Arts, 1987, 64(7): 727-737
Learning to Teach by
Uncovering Our Assumptions
Judith M. Newman
One day Lee, a sixth grader, was struggling with
some comprehension questions from his reader when
he came to me for help. It was the kind of question
where the students had to read between the lines
and devise their own answers. I told Lee there
was information on page 42 which might help him.
A few minutes later he was back complaining he
could not find the answer on that page. I sent him
away telling him to take a closer look. A short
time later he turned to Melissa, a student in his
reading group, and exclaimed, "Melissa,
let me see your reader to see if the answer is on
your page 42!"
Mary MacDonald (1986), a teacher in one of my graduate classes,
wrote this brief, amusing story at my prompting. I had asked
the teachers to keep an eye on what was going on in their
classrooms and to bring to class a couple of short descriptions
of incidents which caught their attention. I saw the stories
as a tool for conducting research on ourselves. These "critical
incidents," as we came to refer to them, offered us a
way of exploring our assumptions about language, about learning,
and about teaching.
Although she knew it held an important lesson for her, Mary
had a difficult time, at first, deciding precisely what the
story helped her understand. After some discussion she was
able to see how she'd inadvertently reinforced Lee's expectation
that the meaning was indeed in the book by telling him to
take a closer look at the page. Now she was able to consider
what she might have done to help him discover that reading
is an interpretive activity.
Our analysis of this incident, and many others like it, made
us aware of the following:
Everything we do in the classroom is founded on a set of
assumptions about learning and teaching, about knowledge,
and about what counts as legitimate reading and writing.
That is, each of us operates on the basis of what Chris
Argyris (1976) calls our "action theories. "
Our beliefs about learning and teaching are largely tacit.
We operate a good deal of the time from an intuitive sense
of what is going on without actively reflecting on what
our intentions might be and what our actions could be saying
Our beliefs about learning and teaching can only be uncovered
by engaging in systematic self-critical analysis of our
current instructional practices.
We began using critical incidents as a way of finding
out more about our current beliefs and about the
assumptions underlying what we were doing in the
classroom. We collected and shared stories which
contributed to our understanding about language and
learning and about our role as teachers. Sometimes
the incidents confirmed what we believed; more often,
however, we were forced to reappraise our assumptions.
What these critical incidents often revealed, was
a surprising gap between what we said we believed
about learning and teaching (our "espoused" beliefs)
and what our actions were conveying.
In the beginning, I didn't seem to have many stories from
my own current teaching and I was bothered by that. Then,
quite unexpectedly, I was inundated with stories. One night
that week, finding myself unable to sleep, I jotted a number
of incidents in a notebook.
It was at that point I realized something useful: the incidents
which help us change as teachers aren't big events—they're
the small, everyday, ongoing occurrences. I wrote:
I can see our learning opportunities come from comments
made in passing, from a statement overheard, from something
a student might write in a journal, from something we might
read either because it confirms our experiences or because
we disagree and have to consider what we believe instead,
or because it opens possibilities we haven't thought about
I also realized the learning remains hidden unless
we have some reason for making it explicit. Writing
the stories down was important. It forced us to explain
the situation to ourselves. Engaging in this kind
of analysis alone wasn't easy. We needed to ask one
another questions such as
why was an incident memorable?
what made it significant?
what did we learn from it?
how might we have dealt with that situation differently?
in order to see the point of the story and to talk about
the underlying assumptions.
Learning about Learning and Teaching
Let me share an incident so you can see how I began exploring
my own assumptions about learning and teaching. I was reading
Sondra Perl and Nancy Wilson's last chapter in Through Teacher's
Eyes (1986). In that chapter they summarize what they learned
from their study of writing in a single school in upper New
York State. One notion which struck a chord was their concept
of "teaching as enabling." They made me think about
how difficult it is to find a balance between "imposing
judgement and allowing for students' spontaneity, between
controlling students' actions and offering free rein."
That described perfectly what I was then experiencing
with one of my classes. Early in the fall, I'd received
an invitation to write a book about the "politics
of language instruction." I had extended the
invitation to the teachers and suggested we work
on a collaborative effort but, while no one said
anything specific about the invitation, the body
language was definitely saying "No Way'."
