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A Roar From the Tower

Posted: 2011-01-10

This essay is from Teaching and Learning Literature with Children and Young Adults, May/June 1996. It is distressing to see how timely it still is.


When I was invited by a famous professor (hereafter referred to as FP) to join the faculty of a famous summer writing program for teachers at a famous university, I found myself in hot water almost immediately.

On the second day, the FP in charge of this famous program accosted me in the hallway. "Some teachers in your section came to me yesterday, wondering why you suggested a writing topic." The FP paused and then continued, "Did you do this?"

I acknowledged that I had and started to explain the pedagogical base of that particular classroom assignment. The FP interrupted me, "Haven't you read my book? I invited you here because I thought you understood the process." The FP went on to proclaim that teachers who flock to this famous program know about the process and are understandably upset when an instructor wanders off course, particularly a new instructor.

I admit this attack rendered me speechless--and not just momentarily. It has, in fact, taken me close to ten years to respond. I'm not the sort of person who is easily scared off by sacred cows or even sacred processes, but I am a teacher as well as a writer, and to be a teacher is, of course, to be plagued by insecurity and self-doubt. Daily, as a teacher and as a writer, I face the knowledge that there are at least sixty-three other ways to perform my every act. If I had to weigh the relative merits of maintaining dogged determination in the face of preposterous pedagogy and enduring humility in the face of great mystery, I'd find the scales pretty well balanced.

I had indeed read the FP's book and although I thought it offered one interesting possibility for helping teachers teach writing to children, its method bore little relationship to the way I go about writing for publication. Prior to arriving at the famous university, it simply had never occurred to me that there might be a problem, that only one method would be allowed at the summer writing program.

Naive me. Territorialism is the ruling doctrine of the people who inhabit schools of education. At the university, turf and pedagogy are inseparable.

Naive me, I thought I'd been invited by the FP to teach in the famous program at the famous university because I was myself a writer with considerable experience. After publishing over 100 articles in professional and popular journals while teaching in public schools, I had left the classroom and become staff writer at a leading education magazine. After five years of that, I had left the magazine to make my living as a freelance writer. So there I was, thinking I'd been invited to the famous university as a teacher who could provide some inside info about getting published in a variety of journals. If nothing else, I have some funny stories about the rather amazing practices and procedures in editorial offices ranging from New York Teacher to Education Week to the Atlantic to Washington Monthly, USA Today, English teacher, Phi Delta Kappan, and so on. Imagine my chagrin, on my very first day in the ivied halls of this famous university, to be informed that the FP didn't think my opinions on teaching or writing are worth a mouth full of warm spit.

Because I am essentially a pragmatist, over the years I have found myself gradually bringing more of my own experience as a writer into my classrooms and relying less on the received wisdom of the ivory tower. I often suggest writing topics to students because that's the way writing works in the real world. About 90% of my topics both as a magazine staff writer and as a freelancer have come from editors. An editor will phone and say, "Can you write an article on____?" Nine times out of ten I'll reply, "Sure," even while I'm cringing because it's a topic in which I think I have no interest. Being a writer means knowing you can write your way into devotion to a topic. I would hasten to point out that I do not offer my students topics of the ilk recommended in the NCTE publication What Can I Write About? Here, chosen at random, are a few of the seven thousand topics recommended in the book:

  • Is morality an effect on religion?
  • Why and how does an idea originate?
  • What causes ?leaking electricity?
  • How the IRS catches tax-evaders.
  • How to dental floss the right way.
  • Define an intangible of a concrete something.
  • Write on wheezing and sneezing.
  • Polk: Why is he considered one of our great presidents?
  • Enchiladas are the turkey of Mexico's Christmas dinner.
  • Does a racehorse know it is a racehorse?


  • I'm not making this up. The wonderful thing about writing about education is that you never have to make anything up.

    Any teacher who offers such topics to her students deserves to be faced with the chore of reading the results. Similarly, primary grade teachers who assign such cute "story starter" topics as "Pretend you are a pencil" or "Write about your day as the tooth fairy" deserve a similar fate.

    If some teachers doom their students and themselves to a writer's hell by assigning inappropriate stock topics, writing process folk put entirely too much emphasis on insisting that inexperienced writers come up with their own topics. Experience tells me that it matters little who conceives of a topic. What matters is that the writer embraces that topic, worries over it, nurtures it, and nags it along. As a writer, I have never been assigned a topic that I didn't end up liking.

    As Paul Theroux has observed and the short life span of poets confirms, even at the best of times, "Writing is pretty crummy on the nerves." Getting handed a topic reduces the initial tension, wards off butterflies, allays panics, and may have a beneficial effect on planters warts. Knowing right away what you're going to write about gives you a jump start on the agony of producing something. I'm always grateful when an editor relieves me of the job of searching the universe for something to write about. I will still dither and delay, finding lots of excuses for not writing, but at least I'm dithering about something instead of floundering in an abyss.

