You have an approach to the teaching of English that is different than the norm. Could you tell us a little about what makes it different?
Traditional English classes tend to focus on the reading and interpretation of canonical texts chosen in advance by the school or by the teacher. The writing that students are asked to do is constrained, in terms of both content and form, by the teacher. Students are often encouraged, or explicitly directed, to talk about the "hidden meaning" of what they have read. They are directed to organize their thinking within the framework of the five-paragraph thesis essay. They are often given arbitrary and nonsensical "rules" to follow, as for example to avoid using the first person pronoun, to eliminate forms of the verb "to be," to make sure that every paragraph has a topic sentence, and so on.
So what's wrong with that?
Several things. First of all, there is no room for student choice in the writing process. Everything that the student is asked to do is within the context of choices the teacher has made about what is important. Secondly, students learn a whole lot of stuff about writing that is not only not true but that actually stands in the way of them ever learning to write effectively. Pick up any edition from the Best American Essays series and you will see terrific writers inventing their own forms and making up their own rules for how to organize their thoughts. But we don't encourage students to do this; we don't even acknowledge that it is a possibility. Most importantly, and most distressingly, because of the directed nature of their experience, they never have the chance to learn what it truly means to be a student, to conduct an extended exploration of something that is of genuine interest to them in the hopes of learning something they don't already know.
So how is your approach different?
Basically, it all starts with writing. I believe strongly that writing is the most powerful self-instructional tool that we as humans possess. Writing, properly understood, is an act of exploration. It's an act not only of self-definition but also of self-transcendence. The power and the beauty of writing is that in making first thoughts visible, writing sets the stage for second thoughts, and third thoughts. Once something is on paper, it is subject to revision. And that's where the real work gets done. David Huddle, in his terrific essay "Let's Say You Wrote Badly This Morning," says this:
I like to think of revision as a form of self-forgiveness: you can allow yourself mistakes and shortcomings in your writing because you know you're coming back later to improve it. Revision is the way you cope with the bad luck that made your writing less than excellent this morning. Revision is the hope you hold out for yourself to make something beautiful tomorrow though you didn't quite manage it today. Revision is democracy's literary method, the tool that allows an ordinary person to aspire to extraordinary achievement.
I have often said that I cannot teach students how to write. (Nor can anyone else.) But I can most certainly create the conditions under which students can learn how to write. And the first thing I need to do to create those conditions is to get myself out of the way. Early in my teaching career I put a lot of time into coming up with cool out-of-the-box writing assignments for my students. But somewhere along the line I realized that in coming up with ideas for them to write about I wasn't doing them any favors. I was in fact taking away from the opportunity to learn what all writers must at some point learn for themselves: where to begin. If the only thing my students ever get to do is what I tell them to do, then all they are really learning is how to follow directions. Donald Murray once said that his goal was to underteach so that his students could overlearn. The secret to being a good teacher is to create spaces for students to conduct their own explorations.
It would be certainly be possible do design a very effective English course in which students spent all of their class time either writing or sharing what they had written. I've taught such a course myself, based to a large degree on the workshop model used by the National Writing Project. But in most regular English classes, there are other fish to fry: literature to read, class discussions to frame, literary terms to be memorized, standards to be addressed, and so on. So as a matter of real-world practicality, the challenge is to find ways to create spaces within the structure of the regular English class where students can have some room to move.
One core strand in my classroom, for nearly 30 years now, has been the weekly writing sample. The term is intentionally generic. It's a very simple idea. I ask students to hand in, once a week, a sample of what they have been writing. It can be on any topic, in any form. It can be a single draft or a series of drafts. It can be something new or a continuation of something they were working on before. The only external constraint is that it should represent an hour's worth of work.
The writing sample is a standing assignment. Whatever else we are doing in class, whatever other assignments they may be given, whatever other activities they may be doing, I want the students to be writing on their own on a regular basis. You don't become a writer by waiting for others to tell you what to write. Neither do you become a writer by sitting around waiting for inspiration to strike. You become a writer by writing. Being willing to submit yourself to the discipline of writing regularly is a necessary first step in becoming a better writer.
