Episode 004 Transcript

The Idea About Writing You Most Want to Die (8/31/17)

STEPHEN THORNE [bumper]: Hi, I'm Stephen Thorne. I first met Peter Horn in 1999 at the Bread Loaf School of English in Vermont. We shared the stage together on a wonderful Shakespeare project. You're listening to Episode 004 of the Point of Learning podcast, recorded at the Bread School of English in Vermont. Let's take a listen! 

VOICEOVER (Peter Horn): On today's show, a little something different. I'll be speaking with four graduate students at the Middlebury Bread Loaf School of English. Let's meet them, shall we? Sarah Murphy is a librarian at a K-12 independent school in New York City who teaches reference skills, media literacy, and research writing. She was recently featured in Teen Vogue for a piece on how to identify "fake news." 

SARAH MURPHY: It's also so important for the for students to be able to evaluate the different sources that they do find. So finding is one thing, searching is one thing, but being able to tell the difference between the source that's going to help you and the source that's not--for any number of reasons--is such a huge, huge, huge part of the process. 

VOICEOVER: Stacy Rodgers teaches English, film, and Theory of Knowledge at a public high school in Austin, Texas. Her current teaching load is 130 students--the lowest she's had in 10 years, by the way. 

STACY RODGERS: Ultimately, why I love doing what I do is that I feel that it's a portal into thinking about the world in different ways. So we're reading these texts and we're getting into the minds of these people, but also at that same time, in order to really engage with it, you have to evaluate it in terms of your own experience. 

VOICEOVER: Amy McNeill teaches English and journalism at a public junior high school in Utah. She teaches all three of her school's grades--seventh, eighth, and ninth. She also does yearbook, the student council, the newspaper ... it may be that she does too many things.

AMY McNEILL: In a way, writing is never done; it's just due. You just have to give it to somebody to read it and whether you're going to go publish it, or whether you're giving it to a teacher, whether you're giving it to a friend, or whatever you're doing with your writing, at some point you have to be done with it because you've you've got to give it to a reader. But that doesn't mean that it's going to be perfect. 

VOICEOVER: Robyn Lee Horn is a theater teacher at a performing arts magnet school. She teaches freshmen and juniors acting, playwriting, dramaturgy, directing. She was Teacher of the Year for 2017. And I get to talk with her about school and students nearly every day, because we're married! 

ROBYN LEE HORN: We're in this class right now where like everything is out the window. That's strong. Maybe everything is not, but every assignment ends with the sentence "Leave some rough edges"--which is so freeing! And he encourages us to embrace cliché, embrace sentimentality--it's really made the process of writing so enjoyable.

VOICEOVER: I sought these four friends out to help us explore the question: "What is the idea about writing, or the teaching of writing that you'd most like to die?"--which I posted on social media to crowdsource responses. Today's episode will also showcase some of these posts read by the author. As you know, Point of Learning is a show about what and how and why we learn. In this first season, I'm tracing strong influences on me in my early teaching. [The Middlebury] Bread Loaf [School of English] was transformative for me as a Master's student, which I was, happily, each summer between 1999 and 2003. The Vermont campus of the school holds very fond memories of challenging classes, great theater, and opportunities to make friends with teachers working in different kinds of schools across the country. So let's get started. If you're not a teacher of writing this episode is still for you. As Amy discovered a little while back ... 

McNEILL: I asked a group of my friends, none of whom were teachers, a few years ago--because I wanted to know so that I could share it with my students: "What are some of the things--when do you need to write?" And every one of them without exception said, "I write all the time." Whether it's just emails to colleagues, or reports, or any sort of thing. I had a friend who was an engineer, one who worked in construction management, one who worked as a graphic designer for a company. And they all said that day that writing was important and that it was important to be able to communicate ideas.

