National Writing Project

The Breakthroughs that lead to Breakthroughs

By: Art Peterson, Amy Bauman
Publication: The Quarterly, Vol. 24, No. 4
Date: Fall 2002

Selections from the National Writing Project's newest book, Breakthroughs: Classroom Discoveries About Teaching Writing, showcase the breadth of topic and the depth of writing in this collection. The pieces presented here—the introduction and a reflective passage from each of the five sections—are representative of the twenty-five articles, each of which examines the process of addressing a teaching challenge.

Over a year ago now, the editors of National Writing Project publications were tossing around possible subjects and authors for a new book. One of us was mindlessly fingering an archive copy of The Quarterly that happened to be on the table. Someone suddenly said, "That's it." We all began talking at once, but our discussion can be distilled as follows. "If we want to publish a book useful to teachers of writing, why not draw on our own journal, which we are regularly told is eminently useful to teachers of writing?"

Before we settled on the form the book should take, we came to an agreement about the form the book should not take. We wanted the book to be practical, but we did not want it to be organized in the "been there, done that" way of so many books about teaching writing. That is, we did not want a section on prewriting, a section on writing, and so on through the writing process.

So what else was there? As we talked, we realized that one thing that excited us as editors was receiving an article that let us follow a writer on a rocky teaching road that sometimes led to a gradual discovery and sometimes culminated in an aha moment. Where do these discoveries come from? We wanted this question to be the organizing idea of our volume.

The resulting book is Breakthroughs: Classroom Discoveries About Teaching Writing. Scheduled to be released this month (November 2002), the book will debut at the National Writing Project Annual Meeting in Atlanta and should be an enjoyable read full of useful tips and examples for teachers of all experience levels. We offer the following excerpts, taken from the book's introduction and five sections to entice you to read all twenty-five of the collection's inviting pieces.


From the Introduction to Breakthroughs: Classroom Discoveries About Teaching Writing

By Art Peterson

Albert Einstein never much liked the word problems. He would speak instead of puzzles. As you will see, the teachers whose writing we've chosen to include in this anthology of selections from The Quarterly of the National Writing Project have had their share of problems. In fact, that's the very reason we're spotlighting their stories.

But perhaps, in describing their struggles, we should defer to Einstein's word choice. Problems are global warming and way too many baseball strikes. Puzzles are the word jumble in the Sunday paper and Sherlock Holmes figuring out why the dog didn't bark in the night.

We approach puzzles with a sense of energetic play, with an attitude that says, "Hey, I can do this," that is often lacking when we take a hard look at problems. It is this optimism that a solution can be found that permeates the essays presented in this book.

Of course, Einstein's puzzle was a formidable project: he needed to crack the nut that enclosed the secret of the universe. By contrast, the difficulty that perplexes the teacher in room 254 may seem no big deal, but for the teacher and kids behind that classroom door, a breakthrough is no less relevant and the journey that led to it no less exhilarating.

Many readers may approach this text expecting these journeys of discovery to be of less interest than the practical end results. After all, we want to be able to flip on the television and watch an I Love Lucy rerun without enduring a lecture on the cathode-ray tube that made it all possible. Likewise, teachers, hungry for successful classroom strategies, could grow impatient with a recital of insights illuminated and glitches overcome. Rest assured that the editors are no more enamored of classroom shaggy dog stories than are most readers. The successful strategies are here and are out in force. But in a time when there is an increasingly pervasive, if misguided, impression that "creative teaching" is an oxymoron, we think it is vital that we take a focused look at how accomplished teachers work.

The teachers represented in this book do not look for solutions in scripted lessons or in superficial inservice programs conducted by "trainers" pushing cookie-cutter learning utopias. They are teachers who stop listening when faculty meetings, intended to "address school problems," degenerate into gripe sessions at which the only viable solution seems to be a school without children.

These teachers know that they and their students need to be on the front line of educational solutions. They realize that the learning broth that is brewing right there in their classrooms can only be diluted by too many cooks operating from too great a distance.

This volume provides a forum for these teachers to demonstrate, in an era when the search seems to be on for teacher-proof answers, that teachers need not roll over and play the victim of forces beyond their control. Instead, these writers know that it must be their mission, and that of their creative colleagues, to invent better classrooms. As this is a charge all teachers, not only those represented in this book, need to accept, we have organized these essays to help readers answer the question "Where do creative teaching ideas come from?" In general, our answer is that classroom ideas are generated in the same way as other ideas. And each of the book's five sections focuses on one of these sources of creative thinking.

