The Write Way
Page 4 of 5

Once he retired, Graves assumed he would give up writing as well. But then he met with Lois Bridges, an old friend and a newly hired editor for Heinemann Books, Graves' publisher. Bridges swiftly disabused him of that notion.

"Don is the most beloved voice in language and literacy education," says Bridges, a former teacher, who, like many people who've worked closely with Graves, talks about him with deep affection. "We'd only just begun to learn from him," she says.

In his post-retirement writing, Graves has explored fresh territory, publishing a book of short stories, How to Catch a Shark and other Stories about Teaching and Learning, a novel, poetry and essays. He has also re-worked and re-released some of his previous books. And with his most recent books, The Energy to Teach and Testing Is Not Teaching, Graves has entered a more controversial arena, striking out against the No Child Left Behind legislation and what he sees as growing federal encroachment into public education.

Bridges says Graves, as a former minister, is attuned to feelings. "He could see teachers were hurt and confused," she explains. "In these books, he has been able to take all this angst and anxiety and wrap some language around it. In a clear and direct manner, he's given teachers the ammunition to say, 'I disagree with this direction, and here's why.' It's highly significant that he is speaking out." The response to The Energy to Teach, which has been reprinted six times, led Graves to create a Web site, http://www.donaldgraves.org/. "Quite suddenly I was coming into contact with more teachers and administrators than at any point in my entire career," he writes. "I couldn't keep up."

When conversation veers in the direction of public education, Graves, normally serene and soft-spoken, becomes animated, even angry. He blasts No Child Left Behind as a stealth campaign, under-funded and based on faulty research, to undermine and discredit public education. Already, he says, the initiative has resulted in the labeling of schools as failures, the demoralization of teachers and their exodus from the profession. The effort to standardize public school curriculum and assessment is "un-American," he contends, and has lowered standards and diminished teachers' ability to focus on developing children's critical thinking skills, creativity and individuality. The overemphasis on testing has inflated schools' curriculum, in Graves' view, and turned classrooms into pressure cookers.

While he sees the need for assessment and accountability and finds current "left-brain" testing methods effective for math and science, he believes these methods are wholly inadequate for measuring progress in reading and writing. "Current tests require one right answer," Graves writes in Teaching Is Not Testing, and condition children to think "this is what learning is all about." Graves proposes testing methods that give children more choice in selecting the reading materials and writing topics on which they will be tested, and more time and space to master the material and demonstrate their knowledge.

Graves travels the world to speak at educators' conferences, where he is described variously as a rock star and an evangelist for teachers. By all accounts, he is a mesmerizing speaker who walks into the audience and tells stories that revolve around the classroom, with funny and moving imitations of principals booming over loudspeakers and of teachers and children submerged in the hard and messy work of learning. What comes through, teachers say, is his deep respect for them and the work they do, and for children.

His influence on writing continues at UNH, where a former colleague, English professor Tom Newkirk, established the New Hampshire Writing Program (now expanded into the N.H. Literacy Institutes). It also continues elsewhere across the country: Examples include the Center of Teaching and Learning, established by Nancie Atwell in Edgecomb, Maine, and the Reading and Writing Project, founded by Lucy Calkins at Columbia University's Teachers College. In his own neighborhood, Graves has partnered with Penny Kittle in working with teachers in the Conway, N.H., schools.

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