to think is the most difficult thing I do.
It is difficult to provide a predictable, secure and safe classroom environment where students can participate in classroom discussions. Participation changes unexpectedly and frequently. One day students are warriors fighting over ideas as if they were sacred ground. The next day, students are competing siblings trying to monopolize an adults attention. A third day no one says anything to anyone. A fourth day everyone is talking about anything but the subject at hand. Dialogue within the classroom influences learning. Sometimes students hold fast to the majority view, distrustful of their own ideas and unable to suggest alternatives. Other times, students question everything, distrustful of others and unwilling to admit to the obvious. Ironically, speech gets in the way of expression. Oral arguments are invisible, temporal and fleeting. Writing provides another opportunity to engage students by asking them to write down their ideas before, during and after discussions.
Influencing the work of another is far more difficult than completing a task yourself. Certainly, experience is helping me improve my craft, but conditions outside my control impact my work. I complain about too much time on task, too tight a schedule, too many students, too much paperwork and too much committee work. Yes, the kids have so much energy and the adults seem so tired. My colleagues are battle weary, distrustful and cynical. Few talk about the future unless they are talking about retirement. Everyone outside of the school has an idea of what should happen inside the classroom. More mandates appear to be inevitable, our last two school referenda failed and I have worked for four principals in ten years. Where is the joy in our struggle?
Yet, I am invigorated by the efforts of my students. Attendance is taken, the door is closed and we simply expect the best from each other. Despite the difficulties, I tell my students we are one big happy family. I cant admit this to my colleagues for many have lost a connection to their students, choosing instead to express their loyalties to their content by stressing coverage, materials and information. They remain good teachers in many respects, but they are empty of joy and jaded by repetition, eager to blame students, parents, administrators, school board policies and MTV when student performance is judged insufficient.
I read Elbow, Graves, Rodriquez, Heath, Wells, Rosenblatt, Vygotsky, and Murray. I surround myself with those who will encourage me to use writing as a tool for thinking. My hope is that my classroom will embrace the outside world so that content has a context which connects elsewhere. Extending the walls of the classroom brings a treasure of outside resources and recognition of participation in a larger community. Last semester we wrote biographies and sent greetings to those outside our classroom. Sometimes the outside world responded generously in return. Scott received a handwritten note from John Wooden, Curt received a signed color photo of George Carlin and Tim received two LP records from B.B. Kings press agent. Yes, the outside world remains worlds away, but we can accept responsibility for using our writing to shorten the distance. Everyday is an opportunity for my students to consider their place in the larger scheme of life, moving gradually past individual needs toward the promise of a collective good.
I wonder if this profession will provide me the professional development necessary to meet these challenges. Graduate work appears to be an option to secure additional certification and leave the classroom. Perhaps I am responsible for my own professional development. Maybe I have a responsibility to model my learning as an example of how adults deal with the difficulties of teaching. Gracia, how do you do it? Until next time, stay well and stay strong. I know somewhere you are singing a joyful song to celebrate the burden of good teaching, good writing and more learning.
WRITING AS LEADERSHIP: OCTOBER 1994
Has it really been twenty years? Time changes everything. I am now a Ph.D. in a business suit who directs curriculum and instruction priorities from the central office of a large school district. My classroom has become 9 schools, 5,000 students, and 700 teachers. I assist the superintendent, principals, and school board in defining instructional strategies, providing professional development opportunities and documenting compliance of district, state and federal requirements. I speak to legislators about funding sources, service clubs about public relations, and the media about student performance on state assessments.
Sometimes I miss my classroom.
I just received an email from Heather, one of my former students, telling me her fifth grade classroom is one big happy family. She mentions that her students groan whenever she reminds them about this, just like she did in my class. Perhaps that mantra is more than a silly joke. Maybe we stumbled onto a sense of community without realizing it. Perhaps we knew, but would not admit, that supportive relationships were a critical component for creating learning opportunities.
