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Friday, October 12, 2012

eventually everything

The above Simon Laurie painting ("Still Life with Scraps") changed everything. Give it a look. Make an observation—an observation based on something you find interesting.

Now let me tell you a story. I love to paint. I love to paint simple pictures on small blocks of wood. I'll add a handful of words, then I'm done. A lot of my paintings seem silly—and I hope they are. But they're not ONLY silly. Something about the old fragments of wood, about painting with just a few colors, it all adds up to a kind of whimsical poignancy.

I also paint because I can't draw. In painting, I've learned how to hide my lack of talent.

Simply put, I'm afraid of what might happen if people discover I'm a fraud, if they discover I can't draw. But, I mean, so what? There's tons of stuff I can't do, and it bothers me not one whit. Weirder still, I find this to be the case almost universally: your average person is terrified—almost paralyzed—if asked to draw something and share it with others. Why is this? What is it about drawing that elicits such a deep phobia?

Whatever the answer, the other day I saw the above painting and felt a connection. I loved the simplicity. But there was also an invitation that held my attention, that kept me looking, that told me there was something just about to be revealed. But what? And then it appeared: I loved how flattened—how steamrolled—everything appeared, how so much of what I was seeing felt both geometric and organic. More than anything else, though, I loved how the artist seemed to have owned this perspective, this style—this choice.

And so the next day, at a meeting, I began to doodle (which I haven't done more than once or twice since high school). Almost without knowing it, I also had decided to own the rendering, to willfully steamroll everything—proper perspective and dimension be damned.

Below is the sketch I had when the meeting was over.

It looks like I drew it, but it also looks unlike anything else I've ever done. And thus I'm excited to sketch something in this way again. And, more importantly, I'm not afraid you won't like me anymore because you're now privy to my big bad secret: I'm not a gifted drawer.

I don't care. I'm not seeking talent. I'm just letting go.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Do Now

Teachers: here's a fun "Do Now" to engage reluctant writers. 

Look around. Almost everything you see is made by people for people. The objects that populate our world are here because they serve some (real or imagined) human need. Pick something—anything—and write down its name. full stop.

Next sentence: define and explain your object (give it the ol' 5W's treatment). See if you can land on some broader connection that you wouldn't have made were it not for holding forth about your object on the page.


Shoes.  Shoes protect your feet. They keep you comfortable when you have to stand; they soften the blow when you must run. We wear shoes to keep stuff out. Without shoes, we'd be forced to find the long way around. But with shoes, we can charge right through. With shoes, we scramble up. Or skip the whole way down.

Some shoes are just for play and some are just for work. We have shoes for underwater and shoes that help us fly. Some we wear to pray. And some we wear in war. We tie and buckle and strap. We slip and slide and pull.

If you want to know who I am, just look at my shoes. In the classroom, they are black and shiny—a penny in each tongue. On the weekend, I live in sandals. In the morning, slippers. On a jog, sneakers. The field, cleats. When I change my shoes, I change my me. And sometimes I wear no shoes at all.

Sunday, September 30, 2012


That's my first reaction to reading How Self-Expression Damaged My Students.

The author's premise is both disingenuous and absurd. He thinks (and thus taught) that process writing is ONLY expressivist. His whole argument, then, is like saying "running" can't be taught because he modeled sprinting to his students but they didn't get faster. I guess nobody every told him that running can serve other ends besides sprinting.

mply put, process/expressivist (call it what you will) is a MEANS for young writers to explore their thoughts and ideas. but...BUT (!!!) it doesn't follow that those thoughts and ideas MUST be channeled into narrative or fiction or "the day the kittens were born" or a poetry chapbook called "Me."

I feel embarrassed to be the one stating the patently OBVIOUS . . . but, well, why didn't the teacher use his writer's workshop as a "test kitchen" for students to develop ideas for expository writing that actually exists in the real world: reviews, proposals, evaluations, "how-to's," blog posts, newsletters, public speeches, analysis and interpretation of current events, executive summaries, advertisements, letters of request, calls to action, request for information, etc.? (These genres, with a bit of trial and error, can be spiraled up or down to different grade levels.)

The author tries to blame everyone but himself. He blames the "process method" for its failed approach . . . and he blames the students for failing to learn how to magically polish their prose (absent any instruction). Perhaps all of this could have been solved if the teacher didn't ONLY focus on exploratory writing. Perhaps he could have done what most writing teachers do, which is this:

1. let the students explore, create, and discover.
2. then help them establish an authentic audience and purpose for their raw material.
3. then (after they've edited and revised and work-shopped) model proofreading.

CODA: did ya notice how the author never gives ANY direct examples (or specifics showing) that his students didn't learn to write? He just goes into the cargo cult metaphor. I found that very, very weird. Can someone show me one single sentence in the article where he actually addresses (concretely, specifically) what aspects of the students' writings he found unsuccessful . . . and why?

In other words, if I were to talk about an approach (a writing theory/model) I tried in my classroom and how it didn't work, I would do this:

Discuss the approach. 
Discuss its rationale.
Show what we did (artifacts).

Analyze the artifact's quality (good, bad, rhetorical, etc.).
Generalize how the approach did or did not influence the quality of the artifacts.

Instead, here's the approach the author used.

Discuss the approach.
Discuss it rationale.
Make a metaphor.
Generalize about writing instruction.

And this guy wonders why he failed as a writing teacher.

*Framing device.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Children's Poem

My Horsey
By Ari Zeiger

I'm riding on a horsey.
It has handles by the ears.
This horsey's made by Grandpa
and passed down through the years.

My horsey's two-feet tall,
which might seem sort of low.
But I'm also small, so I give my all
when I'm rocking to and fro.

Oh, my horsey's made of wood
so sometimes I believe
that I'm riding on a horsey
and we're swinging through the trees.

You too should ride a horsey.
There's nothing more you'll love.
Just wrap your arms around like this
and hold on with a hug.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Children's Poem

By Ari Zeiger

Who am I?
What makes me me?
It all seems such a mystery.

Usually I just let this go.
I laugh out loud and say: I don't know.
But then sometimes, well, here's the thing.
I have this heart. And it likes to sing.
Yet once or twice the song gets lost.
And in its place, a million thoughts.
That's when I feel incomplete.
Like I'm no one you'd want to meet.

But soon enough, I'll feel OK.
Little by little, throughout the day.
And though my heart might still despair,
something trusts the music's there.
And then I'm free to dance again.
To follow bliss, to be my friend.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Children's Poem


We'd just strolled in the market
when something caught my eye.
Look, the cereal Grandpa eats!
Don't just pass it by.

I screamed.
I laughed.
I pointed.
But Daddy only smiled.
He wouldn't stop.
I cried, why not?
It was a long trip down the aisle.

So then I just went crazy.
It's one way to get heard.
I want that box,
and I want it a lot.
OK, I'll use my words.

