Linda Rief is always teaching. She has inspired thousands to lead students on a journey to becoming lifelong readers and writers. In her book Read Write Teach, Linda offers the what, how, and why of a year’s worth of reading and writing for middle and high school students with a comprehensive and flexible framework. The title, Read Write Teach means a lot to Linda. She says it reflects how much her students teach her everyday.
See below for a full transcript of our conversation:
Linda Rief: I wanted the title to this book to really be a strong title saying that we are reading together as teacher and students, we are writing together as teacher and students, but there are times when we are teaching each other something very specific. I think coming up with the title for this meant as much to me as what the content was of the book. That even though we're working together as learners, we are also teaching each other, so I meant it to be, I may be teaching the kids ostensibly, but I know every day, when I walk into that classroom, they're teaching me also.
I think that's where choice plays such an important role, that we recognize those choices that kids make as moments for teaching us. Every year we rethink what we're doing with kids and every year, no matter how long I've been teaching, the kids are different, so I would be learning something new from those kids every single year, and just think to myself, "That's really something that teachers need to think about" or, "I need to be able to share this with them." I always was kind of pushing it off a little bit saying, "I have to weave that in somehow" so it took a bit longer.
Brett: How do you know then, when you're writing and you're evolving and you're going through that process, how do you know when it's done or do you ever know that it's done?
Linda Rief: I don't think it ever is done. Don Murray always used to say, "Just spend it all. Write everything you have say and don't save anything for later" but I also know that the minute you think you're done with something, there's already a lot that comes later that you just didn't have a chance to include or it wasn't in your thinking at that very moment, so it is constantly changing. Knowing it's done, deadlines help. It helps immensely whether I'm writing an article for something ... You just have the say to yourself, "I have to be done with this. I can't keep looking at this and be worried that it's not done. It's done for the moment." I try to say to kids also, "Hand me your best draft" because best draft doesn't mean it's the final draft. I used to always say to the kids, "The final draft" but I would see something in it and I would give a little bit more feedback until finally one young woman gave it to me, and at the top of it she had written, "This is my final, final, final draft." So you know when it's done.
Brett: On that note, you do write with your students and you teach them to live like a writer. What can teachers discover about their own writing through this process?
Linda Rief: You know, I asked the kids even last week, because I'm trying to write an article now for Voices about teacher as a writer, and I said, "In what way does my writing impact your writing or your reading?" Ironically there were a lot of kids who said to me, "Well, we know you're right, but it doesn't really have that much of an impact on it" but then there were quite a pocket of kids who said, "How could you not be writing with us? We trust that you're giving us feedback because you're a writer yourself and you know the feedback that helps you." Equating it also with a coach or a musician, that how can you be teaching something to kids if you haven't participated in the process? Just from my own perspective, if the kids themselves don't see or can't somehow articulate what it is that helps them to know that I write, that I think it helps me to know what would help them. Does that ... sound too confusing?
Brett: No. That makes sense.
Linda Rief: It just, I know what gets me to move my writing forward, and so I know if I can use that same process with kids to help them move their writing forward, I wouldn't know that if I wasn't writing, but they know I keep a notebook and that's really important to them seeing that I value that notebook also so I can look back for ideas. I think it does have an impact.
Brett: So it's really living that process with ...
Linda Rief: Absolutely. Absolutely. One of the kids, Emma, at the beginning of the year ... I don't know. Somehow. Maybe three to four weeks into every year, somebody will look me up on Google. All of a sudden one of the kids went, "Oh my god. Do you know how many pictures there are of you on the internet?" I went, "Well, yeah. There are a few." Immediately 25 kids all gathered around this one computer. They're all looking and Emma goes, "You wrote that book? You wrote all those books? You are not a fake teacher."
Brett: How did you respond?
Linda Rief: She didn't mean that to be mean to either me or any other teacher.
Brett: It was a very honest response.