Talking with Colleagues. In the first section, "We Started Talking and It Hit Me," teachers show how colleagues have pointed the way to new teaching ideas. Talking with colleagues is, of course, what the National Writing Project is all about. We are the network that, through our institutes and inservice programs, promotes the idea of teachers teaching teachers. But as useful as this slogan has been in explaining our work, it does not entirely capture the essence of what goes on when teachers build on one another's knowledge. It comes down to this: the teacher in the room next door may share an idea for helping students order their ideas within a paragraph; it works with her students and in her classroom, but it will not work in quite the same way with your students in your classroom. For this or any strategy to succeed, teachers need to bring their own creativity to bear, altering the approach or perhaps transforming it beyond recognition. Your colleague has not directed your work, but she has inspired your discovery.

Building on What Is Known. The second section, "Those Words Just Jumped Out at Me," highlights how reading the work of others can lead both teachers and students to deepen their insights by building on the work of others.

In 500 b.c., the Chinese discovered that moldy soybean curds could treat infection. Today, we are able to genetically modify crops. These two breakthroughs are not unconnected. They are linked through the centuries by an expanding edifice of related ideas. The question that inspires here is "What's next?" It's said that an artist only goes to work on another composition when she is dissatisfied with the previous one. Conversely, the teacher who finds herself in a state of self-satisfied stasis is soon going to be wondering, "So what do I do with the next twenty years?"—a question right on the edge of teacher burnout. The teachers represented here refuse to stay bogged down in a teaching idea that is just working; they are always on the lookout for something that could work better.

Reading with a Purpose. Management consultant Laurence J. Peter says, "Originality is the fine art of remembering what you hear by forgetting where you heard it." By Peters's definition, the pieces in the collection's third section, "Okay. But What Now?" would not count as original. These authors, in fact, give scrupulous attention to crediting the inspiration for their ideas. The originality kicks in at step two, when these writers transform the received wisdom, making it their own. They cobble together new classroom ideas from diverse selections of professional literature. Or they take a strategy that, according to a well-regarded authority, is supposed to work and tweak it until it does work.

Readers, as the modern view would have it, create their own texts. No one is better prepared to put this concept to practical use than the teacher-reader making meaning he hopes will improve his students' learning.

Observing the World. It's a sad fact that too many people in the community at large hold to the mistaken view that teachers don't work much. ("But you get all those vacations.") The truth is pretty much the opposite; creative teachers work all the time. We're not talking here about the equally erroneous stereotype of the teacher as drudge, committed to a lifetime of exposing with red ink every last tense shift in an undiminishing pile of error-laden juvenilia.

No, teaching ideas are everywhere, and creative teachers are always on the lookout. For the teachers represented in section 4, "I Was Doing the Laundry When . . ," the lightbulb can go on while reading the newspaper or pruning the azaleas or even browsing the aisles at Office Depot. To see one thing and think another: this is the mind-set of the creative teacher.

Acting out of Necessity. But now it's time to backpedal a bit. We want to make clear that these teachers are not just fooling around, indulging their creative whims in the manner of newlyweds picking out wallpaper. It's not "Gee, if I can come up with an alternative to the every-Friday spelling test, everything is going to be fun, fun, fun!"

The real situation is often a lot more bleak. It's the teacher who gets a knot in the pit of his stomach each morning on arrival at school because he knows he is failing. While most of the teacher-writers in section 5, "I Had to Do Something!" have not reached this level of desperation, their solutions are all inspired by the realization that something about their teaching needs to change.

The answers they devise appear to have a common thread, one that can inspire others who need to invent a way out of disheartening circumstances. Like the great conductors who know when to back off and listen to the orchestra, these teachers know when to pay attention to their students. As contributor Jan Matsuoka puts it, "Reviewing what I have done over the past two years, I am struck by the fact that every time I got in a jam, it was the students who helped me out of it."

Arthur Koestler has written, "Creative activity can be described as a type of learning process where the teacher and the pupil are located in the same individual." In our classrooms, we need to remember that this aphorism holds as true for our students as it does for us.

Indeed, in all of the pieces collected in this volume, one is struck by the way the authors draw on the uninhibited energy of the young, a secret weapon that all good teachers know about. But the solutions presented here also depend on the disciplined intelligence of adults. Collectively, these pieces represent hundreds of hours of intellectual struggle, of wrong turns, of trial and error. For most of us, creative teaching isn't about the brilliant idea that occurs while eating an apple. It's about hard work. It's also a lot of fun.


