What if revision is something that happens in the mindset of the writer during the writing process, not just on the page, after it’s done?
This is the question that author Chris Hall sets out to answer in his new book The Writer’s Mindset: Six Stances That Promote Authentic Revision. He presents readers with six stances -metacognition, optimism, perspective-taking, flexible thinking, transfer, and risk-taking- to guide and expand the standard revision process.
Today on the podcast Chris is joined by author Ellin Oliver Keene.
Chris was mentored by Ellin during his time as a Heinemann Fellow. It was through their collaboration and the action research project Chris worked on that led to the work that became The Writer’s Mindset.
Chris and Ellin begin their conversation talking about the evolution of Chris’s work since their time together at the Heinemann Fellowship.
Below is a transcript of this episode.
Ellin: Well, Chris, I am so delighted to have a chance to talk to you about this book. I got it a few weeks ago. I read it in gulps, huge gulps, because as it happens right now, in many of the schools that I'm working in, we are really struggling with revision with kids. And I've always, in my mind when teachers are talking to me about these obstacles to revision... I've always hearkened back to your original Heinemann Fellows revision action research project. So I think, given that our association, colleagues and friends, started with Heinemann Fellows and this book then evolved out of that work, right? So-
Ellin: I mean, I would love to hear maybe at the beginning a little bit about that evolution. You took on this project as a fellow, and then how did it turn into this gorgeous book?
Chris: Sure. I think one of our fellow fellows, Kate Flowers-Rosner talked about action research being like a lighthouse in a storm, right? Like our teaching's this wild whirlwind, and we're always getting buffeted. She called it by the tyranny of the urgent. And so I was just trying to think what of all these issues I have to deal with and all the problems of practice, what one beam that I could kind of focus on. And for me that was revision, like you said. It's something I just kept coming back to. And so I wanted to take a hard look at it, and specifically the kind of driving question for me was the kids in my classroom who say, I like it the way it is.
Ellin: The words you never want to hear exactly.
Chris: Exactly. They're the groaning... like, oh gosh. I mean, it's funny, I heard them this week, right? Because what it means, however they say it, is that this work site's closed, there is no revision happening. And so what I noticed when we were doing the research with the fellows was just... I took a good look at that and it was happening. It happened across the spectrum of writers. You'd kind of maybe predict it with kids who typically struggled with writing. But I also noticed sometimes that came from kids who came to my room highly skilled and confident. And so I wanted to get at what was behind that resistance to revision and how could I get kids to embrace it and make revision meaningful, more meaningful to them and more engaging.
So that was the genesis of the whole thing. Through the research of the Heinemann fellows, I did a lot of kid watching, interviewing, and those were really rich. And obviously looking at kids' revision work. And I looked at tensions of my own teaching, which... that's what action research is all about, right?
Ellin: Exactly, exactly. Were there mentors? I know Don Murray shows up quite literally in your book, walks into your classroom in your book, but were there other mentors in the writing field that you turn to for kind of inspiration about revision? I mean, one of the things that struck me so much in reading your book is that we haven't talked a whole lot in this field about revision. Georgia Heard has done some lovely things, for example, but it's been a few years. I mean, this is a more or less untouched topic in writing.
Chris: It's interesting to hear you say that because I've been steeping... I've been marinating myself in this. So for me, I've thought there's so much out there, what am I going to say about this? But you you're right. Georgia Heard. was a huge inspiration. The revision toolbox. I'm looking at it right in front of me here. Carl Anderson is terrific at... I really looked closely at what he's written and have been fortunate to get to meet him and talk with him about conferring with kids. He's such an expert at that. Ralph Fletcher's work for sure. Barry Lane. His sort of after the end work was hugely inspirational. Just thinking of creative ways to get kids to dive back into revision and make it fun and joyful and playful. I mean, he, he like exudes joy.
Ellin: He does.
Chris: He does. And in the book I talk about a writing teacher I had way back in undergrad, Bruce Ballinger from... He's since at Boise State. But he was hugely influential at just looking at writing process. He was kind of a disciple of Don Murray and Graves and writing process, and kind of figuring out what you figuring out what you think by writing, through the writing. So, yeah.
