English Education, 1988 20(3): 134-156
for Seeing Ourselves as Learners, Writers, and Teachers
Judith M. Newman
I'm a relative newcomer to journals. Although I had been telling
teachers for years about the value of journal writing, I'd never
actually used journals with my own students, who were continuing
to develop as teachers. I took the plunge six years ago with a graduate
education class on "Writing and Computers." I wanted the
students, all of whom were teachers, not only to read about writing,
but to engage in many different kinds of writing. Journal writing,
I thought, could serve several of my purposes and theirs. It would
allow the teachers to write regularly. It would encourage personal
expression. Most important, it would let them use writing to discover
Without much preamble, I invited the teachers to react in writing
to what they were reading and to share their responses with me.
I had planned from the outset to engage in written conversation
through these journal dialogues. But something was immediately apparent:
the teachers' writing was guarded and cautious. Their brief synopses
lacked spontaneity and offered little insight into any connections
they might be making. I commented in a note to myself at the time,
This last set of journals is informative. The majority of the class
have written typical responses "for teacher." There is
little exploration here. I wonder what I can do to encourage these
folks to make more personal connections.
Something was lacking and I finally concluded what it was -- I
was not writing. So I began a weekly journal myself. I gave a copy
to each member of the class, asking them to respond with written
comments directly on my writing. It wasn't long before my journals
had an effect and the teachers began writing more openly. In other
words, my journals served as a model as well as a way of increasing
trust; I was risking putting out my thoughts, just as they were.
Now I use journals in every course I teach -- with undergraduate
language arts students and with teachers in both my graduate courses:
"Writing and Computers" and "Curriculum Implementation
in Language Arts."
There are a number of ingredients for initiating and sustaining
the multi-faceted, weekly dialogue between me and each teacher,
and among the teachers. I open the dialogue with a journal letter
describing the learning context I hope to create. I mention the
journal writing and invite them to explore ideas freely. It usually
takes a couple of exchanges before people begin taking risks, before
they start using these written conversations as a tool for learning,
but within four to six weeks we're generally engaged in genuine
In practice, here's what happens. I write three different journal
letters every week, one to each class. In the letters, I generally
explore my reactions to something I've just read, I interpret what
I think particular researchers might be saying, I share thoughts
I've had about my own reading, writing, and learning strategies,
and try to reflect on the relationship between what various authors
are saying and what it means for me as a teacher. I often write
about powerful insights students and teachers have shared with me.
I describe critical incidents which have helped me think about my
own pedagogical assumptions. I sometimes include something I've
written on a previous occasion to show how my understanding is continually
changing. I frequently discuss what's gone on in class. My objective
is to use our written conversation to forge a collegial relationship.
My journals are freewrites. I actually compose at the computer
without notes or any formal planning. I write whatever comes to
mind and I don't revise when I get to the end. While my writing
may not always appear exploratory, each journal is a serious attempt
on my part to take a new stab at the issues being discussed and
I am often surprised by the unexpected connections which appear.
Every person in the class receives a copy of what I write. They
write their reactions in the wide right margin I create for that
purpose. In turn, I read and react to each teacher's journal with
marginal notes myself. Why do we write directly on one another's
journals? We've found the conversational character of our dialogue
is enhanced when our comments and reactions are right beside the
text which prompted them. The teachers also swap journals with at
least one other person in the class. This gives them an opportunity
to read and respond to someone else's ideas as well as receive feedback
on what they've written from an audience other than the teacher.
Because the journals are generally a couple of pages in length,
we read and respond at home.
At the beginning of each class we return journals from the previous
week and exchange our latest efforts.
Listening in on the Dialogue
What is the nature of my responses to the teachers' journals? The
answer is, it depends. It depends on how much time we've spent together,
how willing a risk-taker someone seems to be, the issues we're moving
towards in class, etc. So my responses are varied.
I ask lots of questions:
In what ways did Shanklin help you think about your own writing
differently? What theoretical statement is Mikkelsen making about
writing, do you think? What is one thing you'd do differently
with your own students as a result of reading this chapter?
I answer questions: Gwen describes a situation where a student
has brought what she considers inappropriate books to school for
silent reading. She thinks about how to handle it and asks "What
do you think, Judith?" I reply,
If I encourage people to select their own reading material then
I have to respect their choices -- and if such a situation arises
-- I have to be prepared to put the issue (of unnecessary violence
in books, for example) on the floor to discuss it -- but only
after I've read the stuff myself and scouted out some material
to counter this particular world view.
I think along with them: Jan writes,
I really liked the connection they (Mayher, Lester & Pradl
make for fluency / clarity / correctness. But you know the word
'correctness' really bothers me still -- correct by whose standard?
[I reply: Not thought about the question of correctness in that
context before. Fluency and clarity judgments are certainly the
writer's responsibility Correctness definitely does imply external
sanction. "Conventionality" might be a better word although
ultimately spelling, grammatical structure, and text organization
are constraints set by the community and we have to learn how
to deal with them. How about writing Mayher about it. Bet he'd
I offer encouragement:
I'm sensing you looking at yourself with a more questioning eye
-- that's a the critical first step in becoming a learning teacher.