Linda Rief: She just meant to say, I believe she just meant to say, "You are what you teach. You actually participate in this process that you're trying to see, you're trying to help us make the best that it can be."Linda Rief: I don't think we all have to be published authors, but I think we have to go through some of the process the kids go through. When we're doing quick writes, I can't sit there collecting money for books that they're buying through Scholastic or some other source, but I certainly can be doing the quick write with them and show them that there are many, many times that that's how I come to writing myself.
Brett: Let's actually talk about quick writes. You do write about it in Read Write Teach about how effective it is. I know, having attended your workshops, that it's a favorite of people who attend. They love your quick writes, so why are they so effective with your students? What makes them so effective with your students?
Linda Rief: I think what happens for the kids is many, many kids will come in to a classroom and say, "I have nothing to write about." They think nothing exciting has ever happened in their lives, but I started thinking about 15, 18 years ago. I read something in one of the Don Murray's books where he said, "Write fast without thinking about it." I thought, "It's got to be more than just a free write." What if, particularly for these kids who struggle the most that I see just staring into space when I say, "Write for five minutes," what if I put up a piece of writing that was short and complete, and gave them an idea?
I'm picking pieces of writing that are short enough that I think they can connect to and saying, "Borrow a line and just write off that line no matter where it leads you." I'm giving them something to hold on to and I think that's why it's so effective with the kids. They don't know they're going to write about that when they come in the room, but they see the possibilities because I'm trying to connect them to that one line that they can build off. Ralph Fletcher has said to me, he calls it, "Riding the wave of someone else's words." By the time you take that to a next draft and a next draft you can get rid of the line that you borrowed or the line that you took from somebody else's writing because now you're working on your own.
Brett: You say that a Writer's-Reader's Notebook is at the core of everything you expect from your students. Why is that so important?
Linda Rief: I just truly believe they need to save what they're thinking, and if they've got no place to save it, they've got no place to look back on it and say, "Wow. Where did that come from? I'm going to use that idea" ... The notebook just becomes this treasury of saved ideas that you don't know on Monday that you might be using that on Thursday, but if you haven't saved it somewhere, there's nothing to look back on. The other thing that I think it does, it lets kids really value and teachers value their words. As you're collecting them, you're saying to them, "You know, even if you think this is not going anywhere, I value what you have to say and I value what you're thinking, and you may not know where you're going to end up with this, but at least we've got it collected here somewhere."
That's why it's just so important for them to keep some kind of notebook or journal. Not a diary because they're going to be sharing it with me and sharing it with peers, but a place to collect that thinking on a daily basis. Also you have to do a lot of writing to get some good writing, and so I want them to have this volume of writing that they're working from.
Brett: It seems to me it also values the time for writing too.
Linda Rief: Absolutely. Yeah. It also gives them place because the other thing, they're doing the quick writes in there, so they're saving those. They're also responding to the reading that they're doing, so they begin to see the connections too, and I'm saying to them, "What do you notice the writer does? What are the craft moves that this writer make in this particular book that you might try in some of your writing?" It's just trying to marry reading and writing in a significant way, but in an informal way.
Brett: How do you approach a student who's reluctant to the idea of the Writers-Readers Notebook?
Linda Rief: There are a number of students, who they don't like keeping them. I mean, it's showing them mine. It's showing them other kids' notebooks. I don't know. It's this constant prompting that this is your material that you're going to use at a later date to work from, and if we don't start saving it, you are going to have a hard time finding the writing and the thinking that you'd like to build on. It's constantly talking to the kids too. We're doing drawing in there. I've certainly knelt down next to kids who have never wanted to write in that notebook for the first few weeks of the year, and said, "Tell me what you're thinking. Just tell me and I'll write it for you" and handed back to them. One of the kids a few years ago, and this is what keeps me doing this with the kids also, is that I knelt down next to him, and he'd been blank for the whole week. He just sat there staring. He couldn't even pull a line from something to write from. I said, "Well, tell me what you're thinking. What about that line? Tell me what that brings to mind to you?" He told me and it was terrific. I wrote it down. I handed it to him in his notebook. He looked at it and he read it and he went, "You are such a good writer." I said, "No. Those are your words." So they don't believe it. I think if we can make them believe that they've got good things to say in a unique way ... Maybe it takes kneeling down next to them for a couple of days in a row to show them that.
