Book Review: Teachers’ Writing Groups: Collaborative Inquiry and Reflection for Professional Growth
By: Caroline Griswold
Date: March 23, 2009
Summary: Caroline Griswold reviews Teachers’ Writing Groups: Collaborative Inquiry and Reflection for Professional Growth, finding that it is, like the best writing project work, both practical and personal, and is full of useful ideas for teachers interested in exploring writing groups.
"Learning means that writing teachers must read and write." At the 2007 NWP annual meeting Richard Sterling, then NWP executive director, reminded attendees of this long-held writing project core principle.
Reflective teachers or site leaders looking to learn more about their own writing or teaching, or the connection between the two, can find inspiration in Teachers' Writing Groups: Collaborative Inquiry and Reflection for Professional Growth, edited by Sarah Robbins, George Seaman, Kathleen Blake Yancey, and Dede Yow.
Conceived by teacher-consultants at the Kennesaw Mountain Writing Project in Georgia, the book is "by and for teachers interested in using writing and related collaborative learning processes to better understand classroom practice" (vii).
While Teachers' Writing Groups is not a how-to manual, each page is rich with useful information for those curious about how writing groups work and what they can offer. In addition, the book also explores the impact such groups can have on classroom teaching, professional writing, and collegiality.
Three sections of the book highlight the work of three writing groups. Each section is devoted to one group's essays and reflections—personal teacher essays on classroom practice and both individual and group reflections on the writing group's work together.
A fourth section contains valuable pieces on reading across writing groups and putting the work of writing groups in context.
The essays on classroom practice offer teachers from all levels ideas for refreshing their teaching and curriculum. Curricular topics explored by the contributors include using portfolios with high school students, mentoring at the university level, journaling and Holocaust studies in the middle school classroom, and using wordless books with young readers.
"Reflection ↔ Writing ↔ Teaching"
Each section of the book begins with an introduction co-written by the members of a writing group, describing that group's way of working together. While every writing group is a little different—with groups varying in level of professional writing experience or degree of success meeting in person or online—nonetheless commonalities abound across the groups.
Members of each group share how much working with their writing group improved their teaching as well as their writing, and how much they began to see teaching, writing, and reflection as intertwined. In a personal journal entry from her essay "Sharing Journal Reflections of Inspiration and Remembrance in Holocaust Studies," Renee Kaplan writes,
I am now wondering: is reflective writing becoming a tool to my understanding of the process of written instruction[?] Do I reflect, write, and teach? Or do I teach, reflect, and write? . . . I am now imagining a circular order of reflection↔writing ↔teaching, and I am beginning to learn that no one single method comes first before the other. (86)
Dede Yow credits her writing group for helping her differentiate between reflecting and reacting
The writing groups uncovered another unexpected understanding as they collaborated. Teachers from vastly different schools, grade levels, and communities were able to find common ground through writing and meeting together. In their introduction, "The Gift of Time," Deborah Kramb, Carol Harrell, George Seaman, and Dede Yow write,
We came from different instructional levels—elementary, secondary, and university. . . . This diversity of backgrounds worried us at first, but wound up making us strong, because we brought a variety of perspectives to the writing as it emerged, and we asked each other tough questions. . . . As we studied each others' papers, we became aware of the bond of our professional identities as well as the common issues we addressed in our essays. (17)
And some contributors also found unexpected connections when they had the opportunity to read essays from other writing groups. In "Reading Across Writing Groups," Linda Stewart shares her response to Victoria Walker's draft essay on using wordless books with primary grade students.
Although Stewart teaches at the university level, she found many points of connection between her work and Walker's. Stewart co-wrote her essay for Teachers' Writing Groups with Sarah Robbins, with whom she collaborates on using "visual culture" in college composition classes. In responding to Walker, Stewart writes,
While we may be teaching different ages, there are many commonalities in our approaches. . . . The shift you note from teacher-centered to student-centered authority as students gain confidence corresponds to our classrooms. Also, keeping writing at the center of your practice is consistent in your work and ours. (167–168)
Loud and Clear
As much as Teachers' Writing Groups is a professional book, it is also a personal one. The book hums with teachers' voices speaking plainly about their challenges as much as their successes. Like the best writing project work, it blends head and heart, method and personality.
High school English teachers considering new ways to assess student work will discover a shared purpose and inspiration in George Seaman's essay "Build It and They Will Learn: Portfolios Revisited."
Teachers at any level struggling to balance teaching with their own learning outside the classroom will find their efforts echoed by Deborah Kramb's "The Balancing Act: A Play on Managing Our Lives."
Student voices—and student writing—can be found here, too. In "Writing Monster/Writing Mentor: Reading and Learning from Students' Stories of Writing," Carol P. Harrell shares selections from her college students' reflections on their own writing. Just like the teachers in the writing groups in Teachers' Writing Groups, Harrell's students strive to hear their writers' voices, and relish moments when those voices come through.
Martin, one of Harrell's students, writes:
The simple action of writing words and creating the dialogue with myself brought me back to myself. Writing has shown me the path on which to navigate my soul. It has provided me with a window to this world, a world I make better, I believe, because I write. (44)
"Rethink, Reflect, and Refine"
In the end, though, it's the contributors' reflections that offer the most compelling arguments for giving writing groups a try. Dede Yow credits her writing group for helping her differentiate between reflecting and reacting, and notes that, when she changed her approach, "My results were revelatory" (70). Reflecting on her ongoing work to establish a writing community in her classroom, Leslie Walker concludes, "I must constantly rethink, reflect, and refine my teaching of writing."
She goes on to say,
The patience and adaptability that I can now take into my classroom came out of my own experience in my writing group. There I learned to be flexible, to open up to the diversity and transience of writing with a group. The benefits continue to spill over into the classroom. And I'm having a lot more fun with my teaching. (146)