Friday, October 1, 2010

Children as Authors - A Tribute to Don Graves

Professor Donald Graves passed away on Tuesday 28th September 2010 from pneumonia aged 80. I rarely publish posts of this kind, but Don Graves was a great man, and we owe him a great debt for teaching us much about children's writing.

I first met Professor Donald Graves on the 19th August 1980. He was plenary speaker at the 'Third International Conference on the Teaching of English' at Sydney University, Australia. I was a Curriculum Consultant at the time and was one of 500 people crammed in a room that knew little about this man before that day. I can still see this jovial softly spoken man in his checked jacket, quietly but dramatically telling us about his research with Susan Sowers and Lucy Calkins in a New Hampshire school. His address was mesmerising and his opening statement simple:
Children want to write. For years we have underestimated their urge to make marks on paper. We have underestimated that urge because of a lack of understanding of the writing process, and what children do in order to control it.  Then we say, "They don't want to write. What is a good way to motivate them?"
This talk was one of the major springboards for Don's work to become more widely known around the world. I was fortunate not only to be there that day but also to drive him to my hometown some two hours away and talk non-stop the whole way about children, writing and learning. In 1984 I was fortunate enough to spend time with Don in one of his schools in New Hampshire. What a great privilege it was to know this man and learn from him.

Don taught us many things and was arguably the Father of 'Process Writing'. He had spent time looking at what adult writers did, and was bold enough to apply the knowledge of process that he gleaned from such writers, to his work with and observations of children. His friend Donald Murray (a great writer and teacher of writing at the University of New Hampshire) was a key influence on him. But it was his close observation of children that brought forth some of his greatest insights:
  • Like adult writers children must be given the chance to choose their own topics, to have an environment in which writing is encouraged and facilitated, to take greater control of their writing.
  • They must have 'real' readers - people who read their writing to hear what they have to say, not just to correct their spelling and grammar.
  • Children must be allowed to make mistakes, to use approximations in draft writing and to become risk-takers in writing.
  • As teachers we need to shift our attention from simply product and the surface features, to an equal concern with process and meaning.
  • To teach young writers is to teach them the craft of writing.
  • Spelling and grammar are best taught in the context of meaningful writing not simply as decontextualised activities.
  • Teachers (and parents) must become observers of young writers, asking them questions that teach and that focus their attention on meaning not just the surface features of writing and neatness.
  • Writing is about revision and re-writing and that like adult writers, children often need to 'make it messy to make it clear'.
  • He also shared his practical tools for encouraging writers - folders for first drafts, dates to track development, writing conferences, celebration of authors, 'publishing' children's work, blank books in the hands of preschool children with the instruction, 'Why don't you write' and so on.
Some who didn't understand the richness of what Don was saying criticized him. Don saw invented spelling as evidence of progress for young writers as they grappled for the words to give expression to their many ideas. He implored us to look for patterns in invented spelling that could help us to we can plot progress as well as glean areas for support and teaching. When freed to use approximations as they got their ideas down, children will use expanded vocabularies.  Just as for adults, first draft writing doesn't have to be perfect in spelling and grammar. Writing was to be experienced as a cycle of thinking, writing, sharing, revising, thinking, sharing, revising and so on.  And sometimes it would be published for other readers and would be polished until spelling and grammar were correct for other readers.

We will miss this great man who taught many of us many things.

Other reading

Don wrote many things but a couple that many of us know were:

Donald H. Graves 'Writing: Teachers & Children at Work', Exeter (NH): Heinemann, 1983

Donald H. Graves 'A Fresh Look at Writing', Exeter (NH): Heinemann, 1994.

That first famous talk in Australia can be found in:

R.D. Walshe (Ed), 'Donald Graves in Australia', Sydney: Primary English Teaching Association, 1981


shar said...

An interesting post that has inspired me to read more of his published work on writing and children - thank you.

Patrick A. Allen said...

I loved reading your tribute! Don was a tremendous teacher for us all.

Here's a tribute I wrote as well:

J-Lynn said...

A proper tribute to such an influential man. Thank you for taking the time to post this.

Concerned Educator said...

Don Graves changed the landscape of teaching writing. What a human being, Don Graves IS. Can't think of him in the past for he will forever remain in my heart. Dr. Graves listened and read what was below the surface. This is what made him a great teacher.

Concerned Educator said...

Don Graves listened and heard the message rather than just the words. This is what made him a great teacher and researcher.

Trevor Cairney said...

Thank you to Shar, Patrick, J-Lynn and 'Concerned Educator' for your responses to this post. Thanks also Patrick for your own tribute, which I enjoyed reading. It is obvious just how many people have been touched by Don Graves, he was a special man and an inspiring educator. Trevor

VRI Bridging Project Google Group said...

Many people have commented on Don's enormous contributions to the field of literacy -- rightly so. He changed the way I thought about teaching and learning. However, I want to comment on his generous spirit and amazing ability to connect personally. When I was quite a young and inexperienced professional, I ended up at a small conference at which both he and I were speaking. As we left, we both arrived at the airport to take a very small plane to a connecting airport. He commented favorable on my work and invited me to sit with him on the plane (and, later in the airport lounge where he had a pass). I spent two of the most delicious hours of my professional life talking "shop" and family. We'll miss you, Don. You were one of a kind. Marge

skanny17 said...

Don Graves was a visionary leader in literacy. I met him on a number of occasions. I admired and learned so much that helped me to be a better teacher; and my students better writers and learners. I am deeply saddened by this news as I am sure so many educators, friends and family members are. I own almost all his books and treasure their wisdom, advice and thought-provoking classroom ideas. His memory will live on and the honors will be many. So many children who never met him or new of him are better writers, readers and thinkers because of him. What a loss to the world.

Penny Kittle said...

A marvelous tribute... thank you. I want to highly recommend the book from Australia... I have LOVED it. It captures the spirit of that work in its earliest stages and the opening piece on driving Don around is just marvelous.

Oh.. and the piece by Murray & Graves where they talk about process. Classic!