[05:12]

VOICEOVER: Act 1: Essays. The ubiquitous generic term for school writing takes its name from the French verb essayer, which means "to try," as in "to try out or test" an idea. It's a tribute to Michel de Montaigne, the 16th century philosopher who popularized the genre. Unfortunately, things in school have veered a good deal from his aim of writing to discover what he thought--most upsettingly for many teachers and students in the form of what is called "the five-paragraph essay," a tidy script including one paragraph each for introduction, three main points, and a conclusion that too often presents nothing new. As you will hear, the five-paragraph essay was a popular candidate for The Idea About Writing that teachers and professors Would Most Like to Die. Stacy gets us started.

RODGERS: When I'm thinking about essays, which I think are weird things that exist in the world, I remember learning about Montaigne a little bit, as background knowledge for teaching Hamlet. But I was just so amazed by his writing, because he's sort of credited with inventing the essay--but what he wrote was like, "Look at my belly button, isn't that weird? I never noticed that!"--and you know he wrote these really just sort of very personal things that often went someplace interesting, which is why people still read him now. And so much of Hamlet's musings are connecting to this idea of wonder about the self. So and that's kind of some of what I was thinking as I was reading.

McNEILL: That kind of goes to what a lot of people mentioned which was the five-paragraph essay or the very rigid form ...

DANIEL TURKELTAUB: I'm Daniel Turkeltaub, Associate Professor of Classics at Santa Clara University, and the idea that the teaching of writing that I'd most like to die is the five-paragraph essay. I imagine it's a useful tool for introducing argumentative writing, but students reproduce it mechanically when they learn only the blueprint and not the principles of argumentation, paragraph structure, and exposition that would allow them to progress to more sophisticated writing. I've seen more than a few eight-page papers comprising exactly five paragraphs, and most papers I receive suffer from those dreadful "funnel" introductions and conclusions with their vaguely stated theses. 

McNEILL: The problem is it isn't the model itself. It's just that we often don't teach students that there are other ways to write, or that there are methods beyond the organization that we've taught them that's really only valuable in academia. Nobody--five-paragraph essays I suppose have their place in writing a research paper--there's a kind of organization--but nobody outside of academia writes anything remotely like that. That's not "real" writing. 

AL MORALES: I'm Al Morales, a public middle school administrator in New Jersey, and the idea about the teaching of writing I'd most like to die is the five-paragraph essay. Changing our minds requires a moment of surprise in order to make our former beliefs vulnerable to change. The five-paragraph formula exposes everything, and leaves little room for surprise: if I agree with the claim, I'll look for opportunities to agree with the author and further solidify my position; if I disagree, I'll look for holes to discredit the so-called "facts." So let's give students license to find new and inventive ways to create the surprise necessary to change minds. 

NONI THOMAS LOPEZ: Hi. This is Noni Thomas Lopez, Assistant Head of School for Teaching and Learning at Ethical Culture Fieldston School. We are a pre-K through 12 independent school located in the Bronx and Manhattan in New York City. The idea about the teaching of writing that I would most like to die is the idea that the thesis statement must come at the end of the first paragraph in any expository essay. Students should be allowed to experiment with different ways to lay out their argument like real writers do. 

R. L. HORN: We teach this five-paragraph essay like "this is how you speak the language of writing," whereas! There are so many different ways to approach it, and if you look at the five-paragraph essay as just one form--because you can't throw it out. You can't throw out the window and send them off to college and not have them learn it, because there's going to be teachers who want that and they need to know those skills. But to have that as part of the vocabulary, instead of the only vocabulary, I think is great. 

VOICEOVER: The night before rerecorded, Robyn and I were sitting on the back deck [a.k.a. Moby Deck] of the Bread Loaf theater with some other teachers talking about how strange it is that we ask kids to read fiction like novels and short stories, but so many times we only ask them to respond to it by writing non-fiction, namely essays. 

R. L. HORN: The idea that we're looking at all these different forms of writing--of poetry and plays--but you're responding to them all through this same form, through this five-paragraph form, this analytical form. And it will be so wonderful to have that just be a part the communication, a part of the way that you're learning to write. 

