Transformative Pedagogy in Middle Grade Fiction
Updated: May 10
The quickest route to personal growth is access to education and written language, as they are tools for creating empowerment, agency, and purpose. This idea is supported by the theory and effects of two educational pedagogies: process pedagogy and expressivism. These pedagogies are applied and often intersect in middle grade fiction, a literary genre written for eight- to twelve-year-olds. This essay will examine three middle grade novels, their application of process pedagogy and expressivism, and the subsequent transformative effects on the characters of these novels.
Process pedagogy and expressivism are two methods studied in A Guide to Composition Pedagogies, and each method has a designated chapter dedicated to it. The chapter dedicated to process pedagogy, “Process Pedagogy and Its Legacy” defines it as a method of writing that focuses on the process of writing, as opposed to the final product (Anson 215). While previous writing classes focused on a student producing a piece of writing, and then correcting it, the advent of process pedagogy shifted the focus to the process a student goes through when creating a piece of writing. “Expressive Pedagogy: Practice/Theory, Theory/Practice,” the chapter in Composition Pedagogies about expressivism, describes a method that “places the writer at the center…assigning highest value to the writer’s imaginative, psychological, social, and spiritual development and how the development influences individual consciousness and social behavior” (Burnham 113). Expressivist writing is personal writing. When students focus on themselves in their writing, they are able to develop their identity and communication skills. There is a great deal of intersection in the application of process pedagogy and expressivism, as both focus on the development of the student. Process allows the student to develop writing skills, and expressivism allows the student to use those writing skills to further their personal development. All three novels for this essay take place primarily in a school setting, and the students in each novel experience the effects of process pedagogy and expressivism together.
The first novel for this essay is Princess Academy by Shannon Hale. The novel follows the educational journey of fourteen-year-old Miri, who lives in a rural mountain village, where everyone works in a quarry mining a raw material called linder. Miri, and the rest of the girls in her age group, are the first people in their community to receive a formal education in years. The plot of Princess Academy focuses less on student writing, and more on the effects of literacy within a community. By its definition, “literacy” is “the ability to read and write” and “the possession of education” (“literacy”). Before a student can write, they must have some level of literacy, and that basic access to literacy can still be transformative. Miri’s development in Princess Academy is an example of the application of process pedagogy and expressivism before personal writing even begins.
Miri’s experience with education in Princess Academy demonstrates how process pedagogy leads to discovery. As Chris M. Anson explains in “Process Pedagogy and Its Legacy,” process pedagogy focuses on the overall improvement of the student as opposed to the production of technically correct academic assignments. The chapter includes a graphic outlining the features of process pedagogy, including “focus on the process” and “improvement of the learner” (Anson 216). When Miri begins her formal education, she has had no previous exposure to literacy, and her learning to read is a process. She and her classmates begin with the alphabet, gradually improving and building their knowledge until they can read books. Although “once, words had been invisible to Miri, as unknown and uninteresting as the movements of a spider inside a rock wall,” she continues to progress until she is reading independently, which leads to discovery, another feature of process pedagogy (Hale 62). Donald Murray, a journalist and professor who was an early advocate for process pedagogy, described the movement as “the process of discovery through language to learn about our world, to evaluate what we learn about our world, to communicate what we learn about our world” (Murray). Miri makes a discovery about her world when she reads in a book that the linder stone quarried in her mountain village has more economic value than her community had been lead to believe. The process of gaining knowledge through written language gives Miri access to information that could affect the economic standing of her entire rural village.
Access to education allows Miri to experience the kind of expressivist development that drives her to affect change in her community. Matthew Sumpter, in his research on writing pedagogy, explains that expressivist pedagogy “places the writer within a larger cultural context,” which is what happens when Miri learns to read and has access to information about the economy of her country beyond her small village (Sumpter 342). She shares with her village what she has learned, and as a result, everyone in the village is able to experience more economic stability. Sumpter also reports that expressivism grants students “the confidence to appreciate and function within their actual, more complicated position” (Sumpter 342). Miri’s education led her to finding her purpose. In the beginning of Princess Academy, Miri is uncertain of her place in her community. By the end of the novel, Miri realizes she wants to share her newfound knowledge by becoming an educator in her home village. In the final chapters, Miri reflects on her experience: “Reading those books had changed her, and she could not wait to let her whole village feel the difference” (Hale 308). Miri’s education gave her a new understanding of herself and the world around her, which transformed her personally and her community.
The next novel for this essay, The Perfect Score by Rob Buyea, follows five students over the course of their life-changing sixth grade year. Their teacher, Mrs. Woods, encourages them all to become better writers. When the school year takes a dramatic turn, the students utilize their writing skills in response to the challenges they face. The Perfect Score is about a student’s growth as a writer, and the importance of being able to tell a personal narrative, both ideas championed by process pedagogy and expressivism respectively.
