The Problems of Writing

There are times when writing about teaching feels like a pretty lonely affair.  It’s sort of a double-whammy of loneliness. At first, we turn to writing because there’s a something about the work that we can’t quite talk about with other teachers at our schools. That’s how I started, at least. I write, hoping to find someone who can give me that something I don’t get at school.

There’s another level of loneliness, though, that can sneak in to the teacher-writer’s life. It happens once the teacher starts worrying about the craft of writing. The teacher now – almost by accident! – has picked up a new art, a second set of tools, and might now be itching to figure out how best to use them. Not all teacher-writers share this itchiness, but there aren’t many places to turn if you do.

Magdalene Lampert – teacher and researcher – set out to do something about that first bit of loneliness. She video-taped every second of her school year and wrote a book about her decisions. Why?

“As the nature of teaching practice is made more explicit, it should be easier to teach well and to learn what good teachers know how to do. It should be easier for teachers to work together on improving what they do.”

Lampert’s aiming to make it easier for us to talk about teaching. It’s not my place to judge whether she succeeds. Instead, I want to take a closer look at her writing, as writing. Every teacher experiences isolation in the classroom. How does she aim to attack it?

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Her book (Teaching Problems and the Problems of Teaching) is an account of the major areas of her preparation and teaching. She tells us what she was planning to do, what she did, and why she did it.

The image I have of Lampert is her, alone in an office, meditating on the day’s work:

“Anthony interrupted the flow of the teaching I was trying to do but he gave me the opportunity to use what he had done as an occasion to teach something I wanted to teach. He had not raised his hand to ask for the floor. My work here was to manage the tension between encouraging Eddie and concurring with Anthony’s correction, as well as to acknowledge the correction while maintaining civility in students’ interactions with one another. I had to teach not only what a generalization would be, but also how to disagree with another student’s assertion.”

Do you hear all those “I”s, “me”s and “my”s? This is not a story about what went on in her classroom. This is a story about what went on in her head in her classroom.  This is the author, thinking about her thoughts.

Now, this works well for the reader (me) because Lampert’s head is an interesting place to spend some time. And Lampert is the absolute, unquestioned authority on what goes on in Lampert’s brain. She can tell us what she was trying, and I don’t doubt her.

Actually, I can’t doubt Lampert. All the action is happening in her head. As a result, her authorial voice is the voice of an expert, someone who is talking about what she knows best. The reader is almost eavesdropping.

Lampert’s style perfectly matches her purpose. There might be no better way to expose the complexity of the work of teaching. But it’s not the only way to write about craft.

One of my favorite writers is George Saunders, and he wrote a lovely piece about story-telling, “The Perfect Gerbil.” Saunders takes a very different stance than Lampert’s. Saunders is clearly addressing you, the reader, as a knowledgeable equal. Sure, he has something to say about writing. But just as he is a writer, you are a writer too. (In contrast: Lampert is a teacher, and that is that.)

Saunders’ piece takes us through his reading of a story by Donald Barthelme. This choice – to focus on the writing of someone else – is an important one. He could have walked us through the process of creating one of his own stories: Here’s what I was thinking when I wrote this paragraph, and so on. Focusing on his own work, though, would be placing himself in a position of authority relative to, me, the reader. There wouldn’t be room for my thinking.

The choice to think through someone else’s craft, then, is a show of goodwill to the reader. It’s an act of parity, of putting the reader and the writer in roughly the same place. It’s an awfully generous thing to do.

Writing about Barthelme, Saunders says:

“…he has given us a little something extra: a laugh, yes, but more important an acknowledgement that the writer is right there with us: he knows where ware, and who we are, and is involved in an intimate and respectful game with us. I think of this as the motorcycle-sidecar model of reading: writer and reader right next to one another, leaning as they corner, the pleasure coming from the mutuality and simultaneity of the experience.”

And this is precisely what Saunders is pulling off in his own piece.

This model of writing – the one that fosters mutuality and simultaneity – is certainly not the only good one. Lampert’s style is good too, for her purposes. The best parts of Teaching Problems feel to me like I’m trying (often failing) to keep up with a brilliant teacher. She manages to hold many things in her head at once. She’s driving the motorcycle all by herself, and I’m running after her, practically.