I let the invitation stand until, finally, one student
was actually brave enough to write me a mail message
letting me know she didn't want to be involved. Her
message forced me to look at my intentions for those
teachers, at what I was trying to accomplish with
them, and at this particular "assignment"
as they perceived it to be.
A number of them, I was sure, were feeling themselves on
a very short rein. However, as I reconsidered my intentions,
I realized I didn't want to abandon the book just yet. I felt
the teachers were ready to try writing for an unknown public
audience in order to experience how publication makes explicit
the need for such writing conventions as spelling, grammar,
punctuation, and text organization. (This wasn't, by the way,
our first writing effort—we had already completed a number
of short pieces and had compiled two class collections.) I
thought about whether I was imposing my agenda on them, taking
away ownership, limiting their choices, or whether I was putting
them in a situation which would help them grow. I decided
to let the task stand, realizing that time would tell If the
teachers were able to find their way into some writing, I
would have facilitated their exploration; if they simply compiled,
if they wrote to placate me (and their writing would show
that—it would have little vitality), then I'd have imposed
my intentions and I'd have to deal with it later on.
Frank Smith (1981) discusses the problem of students' interpretation
of teachers' intentions in his article "Demonstrations,
Engagement and Sensitivity" He argues students are learning
all the time but that what they could be learning may not
be what we think we're teaching. My story is about just such
a clash of interpretations. On the one hand, I thought I was
extending an open invitation: "write about a teaching
or learning incident that seems important to you and we'll
see how the stories come together." The teachers, on
the other hand, heard me saying "write on this topic."
Not only that, I was making them feel extremely vulnerable
because none of them had ever written anything for publication
before. It took quite a while for the teachers to believe
I was really just inviting them to explore; that it didn't
matter whether we actually produced a publication, only that
we wrote with that intention in mind. This incident helped
me consider the kind of invitations I was extending to my
students and how they might not be perceived as I was intending
Mary Jane Cadegan (1986), an elementary resource teacher,
relates an incident with one of her students which helped
her see the gap between her intentions and the student's perception
of the situation.
Seven-year-old Jason began writing very long pieces which
were remarkable for their strong voice, sophisticated language,
and touches of humor. Jason was quite willing to revise
for meaning and to insert sentence markers. He was also
quite willing to circle words he recognized as misspelled.
Unfortunately, this resulted in a page awash in circles
because Jason knew the invented spellings he was using were
not conventional. When faced with the prospect of making
a "good" copy from the lengthy revised and edited
version, he was overwhelmed. After laboring through two
experiences, he turned 10 me one day and announced, "I
think I'll start to write shorter stories." "Why?"
I asked him. "Because I can't stand writing all this
stuff again. It's too hard."
As she worked her way through this incident, Mary Jane was
able to look at some of her assumptions about making what
she called "a good copy." A part of her resource
room activity involves having students reread their writing
for any unconventional spelling. She would then help them
with the conventional form, but in order to draw their attention
to the conventional spelling of these words, she felt it was
important for them to copy the corrected writing. What Jason
helped her see was that, at least for him, her insistence
on recopying his stories was leading him to choose to take
fewer risks as a writer. She had to ask herself what was more
important for his writing development at that point in time.
She decided to support his growth as a storyteller rather
than force attention to spelling. She did the recopying for
several weeks, only drawing Jason back to that aspect of writing
when she saw indications of his increased spelling proficiency.
A Learner-Centered Classroom
Since the uncovering of our assumptions often reveals a contradiction
or imbalance within us as teachers, this revelation is usually
a prompt toward not only new understanding but also toward
change on our parts. A direction in which many teachers are
currently changing is a way of teaching alternative to a traditional
teacher-centered approach. Uncovering our assumptions through
critical incidents can help us understand the nature of this
learner-centered alternative and how to practice it.
Trying to be what Douglas Barnes (1976) calls an "interpretive"
teacher is not easy. Few of us have any experience
with other than "transmission" teaching
where much of what the teacher does is based on
three assumptions: the meaning of things in the
world is immutable and independent of observer
and circumstances, reality consists of discrete
elements or building blocks which exist independently
of one another, and reality as a whole can be known
by understanding each of its constituent elements.