VOICEOVER: We also talked about how important models of strong non-fiction writing can be. 

MURPHY: I learned writing by reading; I continue to learn writing by reading. And one thing that I notice that my students are not--the reading that they are assigned is either novels, fiction, poetry, sometimes plays, but very rarely any kind of article which is most of the reading that most of us do. Most adults probably read articles more than anything else, either online or in print. 

McNEILL: I think that's an important thing to give students: good models. It's important for students to have something that they can look at and model and that gives them other opportunities to try new forms. This essay format is not the only option. They have this whole array of ways in which they can format their writing, but giving them the models--finding those models and saying, "Look what this writer did here. Let's try and model that. Let's try and recreate that in in a different way." And it gives them a sense of ownership, and a sense of being able to use their writing as good thinking. 

VOICEOVER: And as we use writing to think, it can be helpful to remember that we are not playing Scrabble. The best word isn't necessarily the longest one.  

ALEXIS ANDERSON-URRIOLA: This is Alexis Anderson-Urriola from New Jersey, and the idea about writing that I'd like to see die is the focus on big words. I dislike the idea that using complex vocabulary results in sophisticated writing. It's not Scrabble! Big words don't win points. I tell my students, "If you would never say a word aloud, you should never write it!"  

[13:15]

VOICEOVER: Act 2: Audience. The traditional transaction for high school writing assignments is teacher assigns; student writes for teacher. A number of people responded with the desire for more varied, authentic audiences. 

SUSAN LYTLE: Hi, this is Susan Lytle. I'm an Emeritus Professor of Literacy from the University of Pennsylvania. I believe that students of all ages need authentic audiences for their writing--and there really are a million ways to make that happen, both in and out of the classroom, especially with some of the affordances of the internet. Too much school writing is into a vacuum, for the teacher only. 

VOICEOVER: Stacy introduced the interdisciplinary nature of writing.  

RODGERS: I do wish--to play "Perfect World"--I do wish we had more time to collaborate with teachers across the school in our schools. Because I don't think the frustrations with the way students write is something that only English teachers experience. Writing is a part of many--especially when they get into high school--it's a part of their demonstration of knowledge in many of the areas. So I don't know, I am really interested that it's the science teachers that are the most interested in your assistance as a librarian. 

MURPHY: Well, in those cases I think that they--even in middle school, they model their work and I'm sure this is true of Molly, who talks about AP biology lab reports ... 

VOICEOVER: Molly is a high school science teacher who wrote that the Idea About Writing She'd Most Like to Die is the idea that writing for subjects other than English doesn't require any of the form, function, or flow learned in students' English classes. She believes students need to apply all of the skills they've learned in English class to their, for example, AP Bio lab reports--so their teacher doesn't lose her mind trying to decipher them. 

MURPHY: They are really looking at the peer-reviewed system of writing journal articles to discuss your findings, and as science teachers that's the process they've gone through and so it's the process that they want to prepare their students to go through--and I really mean this, even in middle school. So they see that as so essential, but they also recognize that it requires skills outside of the scientific method and outside of what they're doing in their labs and they remember, I'm sure, as teachers and as humans, where they learned to write, and they remember the necessity of applying your writing understanding to other subjects. 

McNEILL: That also speaks to the idea of writing for an audience--that you're going to write differently when you're writing a science, peer-reviewed article than you are if you're going to do an article in The New Yorker, because you have a different audience. And so understanding the changes that you're going to make is crucial to creating a coherent piece of writing, and a piece of writing that's going to accomplish the purposes you want it to accomplish. 

NANCY LATIMER: My name is Nancy Latimer, and I am an educational technology specialist in New Jersey. The idea about the teaching of writing that I'd like most to die is the concept that we are still exclusively writing for old media, such as print publications. For example, I have a son who writes a very popular blog about physical fitness, and he has often remarked to me about the fact that schools don't teach students how to write for an entirely different audience such as he does on the web.

