Auld Lang Syne: Some New Year’s Thoughts by Way of Don Murray

Crafting a LifeFor reasons that made sense at the time, I decided to renovate my office in September, which meant moving all my books to the bedroom and stacking them up on the floor. I thought the project would take three weeks, with everything neatly back in place before I left for Italy. But as anyone who’s remodeled anything knows, stuff inevitably happens—in my case, the discovery that beneath the old carpet lay an unlevel floor with a few rotting floorboards.

Needing to put a whole new floor down meant that I didn’t get my books back on the shelves until last week. But while I had definitely grown tired of navigating the stacks of books in the bedroom, the timing turned out to be lucky, for over the break I had the time not just to put the books back on the shelves, but to pause, reconnect and re-acquaint myself with some I hadn’t read for a while, including Don Murray‘s Crafting a Life in Essay, Story, Poem.

Along with his fellow New Hampshire-ite Donald Graves, Don Murray was one of the founding fathers of the writing workshop approach, which invited students to follow the same process that actual writers used—pre-writing, drafting, revising and editing their way to a published piece. I’d bought Crafting a Life when it first came out, when most of the work I was doing in schools centered around writing, and I was curious to see what I’d think of it now, having focused so much recently on reading. I was even more curious when I opened it up and discovered that I’d read the book with a yellow highlighter in hand. Would what had struck me as important back then still seem important to me now? Would I see more than I saw before? Would I discover new insights?

Highlighter and word ideaI doubt I would be writing this if the answer was no. As it was, as I read the lines I’d highlighted, I found myself thinking that I’d stumbled on a whole new way of articulating the reading-writing connection, for on page after page I found parallels between the work of a writer, as Murray describes it, and the work of a reader. Of course, some of these parallels weren’t exactly new. Murray talks, for instance, about the need to form communities where “we share who we are, what we feel, what we think,” which many teachers try to do, too, for both he writers and the readers in their rooms. And he talks about “cultivating a writing habit,” which seems similar to how we help students plan a reading life by setting aside time, creating goals and thinking about what they’ll read next.

But what struck me the most were the parallels I saw in his descriptions of a writer’s purpose and attitude. Here, for instance, is a passage where Murray explains why he writes that could just as easily explain why we read:

“The reason I write is simple: to surprise myself. I want to discover what I know that I didn’t know I knew, to see a familiar subject in an unfamiliar way, to contradict my most certain beliefs, to burst through expectation and intent to insight and clarity, to hurt and laugh and understand and be confused in a way that I have not experienced before.” (p. 47)

Writing to surprise yourself, according to Murray, requires a particular attitude or stance, which he says begins with paying attention, just as reading to surprise yourself does. It also requires openness and a flexible mind, as he describes below:

“It is dangerous for the writer to know exactly where he or she is going . . . . The writer has to become receptive, open to gesture, to slight adjustments in a tone of voice, to what is different from yesterday, to what will be different tomorrow, to fleeting thought and changes in feelings as subtle as an off-shore breeze that hints of rain.” (p. 29)

Surprise Box Shipped Cardboard PackageIt seems unadvisable to me, as well, for a reader to know where he or she’s going (at least the first time through a text); for if we did know, there wouldn’t really be any need to keep turning the pages. Not knowing is what keeps us engaged; it’s what propels us forward. And it’s what helps us keep our minds open and receptive to whatever surprises the text holds. If you think, after all, that you know where you’re going, there’s little incentive to attend to the words, especially to those subtle shifts and hints that herald change—until, perhaps, you find yourself lost, which happens to students all the time.

Unfortunately, however, many of the strategies we teach children to use, such as predicting and picture walks—and even connecting and accessing schema—work against this open mindset by encouraging students to form ideas before they even start reading. And as Murray says in yet another line that has implications for readers: “Beginning writers make the mistake of looking for ideas before beginning to write.” Far better, I think, would be to teach students to ask the very same questions that Murray asks himself as he writes:

“What are the most specific details I can spot? What do they reveal? Which specifics connect? What does their pattern reveal? What specifics repel others? What does that lack of pattern reveal? (p. 47)

Murray poses these questions as he drafts and revises, with each successive draft becoming what he calls “an adventure into meaning.” As readers of What Readers Really Do know, I believe that reading is as much an adventure into meaning as writing is, and it’s also a process of drafting and revising, with this important difference. “During revision,” Murray says, “I re-see the subject, developing clues into understanding, hints into insights, reordering to produce clearer patterns.” As readers, however, we can’t revise the clues or patterns the writer has laid down; what we have to keep revising instead is what we think those patterns and clues reveal and what insights they might be leading us to. And to do this, once again, we have to apply Murray’s writing words to readers: “You discover what [the text has] to say by letting go of preconceptions.”

“Writing should have led you to a new understanding—or, at least, a new confusion,” Murray writes, which is true for reading as well. Rereading Murray deepened my understanding of the reading-writing connection and what it means to read like a writer, and it helped me discover what I didn’t know I already knew. Reconnecting with him over the break was also a great way to start the new year.

Now I wonder what other surprises I’ll find waiting for me on my bookshelves . . .


7 thoughts on “Auld Lang Syne: Some New Year’s Thoughts by Way of Don Murray

  1. Vicki,

    I have been thinking a great deal about writing to you to report out on the discussions that we had about your book, What Readers Really Do, last month in my graduate classes and then I see this blog post and realize it is the perfect entry point. The great “aha” for so many was the idea of matching up the reading and writing processes and “seeing” reading as a series of revisions as we go through and gather more information from the text. Somehow the way you wrote about this allowed teachers to see that there was really so much less we need to teach, but that that teaching needs to be done in depth, individually and with great attention to our students and their thinking.