Writing you today reminds me of the importance of individual success in a group setting. I have come to believe that the success of a community of learners compliments the growth of the individual. In the best classes, roles are interchangeable as students become teachers and teachers become students. Learning in these classrooms is tangible and authentic, taking shape in large and small group settings, through curriculum differentiated by need, interest, and expertise using literacy strategies that encourage conversations about interdependence (community) and independence (individual). These students are well served with multiple opportunities to become problem solvers, effective communicators and analytical thinkers. I worry that all kids do not receive this same opportunity because so much is dependent on who is organizing the instruction. Many teachers argue the opposite: they believe academic success is more dependent on what their students do.
My interests are moving beyond the classroom toward district concerns. My principals laugh when I tell them I favor high school classrooms that look more like elementary classrooms and general education classrooms that look more like special education classrooms. Department chairs scoff when I suggest that every teacher should be a writing teacher. I argue that good schools parallel effective writing instruction: the individual is significant, hard work is expected and accomplishments are acknowledged. Could it be that simple? My administrative position gives me authority, a forum for change, multiple resources, and the time to think critically about my work. Yet, many of my colleagues seem uncomfortable with flexibility they want the right answerand unwilling to work through problemsthey want to predict all consequences. To them, a leader takes charge and makes decisions. To me, a leader promotes others to make decisions. I will not do this job well if I do this job alone. For support, I read Deal, Drucker, Barth, Senge, Perkins, Sizer, Fullan, and Sergiovanni.
What does it mean to be a professional? Teachers across our district are working to determine how curriculum influences instruction. We find our most successful professional development opportunities develop through commitment rather than compliance -- when questions reveal solutions to practical problems. Yet, we struggle sharing responsibility. Who is responsible inside the classroom when students do not learn? Who is responsible for induction programs, mentoring programs, staff development opportunities and professional growth? Who is responsible for a unified instructional program, school improvement activities, mission statements, strategic planning and district test scores? Unfortunately, the answer to who becomes an opportunity to relinquish responsibility and place blame elsewhere. Years ago the word accountability meant accepting responsibility for improving the situation. Recently, accountability has come to mean defining responsibility for others to document compliance. Such advice, often well-intended, comes from those far removed from the problem. Credibility becomes an issue when confidence and competence are questioned.
A professional accepts responsibility for being both teacher and learner, asking and answering questions about what should be. A professional is a teacher who honors the work and understands the work environment yet initiates activities that ultimately reshape it. A professional is a learner who travels through this changing landscape believing that benefits exist. Both teacher and learner suffer the aggravation of uncertainty in the hope that wisdom will prevail.
Thanks to you, Gracia, I am a reader and a writer, wiser because of the joy found in constructing meaning. I continue to shape and structure ideas: cutting back, starting and stopping, unwrapping and uncovering, reworking and rethinking until ideas emerge as significant. Later, I distance myself from the work only to rewrite everything all over again anyway. Nevertheless, my writing transforms me, taking me to places I never realized existed. I suggest the following to my colleagues in writing classrooms: share with your students why revision is individual and how revision is possible. Ask your students to consider the value in these learning opportunities--like the young student in your classroom, Gracia, who did not understand that writing is learning, entered and exited at different times for different reasons--and like the older student writing these words right now and learning from them.
WRITING AS TEACHER EDUCATION: MARCH 2004
I am sorry to hear that you are ill. Thirty years later I spend my days in a college classroom, teaching in the College of Education at a major university. We are miles removed from our college classroom yet closer in spirit than you might imagine. I still appreciate how you took the time to help a shy young man feel significant, and I am pleased to say that this lesson has repeated itself many times over, with roles reversed, as I reach out to those with unexpressed potential. The circle is unbroken; I encourage my college students to think out loud about their work as future teachers, challenging them to battle significant questions that deserve attention.
Yes, I ask my students to write.