McNEILL: A lot of people here mention that that was something that they would like--that in school, writing is most often just given to the teacher for the teacher to read and it's part of how the system is kind of set up, you know, they do something and turn it in for a grade and then they get it back. That's that's the way that school works, but that's not the way that writing is perhaps most effective. 

WARREN HYNES: Hi, this is Warren Hynes. I teach English and journalism at Westfield High School in New Jersey. The idea about teaching that I'd like to see it go away is the idea that the teacher is the audience for publication of essays and whatever written pieces students have done. I believe that it's really important for students to forego the teacher as the main audience but to turn to blogs, to publications, to wider audiences that receive their written work. As a journalism teacher, I see every day when students are able to put their work out there and have others read it, there's a whole other level of satisfaction and fulfillment that they experience. I think we can do that throughout our teaching--to extend the audience that receives the students' work, so that they can feel so much more gratified and proud of themselves, and receive much more feedback for the work that they've done. 

[18:37]

VOICEOVER: Act 3: Author. What about the creator of a piece of writing? The panel considers what's worth kids' time to write, single vs. multiple authors, and the power of each student's unique voice. 

P. HORN: Sarah, you said one of the things you'd like to say goodbye to is a blue book essay. (And we should say that this is this like an old-school kind of college format--I think that's where a lot of people would recognize blue books would be used in college, but it's still used in some kinds of schools under the post-secondary level where kids have no recourse to anything else--it's just a timed piece of writing and just from your own brain.) You'd like to see this go bye-bye. Why? 

MURPHY: Well, I think it's partly due to the fact that I am a librarian and not an English teacher, and that I measure success in my students by their curiosity and their ability to find information, to want to look for information. And so the idea of saying, "Your brain is the only tool you have for the next hour and a half. Fill this book with what's in your brain" to me is very antithetical to what looks like learning to me. And it is, I think, pretty product-based, not process-based. And I think that the stresses of that environment are horrific! 

McNEILL: I don't think it's as valuable to to know all the things as to be able--in 2017, we have access to all of those sources. It's more important to know how to access the information than to have all of the information stored. And you, Robyn, had a professor-- 

R. L. HORN: --a professor, a beloved professor Teresa Choate, who, in reference to her brain, and specifically her memory, would say, "I don't remember. I have a very bad hard drive, but an excellent search engine!" You know, "I know where to look, I know who to talk to." And not just what books to look at, but who to reach out to, who to communicate with about certain topics. 

MURPHY: Yeah, and that speaks to collaboration, which we haven't really touched on in writing, but that does seem so important to me in terms of real-world life skills. And obviously in a vacuum, in a test-taking situation, a timed assessment with a blue book in front of you, there's no collaboration, either with another author of another piece or a classmate, or someone who's an expert. And those are things that I think it's valuable for students to be able to access. And I also just want to say one more thing about the "search engine." It's also so important for students to be able to evaluate the different sources that they do find. So finding is one thing, searching is one thing, but being able to tell the difference between the source that's going to help you and the source that's not--for any number of reasons--is such a huge, huge, huge part of the process. 

McNEILL: One thing I notice that is another thing that I'd like to see die is some students get their voice beat out of them! Some students already have the voice, and I had a student--actually, for me, I was lucky enough to have him for all three years of junior high (and it probably wasn't as lucky for him but ...)--he just had this brilliant writing voice. It was so full of personality, but he was he was really smart, and he got his points across well, but just delicious writing! And I told him probably 25 times to never let anyone beat that out of him, because I know that's a thing, when some teachers are looking for something specific, or looking for this "analytical" or whatever--that they say, "Oh you know you're not supposed to use first person or you're not supposed to use {any of these kinds of techniques}," and I don't want this kid to lose his brilliant voice! I don't want to lose part of himself by having to conform to the system. And so I made sure to tell him a lot, "If you have to do other stuff, that's fine, but don't ever lose this part of yourself. Make sure that you keep the voice you already have.  