I empathize: Linda writes,
As you can see, my reaction was (and is) very strong -- but why?
I think it's because this article discouraged me, made me feel
that a whole language classroom is a place for saints only . .
. There isn't a hope in hell that I could ever be that good, that
wonderful. [I respond: Seems like you're feeling like the poor
reader who knows she/he will never know all the words. We all
make mistakes -- we'll never stop -- that's where the learning
I provide moral support: Beth, for example, describes the difficulty
she's had getting a piece of writing underway.
This is usually the point when I raid the refrigerator. By the
time the course is over, at the rate I am presently eating, I
will weigh 200 lbs. [I write You could give me a phone call at
such a point -- you don't need to be struggling alone.]
And Janice writes apprehensively about being in our "teacherless"
I think I am a bit nervous about this, afraid that I will only
have myself to blame if I don't learn what I want to. I lack confidence
in my own abilities. [I reply: It's an awesome responsibility,
I agree, nevertheless you aren't entirely alone here, I'm hovering
nearby trying to sense what it is you're trying to learn and supporting
I suggest strategies:
First consideration -- a good lead. Got to interest the reader
and set the tone early [I write Did you know good leads are often
written at the end after everything else has fallen into place
-- why is that?]
Should I try to sustain the metaphor of the ship all the way
through. I didn't intend to but it offers possibilities. [I write
Seems to me there are two possibilities: you can try it and see
what happens -- it can always be dropped later -- or you can not
worry and bring the metaphor in if it seems appropriate. The important
thing at this point is just to keep on writing.]
I feel free to disagree with something a teacher has said or to
argue with the views of some of the researchers we're reading.
Calkins showed me the importance of providing a predictable structure
for students to conference with each other.... This structure
allows students freedom to create when they know what kinds of
questions are effective. [I respond: Not that we don't want a
predictable structure -- but too predictable means few teachable
moments -- few spontaneous invitations. As for questions, you
can only find out what questions are effective through conferencing
itself -- by learning how to listen to the writing and the writer.]
Barnes says that there is no pure transmission or interpretation
teacher. It seems that some knowledge has to be transmitted in a
formal way, especially in the sciences and languages, as Barnes'
study indicates. [I comment: I disagree with Barnes here -- I think
it is possible even in sciences and math to operate in an interpretive
mode much of the time, even when there's material I want the students
I extend an analysis: Margot describes a recent experience with
her student in the reading clinic.
I realized my mistake almost immediately I should have questioned
her to let her discover the problem herself. I took control away
from her, T heard, but did not really listen to what she was saying.
[I react: Asking her questions might have been useful but your
comments may not have been unhelpful either. Since she asked for
feedback, she was probably wanting your reaction. You know your
"telling" was a mistake when she backs off -- if she
continues approaching she probably is still feeling in control.
In other words, you can tell you've made a mistake by how students
react -- then you do what you can to rectify it. But making the
mistake wasn't BAD; it's how you learn.]
I share "secrets":
I feel like I am setting out on a long voyage. The course is
uncharted and yet I know that there are charts and directions
somewhere. [I reply: I'm afraid there aren't, at least not in
this particular class. What I do have is a single intention --
to help you think about curriculum and the assumptions underlying
what we do -- but how we'll do that will evolve from our working
I challenge assumptions:
These readings reinforce for me that I am taking the right steps
in my classroom. [I write The major trap for us as teachers is
complacency -- thinking we're on the right track and becoming
smug, that we know what we're doing. As far as I can determine,
the only constant in the classroom is change. That means nothing
we're doing -- no matter how much better it is than what we were
doing before -- can't be open to further change. What did these
readings help you QUESTION about what you're doing?]
I nudge them to examine beliefs:
The problem for you Brian is to make your own assumptions/ beliefs
the focus of your efforts at this point. I still have a sense
of you standing aside and being objective about all this writing/
learning stuff. I sense it remaining as "school" knowledge.
One way of making the transition is to push yourself to examine
your own teaching critically -- to see what demonstrations you
were/ are creating and to consider how you might learn from your
I explain instructional decisions I've made:
Roberta, I decided to give you a push because we were just past
half way and I felt it would be useful to let you see that there
is more to making connections than finding affirmations. Yes,
recognizing these positive connections are part of what we're
after, but in the end we learn more from the contradictions. I
felt you were ready to begin exploring your own.
The point of all of our written dialogue is to encourage the teachers
to think about writing, reading, and learning for themselves; to
let them expand their own repertoire of writing and reading strategies;
to help them become more reflective.
Toward an Understanding of Learning and Teaching
Several important issues are discussed in the journals. The teachers
write frequently about their insights into writing and reading.
They explore their assumptions in light of the conflicting views
among the authors they are encountering in the research literature.
They discuss their anxieties about writing, of feeling exposed through
their writing, their discomfort with the mess and uncertainty of
writing. They consider the value of teachers being writers themselves.
And occasionally they'll use their journals to let me know when
I've interfered with them as learners and writers.
