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Education Commentary

Teachers as Writers and ‘Ways of Knowing’

By Vincent R. Rogers — November 18, 2016 8 min read

Three years ago, I was asked to write a chapter for a book, entitled Learning and Teaching Ways of Knowing. The book first identified eight fundamental ways of knowing, ranging from the aesthetic mode to spirituality, and then a group of scholars, including Jerome Bruner, Elliot Eisner, and Robert J. Sternberg, described each mode in detail. Mr. Eisner, for example, discussed aesthetic ways of knowing. Mr. Bruner, paradigmatic modes of thought, and Mr. Sternberg, practical ways of knowing. My task was to examine the implications of their ideas for the education of teachers.

As I read and reread my colleagues’ work, a number of key ideas began to emerge. At the risk of oversimplifying, it seemed to me that they were talking about the importance of engaging learners in the processes of creating, inventing, and improvising; of perceiving, reflecting, and representing; of inquiring, experiencing, and collaborating.

This echoed work I have been engaged in for the last decade: teaching a course designed to help teachers express their ideas and feelings through writing, and conducting dozens of on-site writing workshops for classroom teachers. While my “Teacher as Writer” course and workshops were not designed to teach the processes outlined above, it appears, in retrospect, that writing offers incredibly rich opportunities for teachers to practice these vitally important processes, these “ways of knowing.”

Let me illustrate by quoting from a letter I received some time ago from one of my students. A middle-school English teacher, Jack McGarvey, had found what he was looking for when he enrolled in one of my courses. He became a successful, well-published teacher-writer, and his letter was a sharing of ideas for potential articles:

Whatever it is, I’ve suddenly turned into a writer. For heaven’s sake, I even carry around a notebook, and I’m forever writing sketches. . . . This vacation was totally work. I did research in the library, digging out old facts about Stamford. I sat in McDonald’s at around 9:30 P.M. and listened to the conversation of two old, lonely men. I turned that into a poignant essay on this town without a heart--don’t know if it’s marketable, but I like it. Then, I went into Caldor’s and counted electric gadgets and appliances and wrote a piece about America’s love affair with things electric. That was the hardest piece I’ve ever done; it took over 11 hours. And I’m not sure it’s good. But I learned a lot from it. . . . The more I write, the harder writing is. One would think I’d be perfecting my craft. But the craft part isn’t the problem; the art part is the rub. It makes me even more sensitive to the gentle criticism that’s required in working with kids. Gentle, gentle, encouraging, encouraging.

Through his writing, Jack had become a sensitive “seer.” He learned that good stories exist almost everywhere, if one has the ability to see beneath the surface, to look with fresh eyes. Of course, it would be pretentious to claim that Jack became the perceptive, creative writer that he is solely because he took my course. On the other hand, the course opened the door for him. It gave him the opportunity to think about what he wanted to say, to look for significance in the everyday events occurring around him, to read and reflect on the writing of others, to share his work with his mentor and his classmates and, most important, to write.

I think it is fair to say that teacher educators generally leave writing concerns of this sort to English departments at the undergraduate level, and virtually ignore writing--other than the production of term papers and theses and the writing of examination--at the graduate level. This seems a tragedy to me, since writing offers so many opportunities for intellectual growth.

A sampling of the type of work my teacher-writers have produced through the years illustrates the quality of intellectual life made possible by participation in the “Writing for Teachers” experience. (Each of the passages reproduced here is, of course, an excerpt from a longer book or an article.)

Jim Delisle became one of the few single foster parents licensed by the State of New Hampshire. His foster child, Roger, had been a student in Jim’s special-education class for the preceding four months. Jim’s article describes their relationship:

Roger’s entrance explodes the silence of my small, square classroom: fists bloodied, cheeks streaked with tears, his once-white shirt stained and soaked with sweat. He has had another fight.

He is sobbing and breathing, sobbing and breathing, trying to mouth the words “I’m sorry” through his tense, quivering lips. All that comes out is air. As his teacher, as his father, I hold him close. His blood and sweat now stain my clothes as well.

Jack McGarvey, in an essay entitled “Portraits of Three Students,: describes Richard, one of his 8th-graders:

There is Richard. Dark, deep-set eyes. Quietly observant. Athletic build.