For many students, my class is the first class in which they have ever been asked to write about they want rather than what the teacher wants. I'm asking them to do what writers and artists have always had to do: face the blank paper in front of them and make some kind of beginning. For some of those students, it's extremely liberating. For others, it's terrifying. But here's the thing: until students are given the opportunity and the encouragement to strike out on their own with their writing, they will never learn what it is that writers actually do.
What kinds of things do they wind up writing about?
Pretty much everything under the sun. Some write stories. Some write fan fiction. Many write poems. Some write personal narratives. Some write informational essays about things they are interested in: sports, movies, social issues. Some write reflection papers. Several have written novels.
Given the range of responses, how do you respond to them?
When I read their papers, I figure out as best I can what they are trying to do, and then give them feedback—either on paper or in conferences or both—about where I as a reader am following them and where I am having trouble. I also give them feedback and guidance about sentence-level issues of craft as they arise. The writing samples serve as the context in which many of the discussions about the art and craft of writing take place. They also provide me with a very good look into the minds of the students individually. I get to know my students at least as well, if not better, from reading what they write than from interacting with them in class.
There are other benefits as well. For one thing, it turns out that what the students write, given the chance to choose their own topic and form, is by several orders of magnitude more interesting and more capably delivered than what they write when they are given a traditional essay assignment. Every English teacher has experienced the particular combination of dread and disheartenment when it comes time to sit down with a set of papers on, say, thematic imagery in The Scarlet Letter (a topic which it is safe to say very few students would ever arrive at on their own.) Sitting down to a stack of writing samples, on the other hand, is an experience I most often find myself looking forward to with anticipation. No two papers are the same; the writing, because it is on a subject the student cares about, is generally pretty good; and I'm being given access to the workings of the minds of my students in a way that is both refreshing to read and also of considerable use in planning what we as a class might want to read or work on next.
Doesn't that mean that different classes would be following different paths?
That's exactly what it means. It's another point where I disagree with what passes for current educational wisdom. Over the last twenty years or so the "standards" movement has gotten a death grip on American schools in almost every state. The legislators and politicians who have mandated those standards and that testing are presumably acting with the best of intentions. But it's based on the theory that there are certain things that need to be taught to all students, all across the country, at a particular grade level simultaneously. Anyone who has spent even ten minutes in a classroom full of, say, 25 second-graders, or 22 tenth-graders, knows that it is ludicrous to expect that every student in that room is ready to learn the same thing in the same way at the same time. Some of those second-graders may not yet know how to decode words of more than one syllable. Others will be reading at an "eighth grade level." Some will not be able to add two-digit numbers; others know how to multiply and divide.
So what happens is that the teacher tries to hold the middle ground, to teach to the average student. Which means that on any given day perhaps a third of the students are not yet ready to learn what is being taught, and another third have already learned it and are essentially wasting their time waiting for the others to catch up. It makes no sense.
I remember sitting on a second-grade class taught by a veteran teacher. She was using all the latest technology. She had the lesson all programmed for the state-of-the-art lcd display at the front of the class. She was animated and supportive and had everyone's attention. Every time she asked a question, kids were smiling and their hands were waving. They all knew the answers and were just dying to be called upon. It was the kind of scene that might have been featured in a promotional video for the school. But from my perspective, it embodied everything that is wrong about our current model of classroom instruction. The kids clearly knew all the answers already; except of course, for the ones that didn't. The teacher was doing all the work. And nobody, on that particular day, was learning anything.
So that's one tremendous problem with grade-level standards: they lock the teachers and the students into fulfilling predetermined expectations which one the one hand they may not be ready for and on the other hand they may have already met.
When the standards are linked to testing, there's another problem as well: the tests wind up stifling any innovation or independent thinking that might ever arise spontaneously in the classroom. I know this from first-hand experience teaching AP English classes. I was very much aware, during the semester, that my students' learning, my own teaching ability, the reputation of the school, and the socioeconomic desirability of the town, were all going to be judged to some degree by how the students did on the end-of-the-year AP exam. On countless occasions, the class would get interested in a topic, or come up with an idea for a project, or ask if we could pursue some new line of thought to its logical conclusion. The students were, as students always are, alive with questions and ideas and energy. But again and again I found myself having to say some variation on "Well, that's a great idea, but it really doesn't have anything to do with what's going to be on the AP exam, and that's what we are here to prepare for. So let's go back to work on that." The presence of the high-stakes exam at the end of the semester or the end of the year acts as blanket to smother any innovation or original thought. Many people have observed and commented on how arts programs and elective programs of all kinds have fallen by the wayside as schools have been forced to focus on "preparing" kids for the yearly state tests in Reading and Mathematics. The message of the test is clear: if it's not on the test, it's not important. On the other hand, what I consider to be most important for students learn is not going to show up on any test.