The flavor of the extended conversation which can occur is captured
in a passage from one of my journals and a teacher's subsequent
Mayher has helped me understand the difference between knowing
WHAT and knowing HOW. I think I can articulate my objections to
Flower/Hayes, Collins/Gentner, and Bereiter more dearly now because
of this distinction. Those folks are out to teach the WHAT --
the conscious stuff, while I think it's essential to let you experience
the HOW. The differences are profound and have to do with who
has control over the learning that should be going on and whether
it is ever possible to isolate and thereby control the unconscious
processes. I find Mayher's argument persuasive and his caution
worth noting: "In fact both process and traditional pedagogies
have gone wrong most often in not clearly distinguishing what
can be taught (and thereby consciously learned) and what must
be learned implicitly and out of awareness. Creating a new lock-step
'process' pedagogy is no improvement over traditional approaches
and the complexity of the composing process described here makes
doing so even more ludicrous."
To which Chris responded,
I have been struggling the past couple of weeks as to what the
process of writing as Shanklin or Mayher describe it would mean
for writing instruction. Your discussion here seems to suggest
to me that where I have been going wrong was to assume that we
can leave control in the hands of the teacher rather than by providing
activities that allow learners to experience what happens as they
In my journal I am drawing a connection between what I found important
in Mayher's argument about needing to consider both conscious and
unconscious aspects of writing and the emphasis placed on teaching
the WHAT of writing found in many of the articles and chapters we'd
read so far in class. Mayher articulates the theoretical split I'm
trying to help the teachers understand. In addition to journal writing,
their work on short personal narratives has let them experience,
in some small measure, "writing finding its own meaning."
But neither of these writing experiences has been sufficient, yet,
to allow these teachers to entertain comfortably a more open view
of writing instruction. In addition, I am concerned about many aspects
of "the writing process" orthodoxy sweeping through our
local schools. I want the teachers to question what they're actually
doing in their classrooms. Hence my choosing to raise the issue
by quoting Mayher in my journal. Chris reacts, as I'd hoped some
of them might, by speculating on what the distinction between teaching
writing and letting children learn about writing would mean for
her in her classroom.
Learning About Writing
One of the main functions of the journal is to provide an opportunity
for the teachers to examine their own writing. The juxtaposition
of conflicting views of writing in the research literature with
the writing context they are experiencing in class encourages them
to look at their assumptions about writing and at how they write.
The teachers' anxieties about writing are a big obstacle to begin
with. To bring their fears into the open I start the term by having
them freewrite about what makes them anxious as writers. By writing
about their anxieties the teachers are able to open themselves to
a broader spectrum of strategies. Anxieties are mentioned in journals
throughout the year but particularly a couple of weeks into the
term after they've read excerpts from Writing Without Teachers (Elbow,
1973). Mike, for example, writes,
When you asked us to write about our anxieties I felt I had little
to say. I thought that I was quite relaxed about my writing whether
it was academic assignments, business or personal letters, reports
for church or school. At that point I didn't have anything to
compare it to. However, yesterday I found myself doing a variety
of things unrelated to the course, all forms of procrastination.
I was filled with anxiety. How will I start? Will it be acceptable
for a graduate education course? What does Judith want? Will I
have enough to say? How long does it have to be? If I find enough
to say will I have time to revise it and get it properly organized?
Did I learn and observe the "right" things? I can't
believe I was doing that to myself! But it made me aware of the
fact that it didn't happen just this once. It was a habit I was
only able to recognize in the context of the new freedom from
those constraints that I've been encouraged to operate within
during the last three weeks.
Mike is suddenly looking at his writing strategies with new eyes.
He's now aware he has many concerns about the adequacy of what he's
trying to write. In part, his anxiety stems from the fact that I've
shifted the responsibility for evaluating the writing to his shoulders;
I'm not grading what the teachers produce, although I do read and
react. For many of them, this is the first time they must make judgments
about the effectiveness of what they've written themselves. Mike's
writing anxieties are also raised because he's trying to write personal
narrative. He's trying to share a personal experience with fellow
teachers -- both genre and audience are unfamiliar.
Maureen expresses a different fear. She worries about having to
commit herself to a point of view. Most of the teachers have had
almost no experience writing for an audience other than teacher-as-examiner.
The sharing of journals, the writing for others in the class and
for fellow teachers in general, suddenly makes them very aware they
are responsible for what they write, that writing involves commitment.
Putting words on paper has meant taking a point of view, making
a statement and making a commitment to the task. Smith pinpoints
my writing difficulties exactly when he mentions that "fear
has an historical basis" and that we are "afraid we
will have nothing worthwhile to say." I've been able to identify
the source of my fear since I started this course and it seems
so ridiculous that I have allowed fear to interfere with the writing
process. What it tells me is that emotions are very tied up with
learning and writing.
Noreen's anxieties have to do with the mess of writing and getting
it right the first time. Although I've been encouraging the teachers
to freewrite in their journals, trying to make it legitimate for
them to ignore temporarily many writing conventions, Noreen is still
uncomfortable about composing without having worked out what she
wants I to say beforehand.
