Shared Territory: Understanding Children's Writing
reviewed by Randy Bomer - 1993
The shared territory of Margaret Himley's title is language itself, which in the case of writing means, for her, the text, the product. It is Himley's thesis that researchers learn the most about children's writing when they limit their attention to the thing written. Such a notion may sound sensible enough until one realizes what is deliberately overlooked: the language children use to discuss what they have written, their description of how they wrote this, the oral language in the midst of writing, the ways the piece of writing fits into the writer's life, the physical actions of a writer writing, the social context of the writing event. All of these aspects of writing, which have been central to the work of prominent researchers like Donald Graves, Ann Haas Dyson, Lucy McCormick Calkins, and others, Himley dismisses as behavioristic and unworkably complex. In discussions of student works, even those of her own son, Himley erects a stubborn barrier between the writer and the writing, asserting that she more deeply understands the writer through the writing. Building on the work of Patricia Carini, director of the Prospect School in North Bennington, Vermont, Himley believes that children's texts, or "works" as she calls them, "bear the imprint of the unique hand and mind that made them" (p. 19), and that, by concentrating on the works themselves, particularly a large number accumulated across time, a researcher or teacher can come to understand the child's deep dispositions as writer, learner, and person.
Himley's respect for children's writing as worthy of attention and meaningful interpretation is laudable, and her criticism of many researchers as seeming interested in children's texts only as data is accurate and challenging. However, the book's project is to remove children's writing from children's writing processes, so ultimately what looks like a respect for children as authors turns out to be a high regard for what adults can do with children's texts. Consequently, the voices and faces of children are chillingly absent from this book.
Though I disagree with the book's main premise, there is material here that may be of interest to some readers. Teachers, teacher leaders, and teacher educators may benefit from the descriptions of what Himley (after Carini) calls "deep talk," a heuristic for discussions among groups of teachers, which centers on pieces of student work and begins with people describing what they see in the work and then proceeds through successive "rounds" of reflection. As teachers around the country fight to be treated like professionals for opportunities to talk to each other and collaborate, it will be helpful for them to have images in mind of how truly professional collaborative inquiry might look, and Himley here provides one model. Moreover, conversations that focus on children's writing can help teachers to develop authentic language for talking to their students about writing and provide an experiential model for the conversations they are fostering in their classrooms. The book also provides a rare glimpse into some of the methods of the Prospect School, which many people know only by reputation. Carini and her colleagues have published little about their work, so Himley's account, which includes Carini as a co-author of one chapter, offers an introduction. Himley's other theoretical wellspring is Bakhtin, and her chapter about his work explicates some facets of his theory with clarity, if with a harsh slant.
More than one third of the book, mistitled "A Child Writing" when it should have been titled "A Child's Writing," is dedicated to Himley's study of texts her son made from when he was five until he was ten. Aside from the icy bizarreness of a researcher writing about her son as if he were a student in a correspondence course, the main thought I was left with was that, though I now knew all the possible meanings Himley and her colleagues could make in response to Matt's writing, that very particular knowledge does not add significantly to my understanding of children's writing in general, as it might have done if the study had considered how Matt wrote and thought about his writing. The research seems to have no future life, since Himley has rejected inquiry into composition in favor of analysis of compositions. Are we to read the discussions of his works aesthetically, like literary criticism, or can we expect to carry away some contribution to our thinking about writing? Himley argues that having done this much work around one child's writing would inform our teaching of him, but how this might happen remains a mystery, since she does not discuss it and provides not one scene of anyone teaching a child. Her main purpose seems to be to persuade other researchers to engage in a similar kind of inquiry, but the question is, why? Near the end of the book, Himley writes, "you can't expect just these pieces of writing to tell us more than they can tell us" (p. 219). Exactly.