Writing for Real: Strategies for Engaging Adolescent Writers
reviewed by James Collins - 2004
Title: Writing for Real: Strategies for Engaging Adolescent Writers
Author(s): Ross M. Burkhardt
Publisher: Stenhouse Publishers, Portland, ME
ISBN: 1571103589, Pages: 293, Year: 2003
Search for book at Amazon.com
Years ago I had a colleague I’ll call Clif who could invent a meaningful writing lesson on the fly, seemingly out of any materials available. For example, I once told Clif how my daughter had been disappointed by the failure of the tooth fairy to show up at our house as expected, and a few minutes later he entered his eleventh-grade honors classroom and turned my tale of parental forgetfulness into an animated prewriting discussion of parent-child relations and related issues of truthfulness and trust. Clif was a natural teacher, one who had great passion for his work and who possessed the right degrees of patience, charm, and communicative ability to lead willing students in the direction of intellectual growth. What’s more, Clif’s lessons were always consistent with his underlying, emerging philosophy of what English teaching was really about.
I share this anecdote because I have just finished reading Ross Burkhardt’s Writing for Real, and the book has put me in a narrative mood and reminded me of Clif, my former colleague for whom teaching came so naturally. I don’t know Burkhardt personally, but there is no doubt in my mind that he’s a natural teacher. His book is filled with stories of his successes teaching eighth-grade writers in a combined English/social studies classroom, and he gives the constant impression that good teaching ideas come readily and abundantly to him. Indeed, my main impression of this book is that it tells, even celebrates, a significant portion of the story of an outstanding teaching career, a personal festschrift, if you will.
As Burkhardt tells the story of his teaching, he provides descriptions of his writing lessons and provides numerous examples of student writing. The lessons are organized in two ways, by their placement in a year’s worth of writing instruction—an invented year, “an amalgam of typical events” (p. xiv) selected from his many years of teaching—and by their placement in the writing process. Thus, lessons in personal writing (such as free-verse poetry, interior monologues, and personal essays), come early in the volume, and lessons in published writing (such as essay contests, school newspaper, poetry booklets) come later. Many of the lessons open with a one-page summary of purpose, content, and primary features; these pages of the book are bordered and carry an “In a Nutshell” logo, making them easy to find by teachers looking to consider using them.
Like Clif’s, Burkhardt’s lessons reflect an underlying philosophy; they are not random because good teachers don’t just wing it, even though the ease with which they formulate good lessons may give the impression they’re making up their teaching as they go. Burkhardt points out that teaching has a cumulative effect, the result of experience, trying out ideas, and storing up successful lessons over the years. Burkhardt provides a list of his ten main tenets, which he calls “assertions,” on page 17, where, for example, the first assertion states that “Every student is a writer and has ideas she or he wants to communicate.” The tenets are briefly explained in the next several pages, as in the case of the one just quoted:
Some students are proficient writers the day they walk through our classroom doors. A few are far better writers than we will ever be, and we need to stand back and let them compose. Others are struggling writers who have difficulty organizing their thoughts. All of them are writers with ideas to share. (p. 18).
In spite of this first tenet, it turns out that Burkhardt’s students, at least the ones whose writing he includes in the book, seem to all be “better” writers, not “struggling” ones. And many of his strategies, like Clif’s, consist of pointing students in a direction, then standing back and letting them compose to use his words just quoted. I’ll come back to these observations in a moment.
At the heart of Burkhardt’s lessons are clever, and cleverly named, writing assignments. The assignments are open-ended, since one of Burkhardt’s tenets is that writers are more engaged when they are allowed to select their own topics. One assignment toward the end of the year, for example is “The Individual Magazine” in which each student produces a collection of several pieces in different modes but all related to the same overarching theme. For this task, students use their writing in at least three different genres from earlier in the year and revise and edit it for publication in a magazine complete with cover, autobiographical statement, and foreword. In discussing the individual magazine assignment, Burkhardt stresses the importance of its component tasks, such as the “About the Author” paragraph, and reinforces his teaching strategies, such as peer models, theme statements, writing groups, and publishing. This section also provides one of my favorite examples of student writing in the whole book, a poem by a student named Josh in a magazine with the theme of “chocolate,” the title and first two stanzas of which are these:
Stopping by Gregg and Its Chocolate I’m Eating
Whose Mounds this is I think I know
His locker’s in the third wing though;
He will not see me stopping here
So I can eat it really slow.
