Harvard Educational Review
  1. Spring 1996 Issue »

    Taking Stock and A Fresh Look at Writing

    By Carolyn H. Campbell
    Taking Stock: The Writing Process Movement in the '90's
    edited by Lad Tobin and Thomas Newkirk.

    Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook, 1994. 287 pp. $23.50.

    A Fresh Look at Writing

    by Donald H. Graves.

    Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1994. 408 pp. $20.00.

    The writing process movement of the seventies and eighties represented a dramatic shift in pedagogy from the teacher's having nearly total authority over students' writing to students' having authority over their own work. No longer was student writing to be assigned, corrected, and graded by the teacher; students began to play an active role in choosing writing topics and in revising their work through conferences with their teacher and peers. This movement brought a new emphasis to the process writers undergo while working toward a product. At different levels and in varied institutions, writing process classrooms look vastly different, but the emphasis on students' increased decisionmaking throughout the process is at the heart of the movement, regardless of location. Now, two decades after the writing process movement began, those with an interest in writing pedagogy may wonder what the leaders of the movement think about the teaching of writing today.

    Taking Stock: The Writing Process Movement in the '90's is a collection of essays that explore the history of writing as a process in schools and issues surrounding its current status from the 1992 annual writing conference at the University of New Hampshire, at which many of the movement's originators reflected on the past, present, and future of the writing process. The book takes its name from James Marshall's chapter, in which he claims that the writing process movement has become middle-aged, and thus urges his colleagues "to take stock, to examine what we've built, to ask with a critical eye, is this enough after all?" (p. 51). The authors, primarily proponents of the writing process, argue for its continued use in schools, with revisions and elaborations. The book provides useful background for readers unfamiliar with the movement's history and issues, along with rich discussions from some different perspectives that will appeal to readers with greater familiarity with the movement.

    Because the perspective of teachers of younger children is not included in Taking Stock, Donald Graves's most recent book, A Fresh Look at Writing, acts as a useful complement. Taking Stock makes few references to leaders of the movement at the elementary and middle school levels, such as Donald Graves, Nancie Atwell, and Lucy Calkins, and thus leaves the reader with the impression that the writing process movement primarily occurred in colleges and universities. Donald Graves, on the other hand, writes for teachers of elementary level classrooms. Whereas Taking Stock considers issues such as the role of the individual, social context, choice, and authority within higher education, A Fresh Look at Writing looks at these issues as they play out in elementary school classrooms.

    Historically, writing as a process evolved in reaction to the traditional pedagogy of writing. A recurring theme of Taking Stock is a discussion of such binary oppositions. In his essay, Peter Elbow encourages teachers to embrace processes that seem contradictory, such as generating ideas and critiquing them, by finding ways "not to compromise but to push for extremity in both directions" (p. 192). Lisa Ede describes how the writing process "in effect constituted itself through a denial of origins that involves creating that which it wishes to oppose and then erasing the shared ground that made the original construction of the other possible" (p. 37). Marshall further elaborates on the early politics of the movement, noting the alignment of the writing process with symbols of American culture privileging freedom (as in the use of the term "free writing") and rebelliousness over constraint and the status quo. The leaders of the writing process movement thought of themselves as acting against the establishment.

    However, in its present middle-aged status, proponents of the writing process must come to terms with their position as part of the establishment. They have been forced into a defensive position by critics from both sides of the political spectrum. This volume responds more to the criticism from the political left — the social constructivists and the cultural theorists — than to that from the right — the traditionalists. In his introduction, coeditor Lad Tobin characterizes the criticism from the social constructivists and cultural theorists:

    The writing process founders are seen as . . . entrepreneurial (for emphasizing the commodification of the individual writer's assets); evangelical (for refusing to provide hard evidence, definitions, research); bourgeois (for treating students as writers or artists or free agents rather than as workers, citizens, and culturally situated beings); and, worst of all for an academic, naive (for not knowing that there is no authentic voice, no single-authored text, no self). (p. 7)