Brett: Where do they lose that confidence?
Linda Rief: I think part of that is lost when previous years, everything they've had to say is corrected. We're looking at mechanics and conventions, and not the heart of what they have to say, and valuing their thinking more than we're valuing the mechanics. I mean, I care that a final draft, if something is polished and done well, but I want them to first know that they've got important things to say that they can put into writing. If they don't believe they've got anything important to say, they're not going to build on that. The other thing, though, I think is I'm still stymied that we continue to give kids topics to write about. You and I both know that if you hand me some mundane topic, arbitrary topic, I'm going to have a really hard time writing about it.
Linda Rief: I think far too often kids are given the topics to write about instead of being given some choices. I mean, I think I give kids choices, but very often within a frame because it maybe that we're looking at memoir or a personal narrative, a personal essay, and I'm asking them to attempt that, but I'm not giving them the topic within that genre. The same thing with the persuasive piece. I'm not giving them ... How do you persuade somebody to anything if it isn't something you feel strongly about? So within that frame, even also under the constraints of what we have to do sometimes in schools, there can be a lot of choices. Same thing with books. With the reading they do ... Kids can fake their way through a book in every single way you can imagine, but if you can give them choices about what they're reading and start to offer them some possibilities in book talks, then I think they're actually reading.
Brett: One thing, helping students realize that they do have opinions worth writing about, you talk about, "Vote with your feet." I love this idea of "Vote with your feet." Can you talk a little bit about what that is?
Linda Rief: Actually, the intern that I had three years ago, Emily, said, "Let's bring this into the classroom" because she had heard about, "Vote with your feet." I'm not even sure where she learned that, but we were talking about doing persuasive argument writing with the kids, and every one of them said, "I have nothing I care so deeply about I could argue with." We got talking and said, "What if we just brought in five or six topics ourselves that we think they could connect and we know full well they have a very strong opinion about it."
The voting with your feet was just, okay, if you strongly agree with this topic that we tossed out into the classroom, you stand on the right side of the room and if you disagree with it, stand on the left side, and if you're way in the back, it's because you're not quite as vehement about it as if you're standing right in the front. I am really not in favor of this. We talked about and asked them to explain just while they were on two sides of the room why you agree with this, why you disagree with this? Before we were done in this 20 minutes, every one of the kids had had a very strong opinion about five or six different topics. It just helped us step into what are some other topics that you feel strongly about, so it was moving, but also giving them something to hold on to as they moved.
Linda Rief left the classroom (reluctantly) in June of 2019 after 40 years of teaching Language Arts with eighth graders. She misses their energy, their curiosity, and their desire to read and write. She has file folders filled with the thinking of these adolescents and will continue to share all she has learned from them through writing and speaking. She is an instructor in the University of New Hampshire's Summer Literacy Institute and a national and international presenter on issues of adolescent literacy. Her newest book is The Quickwrite Handbook: 100 Mentor Texts to Jumpstart Your Students' Thinking and Writing. She is also the author or co-editor of numerous Heinemann titles, including Read Write Teach; Inside the Writer's-Reader's Notebook; Vision and Voice; and Seeking Diversity. She is a co-editor with Kylene Beers and Robert Probst of Adolescent Literacy. For five years she co-edited with Maureen Barbieri Voices from the Middle, a journal for middle school teachers published by the National Council of Teachers of English, and for an additional ten years continued to write a column for the journal.
Follow Linda on Twitter @LindaMRief.