Oh, look there's a banana.
Daddy, can I please?
I'm gonna scream.
Then you'll get mean
and say I made a scene.

Thank you so much, Daddy,
for peeling this for me.
Now pass me that tomato,
and I'll finally let you be.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Children's Poem

Kittens Need Space

Kittens need space,
but I wish it weren't true.
We just brought you home,
and now all I want to do. . .

But, Kitten, is that right,
can't I carry you around?
Mom says listen when
you struggle to get down.

I want you to love me.
And don't know what to do.
Kittens need space,
but I wish it weren't true.

The Show

The Show

I missed the show.
I couldn't go.
Whose fault it is,
I do not know.

I was on my bike,
but got a flat.
I began to run—
imagine that!

I was almost there
when I lost my shoe.
Now what's left for me to do?

A truck sped by.
I leapt in back.
It began to rain—
so much for that!

Now it's time for the show to start.
I tried to make it with all my heart.

But you were there,
so take it slow:
Tell me all,
go blow-by-blow.

Monday, July 23, 2012


My Room

I don't want to clean my room.
I want to make a snack—
some toast with jam,
an ice-cold plum,
and don't forget my nap.

I don't want to clean my room.
I want to write a poem.
Or ride my bike out to the lake,
or just be left alone.

I don't want to clean my room.
Who says that it's a mess?
A heap of clothes sits on my bed—
to that I will confess.

I don't want to clean my room.
But it's hard to find a path.
To walk around this cluttered ground,
feels like I'm doing math.

So I don't want to clean my room.
But let me pick that up—
and clear this off
and wipe those down.
OK, that seems enough.

No, I don't want to clean my room.
But it looks as if I did.
It's almost done,
and it was kinda fun.
You know I love to kid.

Because when my room is clean,
when everything's just so,
I feel at ease—
Hey, look, my keys!—
no matter where I go.

Sunday, July 22, 2012


The Bird

The bird that tried to race the rain
is back in flight to try again.

They say she's slow and far too old.
They say she's bound to catch a cold.

But there she goes—she's in the sky.
Her wings spread out and yet she's dry.

This drizzle yet may turn to storm.
These clouds keep coming—so dark and torn.

She zooms ahead, now left and right.
She swerves around a lightening strike.

Her feathers still have not got wet.
And if they do, she'll lose the bet.

So much depends upon this claim:
to be the bird that races rain.

Saturday, July 21, 2012


"I love..."

I love drawing and scribbling and sketching and more.
I smudge and smear and splatter and pour.

I'm drawing a house.
It's so wonderfully wrong.
The windows aren't square
and the chimney's too long.

And look over here,
at all that's crossed out.
OK, fine, I'll erase it.
There's no need to shout.

It's just I like how it's messy,
how it's every which way.
Wait, what are you doing?
You're going to throw it away?

Fine. Go ahead.
Now just let me be.
I don't care that it's bad.
I care that it's me.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

"To Feel"

we are made to move.
to climb, to dance,
to lose.

we are built for bliss.
we laugh, we love,
we miss.

we are here to feel.
the heart, the soul,
the tear.

we are here to fly.
to grow, to live,
to die.

Friday, July 13, 2012

"On Moving"

sometimes poetry seems the only way to find the words
the emotion
the insight
the observation
the thing that will make a difference

and so i come to the poem
not to make a splash or find an audience
but to live and look around
to cry
to laugh
to feel

to truly feel this life
and let go.

Saturday, June 23, 2012


"Two Sitting Figures - New Orleans, LA"

This sculpture before me.
This thing I can name.
This black copper
—industrial, geometrical, anonymous.

Two bodies, I think.
A woman and man, I think.
A couple, I think.

The woman in peace.
Something about her legs, hushed before her.
Something about the way this face tilts away.

The man leans near.
Wants to hear.
Wants to say.

I want to ask if she is young or old.
(I can't tell.)
I want to ask if she's with child.
(I can't tell.)

Sculpture, your heads are those windows
built above doors.

Sculpture, your robes are stiff and stark.

Sculpture, does it really matter what you mean?

The pine needles gather at your toes.

This lizard takes to a shoulder,
soaking the heat.

And I take to this poem because
how else would I do it?

Thursday, June 21, 2012

a poem called "Where It Hides"

"Where It Hides"

In the kitchen, while cutting mango.

With the folding of laundry at night.

Every time I straighten my toppled books.

In the green candy my aunt bought me in the shop below her job.

In the courtyard in summer under the fans.

With the smell of New Orleans under the oaks.

With the oranges Brod ate in the canoe on his birthday.

When the red apple glows a galaxy—cloudy with stars.

When the yellow balloon rolled toward my bike.

In the gold of my nephew's curls.

In the way they sing "free" with "me."

When I walk to get there because, really, what's the rush?

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

whither core skill?

I was daydreaming over coffee today asked myself this question: what core skill—above all else—do I want my writing students to learn? My answer (which I'm sure will change a year from now) is DEVELOPMENT—that is, students must learn how to effectively develop an idea in writing. Why?
  • Development, at least in the idealized sense, rests on the belief that people can come together and listen to ideas based not just on claims, but on how they are also supported. And, truth be told, is anything taught less in our schools than the importance of support for an opinion? We are so busy teaching our students how to make a focused and singular claim that we often fail to teach the larger lesson, which is this: Argument is not just the thesis statement, but also the collective evidence one is using to support it.
  • Effective development involves a chain of reasoning that acknowledges other perspectives exist, that wrestles and responds to such perspectives in good faith.
  • "School Writing" is often characterized by a certain flatness. The point is stated early and often and then it's over. The end. Some of my colleagues call this "circling the drain of generality" or "pained" writing. To break students of this style, a fellow teacher explains development thus: "An idea gets handed down the page, sentence by sentence—like the baton in a relay race." Totally.
  • We can't talk about development without talking about order. When a writer is effectively developing an idea, his or her discourse demands a sort of "logical sequence." Change the sequence, and the entire thing falls apart. Simply put, if the arrangement of your sentences is not bound by a certain causal connection, then you've put forward nothing more than a pile of bricks. For more on this, consider how a baseball manager puts together the lineup. The same is true for how writers put together ideas.
  • When a writer has effectively developed an idea, the logic is visible—that is, we (as readers) can take note of how the ideas are sequenced according to an intention. Rereading the text, we even able to name the precise relationship between how each sentence connects to the preceding one. What's more, we're able to summarize what larger point all the sentences add up to.
In sum, all ideas (if they're worth writing about at any length) contain layers of complexity. When we develop our ideas, what we're doing is taking our ideas apart to better see what they contain, what they're built upon, how they interface with other ideas, and so on. When we do this, we are doing more than just writing; we are engaged in rhetoric. Speaker, topic, audience, context: all the moving parts. But forget all that. All you need is this: raise questions. Raise questions while you write. It takes time, it doesn't happen overnight, but it gets easier and more natural with consistent practice. And it's the only way to get the bulb switched on.

