"A Sense of Place": Donald Graves and the Organization and Management of the Writing Classroom

By Kaufman, Douglas | New England Reading Association Journal, January 1, 2004 | Go to article overview
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"A Sense of Place": Donald Graves and the Organization and Management of the Writing Classroom


Kaufman, Douglas, New England Reading Association Journal


In the successful writing workshop, students select topics that have deep importance to them. They craft their work over extended periods of time, experimenting with ideas and learning through the act of writing rather than regurgitating others' thoughts. They talk about their writing with others who want to learn from them and tell them what they do or don't understand. They have teachers who publicly model the writing, risk-taking, and deep reflection in which they expect their students to engage. They have time to examine and ponder the work of great writers, exploring what gives their writing extraordinary power (Atwell, 2003; Fletcher & Portalupi, 2001; Graves, 2003; Kaufman, 2000; Ray & Cleaveland, 2004).

However, for a variety of legitimate reasons, teachers have had a difficult time developing these conditions. Many face mandates outside their control that weaken writing instruction. High-stakes testing has forced them either to eliminate writing if it isn't explicitly covered on the state tests or directly teach inauthentic, if traditional, forms such as the five-paragraph essay. Over-bloated curriculums force them to skim over important issues and concepts, prohibiting time for deep examination. Commercialized programs, purporting to teach "the writing process," turn writing into a formulaic series of steps (brainstorm, draft, confer, revise, edit, publish) that runs counter to the fundamental tenets of the writing workshop.

My own research (Kaufman, 2001) suggests yet another obstacle: many teachers haven't yet found an organization and management system that allows them to treat writing as the personal, fluid, and quirky endeavor that it is. Traditional systems where students usually sit quietly until called upon can undermine the writer's need to move and converse in pursuit of literacy goals. Recently, I examined pre-service teachers' conceptions of classroom organization and management. While their understandings were inherently complex, clear themes nevertheless emerged. Most of them viewed organization and management primarily as tools to control negative behavior. They also assumed sole responsibility for classroom management and they didn't concentrate on helping students to develop self-responsibility and independence. Given the workshop's focus on promoting independent choices, building off attributes rather than deficits, and creating a community where students share responsibility for their work and actions, it is clear to see why new teachers might experience jolting conflict when they try to implement that beautiful writing classroom that they have read about in books.

To learn how we might ease this conflict, I have begun to interview exemplary writing workshop teachers, asking them the same general questions about organization and management that I asked the pre-service teachers in my previous study. In this article I present the views of one of the first people I interviewed, Donald Graves.

The National Reading Conference has identified Graves as one of the most influential literacy researchers and educators of the last thirty years (Gambrell, 2000), and many recognize him as a founding member of the writing workshop movement. His interest in writing began during his doctoral work at the State University of New York at Buffalo, where, he said that he was "struck by the fact that no one had actually gathered data about children when they were in the process of writing. Steeped in Plaget, Vygotsky and anthropology I sat down and observed children while they wrote" (Graves, 2004, 4). His dissertation was the beginning of an extraordinary researching career. It won the National Council of Teachers of English Promising Researcher Award, and led to the landmark study, "An Examination of the Writing Processes of Seven-Year-Old Children" (1975).

In 1977 Graves conducted the first nationwide investigation of writing in classrooms. His report, Balance the Basics: Let Them Write (1978), won the David H.

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