Fearless Writing

Fearless Writing by Tom Romano. 2013. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann. 194 pages.

Genre: Teacher resource text


Tom Romano is a visionary, and this is a visionary book. The very idea that students—or anyone—would write a piece combining expository, narrative, argument, poetry, and more, seems downright revolutionary in the classroom, even though it happens all the time in the world of print. Somehow, though, this kind of synthesis was ignored by the standards for writing. Check out the CCSS (www.commoncore.org) and you will see in a heartbeat how neatly packaged the umbrella genres are, as if they were mutually exclusive by nature, never meeting and never needing to meet. This book blows that myth to kingdom come, at the same time suggesting (and this IS a neat trick) that we can meet the requirements of the standards (indeed, sail right on by to more spectacular achievements) through the teaching of multigenre writing. The promise is big—and the book delivers.

Let me caution you that if you’re looking for “50 lessons on multigenre writing,” that isn’t what this book offers. True, it is packed with suggestions on how to set up and support a multigenre approach—but it is primarily a vision, as I’ve said. And as such, it offers a series of essays (each highly compelling in its own way) for seeing writing as a “big world mural, not a snapshot” (p. 18). The shortness of the book invites us to read it in one sitting, and I encourage you to do this—and then go back with your highlighter (which you will want to do).

Briefly, Romano’s vision is this: Instead of creating (methodically) a narrative piece, an expository piece, and an argument, students create a personalized form of research on a topic of their own choosing (it can be anything) that includes the following elements: preface, poetry, exposition, prose poetry (yes, he explains this), flash fiction (also explained) or nonfiction, some visual element (photo, video, drawing, etc.), a bibliography, and endnotes. Students may add other original elements too, as these occur to them—e.g., dialogue or drama. In addition—and this is key—the piece as a whole must have some sort of common thread that binds these various elements thematically. This last part is, of course, the real challenge for writers, and is the ultimate reason that Tom Romano’s vision asks so much more of writers than a mere list of standards ever could. Yes, I did say more. That’s because the Common Core Standards, while touching on many important skills, do not call for integration and synthesis. They do not ask students to use (or identify) mentor texts in order to gain insight about how the best writers write. They do not build a bridge from literature to writing. Nor do they require students to combine genres in a creative fashion, with each element supporting all others.

Romano, on the other hand, asks for inspiration, imagination, insight, and synthesis. Now there’s a standard to get excited about. He recognizes writing as volatile and unpredictable. In one of my favorite passages (and one of the most touching passages of the book), he describes the writing process of his friend, Ken Brewer, Utah’s poet laureate, who was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2005 and had the courage to write about his experience. Brewer talks about the generative process of writing—about how writers do not know where a piece is headed until it begins to unfold and reveal itself. I love that. Clearly, Romano loves it, too. “Welcome surprises of language and meaning,” he tells us (p. 95). Throughout the book, he dares us to be braver, as teachers and as writers, than we’ve ever been. To be fearless.

Multigenre writing has long been a priority for me. It is the natural and logical way to use research, and enriches the reading experience immeasurably. This is a profoundly important book. Following are just some of the features that make Romano’s book special—there are many more.