That said, freewriting (making a mess, embracing chaos, exploring ideas to see where they go) is still the start of it all. We can't develop an idea that we don't have.

Friday, May 25, 2012


This test is designed to help assess certain English skills strengths and weaknesses.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Vision Statement

OK, so in my last post I shared my teaching mission statement, which was
To create a quality environment where students experience, discover, and develop key critical-thinking tools for academic engagement.
Now I want to take a crack at writing a vision statement. Here goes:
To create a dynamic team of students who sharpen their analytic reading and writing skills through inquiry-based classroom dialogue.
Simply put, I want to create a virtuous circle where my students write thoughtful responses to challenging texts after (and only after) they've closely read the work and deepened their understanding through Socratic class discussions.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Mission Statement

As a teacher, my job is to create the conditions for optimal learning. This is an idea that I keep coming back to time again and again. Why? Because it helps me remember that, among other things, my lesson plan is only as good as the educational outcomes it yields. Anyway, this is all topical because I've decided to draft a mission statement to better clarify who I am, what I do, and who I serve. So far, it looks like this:
To create a quality environment where students experience, discover, and develop key critical-thinking tools for academic engagement.
My emphasis on "experience, discover, develop" comes from my belief that learning happens when we have an experience wherein we discover something that changes (develops) us. I place critical-thinking tools at the center of my mission because analysis, reflection, open-mindedness, etc., are essential for success in the classroom, workplace, and community. Finally, "academic engagement" because active learning is at the very core of education. Without it, problems-solving and dealing with difficulty become cues to quit, rather than opportunities for growth.

Tomorrow, I will hopefully have a vision statement ready to share.

Sunday, May 20, 2012


So it's summer break and time to pull back and reflect—but also reload. Put another way, it's time to think deeply about the experiences I've just had, so I can prepare for my classes in the fall. As a heuristic, an opening salvo, I've decided to pull my old UbD workbook off the shelf and see if it can't help me "backward design." So here is my "first thought, best thought" attempt.

Mr. Zeiger's ENGLISH COMPOSITION 101 class.

Established Goals. Students learn how to write essays based on comprehension and analysis of texts. (See also: DCC's First-Year English Syallbus, WPA Outcome Statement).
Enduring Understanding. Quality writing is—above all else—persuasive.
Essential Questions. What are the main qualities that make writing persuasive? How can we elevate our own persuasive-writing skills?
Knowledge and Skills. Close reading, academic conversing, quality writing. By that I mean,

Students can use the following close reading strategies
  • summary statements 
  • question statements 
  • prediction statements 
  • critical statements 
  • reader response statements
Students can throughtfully discuss writing with their peers using the following core traits: 
  • Elaborate and clarify 
  • Support with ideas and examples 
  • Build on and/or challenge a partner's idea 
  • Paraphrase 
  • Synthesize conversation points 
Students can compose writing that
  • is sonically appealing 
  • exploratory 
  • purposeful 
  • critical 
  • uses clear sentence structure 
  • improves with revision 

OK, so that's a start. Later this week, I want to explain what I mean by persuasive writing—and why I value it so dearly. I also want to delve into the importance of "sonically appealing" prose.


Saturday, May 19, 2012

Socratic questioning

I'm really digging this article I just came upon ("The role of Socratic questioning in thinking, teaching, and Learning" Elder & Paul). It's one of those articles that feels like something you've always wanted to write, if only you had the experience and education and erudition. The article, for me, is like a field guide for how to boost critical thinking skills in the classroom. It reminds me, teaches me, shows me that the best answer is often a question. Why? Because answers aren't end points (at least not to the philosophically minded). Answers require scrutiny. That is, do our answers withstand close inspection? Or do they collapse? Why? How so? Under what conditions? In other words, each answer contains (raises?) its own set of questions. Thus, the critical thinker is just the person who can see what those questions are and how best to pursue them.

Now all of this has huge implications for me as a writing teacher in general and as a leader of classroom discussions in particular. Look, classroom discussions are easy when you have a bunch of bright kids who care about the material. Classroom discussions are also easy (by easy, I mean productive, rich, engaging) when you have a deep rapport with the students (no matter their IQs). But, well, let me be brutally (insert curse word) honest: classroom discussions are soul-crushing when the students don't care and haven't done the reading. And oooooooooh how the two are related!

So how do you get the kids to care and how do you get them to do the reading? And which comes first (see also: Chicken or the Egg)? I don't know. And nobody does. All we can do, as my BFF and fellow teacher Jabiz Raisdana says, is "create a quality environment and hope for the best." So here is my vision of a quality freshman composition environment:
  • students closely read a short but provocative text
  • discuss it with their classmates
  • and write about it both in and out of class
Now, of course, they're going to need guidance along the way. So I model annotation and "close reading" strategies: summarize, question, predict, critique, respond, etc. I also teach them (what I consider the foundation of quality) writing: be clear and direct, coherent and organized, thorough and complete, natural but polished. My weakness, however, is in fostering student engagement in classroom discussions (especially when up against deeply ingrained apathy). Which is why I found the Elder and Paul's article so helpful. To wit:

If we want to engage students in thinking through content we must stimulate their thinking with questions that lead them to further questions. We must overcome what previous schooling has done to the thinking of students. We must resuscitate minds that are largely dead when we receive them. We must give our students what might be called "artificial cogitation"--the intellectual equivalent of artificial respiration.

Elder and Paul's approach to brain-to-brain resuscitation calls for a heavy dosage of Socratic Questioning. But before I go any further, let me say this: Socratic question is NOT calling on students to see if they know the answers. You are not a using the Socratic method (ha! as if I'm the arbiter) if instead of telling your students that a peninsula is piece of land surrounded by three bodies of water, you say, "So . . . who can tell me what a peninsula is?" Or, "So what's the difference between velocity and acceleration?" Or, "What point of view is The Great Gatsby told from?"