[23:41]

VOICEOVER: Act 4: Purpose. In this section, the panel takes on how we think about the purpose of writing. In other words, what do we want students to get out of their writing? What do we as educators and citizens want out of it? Is the point to demonstrate learning, or should writing be about discovery and self-reflection? Maybe it should be about a more just and democratic society. It's all possible. Robyn gets us started by talking about a playwriting class that she's taking right now. 

R. L. HORN: So we're in this class right now where like everything is out the window. That's strong. Maybe not everything is out the window, but every assignment ends with the sentence, "Leave some rough edges"--which is so freeing, and he encourages us to embrace cliché, embrace sentimentality, and it's really made the process of writing so enjoyable! And so since I teach freshmen, I just feel like 100 percent, all the way, that's the way I'm going to teach playwriting freshmen. I'm going to--"Rough edges! Embrace sentimentality! Embrace repetition! Embrace all these like 'bad'"--you know, they're so worried about being "boring" or repeating ideas that they've heard before, and I really feel like "Go there first. Let go of all the judgment, and don't worry!" But I mean the hard thing is that you sort of necessarily have to then let go of the grade, like how do you like have a rubric and say also, "Leave some rough edges"--So that's a really hard thing about being a teacher, you guys. Can we throw grades out? 

McNEILL: Please! Pretty, pretty, pretty please! [General agreement] But that's a whole different discussion.

R. L. HORN: Is it?

McNEILL: I don't know.

R. L. HORN: I don't know.  

ELEANOR LEAR: Hi! This is Eleanor Lear, and I teach at a private school in New Jersey, high school English. And the idea about teaching of writing that I would most like to die is writing solely for a grade. Writing for a grade serves a purpose for some kids, but writing for an authentic audience gets better results. I would like to see students invest as much in their writing for class as they do in her college essay.

McNEILL: I like the idea of progress, though.

MURPHY: Yeah.

McNEILL: Because in a way writing is never done; it's just due. You just have to give it to somebody to read it, and whether you're going to go publish it, or whether you're giving it to a teacher, or whether you're giving it to a friend, or whatever you're doing with your writing--at some point you have to be done with it, because you've got to give it to a reader. But that doesn't mean that it's going to be perfect. And the idea of making progress from where you start to where you finish--it's okay if you have some rough edges, but did you learn something along the way? Did you make progress from where you used to be? Thinking about maybe grading writing in that model--rather than "Did you meet every single criteria on this universal rubric that I'm going to use for every single student?"--Where were you, and where are you now? 

RODGERS: And a reflective component to writing also is nice. To where I started, like putting yourself in there, it's not going to be--writing isn't going to be interesting if the person writing is not interested in what they're talking about, right? We have tasks, we are all, I'm sure, beholden to some sort of tests that our students will have to take that will determine whether they advance. Nevertheless, even if it might cost you a few points on a test, but you can teach your kids to write about what they think is interesting within the task that they have ... I'd rather an interesting piece of sloppy syntax, than a perfectly formed set of paragraphs that don't go anywhere, but that are very neat, and they conform to a formula. 

HEATHER ROCCO: This is Heather Rocco from New Jersey. The idea about the teaching of writing that I'd most like to die is that there is a formula students need to follow to make writing "good"; that five-paragraph essays are sufficient; that thesis statements have three points; that conclusions need to summarize your argument; that you cannot use first- or second-person in your writing. And that fragments are bad.  

RODGERS: Ultimately, why I love doing what I do is that I feel that it's a portal into thinking about the world in different ways. You're reading--The God of Small Things is a text I love to teach, right?

P. HORN: Arundhati Roy?

RODGERS: Arundhati Roy. Having them like--"Okay, here we are at this point in the novel. Who's the good guy? Is there a good guy? Who is the good guy, and what makes them 'good,' according to your way of thinking about the world? Is your understanding of the world being modified by her way of portraying the world?" Because it's a novel about justice, it's a novel about everything! And also, even that. I love it for that too. What is it that you see? I can tell you what to think about it, but also there are endless possibilities for what you could find in this. 