    Ironically, the social constructivists, who accuse the writing process proponents of not considering the impact of culture, or more specifically race, class, and gender, join the traditionalists who call for a return to basics with greater emphasis on skills. Lisa Delpit, grounding her argument in terms of equity and access, contends that students will acquire power more easily if explicitly taught the rules of the "culture of power" (Delpit, 1988). Writing process has been criticized for not being explicit with students and downplaying the importance of such skills as grammar and spelling. Delpit's argument suggests the necessity of considering context and the culture of students in designing pedagogy.

    In response to the social constructivist/cultural theorist critique, Roger P. Yagelski focuses on the aspects of the writing process that address the individual or social nature of writing. Yagelski summarizes the critiques of three critics — James Berlin, John Clifford, and Susan Jarratt — as based on "an implicit questioning of the assumption that writing is primarily an individual, cognitive activity; they problematize the notion of `individual' or `subject' as often conceived in expressivist discussions, and they share the view that writing is profoundly social" (p. 207). Jarratt specifically addresses the multiple identities of gender, race, and class, and accuses writing process pedagogy of not taking into account how these identities play out in students' writing (Jarratt, 1991). Yagelski maintains that these are criticisms of ways of teaching the writing process, not of the writing process itself: "the idea of writing as process, with its assumption that writing is always in progress, remains the most compelling and useful way to describe what writers actually do when they create texts" (p. 208). Yagelski believes that it is possible to reconcile writing as a process with the notion of a socially and politically situated self. Such parts of the writing process as planning, drafting, and revising occur within social and political contexts, and therefore do not contradict an understanding of the self as inseparable from a larger context. Yagelski broadens our understanding of how social contexts shape writing, while retaining the core tenets of the writing process.

    The issues of teacher authority versus student choice are highlighted by Michelle Payne's essay, "Rend(er)ing Women's Authority in the Writing Classroom." In describing her experience as a female writing teacher in a college classroom, Payne discusses her struggles around giving up what authority she has in the eyes of her students in the name of teaching the writing process. Writing process pedagogy requires that students take on the work of making decisions about their writing — from choosing topics, to shaping writing, to deciding whether to continue with a particular work. Payne structured a course in which students, working in groups, wrote proposals for a plan for the course and then negotiated with other groups in conferences. Payne describes the response of one student, Kyle, who refuses to participate, and explores how his attitudes toward Payne and the course affect her and her pedagogy. Payne discusses how her own response to Kyle has been shaped by personal experiences that make her vulnerable to such attacks. She concludes:

    I would argue that the choices set up by the process-model/academic discourse debate create a no-win situation for a female teacher. If she chooses the non-directive approach and works to share authority, it might reinforce the men's devaluation of her as an authority figure (and invite them to turn that power differential in their favor, as Kyle tried to) and it might send women a signal that power and authority are inappropriate for women. . . . If a teacher decides to teach academic discourse . . . she might create resistance in the men at a "woman" holding power over them, and resentment in the women for disturbing the relationships with them and with the men. (pp. 108–109)

    Taking Stock also addresses the issue of valuing certain genres over others. Some of the pieces are written in a narrative form, while others are more theoretical. Ken Macrorie includes extensive examples of student writing, while Thomas E. Recchio reflects on examples of his own personal and reflective writing, and Mary Minock theorizes about the relationship between expressive and academic writing. This variety serves to demonstrate the diversity of forms possible in classrooms.