Like attentiveness. Like perseverance. Like enthusiasm for learning. Like the ability to use reading and writing as a tools for exploration and the extension of thinking, rather than just means to the end of getting an assignment over with. Like the ability to read as a writer and write as a reader.
What does that mean?
It means that reading and writing are not—or should not be—separate, unrelated skill sets. It's true that they are often taught as if they are. Students are taught that reading is essentially a process of decoding what has been written in order to identify the main idea that the author is communicating. Students are taught that writing is the means by which they can demonstrate to someone else—most often the teacher or other authority figure—that they have learned something they were supposed to have learned. (If a law was passed forbidding students to write essays on tests or essays in response to classroom readings, I fear there would be little or no writing left in today's schools.) I myself went through eighteen years of education in elementary school, junior high, high school, college, and graduate school without once being asked by my teachers to think about what I might learn about writing from the people I was reading, or what I might learn about being a better reader from the writing I was doing. And yet those two questions are at the heart of a very powerful self-instructional dynamic. I tell my students that in addition to whatever else they might know about being a good reader, they should reserve some part of their energies as readers to making note of what this particular writer is doing on paper that they would not have thought to do, or to do in that way particular way. If I'm reading a good writer, I should be open to the possibility that there is something I can learn about writing from paying attention to how the writer is saying what s/he has to say. That’s reading as a writer.
Then, once students start making it a point of practice to notice what it is that the writers they admire have done, the next step is to try to write something like that, or, at the very least, to broaden their conscious repertoire of writing strategies to include whatever it is they saw and liked in what they have most recently read. That is writing as a reader.
Once you begin to discipline yourself in this manner, it sets up a virtuous cycle: what you read brings you back to your writing with a fuller sense of what is possible, and what you write brings you back to your reading with a greater sensitivity toward and appreciation for the elements of craft present in what you read. Because you are reading better, your writing improves; because you are writing better, your reading improves.
You say you didn't learn this in school. Where did you learn it?
In the 1980's the public school system in which I was teaching contracted to bring in someone from the Poet-in-the-Schools. The woman who came, Barbara Helfgott-Hyett, not only gave workshops for elementary students but also offered after-school writing workshops for teachers. A great deal of what I can claim to know about teaching writing came from Barbara.
She would begin each session with a model poem. We would read the poem together out loud and then share observations about writerly choices: what did this writer do? Once we had come up with a list, our task would be to write about something from our own experience, borrowing whatever elements of the model poem seemed to be interesting or useful.
The very first poem she asked us to read was this poem by Theodore Roethke:
Child on Top of a Greenhouse
The wind billowing out the seat of my britches,
My feet crackling splinters of glass and dried putty,
The half-grown chrysanthemums staring up like accusers,
Up through the streaked glass, flashing with sunlight,
A few white clouds all rushing eastward,
A line of elms plunging and tossing like horses,
And everyone, everyone pointing up and shouting!
If you look at this poem carefully, you might notice a number of things.
• It's one sentence.
• It's seven lines.
• Syntactically, it's a list of sense details: the wind, the splinters, the chrysanthemums, the clouds, the elms, the people. But each item on the list is animated by action verbs: billowing, crackling, staring, flashing, rushing, plunging, tossing, pointing.
• It's a memory of a child who has done something he wasn't supposed to do.
• It's written in first person, and presents itself as a memory of a particular event.
And so on. There are other observations that might be made as well. For example, the line about the chrysanthemums "staring up like accusers" gets a lot of work done; not only does it provide us with a visual image, but it tells us something about the child's state of mind: he (she?) stands accused. He is where he should not be, doing what he should not be doing, which sets up the tension implied in the last line, when everyone (everyone!) is pointing up and shouting. The poem is structured in such a way as to make us sympathize with the child's dilemma: he's in one kind of trouble now, and will be in another kind of trouble shortly.