P. HORN: One of the things that some kids have been trained, unfortunately, to deliver is what the teacher thinks about the book. I think that's one of the things that they've been trained to do--so that there is a right answer to this. [Teachers need to] make sure that you're opening it up to say, "Writing is about discovery!" Writing is about this--I want to know what you understand about it, but I also want to know what you think, and what you feel, if you're willing to put that out there. 

RODGERS: There's nothing that I would love better than for you to point me to something that I don't already know . That's the most fun for me as a teacher, in terms of reading or writing, is to is to hear that you're really excited about this or are interested in this, but moreover that you're seeing this in a way that I'm not telling you how to see it. You're seeing it on your own terms, and of course with that you have to defend your idea, and that has to be based and in details. You know you have to push back on all that so that they ... become good readers. To me, I think the most important thing about writing is demonstrating that you have learned how to read. 

VOICEOVER: Things get a little playful here, as I have the rare opportunity to call out Sarah Murphy.

MURPHY: Even when I am writing an e-mail to someone, if I want to persuade them of something, you better believe there's going to be some secondary sources in there that I will link to in the course of this e-mail! 

RODGERS: I do believe it. 

MURPHY: I think you've probably received one or two of these e-mails!

P. HORN: How about a primary source? "Here's a blog I've already written on this topic."

MURPHY: But.

P. HORN: You've done that. You looked at me like, "Oh, I've done that before. I've quoted myself." 

MURPHY: I did! I was giving  travel tips for Ireland to some friends and I linked to my own Trip Advisor reviews.

P. HORN: Yeah, see? I see you, Murphy!

MURPHY: But it seems like something I want my students to be able to do: I want to be able to review things online, and to look at other reviews and to understand what that might mean, and to think about that, and then also be able to show someone, "Oh here's an example of something I've written online, and these skills are just completely absent, and those [students] who have them have them the way we have them--because they've picked them up. They've taught themselves, they've figured it out. They're not learning it. And clearly those are the kinds of things that, as adults or even just citizens, they're going to want to be able to do! And I'd like for us to have some role in teaching them that. 

VOICEOVER: For more on the difference between learning and acquisition--the process by which Sarah is saying many students pick up and teach themselves Internet-based reference skills--see the related segment in Point of Learning episode number 001 [with Kevin Johnson, 5/18/17].  

[32:31]

Act 5. Process. (Got to have five acts for the English teachers listening today.) This last one is about the process of writing, including being honest about how hard it is. 

McNEILL: I think there are two things that I do with that. One is showing [students] models of my own writing process, showing them multiple versions of something that I've created and where it started that was really awful, and places where I made--or writing in front of my students, and showing them, "I'm going to try this," and verbalizing my thought process and my working through that. The other is giving them multiple options of ways to work through the process of drafting something, because what works for one student isn't going to work for all of the students. Some students need to have an outline of a fiction story that they're writing; they've got to know every single thing that happens before they can draft the thing. Some students need to discover it as they're writing it. Every writer has a little bit different process, and so teaching students that, "Here are some tools. I'm going to give you some tools. These are some possible ways you could do it. Try these out. See which one works for you, or come up with your own way." You need a system, but your system isn't going to be the same as every other person. Not every person needs a graphic organizer for all of these exact steps that you're going to follow A to Z. Some people need that, but some people need other things, and giving them a toolbox of options helps a lot, I think, with creation.

R. HORN: That's so good, that you share your work with students, and that's something that I ... am committing to doing this coming year: writing with my kids, when I give them a writing assignment, to take it. Maybe not every one, because there's a zillion things to do, and sometimes you need to steal a minute to answer a parent's email, but, I mean, what a cool--to struggle with them! To write with them, to struggle with them, to work through ideas, to backtrack and go through that process with them, and show them that that's part of the joy of it. That's part of the fun. 

RODGERS: We keep saying "joy" and "fun." [Laughter] I would describe writing as--and I am an English teacher--and I would say maybe, if I'm lucky, 20 percent of the time I'm writing am I happy and enjoying myself. 

