The Write Way
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At a time when educators believed children should not try to write until they were proficient in reading and spelling, Graves called on teachers to help even young children pick their own topics, read and revise their work, and confer with fellow pupils and teachers—in short, to become writers. In his best-selling book, he addressed teachers as if he knew them and understood their daily struggles in the classroom. His conversation with teachers has continued in more than two dozen books, many of which he's completed in retirement. His books address how to teach the writing of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, journals and student portfolios.

Donald Graves and Betty Lewis "Three days before I graduated, I summoned up enough courage to ask Betty to play tennis," writes Don Graves. They celebrated their 50th anniversary last year.

"Retirement is glor-i-ous," Graves proclaims, throwing his arms open with a Buddha-like smile. "I have more time to write." "Retirement" seems a misnomer for Graves' current state: he remains engrossed in the dissemination of his evolving ideas to a vast network of educators.

Graves calls himself a "late bloomer." The son of a public school principal, he struggled in college, and only out of necessity—after four years in the U.S. Coast Guard, marriage and the birth of a child—did he follow his father's career path into education. His first teaching job was a class of 39 seventh-graders in Fairhaven, Mass., in 1956. Two years later, he was promoted to principal in the same school where his father had served. He left after three years to begin a new career in educational ministry with a church in Hamburg, N.Y., attending seminary school at the same time to become a Presbyterian minister. In 1967, he gave up full-time ministry to begin doctoral studies at the State University of New York at Buffalo.

In graduate school in the early '70s, Graves became disenchanted with his fellow students' emphasis on reading disabilities: He thought it was more important to focus broadly on how children learn. Switching to language arts, he began an independent review of writing research. "No one had observed real children in the process of writing," he explains. Graves stepped into the void.

Over the course of six months, Graves watched elementary pupils write. His findings astounded him. One 7-year-old boy drew pictures before writing. Graves saw that the boy's pictures served as a rehearsal for his writing. "That to me was revolutionary," he says. "At an unconscious level, he was laying out what he was going to write."

Graves made two key discoveries that would become central themes in his work: that children need time to process their thoughts and "rehearse" before writing, and that their best writing flows from their deepest interests. His dissertation won the Promising Researcher Award from the National Council of Teachers of English.

A Fresh Look at Writing

In 1973, when he had completed his Ph.D., Graves was hired by UNH's education department as an assistant professor, and moved with Betty and their five children to Durham. Soon after his arrival, he and Donald Murray '48, then head of the journalism program and a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for the Boston Herald, struck up what would evolve into a lifelong friendship and dynamic working relationship.

"We found we had a lot in common," says Murray, now professor emeritus of English. "We were south-of-Boston kids, and both of us felt like failures in school at some point. We were both intrigued by the writing process, he in the teaching of writing, me more in the writing."

Early in his UNH career, Graves was agonizing over a research report and sought Murray's help. He arrived at his home, draft in hand, and watched anxiously as Murray scanned the report and then rooted around for a stationery box. He taped the lid shut and cut a slit in the top. "I want you to sit down and just write," Murray told Graves, "and as you finish each page, put it in the box. Don't look back until it's all done."

Graves was skeptical but forced himself to write without concern for punctuation, grammar or organization. Soon he had stuffed 150 pages in the box. "I had been censoring myself," Graves recalls. Like many academics, he thought he had to get it right the first time. Graves retrieved his rough draft, re-read and revised it again and again, until he had his best work before him. "Don literally taught me to write," he says. "He showed me that the craft of writing is re-writing. I've used this technique with hundreds of writers. It teaches you to just get it down." Murray's simple advice, "Write research to be read," also stuck. "I used to write with educational jargon, and Don knocked it out of me," says Graves.

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