Lampert’s great, but here’s what I want to posit: her writing isn’t the best way to dispel the second sort of loneliness. By placing the reader in her mind, her area of greatest expertise, we aren’t given quite the invitation that Saunders offers us to engage in the work of writing. She isn’t saying to us, you know, it’s hard, but you could do this too.

What, you want Lampert to literally say ‘you could do this too’? No, absolutely not. Like I said, she has her own purposes. More to the point, even if she wanted to create parity between reader and writer, a simple statement wouldn’t be enough. Her stance as an expert is central to her writing. We are in her head, and we just don’t know enough to keep up with her. The reader can’t think about the things she’s thinking about. This is the missing invitation – we have no chance to think along with her. She does her work, and we do ours’.

However, this is not how writing about teaching has to be. Writing (thinking) about teaching can invite readers to do that very same work. Joe Schwartz recently wrote a piece – “22? 30? 50? 100?” – that exemplifies this to me. From the very first sentence (“Meet Alex.”) I feel Joe taking care to catch me up on the situation. Who is this kid? Who are you? What are you doing? (Struggling first-grader; devoted math coach; learning how this kid counts.) It’s only after establishing all this context that Joe drops the major intellectual puzzle, the one that drives the rest of the piece.

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It would have been so easy for Joe to write a piece that had none of these qualities. Today I worked with a kid who had some interesting issues with counting collections of objects, he might have begun, and the reader is already lagging behind. Knowing that I wanted to check up on his counting skills, he would continue, thinking something we could not possibly have thought, I dumped out some plastic dogs and asked him to count them, and I rest, because for a brief moment I’m all caught up.

In short, then, establishing context can be an act of generosity to the reader – he’s making room for us to think right along with him, rather than asking us to keep up. Is it surprising that some twenty-odd people wrote paragraph-length responses to his post, with ideas, analysis, their own suggestions and questions?

(And, by the way, Joe is also offering a master-class in hooking the reader. He’s dangled a huge piece of intellectual bait in front of starving teachers. Of course we bite!)

Teachers are given so little respect as thinkers and writers about teaching, that it can be tempting to write in a way that raises ourselves up from the reader and emphasizes our expertise. I’d suggest that Saunders and Joe point towards another possibility. If we write in a way that empowers the teacher-reader, we can invite them to become a teacher-writer. None of this work needs to be quite so lonely.

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12 thoughts on “The Problems of Writing

  1. Thank you for sharing! I only recently started writing/blogging last August. It is hard! Every time I write, I wish I were a better writer, but I don’t have time! I’m consumed with math! Lol Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this. I loved Joe’s post too!

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  2. Something about this troubles me. I’m not sure if it’s the message itself, or what I’m reading into it, but let me try to put it into words.

    First, it’s not that easy to change a style of writing. Some people are more comfortable with first person than others. There’s those who prefer to tell-it-like-it-is and others who prefer to add some mystery, or prose. You claim “It would have been so easy for Joe to write a piece that had none of these qualities.” — as if he put tons of thought and effort into crafting the post (and maybe he did, I don’t know) but if that’s NATURALLY the way Joe writes then… no! No, in fact it would have been VERY HARD for Joe to write a piece that had none of those qualities that are so endemic to his writing!! It feels a bit like saying “It would have been so easy for Harper Lee to write an erotic spy thriller instead of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird'”… well, good thing she wrote the latter, huh? Otherwise she might be lonely and unknown to this day. (So stop writing your erotic spy thrillers.)

    Secondly, what is the point of “joining the group” and feeling less alone if instead you feel like a fraud? In a sense, there is the implication here that a writer/teacher needs to change in order to get feedback/readership, implying “you would be less lonely if you did stuff to fit into the group!”. I’m not saying “empowerment” is a bad idea, but it seems to come in the context of “changing how you write”. I suppose it works if you don’t really HAVE a “how”, and the end goal is simply feedback, be it through writing or some other method. But for those who do write in a certain way, the suggestion that they need to change in order to be less lonely… it feels a bit like being told “You’re being shunned because you talk funny – stop being yourself, then people will like you”.