I tremble and I shake with fear.
If he finds out he’ll kick my rear.
Between the wrapper and the coconut flake
The darkest chocolate I have right here. (p. 238).
The samples of student writing are one of the most enjoyable features of Writing for Real, but for me they also call this title into question. Burkhardt’s title is meant to refer to having students write about real topics and for real purposes and audiences, but his examples are too uniformly good to represent the full spectrum of real writing by eighth graders. Either this book is filled with highly polished and edited writing, or Burkhardt’s students are more talented than most. I suspect the latter, since his school is called in the foreword by John Lounsbury, “one of America’s premier middle schools” (p. ix). Judging by their writing, Burkhardt’s students seem gifted and talented, or at least privileged and willing.
I have, of course, no objection to a book intended for teachers of high performing middle-grades students, but I think this one should have identified itself as such. The beginning teacher who uses the book as a way to become familiar with student writing is in for a big surprise when faced with the full spectrum of real student writing.
Take, for example, the two eighth-grade responses that follow this task from a recent statewide English language arts assessment in New York:
How was Martha Washington’s role as First Lady different from that of Eleanor Roosevelt? Use information from “American First Ladies” in your answer.
High Scoring Response:
Martha Washington’s role as first lady was different from that of Eleanor Roosevelt. Martha was called “hostess for the nation” because she was with her husband during social occasions. But she didn’t do anything to help her husband or the U.S. greatly. Eleanor Roosevelt did help a lot. She held the first press conference ever given by a presidential wife. She was always there with suggestions, proposals, and ideas. After Franklin Roosevelt contracted polio, she traveled for him and helped him out. Martha and Eleanor had very different ways of being “First Lady.”
Low Scoring Response:
I guess Martha’s role was different cause she wanted to be equal partners with her husband. And Eleanor had a strong Influences on her husband.
In the urban schools I’m currently working in, middle school writers seem about equally divided between the two categories I’ve labeled high and low scoring. The writing of the low-scoring students, thus, deserves equal attention in our professional literature. Would Burkhardt’s strategies work for them? Probably, but we also need to do considerable and effective teaching of matters of form, something which Burkhardt seems adverse to doing, owing (he says repeatedly) to his participation in a summer institute in 1980 sponsored by the National Writing Project which forever freed him from being a “comma corrector” (p. 7).
I don’t have space here to develop a full argument for teaching matters of form, so I’ll just list some highlights. To begin with, I don’t mean teaching the correcting of commas. Instead, I believe we have to teach low-performing writers to write not only on topics of their own choosing, but also for assigned topics based in close reading of assigned texts, topics similar to the ones they will encounter in academic settings and statewide assessments. We have to teach them to present full, coherent arguments, complete with reader-expected structures such as beginning-middle-end for narrative writing and introduction-body-conclusion for informative writing. We have to teach them to ferret out evidence from their reading and transform it to suit their purposes in writing. And perhaps most importantly, we have to get over the reductive notion that matters of form in the teaching of writing always come down to the teaching of surface conventions. We have to be much more tolerant of language variation in writing while we teach kids to use all forms of writing to transform and express their thinking.
Therein lies the crux of the matter. The difference between the writers I’m calling high and low scoring, the same writers Burkhardt calls “better” and “struggling,” is their familiarity with a variety of forms of written language. High scoring writers control academic forms of written language and use them instrumentally to mediate their thinking. Low scoring writers are trying to grasp appropriate forms of writing at the same time they are trying to express their thoughts in writing.
This double-duty process is the very thing struggling writers struggle with the most, and it seems to me that the part of the process we can help them with most readily is the formal part. Again, I’m not advocating a return to narrow skills- and grammar-based teaching; indeed, I am referring to text and paragraph level forms, and I support all forms of expression, including those typically judged to be nonstandard. My point is simply that we can’t just leave the low scoring to their own designs the way we do with their high scoring counterparts. We have to help them do the designing.
The writing of low scoring students doesn’t always fit Burkhardt’s notion of “writing for real,” but it’s real writing nonetheless. Furthermore, it’s also just a few forms of written language away from being high scoring writing. It’s incumbent on teachers like Burkhardt and Clif and the rest of us to discover these forms and teach students to control them.