Socratic questioning is "a keen interest in assessing the truth or plausibility of things" and, importantly, cultivating such a disposition in a public forum. Happily, the article provides the following guide to help teachers effectively use Socratic questions in the classroom. Make of them what you will.
Teachers engaged in a Socratic dialogue should
respond to all answers with a further question (one that calls on the respondent to develop his or her thinking in a fuller and deeper way)
seek to understand--where possible--the ultimate foundations for what is said or believed and follow the implications of those foundations through further questions;
treat all assertions as connecting points to further thoughts;
treat all thoughts as being in need of development;
recognize that any thought can only exist fully in a network of connected thoughts. Stimulate students-through your questions-to pursue those connections;
and recognize that all questions presuppose prior questions and all thinking presupposes prior thinking. When raising questions, be open to the questions they presuppose (see the section below on prior questions).
Teachers engaged in Socratic dialogue should systematically raise questions based on the following recognitions and assumptions:
Recognize that all thought reflects an agenda. Assume that you do not fully understand the thought until you understand the agenda behind it. (What are you trying to accomplish in saying this? What is your central aim in this line of thought?)
Recognize that all thoughts presuppose an information base. Assume that you do not fully understand the thought until you understand the background information that supports or informs it. (What information are you basing that comment on? What experience convinced you of this? How do we know this information is accurate?)
Recognize that all thought requires the making of inferences, the drawing of conclusions, the creation of meaning. Assume that you do not fully understand a thought until you understand the inferences that have shaped it. (How did you reach that conclusion? Could you explain your reasoning? Is there an alternative plausible conclusion?)
Recognize that all thought involves the application of concepts. Assume that you do not fully understand a thought until you understand the concepts that define and shape it. (What is the main idea you are putting forth? Could you explain that idea?)
Recognize that all thought rests upon other thoughts (which are taken for granted or assumed). Assume that you do not fully understand a thought until you understand what it takes for granted. (What exactly are you taking for granted here? Why are you assuming that?)
Recognize that all thought is headed in a direction. It not only rests upon something (assumptions), it is also going somewhere (implications and consequences). Assume that you do not fully understand a thought unless you know the implications and consequences that follow from it. (What are you implying when you say that? Are you implying that . . . ?)
Recognize that all thought takes place within a point of view or frame of reference. Assume that you do not fully understand a thought until you understand the point of view or frame of reference that places it on an intellectual map. (From what point of view are you looking at this? Is there another point of view we should consider?)
Recognize that all thought is responsive to a question. Assume that you do not fully understand the thought until you understand the question that gives rise to it. (I am not sure exactly what question you are raising. Could you explain it?)

Friday, May 18, 2012

more notes on PBW

If I'm going to make Problem-Based Writing the centerpiece of my curriculum, I have to remember that many students are neither familiar nor comfortable with this type of learning. Lots of students want a structure that entails a "correct" answer, a linear "one and done" type of response. Thus, my pedagogical goals may be at odds with the norms, experiences, and desires of my students. To be effective, then, I'll need to explain the following: in my class, we are mainly learning how to pose thoughtful questions, how to engage in authentic inquiry around meaningful problems. We do all of this through active reading, text-centered class discussions, and process-based writing.

Now, of course, just explaining the aims of the course will not solve the fact that some students want to move quickly (if perfunctorily) from point A to point B. And yet, making sure my students know what to expect counts for a lot.

Here's the thing: students often come to their college composition class with a chip on their shoulder. They already know how to write, so they feel like the course is an arbitary enforcement of dreary rules and meaningless standards. Teachers, by focusing almost exclusively on "error" (mechanical, conventional, grammatical), often do little but confirm the students' sense of déjà vu, the feeling that they're enrolled in the same pointless class they've been forced to endure since 8th grade

So what I try to do, and what I want to do more of, is create a class focused around thinking—that is, a class where we use writing as a means to critically engage with ideas, issues, questions. The goal isn't to showcase that we've memorized the answer (the product), but rather that we're asking ever better questions on the road to the solution (the process). In short, my class is not a grammar garage; rather, it's a lab for discovery, for problem-posing, for inquiry.

In my next post, I want to explore some concrete ways students can develop these "habits of mind."

Thursday, May 17, 2012

PBW: note one

Why do I find it easier to write on some subjects than others? To some people than others? Using certain platforms than others? I'm not sure, but I know that I write with ease and confidence when I'm authentically responding to an issue. Better yet, to a problem.

Tell me Kobe Bryant (who I loooooooooooooooooove, BTW) is better than Michael Jordan, and I'll write you a ten-page single-spaced essay on why you're out of your frickin' mind. Tell me you don't "get" The Strokes' Room on Fire album, and I can write for six hours straight on why it's an overlooked masterpiece. Simply put, I enjoy writing when I'm addressing some sort of problem. Not the "I lost my car keys" type of problem, but rather an issue (big or small) to which I want to add my voice.

All this is to say, as a writing teacher, I want to create more problem-based assignments in my curriculum. Importantly, I'm not suggesting my class suddenly bludgeon ourselves to death in service of the "Five-Paragraph Argumentative Essay." Instead, I'm just tinkering with the idea that perhaps one way to help my students produce quality prose is to help them thoughtfully engage with ideas that contain problems worth discussing. I mean, not only is that my favorite type of thing to write, but it's also my favorite stuff to read.

Coda: way more on this subject to come . . . just wanted to get some thoughts down on paper.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

notes on utopian thinking

One day, I'd like to run my College Composition course like this. In the initial week, the students huddle in groups of five—talking, listening, writing, reading, questioning—with the goal to nominate a group leader by the third meeting of class. In a room of, say, 25 students, five group leaders will emerge. I will then spend the next week conferencing with those five individuals, who will then conference with their teams. As group leaders meet with me, they will share their team's learning goals; I will respond with how I see my role in facilitating those aims. Next, I will meet with each group, doing my best to clarify our objectives, expectations, and standards for the following 14 weeks.

Each group will produce a team-specific syllabus—and spend class efficiently pursuing the goals and tasks and assignments therein. My role is to float from group to group, helping students, offering bird's eye observations, etc.

Of course, there will be times when I'll deliver whole-class instruction. And, importantly, there will be times when it makes more sense to deliver instruction to just the team leaders (that is, training the trainers). Whatever the case, I just want to create a classroom that functions more like, well, a classroom—which, in my mind, is place where we come to experience, participate, engage, discover, change.

As of now, this "class" remains purely theoretical and, thus, a million unforeseen challenges (and rewards?) await should I ever get the chance to put my vision into practice. And yet, I've always run a sort of process-workshop type of class, even if I've never tried something with this much explicit group structure, with this much student agency. If you have experience in this type of learning environment (formal schooling or otherwise), please share your thoughts.

Bottom line, I think people learn best in groups—but, at the same time, no one learns best in a milieu of persistent chaos and confusion. My goal, then, is to encourage as much group work as possible, while also providing as much support and scaffolding as necessary.

Friday, April 20, 2012

the language of life

"The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug." —Mark Twain

My first semester teaching writing, I focused on diction. I wanted the students to select their words, to compose with the utmost care. I wanted my students to see language as a sort of menu, one that served the best meals in town—if only the patron took the time to truly see all that was offered. As one might expect, I taught a lot of vocabulary (OK, class, so who remembers what "felicitous" means?). My wager was that the more raw material I gave the students, the more stuff they'd have from which to choose. Makes sense, yeah?