Ellin: It's wonderful to hear. I think one of the things that was on my mind as I read it was the influence of Carol Dweck and the whole sort of new connection, for me at least, that you made between the mindset work and sort of the tradition of writing process. And I'm curious how you married those two.
Chris: Well, that's a great point because really the book's all about mindset, right? A lot of the revision work that I had seen and that I had steeped myself in was all about like the problems of the page. You're looking at the page and you're helping kids to identify... There's a lot of diagnosis. And I mean, I've been teaching for 20 years. So you're looking at trying to help kids to identify issues. And then I was thinking about it, and I was looking at Lucy Culkin saying, teach the writer, not the writing. And I realized I was looking kind of in the wrong place.
Ellin: That's important, right? Yeah.
Chris: Yeah. Hugely important. And I read Dweck's mindset work. And I just realized I had turned my gaze at the kids in front of me, and when I did that, and it was through action research, I felt like I was stumbling on a new definition of revision. I was seeing kids who were... yeah, kids who needed to of course learn craft moves and writing skills, but it was really the mindset that they brought with them that made them willing and open to revision. I was noticing kids enthusiasm to revise. Even the ones that weren't necessarily the ones that came with the most moves.
Ellin: Right. Exactly.
Chris: Sure, so I-
Ellin: You have a questionnaire where you ask kids, what are your current revision techniques? You have so many examples of kids saying, "I don't have any. Thank you."
Chris: Well, what was wild about that was realizing those kids actually did. They just couldn't identify them. And that sort of spoke to Georgia Heard's work of like showing kids what they had. But what I realized is some kids were very aware of what they were doing. One of the answers that I talk about one of the mindset stances is metacognition. And so the kids that were aware, not just at the end, but like throughout writing... like I'm trying this because this is my intention and I'm making decisions and I know I'm making decisions.
A lot of kids, you'd say, how's it going, to quote Carl Anderson. How's it going? And you'd get like a blank stare. Like, what do you mean? I'm just, this is just something I do. I don't think about what's happening. And of course you don't want kids overthinking. You want them in the flow of the writing. But metacognition was one of the things I noticed that some kids could do. And then I noticed kids who were really open to new approaches. And so that's where the stance of flexibility came from or thinking flexibly.
Ellin: And optimism. I'd love for you to talk through those stances. And I want to make a comment before I ask you to just briefly talk about each of the six stances. What I really loved about this book, Chris, is that you did something that I think we need to do more in education. You looked at examples of kids who were doing... Instead of studying all of the kids about whom we're worried, it seems to me that you benchmarked in a way you studied the kids who embraced the stances, right? And then used those examples to to help other kids be metacognitive, be flexible figures, be optimistic, change their perspectives, and so on. I love that. Looking at, as Katherine Bomer would say, the gems, the kids who really have already embraced those, but may not know it.
Chris: Actually, Bomer was a huge... her book Hidden Gems really was hugely influential too. It's lovely. And just thinking about it, it was... talk about optimism, right? It totally reframed the book when I, with other folks' help, just realizing, I need to look at these things I'm seeing right in front of me, these kids. And so that's kind of anchors the book each. Each chapter's anchored by a... starts with an anecdote about a kid who just embodies one of these mindset stances. And from looking at those kids, I just realized... I sort of backtracked and thought, how do we get there? How does that happen?
Ellin: That's it, exactly. Instead of looking at all the problems and trying to build out of that. So talk us through each of the stances just briefly.
Chris: So the first one you were mentioning, or we were talking about, was metacognition, and that idea of kids being aware of the decisions that they're making, or any writer for that matter what. What I'm trying, my writing moves, and why I'm trying them. So like, what's my intention? Why am I doing this? And I noticed that some kids would pay attention to these while they're writing. They would notice the... We kind of all do this when we're writing. What feels right. And what sounds a little off? When I feel energized by the writing and when it's falling flat, when I feel intrigued and confused. And of course we want kids to get in the flow of writing, but I noticed kids who could... When we were done with a quick write or something, kids that were pretty quickly aware of... When I said, how's it going or what's going well, they would be able to articulate that.