This is the first time I have written my journal first at the
word processor (rather than on paper) and the first time I have
written it through to the end without stopping to do my corrections
as I went along. (I did them at the end.) I really had to force
myself not to correct; I hadn't realized it was such a natural
reaction. I also did not think that my revisions along the way
distracted me much, but I would question that belief now. They
seem to be closely linked with wanting to get every bit right
as I write.
Noreen's concern for correctness is not uncommon. Many of the teachers
have a difficult time letting the mess of writing show. They are
all uncomfortable handing me something they consider incomplete
and spend far too much time polishing what they write in a situation
where we're trying to let the writing help us find meaning. Sharon
commented on this about mid-way through fall term.
I've been wanting to have things in a sort of complete form for
Tuesday nights -- but now I am realizing that that is an impossible
expectation -- if we're going to try and write anything that we
are happy with in the end, we are often going to have to bring
it to class with just some of the possibilities outlined for others
to consider and comment upon. We are going to have to go easy,
spend a lot of time working things out, keep our own sense of
what we want to do while balancing the readers' ideas.
The teachers are used to doing essentially single draft writing;
they have had little experience of having their writing evolve.
Most of them re very uncomfortable coming to class with just a germ
of a piece in order to discover what they might want to say.
The notion that it's legitimate to involve others in their writing
also causes discomfort for many of the teachers. For most of them,
collaborating is somehow cheating. As Bert remarked,
It certainly doesn't take long to get used to writing with the
help of others. I wondered, though, a little about problems that
may arise because I become too dependent on the opinion of others
while I write. [I comment: I sense a holdover from school -- it's
"cheating" to get help from peers, right? How much help
is "too much?"] I expect though I'll find a balance
as my confidence grows in my own ability to write.
Fred, however, was quick to see an important advantage of sharing
I found it immensely helpful to my writing to respond to other
writers. I saw certain strategies that Linda or Janice used that
I tried to fit into my piece. They didn't always work but it provided
options and gave me something to try in a future piece.
The benefits of seeing the particular strategies others use is
mentioned hardly at all in the writing research literature. Yet
that is the aspect of group conferencing I find most important.
These conferences let the teachers solve their own writing difficulties
by observing how others have dealt with theirs. Linda, however,
raises what can be a limitation of group conferences. It isn't enough
to discuss the writing -- the teachers also have to talk about their
strategies as well.
What's missing for me right now is the opportunity to discuss
and hear others talk about their own strategies -- having people
talk about what they've found helpful in a conference -- what
questions caused them to reflect or enabled them to talk and through
talking brought them to a point where they were able to carry
on, or start afresh from a different perspective. [I respond:
You don't have to wait for me to initiate that discussion. You
can take the lead yourself.]
Although I do offer some "mini-lessons," as Calkins (1986)
and Atwell (1987) call them, I prefer to let the teachers discover
through their reading many writing strategies for themselves. Roberta
As I read Romano I began thinking about my own piece of writing
that I'm working on right now "Looking for Mistakes that
Make a Difference." Am I able to show the audience what I
am trying to say rather than just telling them.... This idea of
showing has intrigued me from the very beginning. I know that
I prefer to read pieces that show me ideas, that make them vivid
and clear without actually telling me what it is the author is
saying. So how can I do this in my own writing? I tried one of
Romano's exercises. I freewrote a short piece . . . that helped
me return to my writing, a little more sure of my direction.
The teachers experience great difficulty revising and editing their
writing. Editing, in particular, causes considerable distress. To
help the teachers understand what editing can entail, I gave them
Donald Murray's description of "a third read" (Murray,
1984). Because most of them don't have sufficient distance from
their own writing, I asked them to swap a current piece and actually
begin doing a third read for one another. The whole issue of "ownership,"
of course, was brought into the discussion as people struggled with
fine tuning someone else's writing. Through this process they came
to understand a writer's responsibility for turning out the best
piece of writing possible using whatever help they can find. Linda
described her reaction to the editing experience.
Our last class gave me my first taste of "editing"
-- I wasn't sure I liked what was happening. It seemed as if my
hard earned work was fast disappearing and in its place was someone
else's words.... You see up to last class I had never experienced
Murray's third read and I didn't see editing for what it really
is. It took me awhile to even begin. At first I reread what Murray
had to say about the third read. I read down through his list
of 7 things to look for and all I could think was -- how am I
ever going to think of all these things at the same time?....
I decided the best way to gain insight was to work myself through
his piece. My self-esteem was buoyed by the fact that even he
used the wrong verb tenses -- made abrupt transitions that needed
to be reworked -- left unnecessary words that had to be cut, etc.
Maybe he was right when he said it was fun to edit after you get
past the point of thinking you are dealing with a failure. I then
looked at the beginning of the editing that had been done during
our last class. I began to see that my text did work better in
The teachers begin to appreciate the complexity of writing. Their
writing develops a new fluency. They learn, first hand, how a collaborative
context can help develop the clarity of a particular piece of writing
and, in time, they learn when to become concerned about writing
conventions and how to deal with them. Jan shares a sense of her
new found confidence when she writes,
I know the most striking thing I've discovered about my writing
is its unpredictable nature. I guess the whole deal reminds me
of painting with a blindfold on -- the tray of paints, with every
single color is before me and a paper the size of a gym floor.
