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Ken Macrorie: Teacher and Truth Teller

The closest I came to a life-changing teacher is someone I knew only through his writing. The name of this teacher is Ken Macrorie, and his books Uptaught, Writing to be Read, Telling Writing, and The I-Search Paper are some of my favorites. What he says in these texts has changed the way I think about writing and learning. Here are a few of the things that I’ve learned from him:

  • “Engfish” is a name given to the bloated, lifeless, pretentious writing that has been seen in schools for years.
  • A writing program should include exploratory free writing, positive reactions to this writing, a giving and sharing classroom atmosphere, the need to recapture the intensity and liveliness of childhood writing.
  • Effective instruction should alternate between having students writing freely and learning the discipline and craft of writing.
  • A writer must make discoveries that matter to him as he works; otherwise, he will bore himself and his reader.
  • All good writers speak in honest voices and tell the truth.
  • The traditional research paper is “a triumph of meaninglessness”—for both writer and reader.

Macrorie is part philosopher, part rhetorician, part lover of good writing, part caring individual. He displays a sense of humor, an open mind, and a great deal of professional integrity. He is, as far as I know, one of the first in a distinguished line of researcher/practitioners (think Nancie Atwell, Linda Rief, etc.), developing and refining his instruction while working with student writers. A hallmark of Macrorie’s books is the compelling student examples, all the result of his approach to writing instruction. The man clearly backs up what he preaches.

I love how Macrorie cuts through the BS you typically find in guides to instruction. He has no patience with manuals that insist on the importance of following formulas, of assuming an appropriate level of objectivity, of parsing sentences, and so on. Everything he says addresses the essence of effective writing, from writing about what you know to recapturing your childlike imagination. But it may be his approach to research that has meant the most to me. Instead of have students slog through pointless research papers, he proposes that they develop I-Search papers, which are researching adventures that genuinely engage young learners. (See The I-Search Paper.)

In my own writing (in our handbooks), there are three people that I quote more than any others: Donald Murray, William Zinsser, and Ken Macrorie. Here are a few of my favorite Macrorie quotations:

  • “If you’re freewriting well, you’ll concentrate so hard on truth telling and write so fast you’ll put yourself in a kind of trance, like that state between waking and sleep…when a gaggle of good ideas or memories come together for you.”
  • “Good writing is formed partly through plan and partly through accident.”
  • “Comment on what you like in the writing. If it contains things you don’t like, refrain from commenting on them. What you say must be honest, but you don’t have to say everything you feel.”
  • “The discipline of real learning consists of The Self and The Others flowing into each other.”

NCTE reported that Ken Macrorie has recently passed away, pointing to an obituary in the Las Cruces Sun-News. I’m sure that I am joined by many others who are saddened by this announcement. Since the late 60s, his contributions to composition theory and practice have been so important. If you are a writing teacher and not familiar with Macrorie, you must get to know him. Start with Uptaught; then move on to his other books. You’ll enjoy the experience—and you’ll learn so much in the process.

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