Old School Writing Reading List

Tuesday is Twitterverse day and today I met William Chamberlain (@wmchamberlain) who tweeted about speed writing as a way to build creativity with his 6th grade students. I was suddenly back in my own language arts classroom in the late 80s and early 90s where I did similar kinds of activities as I tried to encourage the students to see themselves as writers. I decided to put together an old school reading list for the current generation. I know, in education, we are often encouraged to use more “up-to-date” sources but sometimes authority from the past can be a guide. Here are a few books that guided my practice all those years ago:

In the Middle: New Understandings About Writing, Reading, and Learning by Nancie Atwell: I read the original from 1987 and this book became the centerpiece of my middle school language arts curriculum. With a friendly, encouraging voice, she guided me through the radical act of putting the basal reader on the shelf and pulling out the battered paperbacks. Of putting aside the neat worksheets on sentence writing and letting the kids just write, sometimes even about anything they wanted. The updated version includes lessons learned from Atwell’s years as a teacher. It’s nice to know that she learned along with the rest of us: “I know my students and I will continue to learn and be changed. I am resigned—happily—to be always beginning for the rest of my life as a teacher.”

Writing: Teachers and Students at Work by Donald Graves: This wonderful book about reading and writing and teachers and students now has a 20th anniversary edition. Graves passed away two years ago but his ideas about how we can encourage reading and writing as lifelong skills live on in his work and the thousands of teachers like me who were inspired to open our classrooms to his enthusiasm. When I read the book, I pictured him hunkered down in a little chair, face close to an earnest young writer, discussing the work at hand. He made me want to talk to kids more and learn about their thinking.

The Art of Teaching Writing by Lucy McCormick Calkins: Another classic for the writing teacher. I think I gravitated to the focus on the “art” of writing in response to a more grammar-centered curriculum followed by some of my colleagues. Just as with Atwell and Graves, I found in Calkins a kindred spirit who saw the potential for making students more confident in themselves as human beings who could use language to express their greatest dreams and deepest concerns.

Writing Without Teachers by Peter Elbow: A manifesto for getting writing out of the hands of teachers altogether. Elbow advocates free writing as a major tool for heating up the creative juices and argues for writing groups where members share and critique work together. The original was published in 1978 and it seems to have the aura of that time: people breaking out of expected roles and looking for ways to express themselves more freely. This isn’t necessarily about teaching but his ideas can be beneficial for anyone who wants to include more writing in their lives.

It is a testament to the longevity of these writers that their books have come out in updated editions. With the exception of Donald Graves, the others are alive and well and still writing and thinking and sharing. I’m sorry that none of them seem to be blogging but in my search, I did discover that not everyone loves the idea of reading and writing workshops.

Finally, you should definitely see what Mr. Chamberlain is doing with his students…as busy as he is, it is great that he takes the time to use the web to show his students and their work. Right now, he is looking for funding for an after school ukelele class.


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