Reviewing Hillocks’ Recent Works

Note: I wrote this review of George Hillocks’ recent contributions to the teaching of writing a while ago. It was originally written for the National Writing Project, however, it was never published for some reason or another. Nevertheless, I was revisiting these two titles recently while preparing a my culminating research piece for the Calderwood Fellowship work in which I have been engaged for most of the year. More on that to later. Yet I thought this might be of interest to some, as well as feeling I ought to update this site more regularly. Anyway, I hope this is useful.

Like Temple University professor Michael W. Smith, in his Forward to Teaching Argument Writing, Grades 6-12, I too have a confession to make. Making good on Smith’s desire, the writer’s voice of George Hillocks now whispers to me while I teach, so potent has the influence of his two most recent books been on my thinking and practice. After making the concerted effort to spend the better part of the last academic year employing Hillocks as an absentee guide, I can say with some certainty my students and I have benefitted from his wisdom.

The 2007 title Narrative Writing: Learning a New Model for Teaching and 2011’s aforementioned Teaching Argument Writing in so many ways are a tandem. Capitalizing on nearly fifty years of Hillocks’ experience as both a teacher and teacher of teachers, these two volumes provide a remarkable framework for leading young writers to greater growth and improved results. They build on the decades of research, data collection, and experimentation by waves of University of Chicago Masters of Arts in Teaching students, honing their trade under Hillocks’ direction. Imminently practical and proven are the strategies that are outlined for tackling these two disparate modes of composition.

While Teaching Argument Writing begins by building upon an interesting and pragmatic take on the work of former fellow University of Chicago professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s, noted for his landmark research presented in Flow, which clearly informs both Hillocks’ books. In the more recent title, he maps a means for planning active and engaging lessons that distills Csikszentmihalyi’s optimal experience into a manageable course of action that is better than any effort I have seen to date. With clarity and conviction Hillocks pursues a path that helps teachers empower students to learn how to do something, thereby preparing them to gather expertise at how to tackle future related challenges and tasks. The connection to Flow provides a central, philosophical underpinning for all the planning and examples presented in both books despite it being more explicit in the argument text.

In fact there is a degree of overlap of resources and experiences, re-contextualized for the specific purpose of teaching narrative or argument writing. When reading both books for example there is the conspicuous return of A Voluptuary Under the Horrors of Digestion, the John Gillray characturized engraving of he who would become George IV. The unforgettable image of the repugnant Prince of Wales provides all the gripping gross-out appeal of Judd Apatow but in a context that becomes the bedrock of both narrative and argument writing activities. Yet it is ultimately in the pedagogical approach where the most significant overlap is found. Narrative Writing does the better job of the two outlining an approach to teaching writing that benefits from the methodical, while allowing for a significant student control. Few of the ideas may be all that new in Hillocks’ approach, yet it is in the synthesis of these older elements where the value emerges.

Thus, the idea of beginning with where the students are seems simple enough. However, the planning and effort that goes into conducting a student inventory, as presented by Hillocks, cannot be considered so simple. For Hillocks the writing, pretest for either mode, is part “Quickfire Challenge,” ala Top Chef, and even more Vygotskyan audit of each student’s zone of actual development. The pretest results are of course used for measurement, but they also become the basis for how the work and tasks will be framed, securing the criteria for assessment, determining activities to scaffold necessary knowledge and skills, setting up collaborative groups, and sequencing instruction that ultimately leads to the construction of complex independent work by students. Hillocks’ pretest results are the data harvest, informing a careful instructional plan that also allows for flexibility and necessary adjustment, as well as ongoing reflection. From there, a reliable framework, building from simple to complex tasks with a gradual release of instructional presence, is repeated in every example included in both books.

This focus on data is no accident. It is at the heart of an inquiry stance that resonates in Hillocks’ pedagogical approach. In fact, it is a critical aspect of the instruction in Teaching Argument Writing. As Hillocks highlights, only through examining the existing available data can a claim be developed. Moreover, by demonstrating how to craft contexts that give students opportunities to interpret data for themselves and apply a variety of strategies to solve real writing problems, both texts foster a means to generative student writing and instructional practice.

Hillocks was wise to produce Narrative Writing first, and it is probably the better book to read first. It is a solid introduction to the teaching techniques that definitely can help get students writing. Hillocks even sagely mentions how his MAT students’ work in schools always starts with the writing of narratives. Following this advice has already begun to not only change the way my students approach their writing, it has changed the way that they read. Beginning with narrative writing has opened the door for them to begin reading like writers and writing like readers. Having spent most of a semester concentrating on principles included in Narrative Writing in my own practice has garnered a bounty of benefits, some anticipated but many more unanticipated. For example, the facility with which students are able to move between the concrete and abstract has already greatly improved. This alone has paved the way for increased sophistication in their transition to writing arguments.

If Narrative Writing introduces the principles and techniques, Teaching Argument Writing advances and explains them in even greater detail. The approach to argument is based on the Toulmin model, which seems to have a gravitational pull currently in academia, but as the previous discussion of the pretest might suggest, the model also informs the overall presentation of Hillocks’ material on critical and reflective practice. Callouts articulate various teaching practices and strategies with more detail. Also included are instructional sequences spelled out in discrete step-by-step fashion. In fact, the July 2010 issue of English Journal includes Hillocks’ “EJ in Focus” article, which is essentially an introduction to Teaching Argument Writing. It provides a sample of the voice that continues to challenge any teacher-reader about whether we have thought hard enough about what we want our students to do, collected enough data to help them and reflect on our own teaching, crafted contexts that challenge and engage them in the particular kind of thinking that the writing task demands, and provided enough rehearsals for them to be successful. These challenges always implicitly ask the question are we teachers listening hard enough.

Having incorporated many of the models from these two texts into my own practice, I am now listening harder now than perhaps ever before. As I earlier confessed, Hillocks’ methodology and resonant questions now routinely still whisper to me. So Professor Smith’s hope in the Teaching Argument Writing Forward is fulfilled, and I am grateful for it. I can think of no better teaching texts than George Hillocks’ Narrative Writing and Teaching Argument Writing that do more to leverage the new demands of Common Core Standards, while embracing data driven decision making, and provide a pragmatic and powerful scaffold for writing instruction across two critical modes of composition, narrative and argument writing.


So what do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.