Dr. Judith M. Newman


English Education, 1988 20(3): 134-156

Sharing Journals:
Conversational Mirrors
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 their ideas.

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 dialogue.

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 respond.]

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 happens.]

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" writing class.

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 you.]

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 to "cover."]

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 together.]

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 students.

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 response.

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 write.

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 their writing.

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 reported,

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 certain places.

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 globally.

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 reflects,

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 and writing?

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 include writing.

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 written.

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 experience.

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.

Critical Feedback

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 replied,

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 students.

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.

Barb responded,

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 end.

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 wrote,

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 these terms:

(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 it,

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.

Works Cited

Atwell, N. (1987). In the middle. Upper Montclair, NJ: Boynton/Cook.

Barnes, D. (1976). From communication to curriculum. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin.

Bereiter, C. (1980). Development in writing. In L. Gregg & E. Steinberg (Eds.), Cognitive processes in writing. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers, 73-96.

Boomer, G. (1984). Literacy, power and the community. Language Arts, 61, 575-584.

Calkins, L. (1986). The art of teaching writing. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann Educational Books.

Collins, A. & Gentner, D. (1980). A framework for a cognitive theory of writing. In L. Gregg & E. Steinberg (Eds.), Cognitive processes in writing. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers, 51-72.

Elbow, P. (1973). Writing without teachers. New York: Oxford University Press.

Flower, L. & Hayes, J. (1980). The dynamics of composing: making plans and juggling constraints. In L. Gregg & E. Steinberg (Eds.), Cognitive processes in writing. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers, 31-50.

Mayher, J. (1985). Mental models of the composing process. Unpublished manuscript.

Mayher, J.; Lester, N. & Pradl, G. (1983). Learning to write/writing to learn. Upper Montclair, NJ: Boynton/Cook.

Mikkelsen, N. (1984). Teacher as partner in the writing process. Language Arts, 61, 704-711.

Murray, D. (1980). Writing as a process: how writing finds its own meaning. In T. Donovan & B. McClelland (Eds.), Eight approaches to teaching composition. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 3-20.

Murray, D. (1984). Write to learn. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Romano, T. (1987). Clearing the way. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann Educational Books.

Rosenblatt, L. (1985). Transaction versus interaction -- a terminological rescue operation. Research in the Teaching of English, 19, 96-107.

Shanklin, N. (1982). Relating reading and writing: developing a transactional theory of the writing process. Monographs in Teaching and Learning #5, School of Education, Indiana University.

Smith, F. (1981). Demonstrations, engagement and sensitivity. Language Arts, 58, 103-112.

Smith, F. (1983). Myths of writing. In F. Smith, Essays into literacy. Exeter, NH: Heinemann Educational Books, 81-88.

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