    Thomas Newkirk specifically refers to the devaluation of particular written forms in his historical essay about Barrett Wendell, a composition professor at Harvard in the late nineteenth century, whose pedagogy included many reforms similar to those of the writing process movement, such as "writing conferences, the use of student writing as the primary texts of the course, [and] peer critiquing . . ." (p. 119). Wendell's students wrote daily essays reflecting on personal experiences. Wendell did not receive the support of the administration, and ultimately considered his career a failure. Newkirk claims that Wendell's "failure" stemmed from his supporting little-valued kinds of teaching, and identifies teaching elementary students as another less valued endeavor: "Composition studies increasingly aligns itself with the traditional biases of English departments: a lack of interest in literacy learning at the elementary and high school levels" (p. 128). This observation draws attention to the limited discussion of younger students in this collection. Taking Stock, by virtue of its format, does not allow a detailed picture of what a writing process classroom in the 1990's looks like. Short essays do not allow the room for lengthy descriptions of the many issues around incorporating the writing process in a classroom.

    In A Fresh Look at Writing, Donald Graves speaks clearly to teachers of writing at the elementary level, whose work is the subject of this book. The book is divided into six sections focusing on different aspects of organizing and maintaining a writing classroom. In every chapter, Graves includes examples of a number of "actions," which he defines as "something you do to become an active teacher of writing" (p. 5). Some are designed for thinking about one's own writing (e.g., "take a photo from your wallet — or any artifact that means something to you — and write about it for ten minutes" [p. 40] ); many are designed for teachers attempting to incorporate the writing process into their classrooms (e.g., "interview three children while they are engaged in the writing process" [p.71] ). These actions make the book a useful guide for both new and experienced teachers.

    Graves values teachers learning from each other. In a chapter on professional development, he encourages teachers to read the writing of other teachers, claiming that Nancie Atwell's In The Middle "paved the way for a very important new kind of professionalism" (p. 373). "Professors," he states, "will no longer have a corner on the [professional development] market" (p. 373).

    A Fresh Look at Writing reveals changes in Graves's thinking since his earlier book, Writing: Teachers and Children at Work. The tenets of the writing process described in his earlier work remain the same: provide children with time to write, the opportunity for sharing their writing, and techniques for revision. While he continues to stress the importance of listening to children, Graves's new book shows his movement toward allowing the writing teacher greater authority. He explains, "Readers of my earlier book will find A Fresh Look at Writing to be more assertive: although listening to children is still the heart of the book, I think we now know better when to step in, when to teach and when to expect more from our students" (p. xvi).

    Where Taking Stock addresses critiques about the individual or situated self, Graves responds to traditionalists' desire for a greater emphasis on skills. In A Fresh Look at Writing, he spends a great deal of time discussing the teaching of written conventions. One six-chapter section, "Teach the Fundamentals of Writing," includes chapters on conventions such as punctuation, grammar, handwriting, and spelling. In an interview in Language Arts, Graves stated that his earlier books had neglected to "show teachers how to help children with choice" (Routman, 1995). Perhaps Graves examines issues of writing conventions more closely in his recent book because the writing process has received significant criticism in this area since its inception. For example, critics have often misconstrued the emphasis on expressing ideas to mean that punctuation, spelling, and handwriting are not important and need not be taught. Thus, in this new book, Graves goes into great detail as to why spelling is important:

    Children who initially write down words using inventions or temporary spellings are establishing their learning habits and attitudes towards words and writing. As arbitrary as spelling may appear, specific things should be taught and certain attitudes established. (pp. 255–256)

    However, Graves continues to value meaning over conventions, reminding his readers that correct spelling is not achieved immediately and that they should not let a focus on spelling, or other conventions, interfere with the primary goal of expressing meaning. In his earlier works, Graves did not ignore the teaching of conventions, either. His basic message regarding skills remains the same as in his 1983 book: "skills are very important, provided they are not studied in isolation of what information the child knows" (Graves, 1983, p. 195).

    Graves attends to educators' increasing interest in teaching different genres by devoting one section each to teaching fiction and nonfiction writing. Knowledge of different generic forms is another kind of skill, useful for preparing students to communicate effectively. This focus on the teaching of genres is indicative of more directed teaching than is evident in the descriptions in his first book, where the students almost always generated their own topics and used primarily personal narrative. In distinguishing between different genres and different ways to teach them, Graves broadens the potential of the writing process.