Well, seven years later, my approach has shifted. Whereas as I once made diction the focus of my class, I now place the emphasis squarely on syntax. And here's why: I'm interested in growing forests, not trees. I want to encourage a monster of a song, not just a kick-ass solo. I want to feel the entire stretch of downward dog, not just the strain of my heels fighting for the floor. Unity. Wholeness. Coherence. Flow. They all depend on the glide, the innate pattern of natural thought. And there is nothing felicitous about the word felicitous when it arrives with a splat.

Simply put, I now focus on helping students write in the pattern of speech, on helping them (re?)learn how to speak onto the page. Once they can talk in print, I then invite them to revise like an editor, how to swap out this word for that, the concrete for the abstract, the specific for the general. So, yes, I still teach diction, but I do so as a way to improve syntax, not as end in itself. Writing is about ideas, about purpose, about starting a conversation—all which depend on the feeling and familiarity of the human voice, the rich pattern of speech. True, writing gives us the chance to choose each and every word carefully (and we should!), but more importantly, writing gives us the chance to speak well. If we want to improve student writing, we must prize fluency (the felt sense of the writer at ease on the page). We must prize the natural order of how we speak when we're on a roll.

All writing is read aloud. Or, if that is too much for you to buy, all writing is heard. All writing makes sounds, contains pitch and cadence and tone. When we rob our syntax of the language of life, do we not rob the life out of our language? Writing doesn't sing because the author got the word just right. Writing sings because he or she found the melody that let us savor the notes.

Friday, April 13, 2012

. . .

Often I find myself in a sort of obsessive scramble to find the best way to help students learn. But the reality is this: there is no best way; there is only a way. And it changes with each student. We all have different needs and ways of using information. We all have our own thinking styles. And so, in the classroom, I must harness this diversity as an asset, rather than some sort of problem to solve. I must make my classroom hum and crackle with the richness of multiple voices striking multiple chords. I must welcome the dissonance, the spray of divergent thinking, the chaos, the mess. Learning must be electric. That's how the lights stay on.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

. . .

In order to understand these three questions,
What's education?
What's a teacher?
What's instruction?
I have to understand these three questions,
What's knowledge
What's learning?
What's understanding?

Saturday, April 7, 2012

notes on teaching

From Herbert's Kohl's I Won't Learn from You.
 "[Teachers] feel...that their work among the young is not a matter of gaining power over students so much as providing them with power."

This entire book (I'm about halfway through) is filled with these type of insightful reminders. I chose this one in particular because, as a teacher, everything I do is in service of empowering students, and yet I've never thought of my role as such—as a power-giver. But that's exactly what it is. I always design my lessons so that students can take one more step toward self-sufficiency (the place where they move with control and familiarity and confidence on the page). I know I've done my job when I've made myself obsolete—that is, when the student can assume all the responsibilities and, yes, consequences of a full-fledged rhetor.

In short, the teacherly task comes in giving the student as much power as he or she can effectively use, while, at the same time, remembering what we really mean by power: freedom, security, love.

Friday, April 6, 2012

list, ongoing

learning is, to a large degree, an act of self-reflection—which is why i want to create an ongoing (and never-ending?) list of questions i'm exploring, researching, tinkering with, seeking clarity on, inspired by, frustrated over, etc.

simply put, who i am (at least as a teacher) is a function of the questions i'm pursuing. with that in mind, here is what's on my mind these days:

  • How can I create a writing curriculum that supports rigor and creativity and self-direction, but doesn't rely on "the standard essay" as its main means to achieve syntactic maturity?

  • Where can I head next with the idea that teaching is, first and foremost, the creation of a quality environment?

  • What are some ways I can constructively show my students that the basic pattern of speech is also the basic pattern of writing?

  • How can design more creative and meaningful portfolio assessment in my class?

  • What, as writers, should my students be most familiar DOING by the end of the semester?


I will add to this list as part of ongoing theme of this blog. As a student of mine this semester said, The more questions he asks, the more content he gets.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

notes on teaching

the best lesson is the one we need to learn. these past few months, i've had to learn that assessment comes first. until i truly know what my assessment tool will be, i have not thought all the way through my lesson. of course, depending on how the unit went, i may change or tweak my "test," but i count such adaptation as a positive. simply stated, "learning for learning's sake" vs. "learning for a grade" are not automatically exclusive. the hook can sometimes be the stakes, while the hold can be the content.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

the job i have to do

90 percent of teaching, at least for me, is clarifying what my job (or "role") is at any given time in the classroom. I want to encourage growth and expansion in my students, but it's not always clear how I can best serve such a mission. And yet I am making progress. One thing, however, I can do more of is check in with the students and ask them what they think my job is, what they'd prefer it to be, and what they hope it won't become. Also, I could ask them what their job is in our class. When we are all doing our jobs, true learning emerges.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

see carefully, write accurately

Teaching the "descriptive essay" can be wonderful. It can also be maddening. Without careful guidance, the students often produce details for details' sake, bloated adjectives, and trying-too-hard similes. All of which misses the point. Why? Because descriptive writing seeks to balance accuracy with emphasis. The two must work in harmony; otherwise, you can end up with writing that's "verifiable" but lacks a "purpose" or vice versa.

So how do we craft effective descriptions? I start by asking students to appreciate how even the most rich and sensory details begin from awareness—the author's. And, thus, as developing writers, we should make sure that before we start to describe, we have observed. When syntax truly sings (in any genre), the writing is, at root, well observed.

OK, fine, but how exactly (as writers) do we effectively observe? Borrow the journalist's approach: Who, What, When, Where, and Why (and, sometimes, How). Such a concern for basic "facts" and "objective givens" might seem so obvious as to be moot. But let me be clear: I'm not suggesting opening your actual essay (or article or whatever) with the 5Ws; rather, I'm suggesting that the 5Ws is an invaluable tool in the prewriting stage, the stage in which you must thoughtfully observe. Put another way, use the 5Ws to brainstorm, to help you discover what you're truly looking at. Once you've generated lots and lots of observational notes, then you can make description choices—what to specify, how to present, etc.

A final note: below is something I've copied-and-pasted from Dartmouth's "Material for Faculty." I think the "Elements" outline is priceless for observational writing (even though the particular material in question is labeled under "Teaching Argument"). The document says:

     In order to help students successfully and critically interrogate their ideas, professors may want to  
     employ critical thinking pedagogy in their classrooms. Critical thinking pedagogy breaks down a
     student's existing critical thinking into discrete activities, and then shows students how to reflect
     carefully on each of these activities in order to sharpen their thinking skills.

  1. Observations. From a series of observations, we can come to establish:
  2. Facts. From a series of facts, or from an absence of fact, we make:
  3. Inferences. Testing the validity of our inferences, we can make:
  4. Assumptions. From our assumptions, we form our:
  5. Opinions. Taking our opinions, we use evidence and the principles of logic to develop:
  6. Arguments. And when we want to test our arguments and to challenge the arguments of others, we employ:
  7. Critical Analysis (through which we challenge the observations, facts, inferences, assumptions, and opinions in the arguments that we are analyzing).

