Sunday, February 28, 2010

I recently read an article by Lisa Delpit, published in the early 80s, about black educators arguing with white educators against whole language and workshop style because the black students needed to learn the language and conventions of those in power. (This was before Atwell published her book, but whole language had been around, and even some versions of workshop.) The presumption was that conventions aren't taught in whole language or workshop...which isn't true...or something like that. I remember other glimpses of this style war, when all-black charter schools sprang up -- strict, conservative, requiring uniforms, using Warriner's and teaching prescriptive grammar through drill-and-kill.

Those objections are what come to mind when I think about expressive (also known as creative) writing versus transactional (prompt-driven, for assessment) writing. I have learned that expressive writing can be writing to learn, can expand the world of ideas for the writer. It can and does contribute to the skill of the writer for transactional writing, the writing we do to demonstrate knowledge and skill. It generates new ideas, new solutions, that the writer may not have known that he/she had. This generative power is why I am writing several pages of quickly written prose every morning -- to work with the ideas I have, to generate new ones.

If students of color or of low socio-economic status are denied a chance to learn writing strategies having to do with invention and creation, that strikes me as oppressive. This is happening to students across our nation. Maybe their school got a bad report card, so the administrators have resorted to some conservative canned and scripted program that doesn't allow for teaching methods that might bring some chaos into the classroom in the name of writing to learn. Maybe the teachers at the school are ill-trained and don't know the generative power of expressive writing, even if they were allowed to control the content of their own lessons. Maybe parents conspire to require reactionary methods that they recognize from their own educational past.

At any rate, too many students are taught only formulaic approaches to writing for the purpose of raising test scores (which, unfortunately, will not happen unless students read so much that they reject formula writing as unrealistic when compared to the richness of text that avid readers are used to). A vicious cycle, wrong, unethical...Many of us know, can teach, and can show other teachers how to teach other more generative and less oppressive writing strategies.

Peter Elbow's concept of cooking, which occurs in the controlled chaos after quick drafting and during revision, is just such a generative concept associated with expressive writing and contributing to transactional excellence. He advises putting some ideas together, via metaphor, to let "chemical" reactions play out between the two ideas. By juxtaposing concepts not usually put together in the same sentence or paragraph, one concept can highlight, by contrast and opposition, aspects of another idea that the writer may not have seen before. Juxtiposing opposites sounds like logoi dissoi to me, brought to us by the sophists of ancient Greece. Poets do this in distilled fashion, and produce small gems of beauty. Elbow advises it, though, for the essay writer, the editorial writer, the memoirist, the lawyer. The writing doesn't have to be poetically metaphoric -- just by comparing, making strange bedfellows even in technical ways, to light up new ideas.

And so I compare this writing I am experimenting with (two pages every morning, first thing) to gentle but dense snowfall. The ideas pile up on page after page, just as the snow builds quietly deeper and deeper. Somewhere there will be substantial drifts with some consequence -- in front of the garage, for example. Likewise, as I turn the pages of my white lined pad, there are in those accumulated words, some drifts of gathering consequence, that will help me move my thinking forward, sometimes by sheer mass and occurrence, or perhaps because of the glimmer of some important concept, brilliant in the sunshine of a later reading.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

On the map of your soul,
please mark the way
with bright signs that I can't miss.
Paint the door a strong color --
red, perhaps, or yellow --
so I will know when I have found you.
Brew coffee; set out mugs, cream
and a bowl brimming with sugar.
Turn up the music so I can hear the slide guitar
and the groove of the bass line.
Don't let me wander up and down
dark, unfamiliar streets to wonder
if I really heard your voice
or if it was just a dream, or the horn
of an angry truck driver.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

On one of those hot sunny August days when the light seems extraordinarily bright, the goldenrod is exceptionally yellow, the sky is deep blue, instead of lounging on my front porch, reaching yet another novel, as I have been most of the summer, I'm in my classroom, putting student names on manila folders using a fat black Sharpie. Last name first, all caps on these folders; then, when I put student names on black and white composition books for their lit letters, I use upper and lower case and put first name, then last. More personal that way, on the notebook that will be the receptacle for their very personal thoughts and reactions. Inside one manila folder will be sheets for recording final copies, sheets for recording lessons learned about drafting, revising, editing, a letter from me to their parents to take home and get signed during the first short week of school.

Or perhaps I'm rearranging novels on my mismatched collection of bookcases, making sure each shelf or case has only one genre, and books are in the right place to start the year, at least. The box for turning in lit letters has to be covered with wrapping paper (some years this took a few months to happen; I got used to the dull brown cardboard appearance, but stars and glitter look better). I might be putting names on index cards that wait for the names of books each student borrows from my classroom. I might be placing the plastic crates around the room, the crates that will hold students' work folders, in alphabetical order. The first week of the first year, I put each class in a different crate, alphabetically, and then waited to start class while every student lined up in front of that one crate. I learned quickly; I alphabetized ALL my students, not each class, and spread them out over five or six crates.

I write my students' names many times before they actually enter the room. In addition to the two manila folders (one work folder and one final copy folder), the composition book, and the index card, I put students' names on sheets in a binder, one binder for each class, so I have a place to record what I need to remember about each piece of writing the student gives me over the year's time. I like to have different colored binders, so they can vary from class to class. I'll be carrying them with me while I meet with students during their three writing classes each week.

Equally important, I have to have procedures in place that I use every time a student turns in a paper or a lit letter. I have to mesh those procedures with whatever grading system the school uses. At first, I had only my physical gradebook to worry about, but when we switched over to E-School, a decade later, I had to find a way to fit my grading and record-keeping into that software system.

I spend more than a few days in my classroom before the first day back for teachers. This time is so important for a workshop style class. I have to be organized. I have to have systems in place before students arrive so the papers they write won't be lost, the comments I need to share with them will be accessible when I have a conference, and the responses they have to novels and their free writes are safe and secure. Many other aspects of my classroom will seem messy, chaotic, or loose, but not these important points. It is difficult to operate a successful reading and writing workshop class without this advance preparation and attention to detail.