One way to proceed, having made such a list, would be simply to attempt—writing as a reader—to write something like this, something that borrows or builds upon whatever elements of the original poem interest you.
In this case, after we read and discussed the poem with Barbara, she focused in on the fact that this was a memory poem, and so as a post-reading, pre-writing exercise she asked us to identify a time when we had done something we were not supposed to do. Then she walked us through a series a series of questions, in response to which we jotted down words and phrases that the questions called to mind. These "memory questions" included ones like the following:
Where are you? (If you were to find yourself there, how would you know where you were?)
What time of year is it? (How do you know?) What time of day is it? (How do you know?)
What is the weather like?
Where is the light coming from?
Who is with you? What are you wearing?
What can you see? Name some things you could you point to. Name some things you could touch.
What do the things you see remind you of?
What can you hear? What does each sound remind you of?
What can you smell? What does the smell remind you of?
How do you feel? Physical sensations? Emotions?
What is the most significant object in this memory? Describe.
Are any words spoken? Can you remember any of the exact words?
What actions or events take place? List them in order.
What color do you associate with this memory? What animal? What plant?
How do you feel about this memory now? Sad? Embarrassed? Angry?
What is the most important thing about this memory?
Is there anything else that I haven’t asked about this memory that needs to be said?
Once we had the our responses on paper, Barbara had us go ahead and circle whatever words or phrases surprised us, or looked like they might be useful in drafting a one-sentence poem of the kind that Roethe had written. Then we were asked to number the circled words or phrases in the order they would likely appear.
Then we drafted a poem, aiming for a seven-line, one sentence format. (Unless, of course, we came up with a different format, for whatever reason.) Then we revised it, gave it a title (which might or might not be have been "Child ____________"), typed it up, and brought it to our next workshop class to share.
As it turns out, I have used this particular exercise perhaps 25 or 30 times in my own classes, at every level from Grade 1 to Grade 12. It's a very simple, very powerful exercise that is rooted in the assumption that you can use what you are reading to help you frame a kind of writing that will be a new departure for you as a writer.
Needless to say, having done this exercise, you are going to be looking at the next poem you read with a fresh set of eyes. You will notice, for example, if the author of The Next Poem does any of the same things, or all of the same things, or none of the same things that Roethke chose to do or that you decided to do in your own writing.
One other notion: I have found, both as a teacher and as a writer, that it is often helpful, having completed a draft of almost any kind, to shift gears and do a short process reflection. You can write about what you did, what you were thinking, what worked, what you had trouble with, how you feel about the result, what you might do differently the next time. I find for myself that this kind of metacognitive reflection helps me to solidify and imprint in my mind what it is that I am doing and what I have learned. And I find as a teacher that reading students' process reflections gives me a great deal of useful information about what is going on in their minds individually as they are working, which in turn allows me to plan better for what I might want to plan to address in class in the days to come.
One other thing: I strongly recommend that teachers themselves write responses to whatever writing assignments they give to their students. For a number of reasons. First of all, I found out early in my career that assignments I thought would be easy for students often turned out not to be so. So I got into the habit of doing the assignments myself so that I could be in a better position, before I reviewed their work, to understand what they were up against. Secondly, I believe as a point of pedagogy that teachers should not be asking students to do things that they themselves believe are not worth doing or would not choose to do. "Do as I say, not as I do" strikes me as being a very poor instructional model, and one that is bound to inspire a certain amount of cynicism and resentment on the part of some, if not all, of one's students. Thirdly, I find it helpful from time to time to share what I have written with the students, so that they can 1) see that I care enough about what I am asking them to do that I am willing to do it myself, and 2) have a clearer sense of exactly what is being asked of them and what the result might look like.
So you are modeling for them what it is you would like them to do?
Yes. I think it's critically important for a teacher to be the student he wants his students to be. I have often had students comment that they were willing to go along with something that they might not have chosen to do on their own simply because they saw that I seemed to care enough about it to want to do it myself, so they figured there must be something to it. If I am going to ask my students to read a lot, and write a lot, and try to think well about what they are doing and be disciplined and attentive as they are doing it, I think I definitely ought to be doing the same.