    Some may carp that great literature comes from divine inspiration, not from an editor's phone call for a teacher's suggested topic list). But only in Kafka's Amerika can everyone be an artist. We teachers must remind ourselves that our job isn't to teach the great novelists and poets of tomorrow. Our job, popular pedagogy to the contrary, isn't even to train great diarists of the future. The good news is that teachers can't stop the poets, even if they try.

    I have taught writing to students of all ages, from first grade through university, and at all levels of ability, and I know that a very few people burn with a creative desire, and these few will forge ahead no matter what I do. I know my own seventh grade teacher's suggestion that I should write less, that he didn't have time to read all my long papers, didn't stem the quantity or the length. The teacher, after all, was not my primary audience. I wrote first and foremost for myself. I also had an enthusiastic audience of peers waiting for the next installment of a serial I wrote for about six months.

    Even though, as a writing teacher, I know that most students are neither poets nor obsessive narrativists, I do try to help them find their own appreciation of words and their own stories. But my responsibility is not to develop poets or even story tellers. My responsibility is to serve a greater writing need, to find and nurture a larger audience that will write for broader purposes. As a teacher I take a pretty hard-nosed approach to what my job is: I am training students to write clearly and cleanly and maybe even enthusiastically in the workaday world. God knows, this task is ambitious, difficult, and sometimes impossible enough. Surely it is hubris to stake our claim on more esoteric goals, to claim that we can also train future essayists, novelists, or poets.

    My experience with the FP at the famous university went from bad to worse. I kept teaching instead of facilitating--and the FP kept hearing about it and catching me in the hallway to hector me about it. At the end of the first week, the FP invited me to pack my bags and leave the campus.

    I was upset, unsure, and close to panic. This was a new emotion for me. After following orders in my first green year and teaching Silas Marner to hapless ninth graders, I'd never toed the administrative party line again. In the ensuing years I'd had significant pedagogical disputes with a string of administrators, but I'd never been run out of town.

    I phoned my husband, himself a teacher, a writer, and my best editor. I told him I was thinking of coming home. He offered some words of consolation. "Are you nuts?" he asked. He reminded me that I know how to teach and how to write. "You let yourself get chased off by some petty tyrant, and you'll always regret it."

    When I refused to leave, the FP offered to come to my class and teach a demonstration lesson. I welcomed this, knowing that the teachers would be thrilled. People come to this course, after all, for the chance to worship at the feet of the FP.

    The demonstration lesson was a surprise. While the teachers worked on their pieces, the FP bounded around the room, interrogating first one writer, then another, then another. "Show me the strongest sentence in this paragraph," the FP accosted the oldest teacher in the room. I'd been impressed that this shy woman of thirty-two years teaching experience would spend her summer learning new things. "I want to prove that you can teach an old dog new tricks," she explained.

    The teacher dutifully pointed to her strongest sentences and her weakest. Then the FP pounced, "No!" The expletive filled the room, causing all the other teachers, who had been pretending to concentrate on their own pieces, to freeze. "This is your strongest sentence." The FP jabbed the paper. "And this is your weakest."

    Oh. Thanks for sharing.

    Demonstration done, the FP swept from the room, leaving me to pick up the pieces. Teachers were confused. They asked me to interpret. They asked if they should patrol the room, frequently interrupting students. They were worried that when one student is interrogated, all the others are listening. I resorted to the old teacher standby of protecting a guilty colleague. After all, these teachers were giving up a summer to sit at the feet of a FP. I said that a demonstration lesson can be difficult and even misleading when you try to compact a variety of strategies into one session.

    The next morning, when we attended the daily general assembly wherein the FP inspired the group with poignant anecdotes, the FP offered a mini-lesson. "I visited a classroom yesterday and asked a teacher to show me the strongest sentence in this piece of writing," the FP began. And that's how a thirty-two year veteran teacher became the bad example in front of four hundred and fifty of her colleagues.

    I stayed the course. I must admit, however, that I abandoned my hope that teachers would use their writing to reflect on their teaching. They slid into private writing-- overwrought revelations of death, divorce, and cute pet tricks. Because I'm a teacher first and a writer second, I pretty much gave up teaching writing. When someone shows me a piece describing the death of a child, I can offer comfort; I cannot talk about the need of parallel construction. Our class meeting spiraled into psycho-therapy sessions. Teachers responded to the writing of their colleagues as the nurturers they were; they offered tears, consolation, and congratulations. Because we were teachers, we could not respond to such intimate revelations with critique. At the end of the course my students presented me with a thank you gift. They hadn't improved their writing, but they seem to have enjoyed the catharsis. And their writing was aligned with the writing samples that were shared at the general assembly closing the course: overwrought revelations of death and disease.