    Some discussed the idea of “being on stage” when they did mini-lesons that often turned into “maxi” lessons.

    There were also some hackles up in reference to many of the strategies as outlined in Mosaic of Thought and the work of Ellin Keene. Many of these teachers were raised with these strategies and see them as the foundation of reading comprehension. They defended the think aloud and other teaching techniques that many hold near and dear to their hearts, but overall it made for great discussions and what I love the most is for us to all think about and consider things from another point of view. Thank you for that!

    I am teaching a course this summer at our UNH Summer Literacy Institute and am thinking your book would be a great anchor text for the course. I will be teaching a 2 week course on what I am calling,
    “Creating Real Readers and Writers” with Purpose, Passion and Play.

    In this blog you write,

    “you think, after all, that you know where you’re going, there’s little incentive to attend to the words, especially to those subtle shifts and hints that herald change—until, perhaps, you find yourself lost, which happens to students all the time.”

    This made me think of teaching…if you replace the word, “words” with “students” I believe this begins to sum up what I have been working to define in my own work. Are reading and writing and teaching all essentially a part of the same process with nuances that differ, but overall, aren’t they the same?

    Thank you for this thoughtful post. I appreciate your journey back to Murray and Graves, or who we refer to as “The Don’s” here at UNH!


    • Thanks so much, Tomasen, for sharing both your students’ response to the book and yours to the blog post. Dorothy and I talk in the book, too, about how the work of a teacher is just like the work of a reader, requiring the same kind of open, receptive and attentive mind. And you’re so right about the danger of us, as teachers, having a plan we’re so wedded to that we fail to pay attention. It’s another way of teaching curriculum (or standards), not students.

      As for those hackles, I do believe that there’s more than one way to skin a cat and that there are amazing educators out there, like Ellin, who do are able to make strategy instruction work in a deeply meaningful way. But I think they do it not by just having students ‘do’ the strategies, but by using the strategies as a launch pad for deeper thinking. What’s important, again, is that like a reader, we don’t become so wedded to an idea that we stop being open, receptive and attentive—and that we welcome disagreement as an opportunity to dig deeper and explore. (And . . . if you do decide to use the book this summer, know that I would love an excuse to visit New Hampshire if you think that would hold any interest for you and your students.)

  2. And I am craning my eyes to check out the titles on those shelves!!! I recognize and own a few I can see, but I am sure there is a gold mine of great reads there. Can you put up a few close-up shots??? I tell everyone about your book!! And I am using your ideas with a few children I tutor.
    I am the teacher you met at NCTE who told you I want our kids to “just be happy” and you got what I meant. Not a frivolous, “life is good” kind of happy, but an engaged, passionate, I can do this, I can think, I can learn, I can fall in love with words and ideas and make my life better, kind of happy……kids who are reading because they want to and love it a lot of the time!!! Not just in “assignment mode”!! Thanks for reconnecting us to Don Murray. And of course, my personal hero, Donald Graves. I re-read my favorite teacher books. Yours is on that list now!!

    • Happy New Year, Janet! In addition to the complete works of Georgia Heard—and Seeing the Blue Between, which I adore–I’ve got some great titles on teaching poetry upstairs, which I’ll try to take a picture of. In the meantime, though, this blog post made me think of you: It talks about needs-fulfilling versus needs-denying classrooms, with the former, of course, about the joy that can come from engaged, passionate thinking, and the latter what seems to be expected in this Race-to-the-Top world—which the Donalds passionately fought against their entire life. Hope it resonates!

      • Hi Vicki,
        Read this when I first got it and went to the link. YES!!! I am a GLasser fan. I stayed up very late at night when I first found The Quality School first edition at a workshop in the early 90s. Immediately ordered the second edition and devoured it. Gave copies as gifts and then gave a copy of an article about it to everyone I met. Have since read and re-read on Choice Theory (formely Control Theory). So I am steeped in the philosphy and was so excited when I first read it because I thought, “someone finally understands.” I teach it to my students. I wonder if any of the framers of the CCSS are really familiar with Glasser’s work. Meeting our needs, all of them, including fun/happiness is a necessary part of life; it has to happen. IF it doesn’t happen in positive ways… great classroom experiences……we seek it in other ways and some not terribly positive, sad to say but true. SO YES!! Thanks for the link. I signed up for the IRA pre-conference institute you will be at with Jan and Kim. I have most of Georgia’s books, maybe all. I finally met her at a round table at NCTE. I am reminded of a “debate” between two ways of knowing: convergent vs. divergent thinking. Sort of a Louise Rosenblatt connection. It came up when we had a G and T program in our schools. The idea that we need the creative view, creative and innovative thinking. This ying and yang has been a huge part of the school conversation for as long as I have been a teacher. Though I do think we need to have leaders who will show teachers specific strategies, techniques, ideas that will help with both. Another way of showing that the sum of the parts is greater than the whole! Thanks in advance for your poetry photo!! I should share mine. I do not know what I am going to do with my collection…..but I just can’t stop.

      • So I have to confess that I knew nothing about William Glasser till that article and now your response crossed my desk—and I’ve just spent a half our pouring through his Institute website. So thanks, in turn, for that. There are so many pedagogical philosophies and movements that speak to choice and engagement, but it doesn’t seem to have informed the CCSS leaders, and there’s so little time, as we race to the top, to do the kind of thinking work needed to align one approach to the other. Along with Kim & Jan, however, Dorothy and I will try to do that at IRA and I’m thrilled to know that you’ll be there, too!

  3. Pingback: Before Revision, Vision & Other Words of Wisdom from Katie Wood Ray | To Make a Prairie

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