However, Barnes' notion of teaching as "interpretation" presents
a quite different view. From an interpretive perspective,
reality is inseparable from the individuals who
construct it, the meaning of a situation is determined
by the situation itself, and knowledge is an artifact
of our continuous encounters with the world. From
an interpretive stance the educational focus is
on learning and on ways of creating contexts which
allow learners to make sense of the world collaboratively.
For example, Susan Settle (1986), a second grade teacher,
explored a situation which helped her see her interpretive
role more clearly. She told the following story:
One particular child, Carrie, had been reading her story
called "Mom's New Vase." It caught my attention
immediately because it was one of the best stories she'd
written to that point. She had included several new elements
in her story creating an interesting opening and plot. However,
it wasn't until she made a suggestion to another child that
I discovered something else she had done. She had told Shawn
that he could change some of the "said" words
to make his Story more interesting. I saw, then, she had
done exactly that herself. Later, I asked Carrie how she
had decided to use such a variety of words. She explained
that she had referred to the chart posted in the classroom.
Chart? It took me a moment to realize she was referring
to a chart I had started a week or so before. The children
and I had been reading about trade between countries. One
child had asked what the word "coaxed" meant.
Matt had responded that it was a word used like "said"
and we then carried on with our discussion about trade.
At the end of the day I had listed "said" and
"coaxed" in a chart titled "Words Used in
Dialogue" and posted it, thinking I'd use it later
when I had the opportunity to "teach" about dialogue.
Then I'd promptly forgotten it.
Writing about the incident helped Susan realize that, instead
of delivering "lessons" in a formal structured way,
responding to her students' queries let her offer information
that was directly relevant for what they were doing. What
surprised her was the fact that a passing comment and a titled
chart could have such an impact on what the students learned.
Without further assistance from her, in fact without her even
being aware of it, the students engaged in what could be called
a "vocabulary lesson." The original lesson had been
only incidental. What Susan began to realize was that she
didn't have to be teaching from the front of the classroom
at all times. She could, instead, lead from behind.
Like Susan Settle, Wayne Serebrin (1986) learned about the
resourcefulness of his students and their ability to solve
their own problems with just a hint of support from him. He
describes a brief encounter with Kristen, a seven-year-old
first grader who liked to write about her guinea pigs, Olga
... on this day her writing was not coming easily. Kristen
wanted to "make a funny story about Olga and Boris"
but was having trouble getting started. She squirmed uneasily
in her seat. Shrugging her shoulders, she looked up at me
from her heavily-erased page. "Well," I ventured,
"how would one of your favorite authors make Olga and
Boris seem funny?" For a brief moment she puzzled over
the "help" I had offered. Then, with a confident
"I know," she stood up and pushed past me on her
way to the book corner. She emerged clutching a well-worn
copy of one of James Marshall's George and Marsha stories.
I was no longer needed. I returned to the table where I
had been writing and watched her.
This incident helped Wayne discover the importance
of a timely question. Rather than launching into
a dissertation on how to write comedy, his question
put Kristen in touch with a favorite author who could
show her how to do what she was trying to do. Notice
he didn't suggest a particular book or author; instead,
in response to her difficulty he merely asked her
to think about how one of her favorite authors might
create such a situation. The rest he left to Kristen.
These are just some of the powerful insights to interpretive
teaching which critical incidents can provide. A
number of other incidents yield a more extensive
and systematic listing of some of the key characteristics
or traits of a learner-centered approach to teaching.
Leading from Behind
This question of what kind of support we should be offering
is a crucial one. A comment made by a teacher recently made
me think about the issue once again myself. I had just read
an article by Allan Neilsen (in press), "Critical Thinking
and Reading: Empowering Learners to Think and Act," in
which he discusses a problem many teachers have with their
changing role. He points out that
One of the most disturbing interpretations of learner-centered
education is the one which sees any action on the part of
the teacher as interference with the student's right to
be independent and to determine her own destiny. When accepted
uncritically, this notion can cause teachers to feel sufficiently
guilty or at least sufficiently uncertain about their role
that they become paralyzed into inaction. They not only
"back off" for fear of being interventionist,
in effect they often back right out of the classroom.
Neilsen's comments about the role of the teacher
in a learner-centered environment came immediately
to mind when Christine described something occurring
in her classroom. She explained how her first graders
were doing quite a bit of writing—writing in journals,
sending mail, and so on—but she was bothered that
they weren't actually writing in the writing center.
