Q: In the 1970s, you were one of the pioneers who studied how children learned to write. You encouraged students to choose their own writing topics, write almost every day, use revision as a natural tool of writing, and learn the mechanics of writing in the context of reading and writing. Twenty years later, how do you think this approach is faring in schools?
Donald: I think we have more outstanding individual teachers of writing, and in their classrooms, writing process has done exceptionally well. I dearly wish I could have had some of the great teachers who are teaching today when I was in school. Things are happening with their kids that we've never seen before. On the other hand, this is a very definite minority of teachers, because what it takes to prepare a good writing teacher, well, we haven't been willing to pay that price. A year ago I took a look at the 50 major teacher-preparing institutions in the United States; 24 of our states don't even offer a course of writing for a teacher-in-training to take. And you can't do it in one simple in-service workshop.
Q: What are some common misconceptions about the so-called writing process approach?
Donald: Actually, we don't use the term "writing process" anymore. It got so misunderstood that now we simply just say "writing." Now for those misunderstandings: You don't expect much of children, simply because you give them a choice of topics. Secondly, you don't make high demands on your students. Thirdly, mechanics are not important. Fourthly, if the child doesn't feel like writing for a week, that's all right. These are some arguments against this way of teaching. In reality, we have very high expectations for children, and teaching conventions is a fundamental part of our approach.
Donald: I am sympathetic to teachers who misunderstand and get angry about change. There is so little opportunity to be well-prepared to teach writing, yet administrators continually mandate the writing process approach without realizing that much help is needed for the faculty. I'd get angry, too.
Q: So is it fair to say there is a backlash against this approach to teaching writing?
Donald: The sad thing is, I think there is a backlash against teaching, and against education. Budgets are being cut everywhere. Not that money is the solution, but enrollments are going up, and children are coming to school less prepared. They're coming in with all kinds of drug anomalies, and many more at-risk-from-birth kids are surviving, and yet we're not investing the money to help them.
Q: What can teachers do to foster successful writing programs in their classrooms?
Donald: Above all, get together with other teachers. Don't do it alone. As much as I might critique the whole language movement, it has done more to help teachers help one another than any movement we've had in the country for a long, long time.
Q: How can teachers convince parents that writing is crucial to children's lifelong achievement?
Donald: Don't talk in the abstract. Show the gains in a child's work. Be specific about what you have learned from that parent's child, about what that child knows and can express. And, as many teachers have done, let the children speak for themselves about what they have learned. When kids do that, that really turns heads.
Q: You work in schools all over the world. Can you give a sketch of a classroom that made a big impression on you?
Donald: Well, there are a number that come to mind, and they are as unique as they are alike. But the element that's common to these classrooms is that the teacher has high expectations for herself or himself, and in turn has high expectations for the kids. And nothing stops them. No poor administration, no cut of budget-nothing stops them.
Q: If you had to choose one thing teachers should do when teaching writing, what would it be?
Donald: Write yourself. Invite children to do something you're already doing. If you're not doing it, Hey, the kids say, I can't wait to grow up and not have to write, like you. They know. And for the short term and the long term, you'll be doing yourself a favor by writing. All of us need it as a survival tool in a very complex world. The wonderful thing about writing is that it separates the meaningless and the trivial from what is really important. So we need it for ourselves and then we need to invite children to do what we're doing. You can't ask someone to sing a duet with you until you know the tune yourself.
Q: Although you have retired from academic life, you seem as busy as ever. What are you up to?
Donald: Now that I'm not working in classrooms as much anymore, I want to write more for children. I am in the process of writing a book called Growing Into History. It's a book about the home front during World War II through a kid's eyes. So you look at history and what it means to grow into history. I also have a book of poetry coming out from Boyds Mills Press titled Baseball, Snakes, and Summer Squash: Poems About Growing Up.