Special Features

  1. Emphasis on poetry. This book could well have been titled The Power of Poetry to Influence Instruction. Talk about common threads. Poetry pops up everywhere, both as an integral part of the whole multigenre vision and as a literary foundation for learning to write well. Romano quotes from poems he loves (some written by his students) and references others he hopes we’ll explore (Have a pencil handy as you read). He talks about opening his class with poetry, and reading aloud constantly to create a treasure trove of language in students’ minds. “My purpose is to get the great language of our best writers into people’s bones,” he says (p. 91).
  2. Definition of multigenre writing. Chapter 3 is only a paragraph long, comprising the whole definition—and so I cannot very well quote it here. It’s a thoughtful definition, complete and articulate. Romano requests that each element within the piece (for purposes of this assignment) be self-contained, “making a point of its own” (p. 8). I think it’s worth noting that while that works (and instructionally, is probably essential) within the classroom context, some of the best professional multigenre writing seamlessly blends narrative and informational text. And such writing can help students gain a deeper understanding of how multiple genres work in a coordinated way. Examples that come to mind are Laura Hillenbrand’s remarkable book Seabiscuit, any writing by the great naturalist and author Sy Montgomery (have a look at Birdology), and most recently, a book destined to become legendary: The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown. Each of these books transitions beautifully from story to exposition to research. I recall a chapter from Birdology, for instance, in which Sy Montgomery explains how hummingbirds hover, fly backwards, and even fly upside down—then tells the story of capturing live food to keep a one and a half inch hummer alive. You can probably think of many more examples from your own reading. If you’re looking for something shorter that you could use as an example for your students, consider National Geographic Magazine. The September 2013 issue contains two articles that beautifully combine research with narrative: “Rising Seas” by Tim Folger and “Big Bird” by Olivia Judson. Both contain unforgettable details—and show the stunning power of the visual (in this case, photos) to carry meaning.
  3. Profound respect for story. The Hawaiians have a saying—to “talk story.” This is one of those expressions that cannot be readily explained because its meaning is simultaneously vast and intimate. It covers conversations both light and deep—personal history, current happenings, plans, events, wishes, hopes, dreams. The Hawaiian culture recognizes that the “story” of where you came from, what you remember and love and treasure, who your family is, and how you spend your days is ultimately the story of you. “Story” is more than narrative. It is the core of all writing, which begins with the expression of personal feelings and knowledge, and gradually expands like circles in the pond to encompass an ever expanding universe. In Chapter 17, “Crafting Narrative,” Romano explains eloquently how as humans we crave more than raw data. We need story to pull us in, make us care, help us understand. “Story carries the multigenre load,” he says. The hard work in multigenre writing “is done by story, tale telling” (p. 77). In a time when so many people are rushing to the altars of informational writing and argument and trampling narrative in their haste to show proper devotion to “real writing,” these words bring relief, comfort, and new hope. It’s ridiculous to highlight a whole chapter. Otherwise, I’d highlight all of Chapter 17. Thank you, Tom.
  4. Examples. The book is rich with examples. Further, Romano explains that he has his own students read examples of multigenre papers before they set out to write one on their own. As teaching strategies go, this is brilliant. Too often, we expect students (or other readers) to figure out for themselves what we mean by strong analysis, research, or argument—or in this case, a creative blend of multiple genres. Why make them guess? In Chapter 12, Romano explains how he uses a film (Ken Burns’ Jazz) to further illustrate what multigenre is all about. I was struck by the genius of this approach. Film is in itself a new genre—but then, to help students discover the multigenre parallels that link film to writing . . . now, that is truly clever.
  5. The assignment itself. Not every teacher who comes up with a terrific and vibrant idea (such as assigning a multigenre project) will share it with others literally, in its entirety, just as it’s given to students. But there it is—in Chapter 11, “The Many Ways of Multigenre,” in Tom’s own voice-filled language. It’s beautifully laid out, and clearly challenging. Same old, same old isn’t going to cut it. Romano also shares students’ reactions to this assignment when they first encounter it—they’re intrigued to be sure, but often also terrified. No wonder. Freedom (choose your own topic, weave genres together in your own way) is a scary thing. We sometimes forget, those of us who detest anything that smacks of formula, how reassuring formula can be to those who find writing intimidating. Original writing is a hike through the wilderness with—if you’re lucky—a good pair of shoes and a compass. Even if you don’t get lost, it feels like you might—but that unexplored territory keeps calling you. Formula is a well-worn overstuffed chair in the corner with a remote control on the arm. So familiar. So safe. So . . . dull.