And that's something you can... All these stances are things you can consciously work at. The next one after metacognition was optimism. You mentioned that, and that's not like a pollyannish... like everything's rainbow flying off my pen, but the idea that we're going to build from what's working. The kids that could kind of focus on the strengths of a piece. Like we all do. You quick write or you write something and there's a piece of it that's great. And instead of focusing on its shortcomings, you're looking at what's working. And maybe that maybe that one sentence becomes the focus of the whole next draft.
Ellin: Wasn't that the chapter where you talked about self-bullying? That hit home for me. And if that's half happening to people who write routinely as adults, gosh, can you... our kids.
Chris: It's funny, Ellin. I was thinking of that today because that term self-bullying is from Chris Batty, who's part of novel writing. And Tom Newkirk mentioned that. And so I thought... Tom was talking about how vulnerable writing it and how we think our writing... we constantly compare ourselves with these revered authors. And I was thinking now, if Tom Newkirk is talking about this and people have written novels, of course writing's a vulnerable act. And if op optimism's kind of the key to all of it. We want to keep writing. What's going to keep us hopeful in writing? And so to me, that chapter... it's the longest chapter. And I think because there's so many things that keep us optimistic or that can crush us.
Ellin: Exactly. And then the idea of perspective taking... I had written in engaging children about perspective bending. So I couldn't wait to read that chapter because I was so interested to see how you'd handle this idea of how do we wear two hats at the same time.
Chris: It is like a dance. And I saw a lot of connections between your book and mine and that idea of that dance between I'm writing for me. But I'm also thinking about my audience and what they're going to get or not get and what's going to delight them or confuse them. And I did, I noticed kids who could kind of do that dance, and see their writing from another perspective, step into a reader's shoes. It's partly anticipation, right? So we anticipate oh, I think they're going to love this part or they're going to be delighted here or, hmm, I got to backtrack here because my reader's not going to know what I'm talking about. We see this in kids who sometimes tell stories, but don't realize the background information that we need for it to make sense. So that's that, yeah.
Ellin: Exactly. I just used one of your techniques yesterday with some fourth graders outside of Grand Rapids, which was... we can talk about offline, but it was so great. And they just, honestly, and you say this in the book, I think Chris.. they haven't been asked to think about audience.
Chris: Right. Well, exactly. Even just asking kids, who's your audience for this? Of course they're going to look at you like, what are you talking about? Because they've never been asked to have an audience. There may not be a real audience for their writing. I've done this too, where sometimes it's an audience of one. Me, the teacher, right?
Ellin: That's what they said. So this kid finally raised his hand and said, "Mrs Shelner?" Like, no. Let's... yeah.
Chris: But again, like even just saying, well, let's brainstorm who could be the audience. Today, I was sharing a piece of my writing with my students, and they were like, "Did you write this for your daughter?" And I said, "Absolutely. It's an audience kind of for just her." And sometimes the audience... We were writing COVID quarantine journals last year and kids were sort of saying, "I think a lot of other kids could relate to this." And they were imagining like adolescence around the world... this is their audience. And sometimes it is an audience of one. I had kids who wrote civic action letters two years ago to then-President Trump demanding climate change. And they were, they were very much aware of all right, if I'm going to write to this person, here's what I have to keep in mind.
Ellin: Exactly, exactly. I think that's very powerful. In the early days of writing process, we used to talk all the time about audience and purpose and somehow those have faded into deep background. I'm very glad to see them resurrected here. Talk to us a little bit about flexible thinking, because this I think is, maybe, I don't know, of all of the stances, the one that I'm most challenged with in working with young writers/
Chris: It's a big one because these are the students who could hold off on saying, "I'm done." We all get that, like, I'm done, what's next? And these are kids who could remain open to new ideas and approaches, and feedback. It's sort of the kids who could be curious to try something new. It takes a little bit of confidence and it takes a humility to recognize it's okay if I get an idea from someone else and I can still make it my own. It's not easy. It's the one a lot of us do struggle with. So I have a lot of hopefully practical suggestions for just ways to... What I've found is even making students aware of these stances, like just telling... Like kids, not just kids, adults sometimes have to get reminders that it's important to stay flexible; if I stay flexible, some great things might happen that I hadn't anticipated.
