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Brian Jackson

Teaching Mindful Writers

Utah State University Press, 2020

Teaching Mindful Writers introduces new writing teachers to a learning cycle that will help students become self-directed writers through planning, practicing, revising, and reflecting. Focusing on the art and science of instructing self-directed writers through major writing tasks, Brian Jackson helps teachers prepare students to engage purposefully in any writing task by developing the habits of mind and cognitive strategies of the mindful writer.

Relying on the most recent research in writing studies and learning theory, Jackson gives new teachers practical advice about setting up writing tasks, using daily writing, leading class discussions, providing feedback, joining teaching communities, and other essential tools that should be in every writing teacher’s toolbox. Teaching Mindful Writers is a timely, fresh perspective on teaching students to be self-directed writers.

Review by Amber Jensen at Faculty Book Lunch

A few years ago, I downloaded a mindfulness app called Headspace. I wanted more calm in my brain and in my life and I wanted to feel connected to the world around me while personal and professional pressures mounted. When I first heard the title of Brian Jackson’s book, Teaching Mindful Writers, I wondered if it was his take on the trend toward zen, simplicity, and oneness with the world around us.

His book, I discovered (with some relief), is not a yogic treatise on writing instruction. It is, however, a call for more deliberate consideration into what we write, why we ask students to write, and how we teach writing. “Mindfulness,” he claims, “is transformative because it invites the practitioner to stop the incessant flow of life and take control of the moment” (p. 35). I can’t think of anything more pertinent to navigating the wild, unpredictable, and incessant (shall we say unprecedented?) flow of life in 2020. Forget meditation; I just wanted Brian to teach me how to take control of the moment. Teaching Mindful Writers delivers that, both for teachers of writing and students of writing, whom he reframes as agents of the mindful approach to writing he advocates.

Brian writes overtly toward an audience of novice college writing instructors––typically grad students who teach First Year Composition––although I recognized a broader audience of potential readers, ranging from my own pre-service secondary English teachers to university professors. Brian warns teachers with some pointed (but necessary) real-talk: “I can tell you some teaching methods empower students and others do not.” But mostly, he empowers teachers, reminding us that we are “now a sponsor of literacy.” So what does his book offer to those of us wandering aimlessly and trying to somehow be more intentional about the ways we teach and write?

Teaching Mindful Writers is organized around four phases that comprise what he calls “a learning cycle for mindful writers:” planning, practicing, revising, and reflecting. No one of these steps is more important than another; each includes not only a theoretical framework, but also concepts and models that new teachers can implement in their own teaching. Ultimately, the grounding principle reinforced throughout each of these sections is that “the metacognitive activity students do while writing a thing is as important as the thing itself.” How students think about their own writing choices and processes will make their writing experiences more meaningful and more transferable to future writing contexts. To center his argument, Brian weaves together research and theories related to metacognition, teaching for transfer, threshold concepts, and habits of mind in writing instruction. It’s a text useful not only to FYC instructors, but anyone who teaches writing (ahem, all of us!).

Somehow, Brian captures the grand and the granular in a way that invites, rather than intimidates, new teachers. He gives them just enough grounding in composition theory while handing them “just-in-time” teaching ideas that will rescue them as they prepare for their 4 pm First Year Writing class Thursday afternoon. He challenges them (and us) to think about audiences beyond graders, to think about genres beyond academic contexts, and to center our response to student writing in principles that move them forward toward future writing moments.

Brian’s writing is fun to read, interspersed with quirky personal anecdotes about moonwalking with his daughter Louisa and being called on, impromptu, to deliver an extemporaneous speech at a friend’s wedding in a church gym. (Of this experience, Brian says, “The social magnitude of the moment, and my emotional ecology as a speaker, doomed my improv” (p. 84). Clearly, this anecdote compels us to plan for planning writing with our students.) As a new scholar and a new member of this department, I appreciated learning from Brian’s deep scholarship while being buoyed up by the energy and encouragement that explodes from this book’s pages.

Looking back on the first English Department Meeting at BYU I attended as a faculty member last fall, I remember Brian leading a set of small round-table discussions where we were asked to envision what our major could be. It was the English Major Redesign Project. My impression of this book strikes me as similar to my impression of Brian’s facilitation of that meeting: ambitious yet grounded, progressive yet responsive to in-the-moment ideas and concerns, flexible yet organized. In both that meeting and after reading his book, I feel maybe more amped up with ideas than comatose with zen, but both left me feeling more sure-footed and focused in what was coming next and how I could find myself as a more deliberate actor in writing, teaching, and understanding how to take the next step.