  6. Finding topics—and planning the research. In Chapter 13, “Tilling the Garden,” Romano offers ideas for helping students explore potential ideas—and then beginning to put those ideas together. If you’re a methods person, this is your chapter, and you’ll probably breathe a big sigh of relief as you begin to read it. Finally! The specifics! Those early philosophical discussions, however, are essential to helping us understand why and how this assignment works. Recalling his own years as a student, Romano tells us, “We didn’t talk in class about such grubby matters as searching out ideas” (p. 52). He teaches differently—and in a lively and engaging discussion, shows how he helps students discover their own passions. Admittedly, students are not always aware they are passionate about anything—at least anything they can write about—and so this part of the “tilling” is essential. But hold onto your hats because the second part of this chapter is even better. Herein, Romano shows us very clearly and concisely how to help students craft a research design. It’s such a fine plan, both logical and imaginative, that even professional writers will sit up and take notice. For me, it’s no exaggeration to say that if the book were a pamphlet and only included this section, I’d still consider it worth the money. My favorite part of the bigger plan is the required pre-bibliography (my term), which specifies sources the writer plans to research to find information. This is a simple deviation from the usual research plan, but it requires students to think: Where can I find information to answer my questions? Where should I look that someone might not immediately think of? What sources can I trust?
  7.  Daring to be innovative. Chapter 25,
    “Innovative Genres,” explores other ways to share information—through music or video or an artistically crafted chart. Romano admits to being essentially a “word man,” who was previously resistant to the power of photos or other media to carry meaning that words alone cannot. Good teachers change their minds, though, when the reasons are compelling. It is impossible any longer to live in a “words only” world. Sharing information in multiple ways comes naturally to most young writers, as social media attest. I like the way Romano consistently invites his students to break with tradition, to explore, to invent, to try what was previously forbidding, to be in effect writing outlaws.
  8. The dreaded rubrics. Chapter 29, “Evaluation and Learning,” is fascinating to me for several reasons. Tom Romano is a man who is not (to say the very least) comfortable with rubrics. My friends and colleagues will be surprised to hear me say that I sympathize totally with his misgivings. Rubrics are dangerous. Many (if not most) are badly written, filled with inconsistencies and vague language, and subject to misinterpretation. In the hands of literalists they’re often wielded as weapons, and the negative language many contain can be crushing to student writers. In my own work (Creating Writers, Creating Young Writers), I’ve replaced the original rubrics with writing guides, which are subject to continual revision by both teachers and students, who discuss together the goals they want to set for themselves. The word “guide” suggests that the language in this document should help students understand what makes for good writing—and what pitfalls to avoid. Whether you love rubrics or hate them, Romano’s chapter reinforces several long-held beliefs about rubrics—or writing guides: (1) They need to be developed over time and with constant, recurring reference to authentic student work (No rubric is ever finished); (2) The greatest value of any rubric lies not in its use, but in its creation, because in designing such a document, we’re forced to come face to face with what we believe; and (3) Any rubric (or writing guide) is ultimately most useful to the person or group that designs it. In other words, if you want a good rubric that will serve your purposes and your students well, design your own. If you don’t, you’ll always resent the word or phrase that binds you to something you don’t believe, or keeps you from shouting “Hallelujah!” when a paper delights you for reasons the rubric somehow forgot to mention. No rubric covers everything; in my experience, even the best of them wind up omitting something critical simply because no one can anticipate all the wonders that await us in good writing.
  9. Comments on the Standards. Chapter 32, “What’s Right and Wrong with the Standards for Writing” is one of the most cogent and revealing essays ever. Perhaps, like me, you’ve looked through the Standards and wondered why you couldn’t love them more when clearly so much of the content is sensible, useful, and even based on common sense. Why then aren’t we more excited? This chapter will help you get to the heart of what’s missing for many teachers. It’s a chapter I suspect you’ll read again and again. I know I will.

Coming up on Gurus . . .

Thank you for stopping by—I highly recommend Tom Romano’s Fearless Writing and hope you’ll read it at your first opportunity. I also hope you will seriously entertain the many advantages of multigenre writing, and ask yourself if you could make this work in your classroom.

Jeff has been out doing workshops (as those who were in his sessions know already), and so is still working on his latest book review—but it’s coming!

A special tip: Do you think America’s students are over-assessed? Are we obsessed with testing, with data, with driving students to higher achievement levels regardless of the cost? If you think so, we encourage you to explore a new film:

Please don’t forget, if your school or district is planning to sponsor professional development in writing for the coming school year, we’d love to design a seminar or series of classroom demo’s to meet your needs at the classroom, building, or district level. We can incorporate any combination of the following: Common Core Standards for writing, the 6 traits, quality assessment, effective approaches for writing in multiple genres, and the best in literature for young people (including emphasis on reading to write). Contact us for details or with questions at any time: 503-579-3034. And remember . . . Give every child a voice.