In The Perfect Score, the students have difficulty producing pieces of writing, but Mrs. Woods places her faith in process pedagogy. Mrs. Woods challenges her students to write, even if they are not inclined to do so. When her students misbehave, her preferred method of discipline is assigning a personal essay for the student to write during recess. She gives one of her students, Trevor, the prompt: “What do you want to achieve? Who do you want to be?…Think it over and write a page about your goals” (Buyea 42). Trevor is not able to complete the assignment. In pre-process pedagogy, which focuses on product over process, an instructor may consider the inability to produce writing unacceptable. However, Mrs. Woods is not upset. When Trevor tells her, “I don’t have any goals,” she replies, “Let’s hope we can change that this year, Mr. Joseph” (Buyea 42). Mrs. Woods trusts that Trevor’s ability to express himself through writing will improve. Another student to whom she takes a similar, growth-based approach to writing is Scott, who is extremely vocal about his distaste of writing. Mrs. Woods does not put pressure on him to write, but instead tells him, “You might not believe me when I tell you this, but there’ll come a day when you want to write because of something that’s important to you” (Buyea 23). When it is abundantly clear in the beginning of the school year that her students struggle with writing, Mrs. Woods responds with patience and the expectation that they will improve over time, which relates to what Anson writes in his chapter in A Guide to Composition Pedagogies:
"A corollary of the product/process distinction was a movement away from viewing writing as the sum of its linguistic parts…Instead, writing was to be seen as the “manifestation of complex and interpenetrating cognitive, social, and cultural processes reflecting the literate meaning making of writers” (Sperling 243). Instructionally, this resulted in a shift from the teacher as a giver of knowledge to the student as active participant in the creation of knowledge (and writing)." (Anson 218)
By accepting where her students are in their development as writers, Mrs. Woods focuses on the writer’s process, as opposed to the production of writing assignments. As a teacher, she is what Anson refers to as the “giver of knowledge” (Anson 218). When she tells her students that she hopes they will grow and improve, she creates the expectation that they will become “active participant[s]” in their education (Anson 218). Anson concludes his chapter “Process Pedagogy and Its Legacy” by stating, “At its base, process pedagogy is designed to help students engage in their writing to develop self-efficacy, confidence, and strategies for meeting the challenges of multiple writing situations” (Anson 216). The focus on process in The Perfect Score develops the students’ writing skills, which prepares them to face their challenges later in the novel.
When these students find themselves in a difficult situation, they turn to expressivist writing. Towards the end of The Perfect Score, Mrs. Woods’s students break some rules, and authorities are searching for the truth. One of the students, Natalie, suggests that each student write a personal affidavit telling their side of the story. She explains to the class, “An affidavit is a written statement, detailing the history of a certain event. Your statement is sworn testimony…your version of the story” (Buyea 310). Chris Burnham and Rebecca Powell, writers of “Expressive Pedagogy: Practice/Theory, Theory/Practice,” explain that “expressivist theory often begins with the personal,” and the students in Mrs. Woods’s class use their affidavits to tell their own personal narrative (Burnham 115). Rebecca Powell writes about her own experiences with expressivism, testifying that “writing became expression and communication, a people-filled endeavor, in which I let the acts of writing…help me discover what I had to say and what I meant to say” (Burnham 111). Similarly, the students in The Perfect Score discern what they have to say when writing their personal statements. Mrs. Woods’s students step up, even the ones that were not inclined to write earlier in the novel. When presented with the opportunity to tell his story through writing, Trevor says, “I wasn’t that same kid anymore. I couldn’t let this go down. I had to do something. I had to tell them something…I wrote it all down” (Buyea 313). Trevor writes his story, and so does Scott. Even though Scott stated several times throughout the novel that he hates to write, his final affidavit was several pages long. From their own research, Burnham and Powell report that “through expressive discourse the self moves from private meaning to shared meaning that results ultimately in some action” (Burnham 115). By using expressivist writing in their affidavits, Trevor, Scott, and the rest of the students in Mrs. Woods’s class are able to take action and be in control of their own stories.
The final novel for this paper, Out of My Mind by Sharon M. Draper, is where these two pedagogies, process and expressivist, intersect in meaning-making. Out of My Mind tells the story of Melody, a young girl with cerebral palsy, who uses different tools to develop her unique voice. She is nonverbal, but over the course of the novel, she goes through the process of learning how to express herself and tell her own story. In an article about gender nonconformity in middle grade fiction, writer Michele Byars quotes J. Halberstam: “They begin with the assumption that how young people know themselves is the best way for others to know them. Slowly, the important secondary characters learn that it is necessary to look with, not at, the main characters” (Byars 102). As a nonverbal student with a visible disability, Melody initially does not have a way to make others know her as she knows herself. She has to go through a process of developing means communication, and as that journey progresses, she is able to express her identity simultaneously. As she is learning to communicate, she is also creating her identity in the eyes of her family and her classmates.