The children would go to the writing center, take
out the markers, crayons, and paper and draw like
crazy, but they weren't doing much writing there.
I suggested she remove the blank paper and substitute
lined paper instead.! predicted the invitation extended
by lined paper would be different from blank paper.
"But I didn't think I was allowed to do that," she
Here was precisely the problem Neilsen is addressing: the
belief that learner-centered teaching means "hands off."
I explained that I believe teachers have an important role
in the classroom, most aptly described by Montessori (1948),
I think, when she deals with "the prepared environment."
She's arguing that teachers have a responsibility for creating
a context which offers as many of the desired opportunities
as possible; that means building in as many subtle constraints
as we can so students are guided by the obvious aspects of
Take the example of the lined paper. Lined paper,
unlike blank paper, says "Write on me!" I'm
certain many of the children will create and not
draw on lined paper if it's offered.! realize I may
be removing some aspect of student choice with my
paper selection. If I want to reinstate it, I can
create a drawing center with materials which obviously
invite art efforts. Nevertheless, I have a responsibility
to set up situations that make invitations as clearly
as possible. If the invitation is misinterpreted,
then I need to play around with the situation to
see in what ways I can influence how the children
use it. What keeps this "experimenting"
from completely removing the element of choice for
the learner is that I haven't said the children can't
draw in the writing center; what I've done is increase
the probability they'll write instead. If that doesn't
work, I'd experiment with other ways of making the
invitation stronger. I might place photocopies of
wordless picture books on the table so the children
could compose their own text for the stories; I could
also offer shape books (small blank notebooks, again
with lined paper—perhaps with occasional blank pages
for drawing—and a cover of some sort, cut into different
shapes: hearts, squares, Christmas trees, houses,
and so on). My point is, it's perfectly legitimate
to set up the environment so that specific invitations
are being extended.
I've thought about my role as teacher a great deal
in the last year. I'm beginning to understand how
extending invitations or creating a prepared environment
is only a start. We also have to think about how to
sustain engagement, how to support students' struggles,
how to celebrate their accomplishments, as well as
to help them examine their strategies more closely.
During a recent workshop with some junior and senior
high school teachers I had some useful insights about
how I do all of these. The focus of the day was on
writing and reading for learning. I'd offered the
teachers a difficult text passage to work with, something
none of them knew anything about. I'd asked them to
read the passage quickly, trying simply to get a feeling
for what it was about, and then had them jot gist
statements on a small piece of paper. Next, they collaboratively
identified what they saw as the elements of the argument.
As we went along it became apparent to me, not through
anything specific anyone said, that what I was doing
as a teacher was quite different from how they perceived
their role. They saw themselves concerned primarily
with content while I was more interested in initiating
and sustaining processes. I was using material with
a definite content (in this case about the growth
of soot particles in wood stoves), but what I was
trying to help these teachers discover was what reading
and learning strategies they themselves used and to
explore how writing could actually enhance their handling
of difficult material. While apparently a rather loose
learning structure, what became obvious to me was how much of the situation
I was maneuvering to sustain them at the task and
to help them talk about what' they were finding out
both about content and about their writing and reading
strategies. I was helped to see how I was constantly
evaluating what they were doing and saying, how I
was sustaining their engagement in the activity by
asking a focusing question, making a procedural suggestion,
or offering a bit of background information to help
Responding to something a teacher wrote in a journal
let me clarify further what I think sustaining engagement
entails. Adrice commented on the difficulty she was
having trying to be an interpretive teacher. She
wrote that she was never sure about how much direction
to offer. In my reply I commented:
What I'm seeing more clearly in my own teaching
is that I give a lot of direction, I take responsibility
for setting things in motion, for doing enough preparation
so that the jumpoff invitation will catch as many
students as possible. I monitor their reactions,
try to follow what's going on so I can help them
over hurdles, work to keep them interested, involved,
and in touch with their own investigations, and
attempt to bring closure by helping them reflect
on what they've been finding out, both about content
and the tactics they used.
I assume considerable responsibility for initiating experiences
and provide a great deal of direction during class. However,
the "control" I exert is procedural. I rarely talk
about content myself, although I build in loads of opportunities
for the teachers to read and discuss material on a range of
issues. They become familiar with what major researchers in
the field have to say and have considered how these ideas
might be implemented in the classroom. I don't tell them what
to know or believe; that part of the enterprise is their responsibility.
