Wednesday, July 22, 2009 WE WRITE
what if a learner writes and no teacher is around to grade it?
when i was in eighth grade, i felt as though i would like to satirize things that were happening in my school. i watched laugh-in on monday nights. i felt as though i would like to do it in a mini-newspaper/newsletter format for like-minded classmates to read. so i wrote a little newspaper (i don't remember what i called it, but i decorated the edges with vines and flowers; it was, after all 1968). i wrote articles making fun of the hall monitors, clothing fads, slang of the day, courtship customs (remember ID bracelets?), teachers we loved and hated. i let my friends read my single copy, by which i mean two or three people who put up with my nonsense on a regular basis. no teacher ever saw it UNTIL pat kilker got hold of a copy somehow. he was my eighth grade english teacher, then later when i became an eighth grade english teacher he was my colleague. then he was the playwrite of a holocaust play i directed several times in the binghamton area. he made sure one of my articles got into the school newspaper, usually reserved for upperclassmens' writing.
he never graded it. my writing was for a small audience of people who like that kind of writing and humor, just like me. it was authentic. i had become a writer, mostly without teacherly intervention.
same with my poems, written when i discovered ee cummings. same with my songs, written when i learned three chords on my cheap guitar. no teacher intervened. i sang, i wrote, and it was almost just for me. all of it, my entire opus, contributed to my sense of who i am, and of course still does. how important is that? what is it good for? what have i learned? i don't even think that can be measured.
what if my classroom could be a place where students would feel they could write stuff that enlarges their sense of self, their sense of connection to the world? what would happen if learners were encouraged to question, read, write about their questions and their reading and their ideas? instead of being discouraged from it? what kind of world would we have then? if leaders emerged because we nurtured them, rather than triumphed despite forces that hold them back? do obama's books have in them any anecdotes from his education? i'd love to see how it went for him. much is written about how he overcame difficulties in his life; i wonder if some difficulties were related to educational practices in the schools he attended?
a top student in my real-life classroom, a student who might get a 95 or 98 or 100, drafts quite a bit both informally and in a "writing process" sense. Some drafts are turned in to trigger a conference or response session with me and some revisions. some revisions involve only mechanics if the draft is effective right away. sometimes substantive revision and/or format revision is required, but usually only for one major writerly decision (say, 1st person versus 3rd person point of view or line endings or meter). At least five pieces make it to final copies which are recorded in "THE BOOK" and filed in the final copy folder for that student. that student takes risks by trying to write material other than memoir, perhaps a poem, perhaps a script for a skit, perhaps an obituary or news report or informative piece similar to pieces they might choose to read in their favorite magazines. That student is reading at home and in school, in a novel of her choice, in magazines or on web sites she likes, all the time, weekdays and weekends. that student is reacting to the characters, events, ideas in her book each week, making statements, supporting them with text details, reaching for understanding of the world represented in her novel, and also of our current world, by making connections, asking questions, and being nudged by me, the reader of the reading response, to do research or make hypotheses, or read related books or similar authors. this top student tries books that are not from their favorite genres, because she listens to books talks i give once a month, or book talks we hear from the librarian in the library. this student chooses books by very good writers, enlarging and giving quality to the voice she hears in her head when she is reading and when she is not. this top student participates in discussions in class that follow minilessons or are part of guided activities or reading groups. this student has set goals for herself as a reader and as a writer. by the end of the quarter, she can write about her success, or lack of it, with those goals, and also write about some other important thoughts or understandings that she arrived at while spending time in my classroom.
what is wrong with encouraging students to use language in these ways? that's what a workshop classroom does. never is a numerical grade placed on a piece of writing. if i were better at stopping myself, there would never be a pen mark of any kind on the drafts that come to me. and yet students can report things they have learned about writing, and even demonstrate them, in writing, on common assessments that we are required to administer. don't we want thoughtful learners who learn and also reflect on what they learn? numbers on writing papers lead to passivity, lack of engagement. "I got a ___; that's good enough. what does she want me to do next?" numbers on writing lead to students who will only jump as high as we set our very low standards (ask any teacher who has scored the intermediate assessments for more than 5 years). no numbers on writing lead to students trying incredibly difficult strange new unforeseen projects, like the emotionally-draining poems about lost relatives, brave soldiers, family issues. how important is that stuff to adolescents? supremely important, and so they are willing to listen to me discourse on first person versus third person, or about questions left in a reader's mind, or about the importance of sense imagery and correct emotion vocabulary, stuff that they wouldn't give a shit about if i were in front of the room with skill and drill warriners text open or worksheets or other material so removed from their interest.