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Dedicated to Teachers

Remembering George Hillocks, Jr. 1934–2014

Heinemann Publishing is sad to learn of the passing of one of our authors, George Hillocks, Jr., on November 12, 2014. A lifelong educator, George championed “environmental instruction,” an approach that placed equal value and significance on the student, teacher, and curriculum. Teaching Argument Writing, his second of two books published with Heinemann, offered a timely wisdom cultivated over fifty years in the service of teaching and learning.

George’s longtime colleague and fellow author Michael Smith wrote the foreword to 2011’s Teaching Argument Writing. Here now is Smith’s foreword in its entirety, as a tribute to George Hillocks, Jr. and his life’s work.


Let me start with a confession. I started working with George Hillocks thirty-six years ago. (Yikes!) He has been by far the most powerful influence on my thinking and teaching for all of those years. You know in cartoons sometimes how a character is pictured with a miniature self standing on his or her shoulder and acting as a conscience? I don’t have a miniature version of myself standing on my shoulder. No, my teaching conscience has always been George. He’s been whispering in my ear the whole time, even when I’ve wanted him to shut up.

George’s genius as a teacher is his ability to create contexts that push his students to do more serious and significant work than they thought possible—and to take pleasure in the doing. I remember how, week after week, after a three-hour seminar my fellow master’s students and I would stand in the hall continuing the discussion of a problem George had posed, unwilling to give up our conversation. I’ve thought long and hard about how he did it. George is not a flashy teacher. He doesn’t dress up in costumes and give passionate and eloquent lectures. He doesn’t lecture at all. What he does is think about the questions most worth asking, develop activities to encourage his students to grapple with those questions, and then listen hard and respectfully to the results of his students’ grappling. I’ve come to think that that respect is at the heart of George’s teaching. He listens to his students harder and better than anyone I know. I’ve experienced how much of an incentive it is to come up with something worth listening to.

And what’s especially amazing is that George’s model of instruction works not only with graduate students at the University of Chicago but also with the middle and high school students George continued to teach throughout his entire career as a university professor. We see those kids in this book. We see their deep engagement in high-level thinking. We see the passion that they bring to their writing. We see just how much fun those kids and their teachers (George included) must have had working together on such complex and engaging problems. As I read, I was carried along with George’s carefully observed narration of classroom vignettes. As I read, I witnessed the intellectual growth of the students in a way that resembles how I experience the growth of a character in a riveting short story.

Ironically, the strength of the narratives is the cause of my only real worry about the book. I fear that the pull of the stories is so strong that readers may think, “How could it be otherwise?” But the truth is, it is otherwise in most writing classrooms around the country. So I want to highlight what I see as the four central components of George’s radical educational agenda, an agenda that I hope will be more fully realized because of the power of this book.

Perhaps most significantly, this book displays the power of what George (1986) has called environmental instruction, that is, a kind of instruction in which the students, teacher, and curricular materials are equally important as instructional resources. It seems to me that discussion of literacy education often features critiques of teacher-centered instruction. George himself cites foundational research that demonstrates that in so many classrooms students are bored and apathetic observers of their teachers’ activity. What’s offered up in its stead is student-centered instruction. George has been a champion for students for his whole career, but as he clearly establishes in this book, simply providing the opportunity for student activity is not enough. Students must be supported in taking on their central role by teachers who systematically analyze their students’ needs, who carefully articulate specific goals so students can reflect on their success in achieving them, and who devise engaging and carefully sequenced instructional materials that both teach students crucial procedural knowledge and reward them for employing that knowledge in meaningful social activity.

Another commonplace aspect in contemporary discussions of teaching writing is that the only way for a student to learn to write is to write. And indeed, in the classrooms that George portrays in this book students do plenty of writing. But what those portrayals also make clear is that students can learn to write by talking together while working through problems that provide rehearsals for the kind of thinking they will have to do when they are composing. The importance of this insight is hard to overstate, especially in the urban contexts in which George has done so much of his work. It has always baffled me to read findings of the National Assessment of Educational Progress that say that American adolescents can’t argue effectively. Have they ever spent any time with adolescents, I’ve wondered. They’re arguing all the time. What George clearly demonstrates in this book is that that ability to talk can be—no must be—a crucially important resource teachers deploy in service of students’ academic writing. Over the years I’ve heard many teachers say, “My kids can’t write.” I have yet to hear a teacher say, “My kids can’t talk.” What that means is we have no excuse. If our kids can’t write, it’s on us, for they bring to our classes their incredibly valuable experience as effective talkers. What we need to do is make good use of it.

If kids are to be engaged in their writing, they have to write what they care about. I think George would agree. The way that this idea most often plays out is through exhortations to let kids choose their topics and through suggestions that personal narratives hold the most promise for fostering interest. If you’ve read George’s latest book (2006), you know how deeply he cares about narratives. I think he’d agree that kids enjoy writing about their lives. But what this book proves is that teachers can create interest. That is, students do not have to be interested in a topic before one begins to teach it. Instead George believes that we can foster students’ interest through our teaching. That’s important because it allows teachers to engage students in flow experiences in the present even as they are preparing students do the kind of writing they need to do to be successful on future high-stakes tests and academic assignments.

Finally, as I read, I was struck by the length of the engagements students had with a particular kind of argument. When I taught high school, I taught a senior writing class whose curriculum focused on describing a process in week one, writing a personal narrative in week two, writing a comparison/contrast paper in week three, and so on and so on. I don’t think that my experience is too far from the norm even today, except in the amount of writing the course required students to do. How many schools require students to do a single research paper, for example? What we see in this book is what happens when students get extended practice in doing particular kinds of thinking and writing. I can’t think of a single time in my life when I’ve learned something complex in a single go-round. I’ve been playing tennis for nearly fifty years and I still double-fault too darn often.

Remember when I said that George has been standing on my shoulder for the last thirty-six years whispering into my ear? This is what he’s been saying: “Have you thought hard enough, Michael, about just what you want your students to do? Have you collected enough data to help you understand them and to reflect on your teaching? Have you written activities that engage them in doing the particular kinds of thinking they’ll need to do when they write? Are you listening to them hard enough? Are you having fun together? Have you given them enough practice?’

And this is what I hope: that your reading this book will cause him to whisper in your ear as well.

--Michael W. Smith, 2011.

Topics: George Hillocks Jr., Heinemann, Michael Smith, Teaching Argument Writing

Date Published: 11/14/14

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