Thursday, March 8, 2012

take me with you

A reader is a traveler who depends upon the thoughtful directions inscribed by the author. The writer's job, then, is to map the course as clearly and vividly as possible. He or she must guide the traveler from from idea "X" to idea "Y." In short, if the path is unclear, the traveler will lose the way. So use bright words that shine, let your ideas set aglow the direction in which you're headed. It's no fun to get somewhere alone.

Sunday, March 4, 2012


we train students to memorize, to avoid errors and mistakes. but the goal of learning is to understand. i practice my backhand in tennis over and over and over again so that i may understand how to cleanly strike the ball. i underline key phrases or entire pages in a novel because i want to understand why those words move me. and so perhaps one reason why high-stakes testing doesn't work is that nothing blunts understanding more thoroughly than prescribed memorization. if we want to encourage deep and authentic learning (what i'm calling understanding), we must begin with this question in mind: what does understanding look like for X assignment? bloom's taxonomy is helpful here. so is UbD. so is Gardner. and so are things like rubrics and benchmarks and outcomes. it can all be helpful. the teacherly task, then, is to find the most helpful way to support students—that is, to help them showcase their best level of understanding.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

i didn't take no shortcuts

poetry is impossible to define. which makes trying so much fun.

poetry is the complete concern for each and every detail you're working with. a poem considers everything to be off until every last piece is on. a poem is not satisfied with hierarchy, with either/or, with substance over style, and form vs. function. simply put: the beach remains closed until each speck of sand seems ready. the thing we call poetry is less a genre of language than it is an all-or-nothing attitude toward the complete integration of moving parts—the diction, the syntax, the sound, the syllables, the cadences, the pitch, the images, the implicated, the inscribed, the heat, the trust, the chaos.

for anything to work, it all must sing.

Friday, March 2, 2012

write, learning to

i don't know how to teach people to write who are uninterested in learning how.  i can spend the rest of my life banging my head against the wall—and running from this book of research to that online journal—or i can focus on what i'm already able to achieve: teaching people how to write who are actually interested in learning how.

it begins by understanding the following:

     how do experienced writers begin?
     how do they revise?
     what does their published product look like?
     why is it important to write often and consistently?

Sunday, February 26, 2012

notes on literacy

In a book I'm reading on literacy, the following term is introduced: Explicit Strategy Instruction. This term, essentially, seeks to scaffold comprehension so the students are aware of not simply what they're learning, but more importantly why and how they're learning. Yes this sounds a lot like "learning as self-reflection" and "learning through metacognition," and it should—both terms are central to Explicit Strategy Instruction. Whatever you call it (perhaps just "good ol' common sense"?), the point is this: teachers can help their students increase performance by designing units that foreground the value, rationale, and outcome of the learning.

Below are the four stages of Explicit Strategy Instruction and the brief notes I sketched on each one. And while I (as a college composition instructor) see this model through the lens of teaching rhetorical awareness, Explicit Strategy Instruction is meant for any discipline where deep content-area reading is required.

Before I "teach" a particular rhetorical strategy, I should first pre-test (hold a "tryout" on) the students' prior levels of abilities with the trait in question. What the students "do" during this informal tryout is not a question of good or bad, right or wrong. It is only a chance for me to observe, to collect data, and to provide a departure point for leading a class discussion on the value (the why and how) of the given rhetorical strategy.

The aim of this stage is to prepare the students so they can try the strategy again. In this phase, I must model the rituals and habits of mind I want the students to evidence. I must also provide all the necessary materials and heuristics that will help the students develop self-sufficiency. Modeling metacognitive protocols is key in this stage.

If the first stage is a try out and the second stage is a demonstration, this stage is a trial run. This is where I fade the scaffolding and see how the students do on their own. Afterwards, we debrief and reflect and take stock. The main goal here, as the book suggests, is for the students to practice and experience the strategy to point where they have "internalized the steps and feel in control."

If the instruction has achieved the desired level of learning, the students should not only know "what to do but also why, how, and when." Which, from a Bloomian perspective, means the students have progressed to a higher-order level of thinking. In sum, the students should now be able to wield a certain degree of power and control over the rhetorical strategy. The students, in other words, should be able to use and apply the targeted skill. To do so, I have to ensure that my follow-up assignments aren't merely questions to test if they know what the strategy is, but rather provide opportunities for the class to authentically apply their learning.

Friday, February 24, 2012

more notes . . .

The essential question, really, is this: what helps students write better?

Some believe that the only way to "write better" is through the further acquisition of rule-based grammar, punctuation, and mechanics. Such a myth is the fault of schooling, of failing to make plain the most obvious idea in the world—real people in real situations don't write to show off their grammar; they write to communicate something important (be it meaningful or memorable or purely transactional).

Writing improves when we are determined but patient, when we make writing a daily habit. Such a practice builds the type of fluency and ease on the page that's needed in order to communicate clearly in print. For me, I know that freewriting is a place to GENERATE thoughts, rather than just to document ideas (so much of what we call "improvement" in writing occurs cognitively). My best ideas have never come from just thinking about things in my mind; my best ideas have come from trying to think aloud onto the page, and then sincerely responding to what I've written—engaging in a discussion with myself that maps itself as its written (and thus leaves a record, data for further learning). And that, really, is the point: journaling allows us to experience writing as a form of discovery, of discussion—both with ourselves and our audience (which is partly one in the same).

Thursday, February 23, 2012

from bill stifler

(Click on the link below to read this material at its rightful
Learning to Write Well

