Education Opinion

Against ‘Collaboration': Reading and Writing Are Not Social Acts

By Susan Ohanian — March 09, 2012 9 min read
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Amazing as it seems, eight years ago microwave popcorn didn’t exist. Today it rates half an aisle in my supermarket and the annual per capita consumption tops 46 quarts. We are witnessing a similarly rapid rise in the “collaboration” curve, going from 2.8 mentions per 10,000 words in education journals in 1982 to 1,345 in 1989. As we enter this new decade, collaboration ranks second only to journal keeping as the badge of right-minded professionalism.

Teachers can never sit back and take it easy. Just when we think we’ve outrun the systems analysts—the Mastery Learning folk and their seven-step lesson-plan kin—we find ourselves in danger of being pedagogically mugged by guys wearing white hats. We have university research projects, ed-biz-whiz consultants criss-crossing the country, and warm, fuzzy teacher-support groups telling us we aren’t whole if we aren’t working in teams. Zealotry runs high. Disagree with a collaborationist and more than likely you’ll find yourself trying to prove you aren’t a fascist.

For some, instant conversion to the collaborationist/cooperative mode does not require a lot of preparation.

Item: At a recent whole-language conference I picked up a bit of flotsam called Whole Language Lesson Plan in which the teacher-author establishes a category called “Cooperative Learning Activities” and insists that “anything you would ask one student to do can be accomplished cooperatively.”


Item: In a recent book on collaboration published by one of our major professional organizations, I read that “teachers should imitate the practices of scientists, scholars, journalists, and business people” and encourage their students to write collaboratively.

Freeman Dyson, Jeremy Bernstein, Stephen Jay Gould, P.B. Medawar, where are your collaborators? And are the ghostwriters hired by Donald Trump, Lee Iacocca, et al. the collaborative model to which we aspire?

The first time somebody tried to force me to write collaboratively was at the New York State Writing Conference. According to the program, two presenters were going to talk about how they collaborate to teach writing in an urban middle school. After some preliminary moaning over the fact that we couldn’t put our chairs into a circle, the presenters told us to get out our pencils and open our notebooks because we were going to write for 10 minutes. “We’re going to recreate the feelings of terror, anguish, and impotence we experienced in our youth when the teacher demanded we write and we stared in terror at the blank page,” announced the group leader, an earnest-looking type straight out of the L.L. Bean catalog. “And then we’ll share. And collaborate to produce better writing.”

Neither common courtesy nor the ignominy of creating an uproar in front row center could keep me in my chair. I stepped on 13 toes and 18 shopping bags stuffed with publishers’ wares scrambling to make my escape. As I neared the door, the group leader commented in a patient, sorrowful, but understanding tone about teachers who are so threatened by the thought of exposing themselves in writing that they can’t even stay in such a session.


Writing is the way I make my living. And I take it so seriously that even for the sake of politeness, I refuse to engage in little 10-minute scribble-and-share games. I marvel at the exhibitionism of these collaborative-writing groups popping up everywhere. Maybe someday the National Science Foundation or the National Association of Pigeon Fanciers or a group of similar public spirit will find a study to determine the ratio of sharing to publication. Writing is so crummy on the nerves that unless you’re writing a letter to your mother or your Congressman, why would you do it except for publication?

For me, to talk about a piece is to kill it, and not even my husband and best editor can ever take a peek until I’ve been through 63 drafts and prepared the final copy eight times. Sometimes, even after all that, I’m still too touchy to risk talk. I just send it off and a distant editor becomes the first reader. Writing is the most private thing I do. It is entirely solitary. I’d main anybody who tried to sneak a look after I’d been at it for only 10 minutes. And the only person’s writing I am interested in taking a look at 10 minutes—or 10 hours—after he’s started is Calvin Trillin’s.

Franz Kafka wrote to Felice Bauer, “You once said that you would like to sit beside me while I wrote. Listen, in that case I could not write at all.” Kafka went on, “One can never be alone enough when one writes… there can never be enough silence around one when one writes… even night is not night enough.”

What a chilling and accurate refutation of the collaborationist chorus singing hosannas to writing as a social act: one can never be alone enough… even night is not night enough.

But the idea of sitting alone in a room with a piece of paper is a very scary notion for 99.83 percent of the people in this country, teachers being no exception. And as for reading, how many of the people we know, the people who run our schools, the people we elect to Congress and the White House, are much different from the Vladimir Nabokov character who, “had he been condemned to spend a whole day shut up in a library, would have been found dead about noon”?