It's peeking every once in a while from behind the mask that makes
writing so neat.
Learning About Reading
Not only have the teachers' writing strategies been affected by
the journal dialogues, how they go about reading has also been challenged.
In the "Writing and Computers" graduate class we tackle
some particularly difficult research material. The teachers' reading
capacities are pushed, in a few cases, nearly to the limit. During
a class discussion several of them admitted they had tried looking
up words in a dictionary but were frustrated when the technical
terms couldn't be found. Most wanted to stop reading but knowing
they should have a written response for class made them persevere.
As the talk continued, it became evident the majority had limited
strategies for dealing with difficult text. In particular, the teachers
were uncomfortable reading ahead to see what meaning they might
construct. This surprised me somewhat since more than half the group
had already taken courses dealing with reading theories and I was
expecting their personal reading strategies to reflect what they'd
learned. Their difficulty actually using any read-on strategy prompted
me to write about reading tactics and people's failure to apply
what they've learned about reading in my next journal.
I always find Shanklin interesting because my reading strategies
are taxed. Invariably I'm forced to reflect on my reading strategies
as I go along. Reading Shanklin this time I remembered some workshops
last spring which made me think about the need to look at our
own reading strategies. I've been assuming that because people
have had courses in reading, they've come to value and use the
sorts of strategies which focus on constructing meaning. What
happened during those workshops forced me to examine that assumption.
(I had begun the workshops by asking people "When you're reading
and you run into difficulty, what do you do about it?" Almost
everyone had said "skip it.")
When confronted with difficult text these teachers actually abandoned
global strategies which would have helped them understand the whole
and used instead focal strategies which limited their comprehension
rather than extended it. They did stop to sound out words rather
than substitute something meaningful as a placeholder. They reread
in phrase or sentence units rather than paragraph, page or chapter
chunks. Few of the teachers and administrators were able to deal
with uncertainty by suspending judgment and reading further, actively
looking for answers to questions in subsequent text; they were tied
to words far more tightly than I believed "fluent" adult
readers would be.
This prompted Lorraine to write,
For the very first time I have considered the difference between
reading an article from a global point of view or from a focal
point of view. Although this may be basic knowledge to you it
is new to me. I only wish I had been aware of this before tackling
the quantity of reading in last year's courses. Often I trudged
endlessly through the articles -- wrote journals on them -- I
never arrived at class having viewed the article as a whole. After
having read your journal I've decided to have a try and read more
Having picked up on my mention of global strategies Lorraine decided
to try reading differently, but she didn't consider why, although
she had learned about these strategies elsewhere, she hadn't thought
of applying them in her own reading. Lorraine, like most of the
other teachers, actually found it difficult to read more globally.
It took weeks of forcing themselves to read for a sense of the whole
before the majority of the class became comfortable with only a
partial understanding of a difficult text. Freewriting in their
journals about what they didn't understand, trying to make connections
with other readings and with their own learning experiences, helped
the teachers begin to handle reading in a more open way. For me,
the incident reinforced, once again, the gulf between knowing about
strategies and actually using them. I had to ask myself how I might
ensure that the teachers would themselves use their new understanding
of writing and reading, not merely add it to their repertoire of
what Barnes (1976) refers to as "school learning."
Teachers as Writers
An important issue which draws the teachers' attention is the notion
that teachers of writing must themselves write. A number of the
authors we read -- Boomer (1984), Mikkelsen (1984), Murray (1980),
Smith (1983) -- assert that in order to teach writing teachers must
engage in writing. That assertion provokes a lot of reaction. Jim
At first I thought this meant I had to have been a writer to
have experienced the bump and grind of the writing process so
I could transmit it to my students but now I am recognizing that
although that may be partly true it isn't what is most important.
What is far more important is the everyday aliveness that comes
from being a learner along with children. Whether I publish (another
orthodoxy), or not, is really not important. Am I right now learning
and experiencing wrestling with a piece of text that I am reading
As Jim sees it, being readers and writers alongside our students
allows us to relinquish our "expert" roles. It's that
active engagement with what we're reading or what we're trying to
write that lets us raise the problems we're having and facilitates
the discussion of useful strategies with students.
Janet contributes to the dialogue by reflecting on how her inexperience
with writing affected her teaching of writing the previous year;
yet, how her growing awareness of the many aspects of writing allowed
her to give her students greater latitude for exploring what they
might do as writers.
I don't think I helped extend the children to the limits of their
ability because my own knowledge and experience were not great
enough but I think I was able to help them develop confidence
in themselves as writers as I never had before. They discovered
they had things to say in their own unique ways.
Pix, too, as a consequence of her own personal exploration of writing
has expanded her understanding of what's involved in teaching writing.
Process writing is not just teaching about how to churn out a
piece. It's teaching about developing a positive view about your
own ideas and how you put them together. It's teaching about valuing
your own content, about having the ability to take control of
what you're creating. I think that's more important than everybody
becoming an author.
Reading, Writing, and Learning as Transaction
Although ostensibly we are investigating writing, reading surfaces
regularly. Marilyn describes an unexpected insight about reading
while reacting to an article by Louise Rosenblatt (1985). She writes,
I must admit, I was looking forward to reading Rosenblatt's article.