©Bill Stifler, 1998
Writing is hard work.
Writing is hard work. One of the mistakes beginning students make is in thinking that writing is only hard for them, that somewhere out there are people who find writing easy.
That's not true. I'll grant you there are people who can spin off words with little thought or effort, and sometimes their writing may even be good--but not often. And when the writing is good, it frequently comes out of long experience or deep pleasure in the subject.
Writing is hard work for all of us. The blank page threatens us. Don Murray says the writer's main resource is himself, and there lies our fear, that we can't write because we haven't anything worth saying.
Students sometimes feel that they not only have nothing to say, but couldn't say it if they did. Students are plagued by problems in spelling or grammar, difficulties in organizing their thoughts on paper or explaining themselves clearly. Anger, defensiveness, and embarrassment are typical reactions to these fears.
One reason for students' fear is that they feel uncertain about their use of grammar and spelling. Their concerns for creating a "perfect" essay get in the way of their ideas. Grammar and spelling are like the directions to baking a cake or making a pizza--necessary, but hardly satisfying. The only way to learn how to write is by writing. After all, no one learns how to ride a bicycle by studying Pinkerton's Manual of Bicycle Maintenance and Repair.
Too often, students focus on grammar and spelling early because they view writing as a chore to finish as quickly as possible. The poet William Stafford once wrote that "A writer is not so much someone who has something to say as he is someone who has found a process that will bring about new things he would not have thought of if he had not started to say them" (Stafford 17). The real pleasure in writing doesn't come from knowing what to say but from the joy of discovering what we don't know, didn't guess, until we discovered it on the page before us. Once we know what we want to say, then we can concentrate on how to say it--clearly, concisely, convincingly, and correctly.
Standard English must always strike an American as a bit stilted.
H. L. Mencken, late American journalist (Pinckert 7)
There was a long pause after I gave my answer to the question just asked by my eleventh grade British Literature teacher. Then she said, "Why do you do that?"
I had no idea what she was talking about.
"Why do you talk like that? I know you know good English. I've seen you use it in your assignments. So why don't you use it when you speak?"
I was being perfectly serious when I answered her, "because no one talks that way."
While I hadn't read Mencken, I certainly understood what he was saying. A student originally from Pakistan once asked me why some American students had so much trouble writing. "I know why I'm in this class, but I don't understand why my fellow students are here. After all, they've grown up speaking English."
And there's the rub. You have grown up speaking English. And spoken English (or conversational English) is very different from written English (or edited English, sometimes referred to as standard or correct English). When we speak, we take shortcuts, use half-phrases; we gesture; we stress certain sounds or slur others, and everyone who belongs to the same social group or who comes from the same part of the country understands what we mean. This difference betwen spoken English and edited English is one of the reasons we struggle as writers.
When I first came to Chattanooga, people told me I was rude and anti-social. When I passed people on the sidewalk or in the hall, I routinely heard the same lament, "Aren't you going to say, hi?"
But I had. I grew up in a rural county in southern Pennsylvania. When we passed people working in the fields or driving along the road, it was customary to nod slightly or lift a finger. If we were walking by each other, we might only raise an eyebrow (without the quizzical expression that accompanies Spock's well-known gesture). I had been nodding, lifting fingers, and raising eyebrows to everyone I met. I had been saying hello. They simply hadn't understood, and it was some time before I understood. Now I've learned to talk to people (although I still find myself slipping, unthinkingly, into my old ways when I'm preoccupied with my own thoughts).
In a very real way, learning to write in edited English is like learning a second language. You have to break away from some of the habits of spoken English and learn to write according to the rules of edited English rather than by what feels comfortable.
Even though I am now an English teacher myself, I still stand by the answer I gave my eleventh grade teacher some twenty years ago. It is not my purpose to change the way you speak. Part of the pleasure of language lies in the idiosyncracies peculiar to the various cultures that make up our country. What would the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn be like if some "correct" English teacher had removed from it all of the slang, contractions, idiosyncracies, fragments, verb disagreements, weak pronoun references, and assorted other grammatical abuses speckled across its pages? And yet, this grammatical and syntactical atrocity is considered by many to be America's greatest work of literature.
On the other hand, Mark Twain (known to family and friends as Sam Clemens) knew good grammar, and he used it, when the occasion called for it. As an editor and newspaperman, he often corrected the grammatical abuses of those who wrote for his paper.
Nearly all of the writing you will do in school and much of the writing that you will do in your chosen professions (whether a memo to your fellow workers or a poster to be hung in the church vestibule) must be written in edited English. Edited English is the language of education, and if you intend to be a part of that world--as you must or you wouldn't be reading this syllabus--you must learn to speak its language.
Every writer I know has trouble writing.
Joseph Heller, author of Catch-22 (Winokur 104)
Ever hear a child tell a joke? The story rambles, drags in a hundred different unrelated ideas and sputters to an end, the point of the joke lost in the shuffle. We nod politely, try to sort out the muddle only to have the child look us in the eye and tell us we were supposed to laugh. In other words, quit trying to make sense out of this. It's a joke. If we press the issue, the child either learns how to tell a joke or learns to quit telling them to us.
The struggle to write is something like that. We know what we want to say, may even be fascinated by some of the sparkling ideas that occur to us, and we rush pell-mell to scratch them out on paper, filled with the satisfaction of discovery. Later we turn the paper in or, worse, read it over ourselves and find that what we've written is not brilliant or even smart but a confused mess of half-ideas and rabbit trails.
The problem doesn't lie with our ideas. The problem is we lack the skill to present them clearly and convincingly for a reader.
We could give up, never risk looking foolish or stupid. Only our teachers won't let us. They keep insisting we write--essay exams, term papers, research projects, book reports--the list is endless. We can't drop out; most students in a community college are there because they need the degree to find a better job. We could find someone to write our papers for us, but sooner or later we're going to have to write things for ourselves--if not in class, then in the workplace.
Writing is the easiest thing in the world to do. Writing is the hardest thing in the world to do.
Richard Jackson, an English professor at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, says that the purpose of writing is "to find out something about your life" (2). In order for writers to be successful they must care about what they write. The best writing comes from the heart.
My goal is to help you keep (or regain, or perhaps, even discover) the enthusiasm for seeing your ideas unfold on paper. And I want to help you learn to refine those ideas for your readers to make them clear, concise, correct, and convincing. We'll review grammar, not because good grammar makes good writing but because good writing generally uses good grammar. Our focus will always be on learning how to write. Ideally, good grammar should be instinctive, automatic. The problem is that our instincts have been trained in conversational English flavored by our local dialects or, in some cases, by growing up with another language altogether. We will look at the major errors people make in writing edited (or academic) English and work on ways of weeding these errors out of our writing. And don't be embarrassed by your own grammatical mistakes. All of us make them, even English teachers.
Grammar is a piano I play by ear. All I know about grammar is its power.
Joan Didion, modern essayist (Winokur 91)
While Joan Didion seems to be contradicting what I have been saying about writing according to rules rather than according to what is comfortable, I believe what she is saying is that good writing sounds good, the best writers combine the comfortable ebb and flow of conversational English with the strength and simplicity of conventional grammar. Good writers develop a feeling for when to bend the rules. For a few semesters in college, I was a music minor, and part of my training included a course in Elementary Harmony. I remember Mr. Henley telling us the first day of class that we must learn the rules and conventions of good harmonics (like seventh chords resolving to octaves or second chords resolving in the root). Then he smiled and said, "All of the masters broke these rules. The only rule is that what sounds good is good." Then he paused, "But before you can break the rules, you must first learn the rules."
Learning the rules requires practicing them in writing. But that puts us back where we started, caught between ideas and rules. What we need to be successful as writers is a plan.
The Writing Process
Prewriting (Exploring)
How do I know what I think, until I see what I say?
E. M. Forster (Plimpton 101)
The last thing one knows when writing a book is what to put first.
Blaise Pascal (Plimpton 167)
Frequently on the first day of class, I require students to write a diagnostic essay in thirty minutes. With so little time, students feel certain that there is only one thing to do, tighten the cinch and send the pen racing across the page. Uncertain how to begin, students stumble out of the starting gate, their first few lines faltering. Eventually they catch their stride and manage to finish, wheezing, uncertain, windblown and walleyed.
About the middle of the paper, some students will begin to get an idea of what they could write and hesitate. Should they start over? But there isn't time. Most straggle on. Some few, turn around and begin afresh. In either case, the writing suffers.
To finish well, the writer must start well. And the only way to have a good beginning is to jot down ideas before beginning to write.
One of my college teachers often interrupted his lectures to say, "If you remember nothing else this semester, remember this . . ." and then some homey advice followed. One of the most valuable things students learn from writing process is the necessity of prewriting.
Prewriting can be as simple as thinking about a topic before writing or can include various writing strategies like brainstorming, branching, free writing, or outlining. The important thing is taking time to explore ideas, to develop a sense of topic and theme, to warm up.
Writing (Drafting)
The idea is to get the pencil moving quickly.
Bernard Malamud (Plimpton 101)
It's like improvising in jazz. You don't ask a jazz musician, "But what are you going to play?" He'll laugh at you. He has a theme, a series of chords he has to respect, and then he takes up his trumpet or his saxophone, and he begins. . . . Sometimes it comes out well, sometimes it doesn't.
Julio Cortázar (Plimpton 104)
Once we have an idea of what we want to say, the temptation comes to proceed slowly and carefully, teasing each word from the page. But hesitating over spelling, grammar, typos or the right word can be deadly. While some writers (substitute chronic or paranoid perfectionists) write this way (Physician, heal thyself), most writers, and especially beginning writers, need the freedom to finish their thoughts before taking time for spit and polish. In fact, worrying about grammar and spelling is often the largest stumblingblock in the way of student writing because it can focus attention away from meaning.
Sometimes we have no choice. Timed essays, like the diagnostic, leave little or no room for second drafts. We have to do our best first time out. Most teachers take this into consideration when grading.
But when we have the time, we should indulge ourselves. Knowing that this is only a first draft, that time can be set aside for changes and corrections, frees us from the fear of making mistakes. We know we are making mistakes. It's okay. This is just the first draft.
Rewriting (Revising)
A writer is somebody for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.
Thomas Mann (Plimpton vii)
The hardest thing in the world is simplicity.
James Baldwin (Plimpton 126)
Most students assume that revision is a question of removing grammar mistakes or correcting spelling errors. A few adventurous students may recast a sentence, reversing the order of words to add variety to their writing like advertisers designing a new corn flakes box.
While variety, like a fresh coat of paint, can dress up an old house, revision goes deeper. Writers revise to discover meaning not pretty it. And as they discover what they are trying to say, they learn how to say it.
This, of course, means that the first draft is only that, a beginning in the search for meaning. Peter F. Drucker refers to it as "the zero draft" (Murray 68). That's not to lessen its importance. Until we commit ourselves to paper and ink, all we have are ideas. There are several million Great American Novels bursting in the minds of aspiring young writers. And they will be buried with them.
The worst part about revision is that it hurts. After finally managing to pour out our feelings on paper, some cold-hearted English teacher (in your case, me) takes his Almighty pen to our papers leaving livid scars of red, green, or orange (disguising his cruelty behind protective coloring). The last thing we want is to identify the corpse or claim the body. Let the dead bury the dead, and let's move on to the next assignment.
When I was a sophomore in college, I turned in a composition about the long walks I took as a teen reading and memorizing. My teacher, sensitive to my feelings, suggested I write another composition. He didn't want to spoil my memories in the struggle of writing about them. While I like and respect him, he did me a disservice. Writing must come from the heart, and revision is our willingness to suffer, to admit our inabilities and faults so we can move on. In fact, our writing sometimes falters the most just at the point where it has the most to say (Murray 90).
Each writer must find his or her own path to revision. Some find it best to rough out an entire draft without stopping and then go back and tear it apart for the best parts to use in the next draft. Others move sentence by sentence, teasing the words, fussing over them, working to make each line perfect before moving on. Each approach has its advantages and disadvantages, and sometimes students may find themselves shifting back and forth between the two from assignment to assignment (Reed 28-37).
Donald Murray suggests three kinds of reading as we struggle toward meaning: reading for focus, form and voice.
Reading for focus means reading for the one meaning that is struggling to express itself in our text. Murray suggests we quickly read a draft, trying to see it the way a reader will. The aim at this stage is to make the words as clear as possible, to avoid rabbit trails and stick to the point, to say enough but not too much (91).
Next he suggests reading the draft more slowly, a bite at a time, looking for "chunks of meaning." As we read for form, we ask ourselves if the introduction, illustrations, examples, arguments and conclusion do the job or are simply ornamentation, included because we think we ought to include them, and not because we need them to make the writing clear (91).
Finally we should read paragraph by paragraph, sentence by sentence, line by line, word by word. At this stage it often helps to read a draft aloud to see if it sounds like one person speaking. Reading aloud also helps us find the places where our writing starts to slip away. If we stumble over a word or phrase, if we find ourselves out of breath, or lose our place, then our writing still needs work. This is also the time to focus on grammar and spelling, recognizing that grammar and spelling errors confuse our meaning and weaken our expression. In writing for voice, we put the finishing touches to our work, striving to make it "simple, clear, graceful, accurate and fair" (93, 94).

