Thursday, April 1, 2010

Free Write

I feel like writing tonight. I've been doing a ton of reading the last week or two, and I've thought at one time or another about trying to put together a post about each piece individually, but one of the reasons I haven't, and one of the reasons I've been posting more fitfully recently, is that putting together a post is of that nature is basically a lot of work. It's almost nine o'clock in the evening now. I'm nearly always in asleep at or near ten o'clock, because I've found that my biorhythms are happier if I go to bed and wake up at a regular time. When I was younger I could stay up reading or working until eleven or twelve o'clock and be the worse for wear the next day. No longer.

So anyway, I thought that rather than start working on a post with a purpose I'd do what I maybe most enjoy doing as a writer, what I used to ask my students to do back in the day when I was actually teaching (I'll be teaching a class again in the fall, thank god), what I have gotten away from doing for some reason as my sense of what I've been trying to do in Throughlines has become more formalized, which is, just write. It's not like there's ever a dearth of words. Writing, as I have come to understand it and value it, does not have to be a formal, purposeful activity. It can be, and perhaps ought to be, at least some of the time, more of a welling up, like a song.

Of course, this is not the way we teach writing in school, at least not most of us, and not most of the time. Writing as we teach it, and as students learn it, is about meeting certain kinds of formal and structural and logical expectations that have been preordained by our subject-area teachers. We're told what to do, we give it our best shot, and we get it back, most often, with a grade on it, based on somebody's rubric or standard. I had a conversation with a colleague today about exactly such a situation, about how a student she had been trying to help had given an assignment his best shot and it had come back with some dismissive comments and a disappointing grade. And as we talked about it I was feeling sympathy for the student and disheartenment about the situation itself. Why does school have to be this way? What is the point? Where else but in school is anyone ever going to hand you back something you have written with a grade on it? And why would we want to do that, anyway? And once it has been done, and the damage is evident, how do we redress it?

Just before I sat down to write I was reading Frank Smith's The Book of Learning and Forgetting, which I found out about on Wes Fryer's blog. It's a book with a lot of what seems to be to be very clear, straightforward, commonsense thinking about literacy, and here's what he had to say (well, a piece of what he had to say) on the subject of damage control:

Students who have "failed" school literacy instruction for 10 years have learned that they can't read and write, that they don't want to or expect to, that they are "dummies." They must be persuaded that none of these things is true, that they are as competent (and as worthwhile) as anyone else—and probably know a great deal about reading and writing. None of this is accomplished without skill and sensitivity in intimate personal relations.

Well, it seems my song has become less lyrical. I've somehow drifted into expository mode, which may well be my default mode. The starling croaks, the raven himself is hoarse. At lunch today I mentioned that I was waiting for someone to take the bit in his teeth and the woman I was talking to looked startled. I'm not sure whether because she was not familiar with the expression or because she knew it and was shocked that I was using it in that context. I often do not know what is going to pop out of my mouth until it has already escaped. Which is, essentially, the mode I'm modelling here. I started up there at nine. Now it's ten to, and I'm ending down here. But this, this texture, these words, these commas, these repetitions, they push themselves up from underneath, like seeds, like starts, like birds startled into sudden flight. Charming, I'm sure: Thrice to thine, and thrice to mine, and thrice again to make up nine.



efoster said...

Amen! perfect. interestingly/ironically this is what we did at the department meeting after school wed.; and this is how it worked for me (as always, godwilling) -- I hope for most/all others. thanks (as always), liz

Mr. B-G said...

Why does it have to be this way? Perhaps it doesn't. Grading and rubrics are overrated. Genuine feedback, conference, and conversation are underrated. When we, as teachers, show we value the latter, we begin to change the paradigm.