The truth of the matter is that last year we were to choose one
topic upon which to create a major paper. I chose Rosenblatt and
her Transactional Theory. To prepare myself for the paper I read
in great depth The Reader, The Text and The Poem and I skimmed
Literature and Exploration. Thus I thought that this journal would
be a breeze -- finally an easy week! All I would have to do is
transfer the material from last year's paper and the prof would
never know the difference! So I diligently dug out my last year's
paper, got a pen and was all set to work. I reread my last year's
paper. I was devastated. I didn't want to use it. I questioned
why. Suddenly it hit me like a bolt. I was experiencing exactly
what Rosenblatt describes. Once we read we are changed. Each reading
is a unique transaction occurring between a particular person
and a particular text at a particular time in a particular place.
Thus since last March when I wrote the paper I have learned new
things and perhaps I have learned to think differently in some
respects. Now in October the reading of Rosenblatt was a unique
transaction which demands a unique response. What better way to
understand Rosenblatt than to experience what she is saying.
Marilyn's sudden realization that the meaning of a text isn't necessarily
fixed but is always subject to reinterpretation is an important
insight. I try encouraging that insight by having the teachers reread
various selections while keeping in mind the question "What
do you make of this NOW after having read, or having tried, ?"
At first, most of the teachers think I'm simply wasting their time;
but soon, they see how meaning is continually affected by our ongoing
reading, writing, and discussion. Jan writes,
I reread Don Murray's "Writing as a Process." I'm sure
I'm not alone in this next discovery: I am amazed at my original
highlighting and what I noted in the margin at the time of reading.
I look at it now and I wonder what connection was I making at
the time.... why didn't I react to his stuff on conferencing.
[I note in the margin: because we weren't doing any at that point.]
He talks about self-exposure and how beneficial it is for the
other students, the teacher, and the writer to see what her piece
of writing is saying. WHY DIDN'T I SEE THAT IN ORDER TO HEAR I
ALSO HAD TO LISTEN? [I respond: That's why we're rereading. There's
lots in this material to be discovered.]
Chris extends Rosenblatt's transactional model beyond reading to
I would like to make some general comments on what is happening
to me as a learner as a result of the readings and the writing
of a weekly journal. It is only through my journal writing that
I seem to be able to take the time to organize my thoughts and
it is as I write that I am beginning to see how much must be considered
before I will develop an understanding of the writing process
and the implications for classroom practice.
She sees how the interplay of reading and writing allows her to
develop a new understanding of the complexity of writing as well
as helps her think about how to teach writing.
Sharon takes Rosenblatt's argument even further.
The idea (is) that the organic transaction puts all of learning
into focus. We are not separate from the environment no matter
how isolated we may feel -- even a sense of isolation comes directly
out of some form of transaction, perhaps a very negative response
from one's teacher, or a lack of feedback on something one has
To which I replied,
It's important to realize every experience is a transaction;
even bad experiences. There is no such thing as no transactions.
Everything we learn is the result of making some kind of connection
to what we already know either because the something new is like
something else we know or because it causes us to reconsider what
we thought we believed about the world. But in any case our new
understanding is the result of our being changed by our experience
be it with something someone has written or because of some direct
The implications of a "transactional" view of the world
are far reaching. Sharon has realized that seeing the world in terms
of "transactions" means she has to accept the possibility
of some transactions having negative consequences. As Frank Smith
(1981) argues, our brains are learning all the time. Students are
constantly engaging with both the intended and inadvertent demonstrations
occurring around them and sometimes they're learning not to learn.
The fact that we might be interfering with students' learning,
albeit inadvertently, is an important consideration for every teacher.
It happens to me often. I unintentionally convey the opposite of
what I intend to demonstrate to the teachers and they are quick
to let me know when it's happened. Chris, for example, wrote me
about how a comment of mine during one class interfered with her
reading that week.
Last week you implied that as we read Bereiter we would find
his ideas unpalatable, that we would find much to take issue with.
Therefore, when I began to read the article I approached it from
the point of view that what he said would probably contrast sharply
with what we had been discussing in class. As I read I tried to
find examples of specific points that were not compatible with
my developing sense of the writing process. This proved to be
not only very difficult but probably a waste of my time.
While I thought I'd been supporting the teachers' intuitions about
conflicting messages in the readings for that week, it seems by
acknowledging different theoretical positions I'd unwittingly set
up expectations for Chris that interfered with her reading. Or perhaps
the way I conveyed to the class that the reading selection would
be unpalatable caused a reaction in Chris to want to please me and
my purposes, rather than discover and serve her own. What's nice,
however, is that she felt comfortable enough to write about the
problem so I could know what she'd experienced. That's one of the
values of journal dialogues; the teachers often use their journals
to tell me when I've misjudged a situation.