I try, with everything I do, to leave students enough room
to make sense for themselves; yet at the same time, nudge
them toward a collaborative interpretation. I don't refrain
from "telling" when I'm asked a direct question,
or when I think I have something to contribute to a discussion.
I also share my musings about class happenings so the teachers
can reflect on how I'm teaching them and how they might take
on a similar role themselves. As I wrote in one journal:
Even though I play a prominent role in what's going'
on, I would argue that we have an interpretive," "transactional"
context going because I'm not expecting you to come
up with my meaning—I'm pushing you to sort out
your own. I admit I'm attempting to structure the
experience so that you may come to value the things
I value—the point is, however, I can't ensure you'll
end up knowing or believing what I know or believe;
Gordon Wells (1986) succinctly describes the problem of students
constructing meaning. He argues:
Meaning making in conversation should be a collaborative
activity. But where there is a considerable disparity
between the participants in their mental models
and their linguistic resources, the more mature
participant has to make adjustments in order to
make collaboration possible. Unfortunately, teachers
often forget how different from their child's is
their own model of the world. ... Their goal is,
rightly, that children should come to see the world
from a similarly mature perspective but, in the
way that they engage in conversation, they fail
to recognize that their perspective cannot be transmitted
directly but must be constructed by children for
themselves, through a process of building on what
they already know and gradually elaborating the
framework within which they know it (p.89).
This is the perennial problem I face as a teacher.
How do I set up a context so there is a gradual movement
toward a consensus of interpretation that approximates
what I and some of my colleagues currently understand,
How do I let teachers in on what I believe without
giving it the weight of authority? Row do I help
them explore the contradictions between the beliefs
underlying what they do in such a way that they can
deal with the discomfort of having to change some
of those beliefs? And all of this at the same time
as we're trying to make sense of a complex body of
research information; trying to make connections
between what prominent researchers believe and what
we are trying to do as teachers. My problem is the
same as other classroom teachers. How do we create
a learning context that supports what we want our
students to explore in such a way that they are able
to create a meaning of their own which comes close
to that of the larger interpretive community?
Surrender and Acceptance
Then there's the problem of what to do when everything I
try seems to have little impact. Not long ago I was brought
face-to-face with the issue of who really controls learning.
I recall the time we were writing "learning
and everyone was struggling to get a handle on revising.
The others were trying to capture some striking
personal incident. But not David. In fact, he'd
described an interesting learning experience in
a recent journal but saw no connection between
what he'd written there and what we were trying
to write just now. I mentioned his journal to him
when he contended he had no learning stories to
tell. Next class he had a piece with him but he'd
done little with it beyond what he'd written in
his journal. The conference began with him thrusting
his paper at me. I slid it back toward him, asking
him to describe the point of what he'd written.
He recounted the story. I asked him what ii was
he wanted his readers to understand. He seemed
perplexed and didn't answer. I attempted a different
tack; how had he tried crafting his piece of writing?
Had he worked at making it amusing or serious?
He couldn't say. Well, perhaps he might want to
think about the point of the story and how he was
trying to relate it. "But it's finished," he
"Doesn't feel like it," I commented. "But
I'm not going to work on it any more," he
I had expected that a teacher who enrolled in a
graduate course would be prepared to be a participant.
I was thrown by David behaving like a reluctant
ten or twelve year old, refusing every invitation.
There were many times that year when I had to fight
the temptation to explode at him. Instead, I tried
being supportive, encouraging, and helpful, but
in the end he had to decide whether to engage or
not. He chose not to. I ask myself if I could have
done anything differently. Was there some way I
could have drawn him in? I tried a variety of tactics—I
shuffled groups to no avail, I tried to help him
freewrite, to conference with other students, but
his participation was always half-hearted.
I came to appreciate that no matter how much I
might want to teach, the students control what
they learn. Although I have a responsibility for
setting up inviting situations, in the end they
determine just what risks they're willing to take.
If they reject my invitations I have to dream up
new ones, but ultimately the decision to learn
is theirs, not mine. I had to accept that David
had made his decision.
