When Donna Barnes arrived in North Haven in 1970 to teach, she took over a classroom filled with the youngest learners on the island.

She had trained to teach older students, but jumped into her new role at one of North Haven’s two schoolhouses with the quiet confidence and enthusiasm that would define her long teaching career in Maine. It was there, in a classroom of students just learning how to read, that her passion for literacy took root.

Barnes, who helped pioneer the way the writing process is taught and individualized her teaching to meet each student’s needs, died Nov. 28 at her home in Topsham. She was 80.

Donna Barnes Photo courtesy of Barnes family

“She never wanted to give up on a single kid. She hated kids being labeled as bad kids or non-learners,” said her son, Julian Barnes. “She really felt it was just that teachers hadn’t found a way to reach that kid, to excite them.”

Donna Barnes was born in Boston and graduated from high school in Needham, Massachusetts. While attending Trinity College in Washington, D.C., she went to the March on Washington in 1963 and participated in sit-ins to support Civil Rights. She developed strong political interests, particularly around the struggles of poverty and equal access to education, said her daughter, Caitlin Ruthman.

Before moving to North Haven, Barnes taught in poor communities around Boston. On the island, she taught kindergarten through second grade. She understood how a teacher needs to adapt the curriculum to their students, said Gordon Donaldson, who taught with Barnes.


“Donna was super talented at individualizing and keeping kids interested,” he said. “She had so much energy.”

After leaving North Haven to earn her master’s degree at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Barnes returned to Maine and spent most of her career as a reading specialist and elementary classroom teacher in North Berwick. In the 1980s and 1990s, she led a group of teachers who helped popularize and spread a new kind of writing education originally pioneered by Donald Graves at the University of New Hampshire.

While taking a summer course on the writing process at UNH, Barnes met teachers Kay Morgan and Karen Weinhold, with whom she would later write a book for educators, “Writing Process Revisited: Sharing Our Stories.” They began meeting regularly as a writing group, a time they came to consider sacred, Morgan said.

Over tea, the women shared their writing, stories of raising their children and the struggles of teaching writing to students at various grade levels, which led to their book. They later traveled to conferences to present their work. Barnes loved responding to questions and suggestions from people in the audience, Weinhold said.


“She was just all in,” Morgan said. “When she decided on a particular tack, she was going to go for it and wanted to do it with her whole heart. And I think she did.”


In an essay in the book, Barnes asked herself how she could teach children to write without writing and how she could know how to write without writing.

“I would not dream of coaching someone in tennis unless I knew how to play tennis and, I might add, play tennis well,” she wrote. “The same goes for writing. I cannot hope to guide children in writing without being a writer.”

Ruthman remembers going to her mother’s classroom over the summer to prepare for the upcoming year. Barnes worked hard to create a classroom community that felt safe, caring and productive, which Ruthman now strives to do in her own classroom. It was always clear that teaching was a calling for her mother, she said.

“It inspired me to want to have the same kind of career that I felt so committed to and fulfilled by,” Ruthman said.

Donna Barnes Courtesy of Barnes family

Barnes’ focus and passion for writing also inspired her son, now a New York Times reporter. When he was growing up, she never told him how to write, but listened and asked questions. Barnes believed that good writing required revision after revision.

“She’d prod you to take whatever you were doing to the next level,” said Julian Barnes, who still uses the “Donna Barnes method” of reading every story out loud to make sure it sounds right.

After retiring from teaching in 2004, Barnes spent summers on Damariscotta Lake in Jefferson with her husband, Robert Griffith. She kept a journal about the books she read, tended a large vegetable garden and enjoyed hiking. She loved spending time with her four grandchildren and was always ready with a snack or activity at just the right time.

Donaldson, who maintained a friendship with Barnes long after their time on North Haven, said she was warm and had a wonderfully dry sense of humor. When the families got together when their children were young, they’d reenact the winter Olympics.

“Donna was always in the thick of that, cheering people on and making the occasion joyful and memorable,” he said.

Related Headlines

Comments are not available on this story.