    I don’t know – maybe I’m too close to this situation. I’m more writer than teacher, and I’ve been writing (chiefly fiction) for the last several years. And while I’m certainly open to feedback, better hooks, whatever, if the feedback were “maybe you should change your style of writing, have less puns, more actual pedagogy”… yeah, I couldn’t do that. Maybe it would give me a few more readers, but it would come at the cost of my writing integrity… and would probably be a lot harder to do too! I sometimes wonder if writing educators at the far non-fiction end of the spectrum experience the same thing (dumb it down more, stop being so technical!).

    Again, maybe this works if the posting/writing is a means to an end, and you can replace “writing” with “conversation” or “video” or “kinesthetic expression”. But suggesting that my loneliness can be somewhat dispelled by merely “empowering others more” with my writing, makes me feel like I’d be trading what makes my writing unique for being “one of the group”. I don’t think that’s worth the effort.

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    1. mathtans, you write:

      But for those who do write in a certain way, the suggestion that they need to change in order to be less lonely… it feels a bit like being told “You’re being shunned because you talk funny – stop being yourself, then people will like you”.

      I know that you care about craft. I can imagine someone else saying, “Well it’s hard to improve your craft, and it’s just not worth it to me. The only way I know how to write is without punctuation, don’t cramp my style.” I’m sure, though, that this isn’t what you’re saying. (Right?)

      I take you to mean that every writer has negotiables and non-negotiables. And you’re saying that someone might write like Lampert, and that’s non-negotiable. And others will write like Joe, and that could be non-negotiable.

      I think I believe that this is a negotiable in my writing, but I’d understand if it’s a non-negotiable in your (or someone else’s) writing. Is this what our disagreement comes down to?

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      1. Negotiables versus non-negotiables in writing is the spirit of it, yes, though I feel like there’s a bit more there. Let me start by saying that you’re correct, I’m not suggesting people should write without punctuation because “no one can force me to conform!” — but let me start with that. As a society, we’ve accepted certain standards with respect to grammar, all caps being shouting, that sort of thing. (And some things, like the oxford comma, we continue to debate endlessly.) If someone isn’t going to play by those rules, that’s fine, they can find their own little circle of l33t friends out there who understand them. Ditto for those who want to communicate in morse code or ROT13 or something.

        But if we assume you’re going to adopt the basic conventions of English communication to talk with educators… there isn’t necessarily a right way or a wrong way to do that. Granted, there are probably better ways to catch someone’s attention (or hold it), but now we move into much more subjective territory. To that end, the issue I have is not even with the different ways of writing that you mention — you point out yourself that Lampert shouldn’t be writing the same way as Saunders — it’s the framing. The thought that “the way to improve your writing loneliness is to craft things more in this manner”.

        Again, empowerment is good, and flexibility in writing is good… but if, to reach for a metaphor, doing 3-acts in your classroom isn’t your style, you really shouldn’t have to FORCE one in order to be able to talk with your colleagues. Can’t they appreciate what you ARE doing, and still provide feedback? Stretch yourself, yes, go a little out of your comfort zone, yes, but there’s an implication in here (for me anyway) that “if you want feedback, if you want to be part of a community instead of lonely, you should do more of this”. Which feels less like putting things up for “negotiation” and more “conforming to be popular”. Or worse, “conforming to be a better educator/writer”… because there’s the implication that if you don’t, you won’t get better, despite us being in this subjective territory already.

        Again, I may be reading too much into it. Or perhaps I’m simply too lonely of late.

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      2. …but if, to reach for a metaphor, doing 3-acts in your classroom isn’t your style, you really shouldn’t have to FORCE one in order to be able to talk with your colleagues. Can’t they appreciate what you ARE doing, and still provide feedback? Stretch yourself, yes, go a little out of your comfort zone, yes, but there’s an implication in here (for me anyway) that “if you want feedback, if you want to be part of a community instead of lonely, you should do more of this.”

        I do not think that anyone needs to conform to any style of writing or teaching. I think a community can include lots of different writers with many styles. Nobody should be forced to write in any way they don’t want to. I feel terrible for giving off that vibe in the piece.

        But I also think not all writing serves all purposes, and have no qualms about trying to uncover the function of various styles. If you want to write polemic, you should write polemic, but there’s no reason to expect polemic to serve the same function as a case-study.