One day he stopped shyly by to ask for help with an idea for a personal essay. And along the way, we talked of suffering. I asked him if he knew of it. He told me, yes, he suffered from migraine headaches. I was surprised. True, I’d noticed he was absent a bit more than most students, and sometimes he’d be in school in the morning and gone come class time. But never did I see distress on his handsome face. Nor did he once ask for an extension for an assignment due.

I asked him what suffering migraines was like, feeling both gentle and foolish. Helplessness and pain, he said. Helpless tests at Yale-New Haven Hospital, helpless encouragement from the best of helpless doctors. I told him that I’d never seen him use his illness as a crutch. He couldn’t do that, he said, surprised, “I’ve had them since I was little.” “You get used to them then?” “Never.” “And your parents? How have they handled this?” “They’ve handled it well, except that sometimes my mother is frustrated. She can’t do anything except come get me and see that my room is dark and quiet. She sometimes feels so helpless that she becomes impatient.”

I understand, I said. I understand what she feels. My little girl, since she was 2, has had chronic bladder infections, and all I can do is rush her off to the doctor for a urinalysis and then on to the pharmacy for some antibiotics that can cause anemia. I understand the impatience your mother feels at the denial of being able to cure with cool hands on forehead. The denial of being able even to comfort. “Yes,” he said, and in his response was wisdom far beyond his 15 years.

Shirley Bostrom, a special-education teacher, describes her first experience working with a severely handicapped child, Jennifer:

Five years is such a short time to be alive. I will never forget Jennifer. Few people will. Ironically, I’m not sure she was aware of us. I don’t know what being alive meant to her.

I met Jennifer for the first time on Nov. 29, 1979. I had been asked to attend a Planning and Placement Team meeting at a regional center as a representative of the local school district. Jennifer was almost 3 years old then, and her educational program would soon be our responsibility.

I arrived with little time to spare. I did not know anyone attending the meeting, and I was both apprehensive and excited. As I entered the room I saw eight unfamiliar faces. One of them was Jennifer’s. I did not expect her to be there. I wanted to turn and run to the safety of my car. There I would not have to race her reality.

Jennifer was lying there. Her mouth was open, and there was a plastic tube in her nose. Her breathing was labored. Unfocused eyes were half open. Her hand appeared too large for a 3-year-old. It rested at an awkward angle. I looked no further.

All my experience in special education had been with socially maladjusted or learning-disabled students. Both of these groups appear normal physically. I was still uncomfortable with trainable retarded students. They look different, and their language is often impaired. I should be comfortable with them. I felt this deficit was mine, not theirs.

Other students have written and published work with different emphases. For example, there is Steve Barish’s piece on feeding his book habit, Chris Stevenson’s description of an incredible scam carried out by his 6th-grade students, Ruth Kirkwood’s interview with a brilliant young Maine architect, Sonja Nixon’s poems about loneliness and rejection during a stay in Japan, Karen Vetrone’s interview with a local actress. Cynthia Talbot’s and Ellen Cosgrove’s views on excellence, Ann McGreevy’s reflections on Charles Darwin, and Karol Sylcox’s sensitive description of an extraordinarily creative senior-citizen poet who lives in a nearby nursing home.

Still other students have added a visual dimension to their writing. Susan Baum and Robert Kirschenbaum, for example, used photography in their analysis of the special needs of talented students who were labeled “learning disabled.” Penny Miller also used photography in her description of her 7th-grade children’s study of the growth patterns of guinea pigs, while Karen List’s award-winning photographs have been used not only to buttress her own writing, but also to illustrate the work of others.

It seems clear to me that important things are happening here. One cannot write this sort of material without perceiving well, inventing, reflecting, and inquiring. We often collaborate as we review and critique each other’s writing. And the entire process of sharing one’s thoughts through writing and photography is obviously a form of representation.

“Thinking” is clearly a fashionable term in current educational discourse. Helping children think--to grow intellectually--has become a primary concern during the last few years.

As I see it, writing well and thinking well go hand in hand. This suggests increasing emphasis on writing by students in elementary and secondary schools--and, in my view, by their teachers as well.

A version of this article appeared in the June 10, 1987 edition of Education Week


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