This past week, we lost a true visionary, the man who taught us about writing process and laid the foundation for bringing writing workshop into the classroom: Donald Graves. I’d just been thinking of getting a new copy of Writing: Teachers and Children at Work. Now I’m happy I didn’t. I like paging through my well-worn copy, revisiting the marginal notes, rereading favorite passages. It helps me recall the many significant things this incredibly humble and wonderful man taught us–among them:

  • Voice is the reason for the writing–and begins with topic choice
  • Children need to feel a sense of autonomy, choosing both writing topics and revision strategies
  • Teaching conventions is vital, but needs to occur within the context of writing–not as a series of drills
  • Even very young children can revise–and doing so gives them a sense of control over their writing
  • Nothing of importance happens in a writing conference until the writer speaks
  • If we don’t write with our students, we lose the most powerful means we have to teach them the craft
  • Teaching begins with listening

 . . . and that, of course, was only the beginning. The six-trait folks, once upon a time, were going to omit voice from their model. Sounds hard to believe now, but it’s true. It was the words of Donald Graves that stopped them: “To ignore voice,” he said, “is to present the process as a lifeless, mechanical act. Divorcing voice from process is like omitting salt from stew, love from sex, or sun from gardening” (Writing: Teachers and Children at Work, 1983, p. 227).

Don’s later book, A Fresh Look at Writing, has been my writing bible for years, and remains–with Donald Murray’s classic A Writer Teaches Writing–the book I turn to most often. But two somewhat lesser known books are also favorites. In Teaching Day by Day, Don offers everyday lessons on teaching and reaching kids. It’s a great book from a man with the courage to open his heart by sharing small things he learned first as a classroom teacher and later, as a visiting teacher in classrooms across the nation. I also love the very brilliant Testing Is Not Teaching. Indeed. To a country obsessed with assessment, Don offered a sage bit of advice. He wanted students (as part of their writing assessment) to choose their own writing topics (with guidance from a teacher), then develop them over time, right there in the classroom workshop. With real revision–and opportunity to share in writing groups and to use what they learned in modifying their writing. This would be real writing–not the artificial substitute we so ardently assess. Imagine the writing we might see were this to happen. Sadly, this insightful approach has not caught on in the world of writing assessment. This wise man had so much to offer us. What do YOU remember best? Please share a thought or favorite quotation with us. Thanks so much.

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