        I should clarify one other thing. I wasn’t trying to say, “You should write like Joe Schwartz, because then all of us will be writing like Joe Schwartz and then we won’t be lonely anymore.” More like, “If you want to invite other people to do the same sort of thinking that you’re doing in a piece, Joe Schwartz offers a model. And if you successfully invite others to do the same sort of work as you’re doing, that’s the very definition of making your work less lonely.”

        Thoughts, mathtans? Do your worries still apply to that restatement?

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      3. Okay, I’m following you better now. So it’s more a matter of getting people to see your thinking with context (and even apply it), versus approaching it as a situation/person in isolation. Thank you!

        I think what detoured me was the “loneliness” concept coupled with the remark “Is it surprising that some twenty-odd people wrote paragraph-length responses to his post”. Also my own headspace, given most of this month I’ve been searching for support groups to little effect (in terms of writing on three blogs, not my teaching). Living in the “chaotic present”, as you once noted — maybe in a few weeks I’ll read this very differently.

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  3. I love the contrast between Lampert’s writing and Joe’s. First of all, note that I feel much more comfortable referring Joe by his first name. I do feel like a knowledgeable equal when I read his post. And I think that his writing style has a lot to do with that, as you mention.

    But I also think the structure of his post makes his work much more approachable. He is not writing about a lesson that went well, and the ways that he made impromptu teaching decisions that paid off, the way that Lampert does. Instead, he is writing about an encounter with a student that left him stymied. He is writing to the reader from a place of vulnerability. Not only that, he explicitly asks for input. As he writes in his last sentence, “I have some ideas, but I’ll take all the help I can get.”

    This is also a significant difference between Joe’s post and Saunders’ piece. Saunders is critiquing, approvingly, the work of another writer. Joe is critiquing, negatively, his own teaching. I think this is a crucial difference.

    Saunders uses the work of another writer to discuss his own ideas about the craft of writing. Had he done the same approving analysis of his own work, it would be much less approachable, even if he used the same stylistic elements. The laudatory passage that Barthelme “knows where we are, and who we are, and is involved in an intimate and respectful game with us,” would come off as arrogant if Saunders wrote that he himself knows “where you are, and who you are, and am involved in an intimate and respectful game with you.”

    Saunders is able to get across this idea obliquely by using Barthelme’s writing as a conduit for his own ideas.

    Now, if Saunders took apart a failed short story of his own, using his abilities as a critic to point out his own flaws in structure and tone, I would read that in a heartbeat. Just like I read Joe’s post in a heartbeat.

    So to get back to teaching, I feel like teachers could do great work by using Saunders’ model. Find an example of a lesson someone else taught that you just love, and explain why it works. This gives you a chance to explain your own teaching philosophy while also heaping praise on a colleague. Much easier to read than heaping praise on your own teaching (a crime of which I am very guilty).

    But where do we find these examples of great lessons by others? This gets back to your first point about loneliness. I almost never get to see anyone else teach. If I did, I’d be able to write the type of post I’m suggesting, instead of merely theorizing about its potential value!

    I think you’re proposing way to make teachers’ writing more approachable through stylistic decisions, and I’m countering with an idea about making teachers’ writing more approachable by changing the structure of what we write about

    My proposal is:

    A) Write about your own challenges (like Joe)
    B) Write about others’ successes (Like Saunders)

    I’m not saying those are the only two good types of writing. But I think both of those structures would lead to the type of inviting, engaging writing that you seek.

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    1. I wholeheartedly agree that writing about challenges works to invite more people to provide advice and ideas. This type of writing reflects the types of conversations that teachers often have face-to-face, such as when I walk into a content area meeting and someone starts the conversation by saying, “I tried strategy/task x in order to help teach concept/skill y, but it flopped. What did you try?” With this kind of mindset and tone in a person’s writing about teaching, the teacher is really just extending the collaboration that can occur amongst educators within a school to include countless educators from a myriad of schools with a plethora of prior experiences. This type of writing is an interactive tool for teacher improvement, compared to Lampert’s writing that could be classified as an inspirational tool.

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  4. Wow! I love this.

    Many years ago, I was in a graduate English program (Breadloaf School of English, summer program), and took a class on writing about teaching. Blogs didn’t exist yet. I had no idea how to do what I do now.

    I don’t have as many comments as I’d like on my posts. I’m going to come read this again later, to see if it inspires any changes in my writing.

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