The Writer’s Mindset Foreword: Room 201 by Linda Rief
In the Fall of 2019, a few months into the school year, I stopped in at the middle school, wandering down the hall to see my former colleagues and Chris Hall, now the eighth-grade teacher in Room 201. When I stepped through the door, my door, all eyes turned to me. Twenty-plus eighth graders stared at me. Who is this person? What is she doing here? I stared back at them: Who are you? What are you doing here? This is my room. It was one of my rooms for more than forty years in this building. Heads bent back into their writing. Room 201. This was their room, with their teacher, Mr. Hall.
Chris Hall. I couldn’t have been happier that he was taking over for me. He is a positive, compassionate, intelligent, energetic educator who brings both idealism and realism to all that he does. He is a person of the highest integrity, who still makes me proud to be a fellow teacher.
Almost twenty-five years ago Chris interned with me. He was my partner from the moment he stepped into the classroom. He worked tirelessly to plan, share, and reshape ideas with me. He integrated new content and techniques into numerous existing curricula designs. His awareness of the diversity needed in content, in strategies, in techniques, and in learning styles for adolescents was, and still is, so impressive. He brought a vibrancy to the classroom that I see carried into this book.
Chris views the world as his classroom, always noticing things that intrigue him and that might capture the attention of his students. I recall one example during his internship that vividly illustrates his thinking and actions as a teacher and as a human being.
We were studying the Holocaust through the lens of children and what happens when they have few to no choices in their lives. “I know so little about this,” Chris said. “I need to know more.” He researched a weeklong fellowship at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., applied, was accepted, and learned all he could about this horrific time period.
A few months later, when he returned from winter break after visiting Philadelphia, he couldn’t wait to tell me about a chance meeting with Isaiah Zagar, an artist who had covered a block of buildings in ceramic tile and looping ribbons of mirror—whole buildings, five stories high, were now mosaic art pieces. For a day, Chris apprenticed himself to Isaiah to learn what he was doing.
For Chris, always the learner, always wanting to know more, he connected these two experiences and couldn’t wait to share with his students.
“What if we figure out how to build a mosaic in conjunction with studies of the Holocaust?” Chris suggested. His excitement was energizing and contagious. We spent the entire last quarter of that year working on writing, reading, listening to guest speakers who had survived the horrors of a death camp, and constructing a four-by-eight–foot mosaic that represented what students had learned about the Holocaust and other human rights issues. The experience was challenging yet invigorating. All the kids were engaged and changed by what they had learned. It would not have happened without Chris.
By reading Chris’ book, you are apprenticing yourself to him. He will become your colleague, your partner, as he so thoughtfully and so unpretentiously describes what you might try with your students to help them see how to make their writing better.
In our middle school department meetings, we often looked to Chris for guidance as a collaborator as we developed and reframed curricula. I constantly nudged Chris to write a book. “Other teachers need to hear how you’ve enhanced and reshaped ideas from all you’ve learned and tried I your classroom . . . I need your book.” And now he has done it: The Writer’s Mindset: Six Stances That Promote Authentic Revision.
Essentially, the book focuses on revision—the heart of what makes writing powerful and compelling. But this book is about so much more. It is about helping our students develop the mindsets essential to writers who learn and grow with each other and from each other. The mindsets that Chris describes here, so eloquently and clearly, drive students deeper into their thinking and writing. He teaches them, and us, how to think like writers by noticing and paying attention to what they do during the process of crafting a piece of writing. Metacognition—how do you know what you know?
As Chris articulates in this book, “Students embracing metacognition become aware of their own reactions to their drafts and their own writing moves.” When students develop this mindset, they are internalizing the kinds of things they might try, or might avoid, in another piece of writing. They are moving their writing forward.
Rethinking one’s writing also comes from reading like a writer—noticing that the writer did something that influenced you, the reader—making you wonder and ask, how’d she do that? I’d like to try that in my own writing. A mindset that further helps students develop as writers.
Chris demonstrates how seemingly small, but hugely meaningful, shifts in our beliefs and practices make a difference in the writing lives of our students. Accessible and sensible ideas that move kids as writers from “I like it the way it is” to “I tried using the first person I to make it more personal, and I changed all the verbs to the present tense. I feel like it says what I want it to say so much better. . . . I’m really proud of all I did to make this my best writing yet.”
Roald Dahl once said, “By the time I am nearing the end of a story, the first part will have been reread and altered and corrected at least one hundred and fifty times. I am suspicious of both facility and speed. Good writing is essentially rewriting. I am positive of this” (Heard 2002).
“Suspicious of both facility and speed.” Chris agrees. Revision that promotes growth is not about speed or compliance or coercion. Authentic revision takes time and comes from developing a personal desire, an enthusiasm to make what one wants to say the best it can be. Revision comes from recognizing and understanding, for oneself, why a piece of writing is meaningful and significant to the writer. And like an athlete or musician, we get better with practice, learning the moves and techniques with more facility by writing again and again.
Chris seamlessly weaves in two essential ideas that remain central to my thinking as an educator: we must write with our students, and we must model our thinking aloud as we write.
It is worth repeating: we must write with our students, and we must model our thinking aloud as we write. When our students see us as writers, they trust us when we point out what they did well. They consider our questions to them as legitimate curiosity. They take our suggestions seriously. This is central to Chris’ book developing a mindset for authentic revision for ourselves, as well as our students.
As I read Chris’ thinking, it strikes me again and again—we must make the time to talk with each other about our beliefs, our ideas, our practices, and our wonderings. These discussions are the most important conversations we have. Yet, if that doesn’t happen as often as we would like, we must ask those questions of ourselves and of our students.
Chris made time for these conversations by doing action research and working with colleagues as a Heinemann Fellow in 2017. He looked closely at one aspect of teaching writing that really concerned him—revision. He asked himself if his teaching practices sparked a culture of revision, or if he was “unintentionally feeding revision resistance.” Reading Chris’ words makes me realize there is so much I could have done differently in Room 201 to move students forward in their writing. We cannot, we must not, become complacent and satisfied that what we are doing, and how we are doing it, is the best we have to offer our students. Even those of us who write books for other teachers must admit that as a book goes to print, we have already begun to rethink and revise our teaching mindsets.
This is exactly who Chris is: the reflective practitioner who acts on what he learns from his students, from other professionals, from his experiences with adolescent writers, and as a writer himself.
I stepped out of the classroom in June of 2019. Forty years as a learner, most of it with eighth graders. I miss their energy and their complacency, their curiosity and their boredom, their maturity and their childishness, their confidence and their insecurities.
On that last week of school, I was still trying to get through to my student, Leah, who gave some reading and writing her best effort, and other times shrugged off everything. “I’m still worried about you,” I said. “What could I have done differently to make it better for you?” She gave me her best eighth grade stance: hand on the hip, head bent into a rhetorical question mark, eyes shifting in resigned boredom from me to the ceiling, from the ceiling to me, from me to the ceiling. With the collective sigh of hundreds of eighth graders, she said: “It’s hard working with teenagers, isn’t it?”
You bet it is, I thought, and I loved every minute of it.
Chris Hall stepped into Room 201 in August of 2019 wanting to learn from eighth graders. I wish I was still there, trying so many of the things I learned from him as I read this book. You are still in the classroom. How lucky you and your students are as you learn how to develop the stances central to a mindset for growing your writing and the writing of your students with Chris as your guide. You will understand what Naomi Shihab Nye means when she says: “Now I see revision as a beautiful word of hope. It’s a new vision of something. It means you don’t have to be perfect the first time. What a relief!” (Heard 2002).
Learn more about The Writer's Mindset at Heienmann.com.
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.