Ellin: Well, and you bring up at one point, I think it's earlier in the book that Dweck actually said, sometimes being just aware of mindset or just being aware of something like flexible thinking is enough to sort of open up those channels for kids.
Chris: That was actually one of my hugest revelations when we were doing the action research, was just letting kids know that we were doing research and letting them know like, oh, I'm discovering these mindsets. They start seeing them everywhere. As a teacher, if you take on the book, you'll start seeing them everywhere in your students. But making your students aware of them is hugely powerful because they would say things like, "I think I need to be a little more optimistic about this and look for a line here." And it's not about teaching them jargon. These are life skills. Being a little bit flexible, thinking from someone else's point of view, taking another perspective. These are huge life skills.
Ellin: I mean, I've always sort of struggled with that. Are we teaching them adult language? And I've really come to a resolution in my own mind about that/ When we can, as you say, notice and name something that they're doing anyway, but give that the actual language, the more technical or professional or evolved language around it, it totally opens up new lines of communication. It's like helping them to articulate something that's in their mind anyway, but that they don't yet know how to name.
Chris: They know all of these. Like when they articulate them they, or when they're articulated, they'll nod and understand all of them. So...
Ellin: Yeah, yeah. And then transfer is another big one that I've done a lot of thinking about. I'm actually writing a book right now that you really helped me with in this book, Chris, so thank you very much for that, because I'm writing a book about the integration of reading and writing. And so this was a great chapter for me.
Chris: Yeah, that's what it's all about, the idea that we all have these skills and we have craft moves we've learned from the earliest ages. And again, in metacognition, we talked about how sometimes we're not aware of them, but sometimes when we've learned them, we sometimes need reminders to intentionally reuse them or recycle them. And we've all had that frustration as teachers thinking, you learned this, I'm pretty sure you learned this. But it's getting kids to kind of key into those things that they know, being a little bit aware of them, but also consciously like recycling them and transferring them to a new piece.
Or sometimes they'll think, well, this is something I do with stories or narratives, and you can tell them, "Yeah, well with a slight twist, this could easily be a lead for a poem." Or you've learned about how to give feedback on this and you can certainly use those same skills here.
Ellin: Finally, the risk taking stance that you write so beautifully about... I think about you a lot, working with middle grade kids. I think I find very young kids far more willing to take risks, honestly. And I was working with some seventh graders this week and I've got to tell you, it was like fulling teeth. The way they protect themselves, which I understand the need to do, that sometimes stands in their way in terms of taking risks as writers.
Chris: It's a huge one because I'm now in eighth grade, Ellin. So I teach eighth grade now, so I hear you loud and clear. When I taught younger grades, as you said, less so. The kids are more likely to put themselves right out there. And it's just what happens in upper middle school and in middle grades. Their kids are a little less likely to play and stretch beyond what they can do. The great thing about this research and hopefully this book is it's a reminder to us as teachers... like writing is a challenge, right? After interviewing kids I thought, wow, the fact that we revise that all is shocking. Like there's so many... The first chapter I talk about a lot of the obstacles, and one of them is it is a vulnerable act. And we are uncertain if we can pull it off. It's a bit of a high wire act sometimes. And we do need to experiment and that's not easy to do. So just being aware of that and letting kids know, I know this is hard...
Ellin: I think what stood out for me and you don't highlight this specifically, but it the conditions you've so clearly created in your classroom, Chris, that I think make that risk taking possible for middle grades kids, for older kids who are so, so concerned about how they present to their peers. I would've loved to have had a chapter on how I create these kinds of relationships, how I create this kind of community spirit really in my classroom, but you're a master at that. And I get that from reading this book. What are some of the things that you really try to take into account when you're thinking at the beginning of the year, especially about creating a community that will encourage risk taking?
Chris: We were just talking about this today because sometimes you jump in too quick and you realize, oh, they're not ready for this risk yet. So sort of a gradual release of responsibility in some ways, like giving kids a... helping them feel safe. For example we were giving some feedback early this fall and I thought let's just keep it... I call it kudos only. Like let's keep it at just positives. And for a variety of kind of strange reasons, sometimes kids buck that. They want to feel like adult by... I had a kid say, "We need to be blunt with our feedback." And when they say feedback, they think it means like let's really... let's give criticism. And then I said, "Let's hold back. Let's hold up a second. Let's talk about the reasons that we might, it might help to hear positives. It's not just fluff."