When I taught 3rd grade, we started the day with 15 minutes of sustained silent reading. That’s what it said in my plan book, anyway. I thought I’d have to tie those kids into their chairs to keep them there five minutes. And even when they became convinced I’d have to see blood gushing before I’d let anybody move from the chair to go to the nurse or call his lawyer, they didn’t read: they sat quietly and watched me read. For months. It was a scary time for me, but I kept reading and I buttressed myself with a stubborn faith in kids and good books. Eventually, that faith flowered. By March, those children were complaining that they were “right in the good part” when I called a halt to silent reading at the end of an hour each morning.

When I tell this story as the miracle of 3rd grade, a lot of people are upset. When did I teach? they ask. How did I make myself accountable for learning, how did I assess the children’s progress during that hour of silence?

That hour of silence makes a whole lot of people nervous. And I know why. Not many people believe you learn to read by reading. It’s too simple. And if truth be known, not many adults can sit and read on their own for an hour every day. And not many teachers can keep quiet for an hour every day.

Maybe, instead of commending to teachers and their students a corporate-committee model of collaboration, we should tell them about General John E. Hull. He was in charge at the American Air Force base at Iwakuni, Japan, on a May morning in 1955 when 25 Japanese women badly crippled and disfigured by the atomic blast at Hiroshima were to begin their trip for medical help in America. They were already aboard the U.S. Air Force plane when an aide dashed up to General Hull with an urgent cable from Washington. Not wishing to risk repercussions should the Hiroshima women encounter medical complications, a committee at the State Department had ordered the flight canceled. For a long moment, General Hull said nothing. Then he handed the cable back to his aide. “unfortunately, I don’t have my reading glasses with me,” he said. “Be sure to remind me to read this later.” And the plane took off.

I want my students to know such stories, stories of conscience, stories of one person standing up and obfuscating bureaucracy and groupthink, one person refusing to take time for a committee vote.

Certainly my students work together every day, but that working is fluid, vague, and transitory. There is nothing so formal or permanent as learning groups “seeking outcomes that are beneficial to all those with whom they are cooperatively linked.” Nothing so idiotic as announcing to groups of kids what the “cooperative-learning outcomes” will be for the day.

That’s not to say that I wouldn’t have loved to write in my planbook that a learning outcome for Leslie from October to March was learning to read a knock-knock joke. If I’d known at the time that it was so important, maybe I would have written it down. But the truth of the matter as that, as with most of my teaching, I didn’t realize until months and even years later how important the event was.

I have written a lot about Leslie, a 3rd-grade deaf child to whom I gave more of my heart than to any other student. Leslie had never been in public school before and it was a painful, terrifying, and ultimately joyous experience—for her and for me.

Leslie cried buckets over knock-knock jokes. She would wail, “What’s so funny? Why is everybody laughing?” And some days she’d get mad and stamp her feet. And she’d cry. And cry.

For months, at odd moments during the day different children would wander over to Leslie and try to help her “get” the point. Anna persisted more than anybody else. A lovely, quiet, shy child whose father berated her for being slow, Anna was repeating 3rd grade. She put up with Leslie’s tantrums, helped her find her place, and was a true friend. And every day Anna patiently sat with Leslie and tried to explain knock-knock jokes.

And then one day in March Leslie was sitting all by herself. And she picked up the knock-knock joke book. She read one, clutched the book to her chest, and jumped up. “I get it!” she yelled. “I really get it!” And she read it to us at 80 decibels. Then the other kids cheered and Leslie burst into tears. And so did I. But Leslie recovered quickly—and yelled, “Let me read another one!”

So is this a story of class collaboration or of an individual child overcoming all odds? I don’t know. Does it matter? Why do some folks insist we’re competent and professional only when we can affix labels and categories to the fabric of our work with children?

Item. Consider Charles Darwin, who, with nobody cheering him on, spent 44 years of his life thinking about earthworms. In his typically methodical fashion he made the following notation:

“Worms do not possess any sense of hearing. They took not the least notice of the shrill notes from a metal whistle, which was repeatedly sounded near them; nor did they of the deepest and loudest tones of a bassoon. They were indifferent to shouts, if care was taken that the breath did not strike them. When placed on a table close to the keys of a piano, which was played as loudly as possible, they remained perfectly quiet.

What a wonderful image: Charles Darwin alone in his study with a tin whistle and a bassoon and a piano, trying to get a rise out of worms. As the science writer David Quammen, who relates this incident, points out, “that sort of stubborn mental contrariety is as precious to our planet as worm casting. It is equally essential that some people do think about earthworms, at least sometimes, as it is that not everyone does. It is essential not for the worms’ sake but for our own.”

A version of this article appeared in the February 13, 1991 edition of Education Week as Against ‘Collaboration': Reading and Writing Are Not Social Acts


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