    And so I stayed the course but nearly lost the war. I say "nearly" because half a dozen teachers from other sections sought me out, asked me for advice about articles they were trying to write, articles reflecting on what it means to be a teacher. I've been reading and commenting on their drafts ever since. When these teachers find their words in print, I share in their joy. And I take a little credit, but not much. These few teachers came to the course wanting to be writers. They came with a pretty clear vision of having something they wanted to say about their life's craft. They sought out the specific information and advice I could provide. Six teachers out of a total enrollment of 450. Because I am a pragmatist, with both feet in the real world, I find this percentage reassuring. The world, after all, can publish only so many writers.

    I know that for most of the teachers in that summer course having to write anything was just a necessary evil that went along with being in the presence of the FP and hearing inspirational words about how to teach writing to children. I have mixed feelings about whether teachers themselves should be required to write. Yes, it is good for teachers periodically to put themselves in the position of learning new things, doing things they don't want to do. But entirely too much passion has been vent on the subject of every teacher having to be a writer. It is wrong-headed and just plain silly to claim that only people who are writers themselves can teach writing to children. This proclamation belongs in the same provincial camp as claiming that only blacks can teach James Baldwin or Richard Wright, only southerners can teach Faulkner, only women can teach Jane Austen, only professional athletes can teach P. E. In the real world, some of the most able nurturers of good writing are not themselves writers but editors. This is not to say that editors aren't frequently ornery, obstructive, and downright crazy, but that's another story. My point is that editing is a totally different process from writing and probably one better suited to most teachers than is writing.

    With my experience at the famous university in mind, when the Pennsylvania state education department invited me to lead a weekend writing retreat for fifteen teachers, I decided to set clear boundaries right from the start. I sent applicants a letter asking that they bring a piece of writing about some aspect of education to the retreat. I suggested a wide range of possibilities: commentaries, how-to pieces, across-the-curriculum themes, difficult student and/or administrator profiles, crystal teaching moments, and so on. This, I told enrollees, is what I'm qualified to help with. I do education. I do not do windows. Nor do I do poetry, fiction, or self-help autobiography.

    Entirely tongue in cheek, I wrote to the enrollees, "In the best of all worlds we'd each arrive with a computer. . ." I soon learned not to make jokes. I was the only person who arrived at the mountain retreat without a computer. And I'm not talking notebooks or laptops. Earnest teachers arrived with full-size computers and printers. The state education department functionary who had organized the course drove twenty miles to a hardware store for a bag of adapter plugs. Even so, the building was not equipped for such a computer overload.

    Not that it mattered. Even though this enthusiastic bunch of savvy teachers had each come with a piece of writing in hand, only three of them seemed able to get into the difficult, often tortuous, process of rewriting, rewriting, and rewriting. The rest wanted to talk about "the process." Talk and talk and talk. I will say there was some good talk. Talk about teaching, talk even about writing. But it soon became clear that this group was better at talking about writing than writing. One enthusiastic talker actually left the weekend retreat with less writing than she arrived with.

    A second request I made of these retreat enrollees was that they bring along a copy of the publication for which they were writing their article. One out of the fifteen did this. The others had something they wanted to say but no notion of a specific audience which might be willing and able to receive it. And "audience" proved to be the Waterloo of the course. Although these teachers were much further along the road of writing for a purpose than those at the famous university, they had a singular disinterest in figuring out for whom they were writing. I had brought along stacks of journals that accept unsolicited manuscripts: Instructor, Language Arts, Phi Delta Kappan, Education Week, School Board Journal, and so on. I had brought the writer's guidelines from these publications, so that aspiring writers could make a careful study of these requirements. I had brought along samples of my own articles that were prototypes for departments in the teacher magazine that employed me, articles that follow a format that is formulaic and not difficult to learn. But the weekend writers weren't much interested in audience or format. They had something to say and sailed blithely forth, trusting their words au naturel to find both a form and an audience.

    I am sure there are at least sixteen messages in all this. For one thing, all the people who support students' variant learning styles might pay some attention to teachers' variant teaching styles. After all, when everybody agrees, nobody is thinking very much. Too many of our hierarchies encourage teachers to lock themselves into a view of themselves as technical experts. Uncertainty in the faculty room is regarded as admission of weakness. As teachers, we need to support our colleagues who are inclined to what Donald Schon calls reflection-in-action. (The Reflective Practitioner, Basic Books, 1983). These are people who are not glib about proclaiming what they know how to do, people who are uneasy about proclaiming the quality or rigor of their work. These are people who know that to be a teacher is to be aware that at any given moment you may be wrong.

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