Teaching as "Research"
Glenda Bissex (1986), in her exploration of teaching as research,
attempts to dispel some assumptions about the meaning of "research"
and how it relates to classroom teachers. She points out that
a teacher-researcher is an observer, a questioner, a learner.
Teacher-researchers focus on what is happening at hand; they
try to understand the ongoing events of their classrooms:
I wonder how much students think about reading outside of
class? Teacher-researchers question their educational assumptions;
they're continually trying to make sense of their students'
interpretation of the tasks and activities they set them:
I wonder if children really have to learn to read before they
can begin writing? Problems become questions to investigate;
new ways of teaching become opportunities for learning: what
would happen if I shared my writing with my students? Teacher-researchers
are learners; they don't make a separation between those who
"know" and those who "do"; they begin
to trust their own ability to find out.
What Bissex doesn't mention is the role of "surprise"
in uncovering our assumptions. It seems to me the
"researcher" occurs at those moments when
the unexpected occurs, when things haven't gone as
we thought they should, or when our predictions are
disconfirmed and we're forced to see a familiar situation
with new eyes. It's generally when I'm unsettled
about something that's happened, and reflect on it,
that I become aware of another critical incident.
The trick is to become adept at noticing those moments
and doing something about them. June McConaghy (1986),
in her discussion of research as a way of knowing,
offers one useful technique for capturing a few such
incidents. She suggests we keep a running daily log
or journal in which to record brief sketches of the
stories as well as our thoughts about what these incidents
might reveal. Take the following excerpt from one
When I sat down and examined what my actions were really
doing, I was very upset. I took a long and hard look at
what my original goals were and how I could achieve them
more effectively. The problem was with the hidden messages
which I did not intend to send.
How does a teacher allow students to make their
own choices about their learning and still have
an accurate view of their literacy development?
I find the first step is to have more trust and
faith in them. ... My problem is that most of
my controlling is very low key and at times unconscious
on my part.
This is what scares me the most. It is much easier to correct
or change things which are obvious and out in the open.
If the problem lies in the hidden messages, that takes a
great deal more thought. The biggest problem lies in the
fact that you must be aware of the problem before you can
begin to deal with it.
I have found that reading and writing have helped
me go beyond, or should I say, beneath the surface
of my beliefs and actions. Sometimes the picture
which is exposed is not one I'm comfortable with.
... In essence, the journals and the readings are
acting like a camera—a camera with double capabilities:
it takes photos as well as X-rays helping me see
beneath the surface of what I do.
Rebecca has definitely become a teacher-researcher. She's
become an observer and a questioner. She has a much clearer
picture of what she believes both about literacy and about
herself as a learner. She's now examining not only her classroom
practices but also the beliefs which underlie those practices.
Changing what we do in the classroom in any meaningful
way involves changing attitudes and beliefs, but
before we can change our attitudes and beliefs we
have to know what they are. The only route I know
to uncovering our instructional assumptions is to
delve beneath the surface of what we are currently
doing. Critical incidents offer us one powerful way
of doing just that.
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York: Wiley & Sons, 1976.
Barnes, Douglas. From Communication to Curriculum. Harmondsworth,
England: Penguin Books, 1976.
Bissex, Glenda. "On Becoming Teacher Experts: What's a Teacher-Researcher?"
Language Arts, 63 (1986):482-484.
Cadegan, Mary Jane. "I Can't Stand Writing All This Stuff
Again." Language Arts, 63 (1986): 533-534.
MacDonald, Mary. "Looking For Answers." Language Arts,
63 (1986): 436-437.
McConaghy, June. "On Becoming Teacher Experts: Research as
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Montessori, Maria. The Discovery of :he Child. Adyar, Madras
India: Kalakshetra Publications, 1948.
Neilsen, Allan. "Critical Thinking and Reading: Empowering
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Critical Thinking, NCTE Yearbook, in press.
PerI, Sondra, & Nancy Wilson. Through Teachers' Eyes.
Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann Educational Books, 1986.
Serebrin, Wayne. "A Writer and an Author Collaborate."
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Settle, Susan. "Leading from Behind." Language Arts,
Smith, Frank. "Demonstrations, Engagement and Sensitivity."
Language Arts, 58 (1981): 103-112.
Wells, Gordon. The Meaning Makers. Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann
Educational Books, 1986.
This article was published in Language
Arts, 1987, 64(7): 727-737.