For each of the pieces included in Breakthroughs, the authors were asked to reflect on the source of the idea that led to their teaching discovery. We are publishing here one reflection from each of the book's sections.


From Section 1: We Started Talking, and It Hit Me

(Colleagues point the way to teaching ideas)

Author's reflection on "Author to Author: How Text Influences Young Writers"

By Dina Sechio DeCristofaro

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to join a teacher research group, the basis of which was exploring classroom issues in depth. I had already been conducting my own classroom research informally for some time, as I wanted to make my writing workshop more effective, but I saw the research group as an opportunity to look at my teaching in an organized, structured way. So, along with twelve other teachers, I eagerly joined the group.

Within the structure of the group, I began to think about the student writing samples that I had been collecting for the last few years. I looked at the collection again—each piece intriguing for one reason or another—and wondered about the connections I saw between the students' writing and the books we had read in class. Recognizing the importance of providing good models for children, I regularly used literature during writing lessons, but I had not thought much about the specific effects that practice might have on the students' writing.

And, along the way, a research question was taking shape for me: How does the work of professional writers influence the composition of young writers? Over the course of the next year, I recorded many different links between student writing and the work of professional authors. At the same time, through the group, I began making connections with other researchers pursuing related topics. Specifically, I noticed a connection between my study and the work of two other teachers from our site. In 1998, out of an ensuing collaboration, we presented a workshop about our research entitled "`Can We Copy?' Studying the Intertextuality of Our Classrooms" at the annual National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) conference in Nashville, Tennessee.

Out of these collaborations—with the teacher research group as well as with the more intimate group—came [my] article. It was my first foray into writing about my work for publication, and I was pleased to have it published in the National Writing Project's journal, The Quarterly. But even more rewarding was the positive experience of our collaborative efforts. In many ways, our work together reflected the same issues we were exploring independently in our students' work. And although the word intertextuality was new to me, exploring the concept with colleagues opened the door to a new perspective on collaboration and borrowing that helped me reframe old ideas about originality and plagiarism. And best of all, as I listened to my colleagues' discoveries, I found that I, like my students, was able to move with more authority and conviction into the territories I was exploring.


From Section 2: Those Words Just Jumped out at Me

(Reading inspires creative teaching)

Author's reflection on "Kyle's Surprises: Anecdote as a Strategy to Strengthen Student Writing"

By Edward Darling

From the day I first read Ken Macrorie's Writing To Be Read, I was motivated to try with my students the form Macrorie calls a case history. In developing these histories, Macrorie urges writers to think seriously about stories ("details that reveal the essence" of a situation). When I thought about his advice, I was reminded that much of what I have read that has stayed with me has been connected to a story or is a story. So I wanted my students to choose an important chunk of their experience and develop it by telling stories that elucidate and support it. Many students elected to write about their jobs, an area of their lives that seemed rich with possibilities. But their first efforts were little more than lists of work routines, and I began to conclude that I didn't know how to teach this kind of writing. Maybe Ken Macrorie could pull this off, but I couldn't. When I saw Kyle's piece about working at a home supply store, however, I decided to give it one more try.

I worked with Kyle in the way I describe in the essay, and his piece changed the way I and all my students since have looked at case histories. When I took his case history into a class to read and talk about, I found his piece provided the key that opened the gates to this type of writing, and ever since, case histories have been one of the most successful projects my students work on.

But it all started with Macrorie.


From Section 3: Okay. But What Now?

(Teachers build on what they know)

Author's reflection on "The Field Trip Within"

By Peter Trenouth

Whenever I make a writing assignment that yields student work mired in hollow thought or stilted prose, I am reminded once again of how artificial academic activities can be—how disconnected they often are from the sinews of life. But I cannot blame all my failures—and the failures of my students—on the fact that we are required to immerse ourselves in academic thought, form, and language. The truth is that even the "creative" assignments I offer too often generate work that is weak, either mechanistic or formless. The descriptive paper often provided the vehicle for these failings. Publishers of writing texts often include chapters about this mode of discourse, offering many strategies that have merit. However, one question these books seem not to ask is why anyone should write a vivid description of anything in the first place. Too often these days, the answer to this question, as well as the answer to many other questions about what we teach, is defined by the demands of statewide, mandated assessments or similar extrinsic tests. We are told that students need to learn to write vivid descriptions because they will be tested on their ability to write vivid descriptions. This is the kind of thinking that stands education reform on its head.