MURPHY: That's high, actually.

RODGERS: And it's probably not that, right?  I mean here I am at the Bread Loaf School of English, a graduate program, doing it of my own volition. It's really mostly because I want to do this, because I want to keep studying, but like I've got to go after this and sit and be tortured in front of a computer screen and at the end of it, I'll be glad I did it.

McNEILL: Part of being authentic, too, is being open and honest with students about what writing really is--and not seeing it as "Writing is this structured form," "Writing is timed or test-driven"--That writing is messy! That writing is hard! The number of times this summer that I've said, "Aaaargh! Writing is so hard!" I need to like--it's a high number. Writing is really difficult, and writing takes collaboration, writing takes lots of revision--lots and lots and lots of revision--and being open with students about "This is hard, and it might be a little bit miserable and it's gonna be messy" is I think empowering. Being open and authentic about what writing is helps them, and helps them be more open to the process.

VOICEOVER: As Robyn said a minute ago, sometimes teachers do need to attend to urgent business while class is in session. I get that. However ...

P. HORN: I believe this aspect of modeling is just so important. You know, clearly there are limits: You're not going to sit down and take your final exam alongside students and be like, "Wow! I'm kicking tail on this answer too!" I mean, you're not gonna do that. But to ask them to write about something, to reflect on something, and have them do it and have them see you doing it as well. And then you can talk with them about something that you're doing in real time. I mean there's just--to me there's nothing clearer that shows this is valuable, in much the same way--It's always a pet peeve, and it's maybe irrational of me, but when somebody shows a film in class and sits back reading papers or doing e-mail or whatever, how could that not be sending the message "I'm going to expect you to see this movie, but I'm not interested in this." Or "I've seen it before. This isn't interesting to me." It's like I'm here with you in real time, watching this with you, and I want to be able to talk with you about what you just saw and remind myself of it--

RODGERS: And how much does it validate the activity if you've seen this film that you're showing--50 times and yet you're still--

P. HORN: Interested! Exactly. Exactly.

RODGERS: The other thing that I try to do is when students see things--every year I've taught Hamlet for 10 years, and that means I've also taught it like probably 40 times because of the--or more, because of the number of sections of the class I have, right?

P. HORN: To literally 300,000 kids.

RODGERS: Something like that. Approximately.  Shoutout! Anderson Trojan alum! But you know, there are still things that I haven't even seen, but students see that--I'm not teaching them texts that I'm like, "I know this one. I got it all, right?" I'm teaching them texts that I still--and if I do feel that way, I'm like, "I'm tired of teaching this one. Let's push it out the curriculum!" 

P. HORN: And so you should!

RODGERS: Right? Because if I'm not excited to do it again, then they're going to know that.  And there are texts that kinda can hold up to that, that they like, but ... 

VOICEOVER: Robyn, our theatre teacher panelist, is about to talk a bit of drama process as a means for physically working through ideas about literature. She's going to mention tableau which is short for tableau vivant, French for a "living picture." As Amy will confirm, English teachers can use tableau as an exercise in which students imagine a scene from the given book or other situation that they then inhabit, striking poses without further movement or speech. 

R. L. HORN: There is something that I do when we're talking about plays where students are sort of creating tableaux to communicate theme, to communicate like What do you think happens after this play, What do you think happens in this gap in the play, or where you don't follow the characters, or we don't know what's going on. So they're working collaboratively and they don't have to verbalize first. They sort of get it but they maybe can't say it. And so they put it in their body, and it's timed--you get this amount of time to create these pictures, so I really like that exercise and I think it leads to some really fruitful conversation.

McNEILL: I do that same thing in my English classroom. It's amazing, just getting a different sort of literacy and a different sort of expression--by putting it in their physicality. 

P. HORN: And do you have that experience sometimes that kids that maybe hang back when there's a discussion, or aren't as strong in writing can step to the fore in that kind of situation? 

