Book Review: Teachers’ Writing Groups

The second book that we are using in our summer institute is both practical and promotional. Teachers’ Writing Groups: Collaborative Inquiry and Reflection for Professional Growth (Kennesaw University Press, 2006) describes multiple configurations of writing group — important to our summer invitational — and is co-edited by Kathy Yancey, the keynote at MCTE’s fall conference. So, we are reading to find out more about how to conduct our own writing groups while also preparing for the fall conference. Here is my first attempt at a review.


Book CoverAs a member of many writing groups over the past five years, I began reading Teachers’ Writing Groups: Collaborative Inquiry and Reflection for Professional Growth with my own inquiries:How do teachers form and maintain writing groups that focus on professional writing, especially during their busy school years?In what ways can writing groups encourage professional publication while still nurturing the writer’s soul?Does it require a shared goal (such as writing a particular article or a collaborative project), or just a shared sense of purpose?

How do teachers decide when it is time to end a group?

As I read this text, I feel fortunate that many of my questions were addressed, if not answered, throughout it. Overall, the strength of this book comes from the stories that the teachers in the groups tell about the process itself, although I am still left with some questions in the end.So, that is where this review will begin — at the conclusion. In the final essay of the book, “Setting Teachers’ Writing Groups in Context,” Robbins, Seaman, Yow, and Yancey describe how the envisioned the writing groups in their project as

a collection of circles, with our three small writing groups clustered together as a community of practice seeking to forge connections with scholarship on social literacy practices, on professional development grounded in shared reflection, and on writing as an avenue to learning. (p. 184)

These groups, then met face-to-face and online, as did the larger group comprised of all the smaller ones, over the course of a year, all the while setting goals for drafting, response, and, eventually, publication. Their conclusions suggest that the process of writing and reflection that the groups fostered allowed the teacher writers involved to create substantial pieces, over time, that were indicative of the rich teaching practices that they hoped to describe. This took time for trust building, and was fostered by an overall sense of purpose for the large group. Along with multiple opportunities to give and get response, the group’s consistent focus on publication seemed to motivate many of the writers in this project.

By beginning with the end, I was able to go back into the three sections of the book that each writing group produced and read them with a better sense of purpose. In each of the three sections — “Creating Our Professional Identities,” “Looking Closely at Classroom Practices,” and “Designing Writing Programs” — the teachers involved took the overarching theme that developed in their group and translated it into individual essays fronted with a collaborative response about the group’s work process. To me, these introductory essays for each section were the most compelling pieces in the overall text, as each told the story of how the group worked (and, sometimes, didn’t work) together.

For instance, Kramb, Harrell, Seaman, and Yow in “The Gift of Time” describe the ways in which a set protocol helped them organize their work and stay focused as a group. They show how this process of setting norms took “time and patience,” but that, “[t]hose discussions were powerful, once we established the protocol that was right for our group” (p. 18). The notion that a group of writing teachers — all well-versed in their pedagogy and at least moderately confident in their writing abilities — still had to set up a protocol is reassuring. In the writing groups with whom I have worked, those that set and stick to protocols are the ones that last the longest and are successful. Rather than viewing this as a strict set of rules, group members are able to offer responses within these guidelines, feedback that is “both honest and kind at the same time,” according to the authors (p. 20).

The second group — Robbins, Stewart, and Kaplan — discuss the ways in which they used technology to comment on one another’s writing and also shared professional readings as a way to stay focused and dig deeper into common themes they were exploring. The third group — Walker, Walker, and Smith — offer the protocol of reflecting, at the end of each session, on what worked well for the group and what did not (p. 116). This is a strategy that I have not tried myself and think that I might suggest in this summer’s institute, especially early on in the process.

Taken in sum, the three introductory essays offer snapshots into the varied practices of writing groups and the ways in which they can work. Interestingly enough, the editors note their one “failed” writing group disbanded because the members felt too isolated, from one another and the larger group (pp. 187-8). This cautionary note reminds me to think carefully about how and why to invite teachers into writing groups and to consider the ways in which face-to-face and online collaboration can contribute to, and take away from, the group’s over sense of community and purpose. Also, through these failed writing groups, I can remember that it is OK from time to time for all writers to reconsider their goals and, even in successful groups, think about articulating what it is they want and hope to gain from giving and getting feedback. This process of reflection will enhance everyone’s group experience.

The remaining chapters of the book are the individual teachers’ essays, all of which focus on the teaching of writing and each of which warrant a description and response longer than what I can offer here. What I can say is that most of the essays offer an authentic teacher voice, built from both theory and practice, and rooted in story. I have not read all of these essays yet, so will not offer commentary on them here, but many look to be promising, especially Robbins and Stewart’s “‘Seeing’ Community: Visual Culture in College Composition.”

