The Dialogic Interplay of Writing and Teaching Writing: Teacher-Writers' Talk and Textual Practices across Contexts

By Woodard, Rebecca | Research in the Teaching of English, August 2015 | Go to article overview

The Dialogic Interplay of Writing and Teaching Writing: Teacher-Writers' Talk and Textual Practices across Contexts


Woodard, Rebecca, Research in the Teaching of English


One spring Sunday in New York City, Lisa1-an urban public middle school English language arts teacher-sat down for an hour-long session with her creative writing instructor, Will, at a bookstore and café on Houston Street. Lisa described the place as an "industrial loft meets eighteenth-century library" with a "chill vibe." Ornate white columns framed two large winding staircases that led to an open upper level with book-lined walls, industrial pipes crisscrossed the ceiling, and The Killers were playing softly in the background. Lisa and Will began the session in their usual manner, discussing a text Will had asked Lisa to read beforehand. This time it was Joan Didion's essay Why I Write (1976/2000), adapted from a speech she gave at the University of California at Berkeley. Will opened their discussion by asking Lisa for her thoughts, and she gestured to a place in the text where she had underlined and commented (see Figure 1). In this section of the essay, Didion recounted how, after briefly traveling through the Panama airport years before, an image of it "remained superimposed on everything I saw until I finished [writing the novel] A Book of Common Prayer. I lived in that airport for several years" (p. 23).

As Lisa gestured at her handwritten note next to this section ("years"), she told Will she was particularly interested in Didion's description of how she sometimes "sits on [ideas] for several years" before writing about them, as she did with this im- age of the Panama airport. Lisa thought that "was pretty brave [emphasis added]" of Didion, and mentioned that she tried to let her ideas develop slowly too, but sometimes only let them sit for two months and felt like she needed to use them.

Fast-forward to the next day, a Monday morning in Lisa's eighth-grade language arts classroom in Washington Heights. The third-floor corner room had windows lining two of the walls, green lockers on another, and a chalkboard at the front of the room. From other parts of the building, you could just see Yankee Stadium in the distance. The walls were a muted yellow shade, and paint was flaking off in some places. The school building was not new, but was well kept. Hand-written posters with titles like "Good Writers Make Thoughtful Critiques: We Look at Both What Is and What Is Not Working in Our Stories!" "Revise the Heart of the Story," and "Use Details from Books and Social Studies in Class in Your Story" lined the walls. Adolescent students, in uniforms of navy pants and white tops, sat together in small groups; they wrote silently, but Lisa often prompted them to "turn and talk" during both the lesson and writing time.

After teaching a lesson on editing the historical fiction stories they had been developing, writing, and revising for almost a month, Lisa went to meet with students in individual conferences. When she sat down with Esmerelda, who told Lisa that she had worked on her weekend assignment to make "radical revisions" by taking out a character she deemed extraneous, Lisa praised Esmerelda for making such significant cuts, saying, "We have a brave writer right here [emphasis added]." When Lisa asked Esmerelda why she cut such huge parts of her story, Esmerelda told her, "There were just too many things going on." Lisa once again reaffirmed how brave she was for engaging in this work before offering her some revision strategies.

Before her next conference with another student, Julissa, Lisa explained to me that Julissa had a really amazing character that wasn't fitting with the plot she had predetermined, so she decided to rewrite the whole ending to make it fit with the character. Lisa mentioned that Julissa's willingness to adapt her story to follow the character was "really brave [emphasis added]." In her discussion with Julissa, Lisa told her that "sometimes I think we make a plan for our stories . . . but discover that something else is supposed to happen to our character."

After the class period ended, Lisa told me that having her middle school students make significant revisions, especially right before a project was due, "used to scare me, but now I think they are better for it. …

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