McNEILL: Absolutely, and they can express ideas differently with a different medium. 

P. HORN: I think it's so important to remember that--not just with kids who may have a developmental difference where it's much easier for them to speak than to write ... You know there was that line by Mel Levine, who said that "writing is the largest orchestra that we ask kids to conduct" because it's the composition of the ideas, but then it's dealing with all the sequencing and organization, and then all those tiny details that you know some people think are the most important. But they're the details of punctuation and spelling and so forth--but it's all of those things that happen at once. For some kids--for some adults--that is really difficult to juggle. Whereas they may be quite able to speak out those ideas--and then also, kids who are learning English as a second language, or third language--they can have quite a difference in terms of aural comprehension (what they can hear) and then orally what they're able to express, and then reading and writing can be at different levels. And that's always important to take into account when you know that those things are not necessarily at the same level. So coming at those points of expression from different ways can be very important as you're trying to get a sense for Where is this kid really at? 

R. L. HORN: Mmm, this is a whole other topic. But Stacy mentioned at one point writing with paper and pencil and I was thinking about Jenni Brand's comment about ... 

JENNI BRAND: Hi! This is Jenni Brand from Kennett Square, Pennsylvania. The idea about the teaching of writing that I'd most like to die is writing for assignments. Of course this is important, but I wish that I could see more writing with a pen and paper as a daily exercise. I know teachers have kids journal these days, which is different than my experience in the '80s, but it still feels assigned, like something they have to do. I wish that every class took the first or the last ten minutes to write whatever they felt like, with no grade at the end--but lots of help if a kid asked for it. When writing feels like breathing, I believe we'll all be in a better place. 

VOICEOVER: Jenni's comments speak to several worthwhile issues, including how to balance digital learning with traditional analog modes like pen or pencil and paper. 

McNEILL: My students keep notebooks, and this actually--the way that I do it started with a Bread Loaf class I took a couple summers ago about rhetoric and the power in print but also in digital media, and so we did a lot with digital stuff. We also did a lot with, I guess, "analog" sources, so we all kept a notebook and we we spent the entire class--we had to have our pen moving somehow, so we we colored pictures, we doodled, we took notes, we drew, and it was incredible! the sense of engagement that all of us had because we were using our hands the whole time. And it's kind of become an addiction for me in a way like I need to be writing and stuff, but it helps me engage with whatever I'm listening to. And I taught my students that, and a lot of them have said, "Finally I have a tool that helps me not zone out in classes, that helps me engage with what I'm doing," because I've taught them how to doodle in their notebooks. And it's like this whole new world because they're so--it's so ingrained to have everything digital that when they have this tactile thing in front of them, it's a new experience. And so I have them do a lot of charting, and a lot of writing in their notebooks like you -might--journal-writes or those kinds of things. But also just engaging with the physical pieces of paper has made a huge difference in my class, and I have kids that take those notebooks and they just fill them with all this wonderful stuff, and it's like this creative collection of their lives and of their ideas and of their experiences. And I've had a few students who've come back after a couple of years and they're like, "I'm still making notebooks! Let me show you my notebooks that I've made" because they're so engaged with the physicality of it. So for me, I find that to be very beneficial, but we also do a ton of stuff on computers. I have a Chromebook lab in my classroom and we do all of that as well. So I think there is a place for both of those.

VOICEOVER: May there be a place for all of it, and a classroom for any and all teachers like these. That's it for today's crowdsourced edition of the Point of Learning podcast. My great thanks to the panelists Robyn Lee Horn, Amy McNeill, Sarah Murphy, and Stacy Rodgers, as well as all those in the greater Point of Learning community who contributed Ideas About the Teaching of Writing They'd Most Like to Expire. Thanks also to Mark Wright (Bread Loaf '89) for supplying the lush piano score for today's show, and to you for listening and spreading the word about Point of Learning to anyone interested in what and how and why we learn. See you next month! 

 

  

Peter Horn