Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Welcome to my writing classroom. This is a place where all of us get to explore our thoughts, our reactions, our beliefs, among other topics, by freely writing, purposefully revising and editing, and compassionately sharing our work. All of us write, including me, your coach. We get to know each other through our first narrative project, and we build trust through our classroom activities, where the first rule is respect for the thoughts and feelings of others. We learn to listen carefully, to discuss ideas comfortably, and to live with multiple viewpoints. Humor is often what saves us from ourselves and our tendencies to misunderstand and to judge harshly.

After building this trust and comfort, we embark on the journey through growth as writers in a community of writers. We faithfully carry our writing journals back and forth from our homes to this class, so that we can hold on to the ideas that rise up, fleetingly, when we are away from this community. We read widely outside of class, both materials assigned for class and shared in class, and texts we choose for ourselves outside of class. We sample academic nonfiction, both classic and popular fiction, poetry and drama, especially that written for young adults, and new sources of nonfiction being enjoyed by a growing audience.

Classes start with the spoken word: samples from the universe of good writing, located sometimes by careful readers in our class, but usually by me, the coach. Short periods of writing follow immediately, with or without sharing, carefully stored in writing journals to be mined systematically for topics we need to write about. As coach, I will ask for writers to share striking sentences or ideas, and sometimes I will request some response from everyone. I will have to make judgments about who needs the nudging toward audience with these spontaneous writings -- not an easy decision to make. I will always be aware of my writers' feelings, and try to do no harm. As coach, I will also demonstrate different techniques for mining those materials, using examples from my own writing life and from the life of writers who have discussed such topics in interviews or in their published works. Sometimes one of us will demonstrate a new way to mine our writing journals.

My experience as a writer, my background as a teacher, and my observations of your writing will help me decide on minilessons that are needed, rather than some set schedule or curriculum of scope and sequence. Every group of writers is different. No one else can make the professional decisions I must make about what lessons my writers need. Sometimes minilessons examine a well-written text to discern what we can find out about writing that lasts, that stays with its readers. Sometimes minilessons address process problems and solutions, or revision and editing challenges. Our constant movement back and forth from writing to reading will inform our understanding of the dialogue between writer and reader.

Often the minilesson will consist of my modelling of a point in the process, or a specific technique, or experimentation with a genre. As coach, I must allow my writers to see me wrestling with the unfamiliar, wrapping my mind around the challenging, and of course I must use my background as a writer and a teacher to adjust the level of my modeling and demonstration to the needs of my community. It is difficult to make the familiar strange (for me, an experienced writer) and the strange familiar (for my developing writers), but that is my responsibility during these sessions.

During the time set aside as workshop, we find that each of us is in a different place. Some are searching for or rehearsing an idea for a new piece; some are freewriting on a topic, or drafting from a freewrite or notes or straight out of our heads; some are revising, perhaps from the ground up, a draft prepared at home or in a previous class; some are conferring with other writers, aiming to clarify or polish certain passages in a draft; some are finalizing a piece. Talk bubbles up, but never overwhelms other writers who may need more quietness. Whether tapping on computer keyboards or scratching ink onto paper or conversing, we are a caring community.

As coach, I may ask you for and guide you through pieces of writing that demonstrate your understanding of the ideas about text and process that we wrestle with from day to day. These transactional pieces will be closer to what educators might call formal writing, or academic writing; our experiences in a community of writers will show us again that our development as expressive writers spurs our development as transactional writers -- in other words, that our workshop experience is valuable for improving our ability to write for assessment. Those who employ us as teachers will need to hear this lesson and see it in action again and again, or they will force us to conduct our classrooms in traditional ways that do not allow writers and thinkers to grow. To do so -- to accede to such pressure and revert to traditional methods -- would be immoral, knowing as we do that such methods stifle writing and take the lifeblood of ideas from our students, leaving them stuck in boring classes exposed to meaningless instruction.

Our classes will end with some sort of sharing, perhaps by writers I approach as I am conferencing, perhaps by volunteers who need feedback on some specific experiment they have tried with a scene or section. The atmosphere surrounding this classroom sharing must again be compassionate and respectful, but writers must also learn how to provide useful feedback, and not simply confirmation and praise. This learning may take time and will certainly require modeling.

The texts we produce will need audiences. The coach is not the audience, nor am I the only coach, but rather an aide, as are the other writers in our community, in getting texts ready and putting them in front of authentic audiences. As coach, I will work to arrange for publication of pieces for an appropriate audience, whether in a newspaper, literary magazine, or at a performance event. Sometimes it will be appropriate for a writer to publish only within our caring community, and I, as coach, must make that professional but difficult judgment. I must always be aware of what each writer needs, and nudge accordingly and in a responsible fashion.

Because writers will need feedback, in the form of grades, in addition to critical commentary about texts they produce, we will need to pause periodically for reflection on our work. Great value accrues to writers when they spread out the work they have done over a period and choose a best piece, reflect on the genesis and development of that piece, and examine what they, as writers, have learned from that piece and other work done during a period of time. A writer's reflections on a body of work will help us decide what grade writers have earned. This is an agonizing part of our role as writing coaches, but it cannot yet be avoided, until we arrive at schools that do not require numbers for evaluating learners' progress.