Wednesday, July 4, 2007

A Certain Kind of Person

A friend recently passed along a book by Mike Schmoker called Results Now: How We can Achieve Unprecedented Improvements in Teaching and Learning. Schmoker gives a pretty good overview of what he sees as the problems and the possibilities with literacy education in the public schools. I particularly liked one section from Chapter 6 ("The Power of Authentic Literacy") on Writing and Thinking:

Writing and Thinking

Writing, combined with close reading, is among the most valuable, but least understood elements of schooling. Very few teachers have had the chance to consider the real case for writing, or to consider claims like the following:

If students are to make knowledge their own, they must struggle with the details, wrestle with the facts, and rework raw information and dimly understood concepts into language they can communicate to someone else. In short, if students are to learn, they must write. (National Commission on Writing, 2003, p. 9) (emphasis added)

As we've seen, Ted Sizer declares that writing is no less than "the litmus paper of thought" (in Marino, 1998, p. 20). To more fully appreciate the central role of writing, consider the reflections of Dennis Sparks, executive director of the National Staff Development Council. Writing, he informs us,

is a way of freezing our thinking, of slowing down the thoughts that pass through our consciousness at lightning speed, so that we can examine our views and alter them if appropriate. Writing enables us to note inconsistencies, logical flaws, and areas that would benefit from additional clarity. (Sparks, 2005, p.38)

When we write, Sparks is saying, we engage in a singularly close, intense examination of the quality of our own thoughts with respect to logic and clarity. The very act of writing — and revising — teaches us to identify and correct contradictions, to refine and improve and clarify our thoughts — to think (Hillocks, 1987). Writing may very well exercise the critical faculties in a way that can't be matched. As the National Commission on Writing tells us, writing "requires students to stretch their minds, sharpen their analytical capabilities, and make valuable and accurate distinctions." (2003, p. 13).

William Zinsser, a widely read authority on the subject, sees writing as "primarily an exercise in logic," that helps us to "write our way" into an understanding of texts or concepts that previously mystified us. (1988, p. 14) He urges us to recognize that

Meaning is remarkably elusive... Writing enables us to find out what we know — and what we don't know — about whatever we're trying to learn. Putting an idea into written words is like defrosting the windshield. The idea, so vague out there in the murk, slowly begins to gather itself into a sensible shape... all of us know this moment of finding out what we really want to say by trying in writing to say it.

This magical moment, so crucial to our ability to think and process knowledge, currently gets hardly a mention in teacher and administrative training. When we help students to write and revise, we are helping them to create and refine meaning itself, to make connections and see patterns that are at the heart of sophisticated thought. These connections lead to insight, invention, and solutions to problems in every realm — social, professional, political. With reading as its raw material, writing exercises the intellect as it moves from amorphous understanding toward precision and practical application. In the end, writing allows us to discover and produce thought in its clearest and most potent form.

For all our talk about the importance of higher order thinking, we continue to overlook the fact that writing, linked to close reading, is the workshop of thought — with an almost miraculous effect on students' critical capabilities.

All of what Schmoker has to say in this passage about the connections between reading, writing, and thinking strikes me as being patently obvious, and yet he is certainly correct that the message has not gotten through to many of our teachers, or worse, to many of their teachers. As I suggested in my previous post, a large part of what I do every single blessed day with my students is to work the connections between reading, writing, talking, and thinking. We read, we write about what we've read, we talk about what we've written, we go back and read again. We ask questions, we try out answers, we go back to the text to test the validity of the answers. Once we've arrived at one set of answers, we consider whether there might be another set of questions and another set of answers if we shift our point of view. It's a process of exploration. Generally, it works. If it isn't working, we try to turn our attention to the process itself and figure why it isn't working and how we might approach it differently.

The goal, the end product, of the process, is only incidentally to come up with a set of understandings about the text in question. The real goal is to come up with a set of understandings about what it means to be a student. This is something that I am at some pains to try to communicate to my students. We're here for a purpose. The purpose does not have to do with learning a discrete body of facts or achieving a particular grade. The purpose has to do with you learning to become a better reader, a better writer, a better thinker than you were at the beginning of the semester, so that when you move beyond this class to your other classes, and onward into the rest of your life, you will have a conscious and flexible repertoire of strategic reading and writing and discussion and thinking skills that you will be able to draw upon.

A colleague and mentor of mine once said that the longer she stayed in the profession, the more she realized that the goal of her teaching was to help the students learn how to be come a certain kind of person. I think I understand that, and I think I know what kind of person she meant: someone who is thoughtful, patient, openminded, flexible, and competent: able, in the words of our departmental mission statement, "to read compassionately, think exactly, write clearly and gracefully, and act with the compassion, exactitude, clarity, and grace they derive from their engagement with the English language and its literature."

It's a tall order. But it makes for interesting days in the classroom. I don't think I would want to settle for anything less.


Mr. B-G said...

Nice thoughts here. Thanks for reiterating the writing-thinking connection. I agree that we, as teachers, should be trying to cultivate skills and abilities within our students, rather than inculcate them with facts (although facts have their place too). Writing is a great way to do this, as anyone who writes already knows.

This blog has been a great resource for me. Whenever I want to read something insightful and thoughtful, I stop by. Rarely am I let down.

Keep up the great work.

Cindy Urbanski said...

Beautiful post. It triggered a good bit of thinking on my part. Your classroom sounds like such a wonderful place to be!