Confession: I buy a ton of pedagogy books. I rarely read them all the way through. I blame it on my blossoming OCD. I can only take in so many ideas before I run out of space in my head to hold them all long enough to use them.
That is not the case with this classic, suggested to me by my friend and mentor Penny Kittle, Learning by Teaching by Donald Murray.
I remember when Penny recommended it. She was in the DFW metroplex teaching a workshop, and I’d asked if we could meet up and talk about my writing. She graciously agreed, and we met at a Starbucks inside a Target. As always, Penny radiated positive energy. She told me about the work she was doing with Kelly Gallagher. I told her about my struggle trying to write a book, a book I am still trying to write.
I still cannot believe I had a writing conference — yet again — with Penny Kittle! (My first was during her class at The University of New Hampshire Literacy Institute the summer of 2013.)
At one point in our conversation, Penny paused and asked if I had read Don Murray’s book Learning by Teaching. I said no. At the time I hadn’t read any of his books, but I’d heard Penny talk about Murray with such affection, quoting him often. I knew this was a book I need to not just purchase, but one I needed to read. I’ve read and re-read and marked page after page.
Don Murray validates the moves I make in my workshop classroom, the moves I make
when planning instruction for my AP Language and Composition course. I have learned from those who learned from Murray, and his work reminds me again and again why teaching with student choice in mind works. Every time I feel like I fail, every time I get frustrated with the way an assignment flopped, or I didn’t reach a certain student what I’d hope to teach him, I turn back to this book of essays by Murray. (I did this recently after most of my students bombed an assignment, which was mostly my fault.)
Here’s an excerpt from Murray’s essay titled “Our Students Will Write –If We Let Them” published in North Carolin English Teacher, Fall, 1977. I probably break a copyright law by sharing, but I’ll risk it if it means freeing more writers. (See more about freeing writers in Penny Kittle’s piece “What We Learn When We Free Writers.”)
Our students want to write — but not what we want them to write.
Our students want to write of death and love and hate and fear and loyalty and disloyalty; they want to write the themes of literature in those forms — poetry, narrative, drama — which have survived the centuries. They want to write literature, and we assign them papers of literary analysis, comparison and contrast, argumentation based on subjects on which they are not informed and for which they have no concern.
We should see that their desire to write proves the vitality and importance of literature and literature-making in each generation, that language is central to the human experience, not just as a communications skill but as the best way to recall and understand experience. We tell our students the unexamined life is not worth living, yet we seldom allow those students to examine their lives firsthand through what is termed creative writing.
It is time that we, as a profession, not only support the reading of literature but the making of literature; that we encourage our students to write what they want to write and realize that what they want to write is more intellectually demanding, more linguistically challenging, more rhetorically difficult than the writing we usually require in the English class.
The biggest problem in the teaching of writing is ourselves. We do not encourage, allow, or respond to our students’ desire to write. We do not believe that our students can write anything worth reading, and they prove our prediction. Conditions will not improve until we realize that what we face is a teacher problem, not a student problem.
There are many important reasons to consider taking what is usually tolerated, at best, in the elective creative writing course and placing it at the center of the writing curriculum. Some of them are:
- Writing about individual human experience motivates both the gifted and those we often consider disadvantaged. In fact, we may find that the disadvantaged aren’t in terms of experiences which can be explored through writing. Students who are not motivated by our lectures on the need for writing skills–they know the need does not exist in the lives they expect to live–still share the human hunger to record and examine experience. Students who are bored with papers of literary analysis or even incapable of writing such a paper at this state in their development may be able to write extraordinary papers based on first-person experience.
- Students discover…that they have a voice, they have a way of looking at their own life through their own language. They discover and learn to respect their own individuality.
- Through writing, the student increases his or her awareness of the world, and then works to order that awareness.
- As students follow language towards meaning they extend and stretch their linguistic skills.
- The experience-centered, doing nature of the writing curriculum will reach many students who are not comfortable with the analytical passive-receptive nature of the typical academic curriculum.
- Creative writing gives students a new insight to literature. The study of literature is no longer entirely a spectator sport, but an activity which they can experience and appreciate.
- The creative writing class may be the place where some students learn to read. Test results in many community colleges and other colleges of the second chance show that many students who test as not being able to read are also the best writers. They are able to read their own words and to perform the complex, evaluative techniques essential to revision. They learn to read by writing.
- Students and teachers of creative writing rediscover the fun of writing. Art is, at the center, play, and perhaps that is the reason it is so little tolerated in the school. If it is fun can it be learning? Yes.
- Finally, we should teach creative writing because it is more intellectually demanding than the study of literature or language as they are usually taught in the English class. This runs directly counter to the stereotype believe by most English teachers. IT is easier to complete a workbook on grammar, easier to tell the teacher what the teacher wants to know about a story than it is to use language to make meaning out of experience. The writing course is a thinking course, and it should be central to the curriculum in any school.
There is more. I believe Murray’s writing, like Penny’s books Write Beside Them and Book Love, should be required reading for every English teacher. I wish they would have been required reading in my education classes. For the first few years of my career, I struggled like many teachers I know with student engagement and learning while I taught literature instead of readers and writers. (Someday I’ll write about the Dickens I subjected my 9th graders to. It’s a sad sad tale of student, and teacher, woe.)
And someday I’ll finish this book I’m trying to write. I think Don Murray would want me to.
What books do you think should be required reading for all English teachers? I’d love to read your suggestion in the comments.