My concerns about the book are both in content and form. In terms of form, I do feel that the book is a bit disjointed in that each section’s preface, useful as they are, could be more detailed about suggestions for writing groups. In terms of content, I wonder about how “kind and honest” all the teachers both in the project and outside of it were in their responses to one another, with emphasis on the honest part. For instance, the responses in “Writing with Our Eyes Open: A Collaborative Response to Teachers’ Writing Groups” (pp. 173-180) seems to focus a little too much on the positive aspects of the book and could have offered some more critiques. And, of course, this is the problem with all writing groups; in our efforts to praise, I think that we too often try to be kind without being honest.

In conclusion, Teachers’ Writing Groups: Collaborative Inquiry and Reflection for Professional Growth reiterates for me the power of collaboration. I believe that the authors in this book, overall, were pretty honest with themselves and their colleagues, despite my concerns listed above.

Visions of Online Learning

Are we, as educators, approaching this in the right way?

To deal with the growth, the University of California is launching an extensive effort to make sure applicants’ online high school courses are on par with traditional classroom instruction.

More students across US logging on to online classrooms – The Boston Globe

To be honest, I am not sure that I want online courses to be “on par” with traditional classroom instruction. While I do not want to get in a finger-pointing, name-calling game, the fact of the matter is that “traditional classroom instruction” is becoming more and more a relic of education’s past, not a model to emulate.

Moreover, what is it about the “online experience” that makes it an online experience? If it is simply listening to video versions of lecture and completing the same homework assignments that have been given year after year with Word or Excel instead of a pencil, paper, and calculator, then we are going about it all wrong.

Shouldn’t, instead, the purposes of online learning be to engage students in reading and writing tasks that require multimedia authoring, collaboration with others with whom we typically would not or could not work, and engagement with materials that are fresh, relevant, and contextually useful to one’s own inquiry?

This is not to say that there is not a place for some traditional “content” in online learning. However, my experience as an online instructor was one where I simply monitored students as they were supposed to work independently through a prescribed set of curriculum. One of our coordinators called it the “nag and brag” version of online teaching, only to touch base with students when they did something wrong, fell behind, or did a great job on something.

This, to me, is the failure of our current paradigm about online learning. We do not need to replicate traditional classroom experiences. Instead, we need to think about what it means to engage with content and collaborate with others in ways that will both catch the attention of and expand the abilities of our students.

I hope that Michigan, as the first state to adopt an online learning component, is able to move beyond the traditional visions and be, instead, visionary. Perhaps we are moving in the right direction.

Blogged with Flock

Collaborating, Cooperating, and Co-opting

So, I have finally caught up on my RSS reading. Sort of. I keep getting side tracked and have been looking at two collaborative tools — Zoho Writer and ThinkFree — that I’ve known about for awhile, but came up in my reading tonight. (To digress for a moment, my goal this next week is to read my feeds in Google Reader every day. We’ll see how that goes…).

That said, I am interested in thinking more about the entire notion of collaboration that the discussions of the read/write web and school 2.0 have generated in the past year, and especially in the last month or so. It seems that every podcast that I listen to or blog that I read points to “collaboration” as one of the “new literacies” and that social networking (as a proxy for collaboration) holds such great promise in schools for rethinking the teacher student relationship, curriculum and instruction, and just about everything else.

What I find lacking in most of these conversations is a discussion of what would happen if schools do/are already co-opting some of the collaborative and social tools that students are using outside of school for classroom use. Now, this is not to say that I don’t think that we should try (or else I wouldn’t blog about these topics on a regular basis). However, I do think that we need to carefully consider what it means to “collaborate” as compared to just “cooperate” and what happens when we try to use tools in school that students gladly use on their own, but may (or may not) like to see in schools.

My concern stems partially from the many, many curricular documents that seem to be touting 21st century literacies and, inherent in those literacies, the idea that students collaborate. To the extent that we see collaboration happening, all the better. Yet, I don’t know that schools encourage collaboration (where the sum is, indeed, more than the total of the individual parts) so much as it promotes cooperation (hey, let’s get along so we can finish this project). There are many power structures in schools — from the community to the school board to the administration to the teachers to the students to cliques and types of students — that may say they want collaboration, when in fact what they want is cooperation.

This becomes problematic. When we teach under the guise of collaboration, yet all students are not expected to contribute meaningfully to the project, then we shortchange all the students working on it. We have all been a part of a group or taught a group of students who foist the work upon one or two students (or, contrarily, choose to take it upon themselves as martyrs). Moreover, there are times when group work is meant to be busywork and cooperation, not collaboration is the goal.

I don’t know that I have a strong thesis for this argument so much as I just want to express some thoughts and concerns about the current discourse surrounding the word “collaboration.” I would be curious to hear how others are interpreting that term in different contexts and to know whether or not I am thinking clearly about it. That, I feel, would be a powerful, collaborative discussion.