Peter Elbow Visits

San Jose Area Writing Project teacher leaders who participated in the 2016 Advanced Institute [AI] with Dr. Jonathan Lovell at SJSU last summer enjoyed a reunion this Saturday with author, Peter Elbow.  The AI teachers had responded to two of Peter’s books, Writing Without Teachers and Vernacular Eloquence. (roll over photos for captions)

We met at Jonathan and Ellen’s lovely home in the Villages for an afternoon of lively, intense discussion.  In true writing project style, the reunion opened with the “Name Game,” an alliterative, maddening memory game, followed by introductions with realia.

In preparation for Peter’s first point, some of us practiced “getting it wrong,” since we are after all, the Advanced Institute.  Lots of laughter, appreciated by Laura who also loves light.  She is the documentarian.  (Insert disclaimer here for being able only to bring back the memory of such a rich event, but not prepared to transcribe all the insights shared.)

Jonathan Lovell, professor of English at San Jose State and director San Jose Area Writing Project

Jonathan, who really dislikes jerks who gerrymander, introduced himself with a model sailboat, sharing the inscription to the effect, “We can’t direct the wind, but we can adjust the sails.”  He added that by god, this year he is going to change the wind.


Peter Elbow, Professor of English Emeritus University of Massachusetts Amherst (whose realia was a wedge pillow because it took eight years to  write Vernacular Eloquence)

We took the time to be present, to connect with our writing community, and to appreciate each other with deep listening.

Teachers talked about the chapter from Writing Without Teachers that they constructed an “Elbowesque” free response to in the summer.  Some elaborated on how the book and IA influenced their classroom work.  And, each was given a chance to ask Peter Elbow a question.

John started discussion with Chapter One, Free writing Exercises

Reporting his classroom was made safer for exploration, John said free writing helps students find their voice.  This was especially helpful since teaching voice is a mystery.


Peter affirmed the risk-taking necessary to writing and we all joined the conversation on the theme of re-directing students from ‘is this good?’ to asking them to articulate what they see in their draft. And yes, teachers, look for the good.  We learn from positive reinforcement.

Marty dove in with teacher fears and limitation.  What about those excellent ideas that just don’t work? He shared his obsessive search for natural coherence in his students’ writing by using questioning to become more aware of audience. Ryan shared a creative approach in which he has his students write a piece in essay format, then rewrite it as a PowerPoint, then perhaps make a video of it, all of which make demands on the writer to clarify the message and unable to avoid audience.

And true to the quote Marty chose from the summer, Chp. 2 p. 34, “You often have your best ideas about Y when you are thinking about X,”our conversation and ideas went many directions.  We raised questions.  We objected.  We shared ideas.

Peter talked about students doing dialogue.  Being in conversation with themselves and the teacher. Kate spoke to the issue of practice writing and preparing students to take exams.  At the mention of writing assessment, words fly on the school convention of The Five-Paragraph Essay.

Jeff interjected with the big picture questions, “What do you want?  What are your goals for those graduating students?” He used the example of the study in which two groups of people in a study were trained in tossing a bean bag into a target 3 feet away.  One group practiced daily with a target 3 feet away.  The second group had two targets, the first was 2 feet away and the other 4 feet away.  When the groups were assessed, which did better?  Why?

The first group did not do as well as the group who had a varied target.  That group had to learn to gauge distance while the first only learned one way.

Grading kills it.

Which led to Peter’s talk on why write.  His goal is for students to “write something a human being would enjoy.” He explained he wants student to write when they’re out of school, by choice. And how do we teach?

“First I want students to write a lot, more than I can read.”  I will collect it, but I tell them I won’t read it all.  Volume. This call to write a lot was punctuated with how to get away from the “tyranny of evaluation.”  And Peter capped the debate around using formula to teach organization by saying, “The best way to teach organization is for students to use their mouth and ear.  They need to hear their writing.

Jen shared that her college students turn in their compositions as audio recordings and she responds verbally.

As Peter explained a bit about how he gives students credit in a writing class, Kate shared Peter’s article on contract grading:

Kate during actual IA 16.  My photos of the three couch people on my right all came out blurry due to their animated conversation and levity.

Somewhere in there, we took a break.

Much discussion percolated through the chapters on writing process – Growing, and Cooking and Chapter 5 concluded with how Peter came to his approach, which was a natural segue into the Appendix.  Peter alerted us to a new essay version he wrote.

Laurie and Katie segue into the Believing and the Doubting Game

Laurie referred to why the Doubting Game is held to be THE game in education because it seems that playing the doubting game is being rigorous.  “Almost anyone in the academic or intellectual world, it seems as though when he plays the doubting game he is being rigorous, disciplined, rational, and tough-minded. p. 151  The doubting game seeks truth “by indirection– by seeking error.”

Katie explained that as a teacher she plays the Believing Game because it “yields the truth.”

Which led to Peter talking about student in math and science writing to “share the story of your thinking.”  Tracking the steps showed that those who got the correct answer to difficult calculus problems often went on surprising, random journeys.   He referred us to a college math teacher who used the Believing Game and published an article in APL Journal of Mathematics.  Free writing isn’t the only kind of composing – but it is a kind of writing that has been undervalued.

Peter also cited a norming session where a large group of teachers had to discuss sample essay papers and establish a B, a passing grade.  Feeling ran high and much talk ensued, but teachers didn’t come closer to a consensus until they played the Doubting and Believing Game.  Group 1 who thought the paper was passing has to take the opposite view and scrutinize the paper in order to see the paper as failing.  Those who argued it wasn’t a passing paper played the Believing Game to find why it was good enough, or a B or better.  After that exercise, the group came to “tons more agreement.”

Teacher leaders who attended, my post just touches on a few of the deep things we left to think about.  Comments are moderated, and it would be wonderful to know what thoughts you are entertaining and what ideas stayed with you as a result of the day with Peter Elbow.


It was an honor and a joy to converse with everyone in the group.  And we are especially grateful to Jonathan Lovell for leading the AI and arranging Peter’s visit.

An IA tradition, a fine meal at The Caspian
Thanks, ther cap’n!!!

5 responses to “Peter Elbow Visits”

  1. Thank you, dear Laura. Wish I was there :-(. I missed the event as I was in Karachi, Pakistan, spending some quality time with my mom. I am glad that I can look at the pictures and read your wonderful description to “not feel too left out.” What a lovely evening, and Jonathan picked my favorite place to eat. :-).
    Lots of love,


  2. Laura, your images and words beautifully document this unforgettable day. You are the perfect documentarian. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. LB, you captured this beautifully! I loved reading it and even got lost in the pictures as that was a truly special Saturday!
    Glad you are the documentarian!!


  4. What a terrific photo essay/documentary. What a lovely tribute and homage to an exceptionally memorable afternoon get-together with Peter Elbow.


  5. Looks like a fun time !


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