It was a rainy afternoon, long before anyone was really thinking about global pandemics and civil unrest. We were visiting my favorite art store, and I noticed this notebook on the clearance table.
“That’s massive,” my husband John said. “What would you fill it with?”
I didn’t know then.
Now, I do.
The first pages of this notebook document my work and what I learned from it during the last lesson studies I led in Gladys Cuesta’s classroom in North Rockland Central School District and then, as I facilitated my last face-to-face workshops on multimodal composition in Canandaigua Central School District.
Days later, New York State was put on pause, and I haven’t been in a school since.
I continued documenting my learning, though. Many of my teacher friends and their students have done the same.
I’ve been a proponent of this practice for nearly fifteen years now, since I began my first action research/documentation project. It led to the publication of my first little book, Make Writing. Then, I started a second one, in order to learn more from my readers and their students, once they began testing those very first ideas that I shared. It was all quite experimental, and this was quite an education. All of that work led to the publication of my second book, Hacking the Writing Workshop.
Maybe you don’t know this about me or how those books came to be. They were the result of action research projects that leaned heavily on grounded theory and especially, documentation. I was grateful to Mark Barnes for inviting me to publish them because, at that time, few houses were willing to take on projects that challenged the theories their previously published authors shared. My findings did that a bit, and I wrote about them in this space, as often as I was able to–way back when.
I value grounded theory because rather establishing a research question and turning to the experts in my field for “answers”, I was invited to begin with a topic and then, use it as a lens while examining the lived experiences and listening to the humans I intended to serve better: the young writers in my community. I spent ten years doing that, writing about it, and welcoming others to share their translations of that work and their own findings as well.
This is when I began questioning how we were all defining what writing was and who writers were and how writing came to be taught the way that it commonly is inside of American schools.
Two years ago, when the time came to compare our collective findings to those published by other researchers, I chose to begin my study outside of my usual bubble, too. I, probably like many of you, stand on the shoulders of many great writing workshop experts. I always will. I wondered, though: What was I missing? This question inspired me to look in different places for answers. I turned to linguistics, anthropology, and history. I made a deep study of our socio-political and racial histories, in particular. Why? Well, because if you look at any of the images in those posts I link to up there, you’ll notice something very specific about the writers who were a part of my earliest action research projects: They are mostly (not all, but mostly) White. This hasn’t been the case for quite a few years now, but it certainly was when I first began listening and learning from young writers. It matters–who I was listening to and learning from.
And a few years later, I still have much more to learn. I’m a novice, and this has been the most important education of my career. Have you ever approached writing instruction from the vantage points provided by experts from those fields? If you have some time this summer, I encourage you to do this. Put the popular titles that have dominated the writing workshop world aside for just a bit. Read what exists out there, along the margins of all that we’ve centered as English and English Language Arts teachers. And document your learning, as you do. Share it with others, so that we may learn from you.
Now is a perfect time.
This is when documentation has been most rewarding for me: In those moments when I’m learning, teaching, and creating unexpected things in unexpected ways inside of environments I’ve entered…unexpectedly.
You’re in this space right now. The children we know and love are, too.
How might we document history?
How might we document our learning, too?
How might we do that together?
I have a feeling that our children have much to teach us right now. We have much to learn from them.
This week’s newsletter includes a few ideas, resources, and tools that can help you begin. It hits inboxes tomorrow morning. If you’d like a copy and you haven’t subscribed yet, you can do that right here.