So I've developed my own answer. If descriptive writing is to have a point, it must be linked to the significance of things. Meaning is not adrift; it is anchored in experiences. And when we experience sights, sounds, textures, odors, and flavors—and translate these into language—we establish in the objects that project these sensations and in ourselves significances otherwise unnoticed. We give additional meaning to life. One step along the way is to create a list of what is perceived, a helpful prewriting activity provided it leads to something other than a queue of superficial details passively waiting for a topic sentence—another exercise in disconnection and ambiguity.

But my breakthrough experience came with my increased understanding that lists need a nurturing context to make meaning. Descriptive writing must be about something. I provided my students with models that demonstrated how the best description advances meaning through the use of action verbs, vivid modifiers, and lively figurative language—models that depended on insight and audacity, not mere cataloging. In their writing, I wanted self-expression that resists simplemindedness. I wanted them to understand that in the best writing, observation, feeling, insight, and order are each part of the mix. And in my class, descriptive writing became a tool for developing this awareness.


From Section 4: I Was Doing the Laundry When . . .

(Teachers find inspiration in daily life)

Author's reflection on "Pruning Too Early: The Thorny Issue of Grading Student Writing"

By Stephanie Wilder

It seems that the closer I get to something, the more difficult it becomes to see it clearly. I study my face in a small compact mirror. My nose isn't really that big, is it? And those pores must be visible from across the room! Similarly, a project into which I pour my energy becomes an extension of me, and any sort of criticism feels crushing. Especially as I write and struggle to clarify my thoughts, I find myself falling in love with my words, and I growl at anyone who suggests that maybe I'm a trifle wordy.

As an English teacher, I have watched my tender students recoil at well-intentioned suggestions about their writing and throw down their pens the minute they see a grade on their papers. To the better writers, even a B is proof that their teacher is a buffoon and certainly lacks good judgment about writing. Most of my students, however, already have so many fears about writing that whatever grade they see is a welcome signal to them that they can quit.

Frustrated by the results I was getting in class, I would come home and find satisfaction in working in my garden. My students were not growing as writers, but my flowers looked great. Daydreaming among the azaleas, I began to conceive another approach to the teaching of writing. I would be more the loving gardener, nurturing young writers as they struggle to survive in the red clay of North Carolina. Now, I pile on the loamy compost and prune only when the time is right. My students are much more willing to take risks and to keep at their drafts as I offer praise and positive suggestions and resist grading until the student and I agree the draft is ready.


From Section 5: I Had to Do Something!

(Necessity inspires teaching invention)

Author's reflection on "I Was a Journal-Topic Junkie"

By Anna Collins Trest

About a dozen or so years ago, before I started teaching, I thought I was pretty smart. The truth was that I didn't know much; I just thought I did. As an experienced teacher, I still suffer occasionally from that same kind of delusion, but I'm coming around. My high horse has shrunk to the size of a step stool, and I'm not so quick to climb up even on that. When I'm tempted to think I have the definitive answer for anything, I remind myself of the time "I Was a Journal-Topic Junkie." That remembrance and its accompanying plate of crow keep me grounded. I learned a valuable lesson then that wasn't so much about writing or about students as it was about the business of teaching. I learned that this is a tricky business, and success requires acknowledging when something's not working, even if it is the latest educational innovation. Success also requires finding a way to fix the problem—often recognizing that there is more than one right way.

After teaching elementary students for a number of years and using the freewriting/reflection ideas successfully many, many times (as described in the article), I next tried my hand at teaching high school. I inherited high-schoolers who, for the most part, were not eager to engage in writing of any sort, mainly because it happened in English class, and anything that happened in English class was anathema to them. I did my best to persuade them otherwise. Using mirrors—as well as artwork, music, and real objects—continued to be more successful in getting students to write than a journal topic ever could have been. Still, I had to make changes for the older students. Beautiful art and music gave way to strange, quirky stuff. I went from Monet and Renoir to Escher and Magritte, from Strauss and Griegg to pop songs and rap. These students weren't moved by a bird's nest in a shoe, but a squashed beer can they could write about. I adjusted.

These days, I teach elementary education majors how to teach reading and writing, and I use this article at some point in the semester, not as an example of the definitive method, but more as a cautionary tale: Beware the one-method wonder, especially when it doesn't elicit significant response. I want these soon-to-be teachers to think for themselves. I want them to learn how to recognize when a thing is not working in the classroom, give it up, and find a better way.


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