Pam also let me know about an outstanding incident when I undermined
her confidence. Her entry begins with a discussion of herself and
her writing. She describes how she is learning to see a topic from
different perspectives and her surprise at having more to say than
she imagined. Writing a story, sharing it, and revising it further
has let her begin to see herself as a writer. She continues,
Five short minutes in class last week left me questioning my
ability. I was told the story I had written could be better. Not
only that, I was given no recognition for the effort or final
product. The only thing discussed in conference was what I could
(and underlying -- should) change -- no comment about words, phrases,
descriptive passages, or holding the reader's interest -- things
I was pleased with. My immediate reaction was to reject the suggestions
for improvement that I had been given. After all this was my story.
I apologize for that -- I'm glad you've raised it. I will respond
in my journal to the class because I'm sure others experienced
the same thing and I want to explore what happened. Thanks for
letting me know what you experienced.
And in my journal to the class that week I explained,
I was trying to help each writer deal with her or his piece in
its own terms. In actual fact, I seriously overstepped some boundaries,
as Pam pointed out to me. Here's what happened. We have a total
of eleven classes together. I'm trying to help you work your way
through at least two pieces of writing in that time, offering
a variety of strategies which you, in turn, can share with your
Now, one of the real problems I have to contend with is that
many teachers believe I'm saying "conventions don't matter
-- any old writing is good enough." That's isn't true. Conventions
do matter; the question is when. In this case, my timing was wrong
for some of you. I came into the writing too late in the shaping
of the pieces. The writing had been through a couple of revisions,
you folks were pleased with what you'd done, and you should have
been because you'd worked out a lot of the problems as a result
of the revising you'd done. So it was a mistake for me to try
and use those pieces to show you something more about writing.
Because you felt done, my suggestions to some of you undermined
the sense of satisfaction I was trying to help you build.
Instead, I should have moved on to the next piece of writing
and become more involved in the discussions while the writing
was still fluid and open. That would have been more useful for
helping you to think about matters like tightening, or telling
more facts or moving things around. As it was, my suggestions
took over the writing, making some of you feel what you'd done
wasn't good enough which wasn't my intention at all.
It was a very rushed process. For me it was too late, I didn't
like my revised writing, it really wasn't mine anymore. Your suggestions
were valid but I couldn't really work effectively with them and
ended up liking my previous (finished) draft better.
Yet Margaret wrote that our conversation about her writing had
been useful. My suggestions had helped her focus and she felt happier
about her piece after we'd talked.
It takes quite a while for people to take the risk and offer
me critical feedback. Yet, I need that information; it lets me
know just how things are going. I am able to use their comments
to raise the issues in class, to help the teachers think about
how they might deal with similar situations themselves.
Leading from Behind
It's been interesting for me to discover that an "assignment,"
and that's what our journal writing starts out as, can be both authentic
and inauthentic at the same time. I'm always surprised that a particular
invitation can trigger real writing from some of the teachers and
just compliance from others. The problem for me is to help those
who are writing for me as teacher-as-examiner to assume some real
purpose of their own. Sharing my writing with them, writing to them,
responding to what they've written are all directed toward that
Some teachers find it particularly difficult to relax with their
writing. They continue struggling to produce minipapers, searching
for definitive interpretations, and clear expression. I choose not
to set out rules for journal writing because I want the teachers
to find a direction of their own. Instead, I use my own journal
and the individual written responses to encourage them to try new
ways of writing.
Even those who have already begun taking risks need support for
continuing to write with abandon. So I use my journal, from time
to time, to raise the legitimacy of setting aside constraints, to
help the teachers consider where they might be blocking and to nudge
them to try writing differently. On one occasion, for example, I
I want to comment about the sense of panic I'm still getting
from some of you. This class is about risk-taking. It's a situation
in which I'm trying to create sufficient time for you to feel
comfortable exploring reading and writing strategies you've not
tried before. Not because your present strategies are BAD, but
because all of us can benefit from an expanded repertoire. No
single strategy will work all of the time; we will always encounter
situations where we find our strategies inadequate.
To which Janet responded,
I'm trying to become a risk-taker -- this can mean different
things for different people at different times. Getting over the
fear of sharing, the fear of being discovered less "bright."
Because I genuinely want to experience the process so that I can
better help my class, I'm trying to set aside some strategies
but also discovering that many I've learned to use over the years
are valid and useful. I've always imagined fictional writing to
be the epitome of creativity and because I'm still reluctant to
try my hand at that I see myself as a blocked writer even though
I'm finding it easier to get words on paper.
She's letting me know that while she wants to experience writing
more openly there are reasons why she's having difficulty doing
that. Her reasons are legitimate.
On the other hand, despite their anxieties, I want the teachers
to explore as many different writing strategies as possible so they
can discover how they might tackle various sorts of writing and
learn which strategies work best in which situations. One strategy
I encourage is Elbow's freewriting. Yet freewriting presents lots
of obstacles for some. Sally described her reluctance to try in
(The strategy) appears to be time consuming and time is not something
I have a lot of. What if it doesn't accomplish what it is supposed
to? There is the fear that you might end up with absolutely nothing
to show for your effort. Not only does this thought create panic
but when all is said and done I have a need to feel some sense
of accomplishment. No doubt we are conditioned to be product-oriented,
a realization that is a result of this course.