My students are prospective high school teachers, taking my language and literacy course as part of the required Secondary Education sequence. My students are desperate to make sense of pedagogy, yet they see very little connection to how their writing might help them develop as a teacher. Instead, my college students speak of the chore of writing, experts at playing the guessing game of Is this what you want? and How long should it be? and Did I get this right? No amount of reassurance consoles students who wonder what to say and worry how to say it. My capable college students, only a point and click away from an endless stream of electronic resources, appear clueless about conventions, style, and organization. In many ways, these college students are my high school writers of twenty years ago, unsure of how to write with confidence about subjects of their own choosing. Certainly, many of my students connect with me, their classmates, their work and their writing and they do their best to comply with writing assignments. My students tell me they want someone to care about what they write, yet, they admit they dont always care about what they write. Sadly, only a few express the joy in writing I remember when writing for you, Gracia.
Good teachers model the challenges that all writers face. I organize my coursework as I would organize writing instruction, constructing a variety of opportunities where students struggle, individually and collectively, to make sense of their clinical experiences. I make the following three writing expectations for the students in my classroom community: 1) Writing is your window toward uncovering your learning potential. Use this opportunity to discuss issues of importance, describing your fears, anxiety and frustration as you travel from dependent student to independent learner. 2) Writing is your mirror to reflect your teaching potential. Use this opportunity to describe the depth of experiences in your clinical work that document your progress from student of teaching to teacher of students. 3) Writing is your tool box of strategies, ideas and techniques for improving your craft. Collect, catalogue, share, practice and rethink a variety of lesson plans, grouping strategies and student activities.
Gracia, I build my college classrooms around memories of our college classroom. These memories are the promise of a community where relationships are built between student and content, among students and other students, and between student and instructor. Thinking of you reminds me to prepare a classroom to serve the student I once was. I now teach the children of my former students. Last semester, I taught the grandson of one of my favorite teachers. Maybe, just maybe, someone sitting in my classroom right now will become another students Gracia.
I welcome my students by name each day. I expect them to participate, and I get them up in front of their peers to share insights, questions and concerns. I establish order, structure and routine. I encourage flexibility, self-discipline, and creativity. I integrate their interests, likes and dislikes, questions, and suggestions into course content. I ask them to evaluate their work, the work of others, and our completed lessons. I expect results, use student performance to guide future work, and return written work to students within three class periods. I thank my students at the end of each class period.
We problem solve as a group. We spend much of our time in small groups on activities that are varied, interesting, and useful. We model the behavior we expect from others. We ignore whiners. We revise objectives, lesson plans, learning standards, assessments, and goals daily. We ask each other to elaborate, illustrate, explain, judge, defend, criticize, and enjoy. Each day we try to value our time together.
I am influenced by Shulman, Bryk, Baker, Goodlad, Wiggins, Stake, Stiggins and Cuban. All teachers are writing teachers, remembered for the obstacles removed rather than created. I am a better teacher than I was a writing student, wiser in constructing meaning and more confident in communicating ideas. Isnt good writing knowing how it might become better writing? Isnt effective instruction considering how your next lesson introduces new information to challenge old ideas? Teaching, like writing, requires recognition of audience and purpose. Writing, like teaching, requires introducing content knowledge others find valuable enough to apply in another context.
I have spent my adult life learning to make sense of teaching and writing instruction. As always, words give me pause to consider how I have matured professionally. Writing gives me opportunity to question myself, my life and my work. Thank you, Gracia, for encouraging this writer to participate in that awkward struggle to make sense out of ourselves as we make sense of the words we use.
Countless teachers have dedicated their lives in support of their students. Similarly, numerous students have grown into these same kinds of teachers, modeling the care and devotion once modeled for them. Maturity, personal growth, perspective and empathy are traits nurtured by experience and practiced regularly by willing students. Conversations about the transition from student to teacher appear one-sided, with the student-turned-teacher struggling to articulate how context has led to informed judgment. Such is the case with writing instruction: influence is expressed through the willingness of another to take pause and consider connections. We travel alone as learners seeking language and literacy as personal strategies for strengthening relationships we value as significant and worthwhile. The teachers of the future appear to us first as learners, struggling for identity, competence and confidence, only to be revealed later in different contexts as teachers learning how to organize similar opportunities for others. Understanding this transition makes us better students. Supporting this transformation makes us better teachers.