And we talked about having something be specific and be honest. And we talked about how if someone can identify something specific in their piece, maybe a craft move they've even just tried, or certainly the knock the ball out of the park successes, but even the ones that are just the almost saids. We can do it again. We can do it in another piece or recreate it in this piece. And just kind of finding ways to create by... So starting kind of slow before we jumped into more constructive feedback. And then we moved on to... Barry Lane does a thing called story circles, where you read a piece and just ask questions, just questions because you're interested and that can generate writing.
And so as far as feedback, those are some ways that I just sort of ease them in. Today, we are just starting to approach some suggestions. We were talking about what ifs and I said a suggestion that's like, you need to change your ending is a lot different than, what if you tried changing your ending. So we were looking at the language that we use.
Ellin: Beautiful, beautiful. It's a beautiful difference. I just have to point out that we're taping on November 12th and you are just getting to the point where that feedback is working, which tells me you've had a good, healthy, almost three months of creating those conditions and the climate where kids trust each each other and you enough to be flexible thinkers and to be able to be optimistic in the face of feedback.
Chris: It's also been a hard year. And kids have actually voiced, articulated how it's challenging to be back together. And so I'm going pretty slow, and and I think it's going to pay huge dividends. That's generally how I operate. Let's make sure we have these kind of structures down and how we're going to treat one another, and have it come from kids. And so it feels a little slow, but I also feel like it's really important.
Ellin: Right, and I want to say probably we could all learn in more typical years from this year, because I think... I see educators around the country and you are certainly a leader among them, Chris, of leading gently in this time. There has to be a sort of recognition of how tender we all are. And I mean, you have always stood out as one of the most gentle leaders that I really have ever known. And that just seeps into every cell of this book. I love it so much because it's so you as a teacher. It has a million practical ideas. I've already been trying them and that's wonderful. But it also has that sort of sensibility that you bring to your work that is powerful and strong and simultaneously gentle. And I think that's what we all need. That's why I teach think teachers are just going to devour this book.
Chris: Well thanks, Ellin. I would love that. And I love that... One of the things I'm proud of in the book is it just has a lot of my students in it. It just exudes kids, right? I hope it is really practical. I think there are a lot of strategies people can pull in, but pull into their existing practice. Like it's not like a program you have to take on, or you can keep keep in the same structures. All the practices are mini lessons. We already do many lessons. So you could try this mini lesson to help kids be a little more flexible. And yeah, gentle with ourselves too, because one thing I... At the end of the book, it ends with sort of a final word where I just sort of mention this isn't like a program to do in completion, but a smorgasbord to kind of sample from, as we're just trying to change a little something in our practice. So it's just an invitation to do that.
Chris Hall teaches language arts at Oyster River Middle School in Durham, NH. Over the past 20 years he has taught in urban, suburban, public, independent, and international schools, where he has helped young writers find authentic purpose, build community, and discover the power of their own words. Chris served as a Heinemann Fellow, researching innovative writing practices within a cohort of dynamic educators from across the country.
You can find him on Twitter at @CHallTeacher
Ellin Oliver Keene has been a classroom teacher, staff developer, non-profit director, and adjunct professor of reading and writing. For sixteen years she directed staff development initiatives at the Denver-based Public Education & Business Coalition. She served as Deputy Director and Director of Literacy and Staff Development for the Cornerstone Project at the University of Pennsylvania for four years. Ellin works with schools and districts throughout the country and abroad with an emphasis on long-term, school-based professional development and strategic planning for literacy learning.
Ellin is author of Engaging Children: Igniting a Drive for Deeper Learning (2018), is co-editor and co-author of The Teacher You Want to Be: Essays about Children, Learning, and Teaching (Heinemann, 2015), as well as many other Heinemann titles.
Ellin is a Heinemann PD provider, presenting One-Day Workshops, Webinars Series, and all forms of On-Site PD. She is most sought after for her long-term professional development residencies in partnership with Heinemann Professional Development.
Follow Ellin on Twitter @EllinKeene