I did my best to reassure Sally it's trying that counts; I'm not
concerned about what her initial products are like because writing
gives us the opportunity to reformulate our ideas. Because Sally
wasn't the only one reluctant to let go, I wrote to the group,
My objective in pushing you to extend yourselves way beyond anything
you think you can do successfully is to help you think about the
circumstances I have been trying to create to help you experience
the richest transactions you can and then to take that a step
farther and think about what this might mean for working with
your own students. It's not that helping students learn to be
more proficient writers isn't part of our agenda. But an important
way of helping you make discoveries which are more than merely
a regurgitation of what someone else tells you is by encouraging
you to reach way beyond what you think you can do.
The teachers, almost invariably, have come to the "Writing
and Computers" course expecting to be told how to teach writing,
and while writing instruction is part of the agenda, initially that
focus is covert. What I'm trying to do is help teachers learn about
writing by being writers. That clash of expectations creates a lot
of frustration. My problem is to find ways of encouraging those
who resist joining the collaborative venture. My journal letters
seem to provide a way of nudging, both privately and publicly, the
more timid engagers. They are an essential ingredient for establishing
my role as learner in this collaborative enterprise. As Evelyn put
The key element missing in so many other courses has been the
teacher involvement. As I struggled to get a journal written I
was always aware of you not only having to read and react to 19
journals but also having to write one as well. The stated belief
was that you were involved in the learning process with us, not
just a spectator of our process. The underlying assumption that
came through was the concern for the learner. This was your contact
with me as an individual as well as a member of the group. It
did not replace personal contact but was an added feature. It
was used as a means of bringing common concerns into the open
and as a teacher helping us gain from your insights as well as
those of others.
I try using our journal dialogues to show the teachers I take their
ideas seriously, that I respect their efforts at making new meaning,
that I appreciate their struggles with conflicting assumptions,
that I don't have all the answers about how to teach writing. While
sustaining our journal dialogues takes a considerable amount of
my time, I'm convinced they're essential for helping the teachers
to see their own writing in new ways and to consider how they're
teaching writing themselves. Ann, for example, reflected,
Although you did not ask us to model our entries on yours, I
see now that this is exactly what I began to do. Shortly after
you began writing to us, I took an enormous risk. I began thinking
about Murray's description of writing as a process of discovery
and also about a question you asked me in response to one of my
previous journals. Suddenly I wanted to write. I started writing
uncertain of where I was going, moving quickly and allowing the
ideas as they appear on the page to control the direction of the
writing. The entry is about changes I see developing in my own
writing, about how new ideas are affecting me, about what I am
learning. I thought it too subjective, too uncomfortably personal.
However, I passed it in. Your response read simply, "You
are beginning to share your sense of discovery, and I am swept
along" -- exactly the right thing to say, of course.
Ann sees a connection between what I have done in my journals and
the writing strategies she begins to adopt. My brief response lets
her know I have enjoyed reading what she's shared of her uncertainty
and seems to dispel her fear of having revealed too much of herself.
Later in her journal Ann explored a number of ways in which my writing
affected how she wrote. Most important was becoming more comfortable
with writing, being able to begin with only a foggy notion of what
she might say, allowing the writing to define ideas, actually thinking
in print with confidence about what she has to say. In retrospect,
she commented, there appeared a startling change in her writing;
while the language is as correct as it had been before, it is also
much clearer and stronger, more real. Her ideas, she now feels,
flow and connect naturally, and there is a sense of the person or
voice behind the words. Then came her query:
How did this development of voice come about? Certainly the reading
I was doing was connected to it; it cleared the cobwebs and allowed
me to think of writing in a very different way. But I would never
have risked trying to write more freely had it not been for the
journal process. Through the journals we setup a dialogue....
In the breakthrough entry, I wrote "I see you and I are beginning
to construct some sort of contract"; the contract was the
dialogue, forged through your demonstrations of what the journal
could be, through your interest in what each of us had to say
What does Ann's altered sense of writing mean for her as a teacher?
"The answer is astonishingly simple," she wrote,
writing is a vehicle for making, and subsequently communicating,
meaning.... Perhaps if we began writing with our students, if
we demonstrated that we have things to say and are willing to
struggle with writing them, we might discover there are things
our students have been meaning to tell us.
The journal dialogues, which I am only now beginning to understand,
function as mirrors for reflecting our beliefs back to us. Through
our journal dialogues we find ways of examining our assumptions
and expressing our tentative understanding. Journal writing creates
opportunities for the unexpected to emerge. It's particularly at
moments of disagreement or anger that we have an opportunity to
face our assumptions. The intensity of our reaction signals the
fact that some deeply held belief is being challenged. By writing
about these conflicts we can make our assumptions visible, available
for scrutiny. Equally valuable are those statements, our own and
those of others we read, which catch us off guard -- comments, assertions,
arguments which offer us a fresh way of seeing things, that make
us aware we haven't seen things in quite that way before. Our written
conversations about our struggles with the writing research literature,
the difficulties we experience as we write, the connections we see
with our own experiences, our efforts to understand the collaborative
nature of learning, are important for allowing us to grow as learners,
writers, and teachers.
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