Melody’s process of gaining access to language is a part of gradually overcoming her limitations. Melody starts learning language from a very young age by listening to the world around her. She recalls, “from the time I was really little…words were like sweet, liquid gifts…I have no idea how I untangled the complicated process of words or thought, but it happened quickly and naturally” (Draper 2). From an early age, Melody has so many thoughts racing around in her head, but as she is nonverbal, conventional conversation is inaccessible to her. She thinks, “Everybody uses words to express themselves. Except me” (Draper 8). While verbal conversation is the norm, Anson wrote when discussing process pedagogy, “process resisted the imposition of norms, regulations, and conventions” (Anson 217), and Melody is able to go through a process that allows her to circumvent norms and conventions. First, Melody uses a rudimentary communication board with a limited amount of words and phrases. Eventually, Melody transitions to using a piece of technology called a Medi-Talker, which has much more expansive communication options. Learning to use the Medi-Talker after listening and using the communication board is the final step in Melody’s growth in communication skills in Out of My Mind, and that growth allows her to take advantage of opportunities to express herself.
With access to the Medi-Talker, Melody is able to incorporate expressivist practice into her communication by developing her own authentic voice and merging the previously separate worlds of her mind and the people around her. Burnham and Powell write that in expressivism, “the writer gains control of the subject, either the writer per se or an intellectual subject” (Burnham 115). In Out of My Mind, the subject is Melody’s own thoughts, and the Medi-Talker allows her to gain control more than ever. She is able to program millions of phrases into the machine, and can even customize the voice that reads the phrases she selects. When experimenting with the settings of the Medi-Talker, Melody discovers that “the machine offers several female voices to choose from…I pick the voice called ‘Trish.’ She actually sounds like a girl, not a grown-up. I wouldn’t mind sounding like her if I could talk” (Draper 136). Not only does Melody get to say whatever she wants with the Medi-Talker, she is able to choose a literal voice with which to say it that she identifies with. Melody is able to use her new voice to produce language and express herself. In “Expressive Pedagogy: Practice/Theory, Theory/Practice,” Burnham and Powell write:
“Britton and his colleagues focus on the two primary roles writers can play when producing language: the participant role, in which writers use language to get things done, and the spectator role, in which writers use language to relive things past. As participants, writers shape reality to an end. As spectators, writers recreate reality.
Locating participant and spectator roles at either end of the continuum, Britton introduces a third mediating role, the expressive, in which the writer functions as both participant and spectator.” (Burnham 116)
For much of Out of My Mind, Melody is the spectator. She listens and she learns, but she cannot contribute. The Medi-Talker allows her to become a participant. She is able to have expressive conversations with her parents, teachers, and classmates. The end of the novel is truly an example of the practice of expressivism. In an earlier chapter, one of Melody’s teachers announced a class assignment: “write your own autobiography” (Draper 108). Melody’s Medi-Talker also doubles as a word processor, which allows her to write longer compositions for school. In the final pages of the book Melody writes, “Today I’m working on Miss Gordon’s autobiography project…This is going to take a while. So much is stuffed inside my mind. I have lots to say and just one thumb to say it with. I guess I’ll start at the very beginning…” (Draper 294). Then, the text repeats the opening lines of the book, revealing to the reader that Out of My Mind has been Melody’s autobiography the entire time. This ending shows that Melody has entered into the world, not just learning, but creating as well.
Burnham and Powell wrote that “expressivists share some theoretical grounding with process pedagogy” (Burnham 115). Both theories center the development writer: process focuses on making the student a better writer, and expressivism focuses on what the writer has to say and the effects of personal writing. The novels of this essay show how the use of language prompts growth. Miri learns to read, and finds her place in her community. Trevor and Scott do not want to write, but learn the importance of expressing their voice through written composition. Melody is able to develop her identity and tell her own story by being able to communicate. While these three novels focus on different facets of language, whether it be literacy, composition, or communication, these stories show how “voice in writing is a locus for power” (Burnham 119). At a young age, children are able to understand that their world is run by adults, and there is very little they can actually control. Through middle grade fiction, children are able to read stories about protagonists with whom they can identify, because they are the same age. Seeing the way these protagonists change can have a profound impact. The stories found in middle grade fiction show that having access to language and being able to express oneself in writing or in public spaces can give a student a sense of agency and control in their lives, which can inspire real-life readers.
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