    Graves generally does not concern himself with the larger social and political context of the writing process. He considers only a limited view of the social nature of writing and attributes voice, or "the driving force" (p. 81) of the writing process, to a singular self:

    It is that part of the self that pushes the writing ahead, the dynamo in process. . . . The voice shows how I choose information, organize it, select the words, all in relation to what I want to say and how I want to say it. The reader says, "Someone is here. I know that person. I've been there, too." (p. 81)

    Here, Graves suggests that the sole authority for writing exists in the author. His view of writing could be seen and critiqued by the social constructivists of Taking Stock as "an independent, cognitive activity" (p. 207). Graves's picture of the writing process magnifies classrooms, focusing on individuals in control of their writing, and he does not highlight the social or political influences on the process. It does, however, allow for a consideration of individual development. Throughout his research, Graves has identified developmental sequences for the processes of revision, handwriting, and spelling, each of which is outlined in this book.

    Taken together, Taking Stock and A Fresh Look at Writing provide a rich understanding of the writing process movement's past and present. While Graves addresses specific and practical issues of classroom writing in elementary schools, the authors in Tobin and Newkirk's book provide a larger context and a look at the writing process at higher educational levels. James Britton concludes Taking Stock with an affirmation appropriate for both books. He states that there is value implicit in the writing process at all levels and in all forms. Britton reminds readers of the need to make sense of our lives through creating narratives and to forge shared understandings in order to truly communicate with one another: "It seems to me that we process the `flux' of events in two principal ways: first by the shaping power of our perceptions and then by the narratives we compose as we share experiences" (p. 286). Britton's essay reaffirms the underlying premise of the authors of both books — that the activity of helping others to make meaning of their lives through writing is an endeavor of the greatest importance.

    Delpit, L. (1988). The silenced dialogue: Power and pedagogy in educating other people's children. Harvard Educational Review, 58, 280–298.

    Graves, D. (1983). Writing: Teachers and children at work. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

    Jarratt, S. (1991). Feminism and composition: The case for conflict. In P. Harking & J. Schilb (Eds.), Contending with words (pp. 105–123). New York: Modern Language Association.

    Routman, R. (1995). Donald Graves: Outstanding educator in the language arts. Language Arts, 72, 518–525.
  2. Share

    Spring 1996 Issue


    Getting to Scale with Good Educational Practice
    By Richard F. Elmore
    Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildering
    The Use and Misuse of State SAT and ACT Scores
    By Brian Powell and Lala Carr Steelman
    A Pedagogy of Multiliteracies
    Designing Social Futures
    The New London Group
    The Politics of Culture
    Understanding Local Political Resistance to Detracking in Racially Mixed Schools
    By Amy Stuart Wells and Irene Serna

    Book Notes

    Moral Development
    Edited by Bill Puka

    Places of Inquiry
    By Burton R. Clark

    Teaching and Learning in History
    Edited by Gaea Leinhardt, Isabel L. Beck, and Catherine Stainton.

    School-Based Management
    Edited by Susan Albers Mohrman and Priscilla Wohlstetter.

    Developing Home-School Partnerships
    By Susan McAllister Swap

    Over the Ivy Walls
    By Patricia Gandara

    Composition as a Cultural Practice
    By Alan W. France

    Fugitive Cultures
    By Henry Giroux

    A New Generation of Evidence
    Edited by Anne Henderson and Nancy Berla.

    By Molly Ladd-Taylor.

    Beyond Tracking
    Edited by Harbison Pool and Jane A. Page

    School-Community Connections
    Edited by Leo C. Rigsby, Maynard C. Reynolds, and Margaret C. Wang.

    Bird by Bird
    By Anne Lamott

    The International Education Quotations Encyclopaedia
    Edited by Keith Allan Noble

    Learning from Strangers
    By Robert S. Weiss

    Call 1-800-513-0763 to order this issue.