          On Writing
I've tried to think what I could tell you,
about the way words feel, the sound
they make when they touch, the way
words fight you, fall flat, clattering
like pans to a kitchen floor or the slap
of a tire limping, only you know all
this, and I wonder if there is anything
I could tell you, or tell myself,
because words make their own way,
play by their own rules, and all we do,
if we're lucky, is find them.

          Bill Stifler (Stifler)
Writing is never easy. Writing this, I found myself struggling to find just the right image to make my point, worrying not only about getting my meaning across, but also about your reaction to me as a writer and teacher. Have I caught your interest? Is the tone right? Have I buried students under a list of requirements or encouraged them to see the assignments as just one more part of the writing process, focusing on learning rather than grading?
Writing is never a one-side affair. It is always an interaction between author, reader, text, and topic. My purpose in teaching writing is to help you in your struggles with writing. Often I assign specific topics, and I will be your most ardent reader. Besides, I like working with student texts. H.G. Wells once said, "No passion in the world is equal to the passion to alter someone else's draft" (Plimpton 134). Don Murray says

It's wonderful to invade a piece of student writing. The better the writing is the more I am tempted to get inside it, to manipulate it, to make it mine. And sometimes in conference I will tell a student, "This is a really good piece of writing. Do you mind if I mess with it?"
She looks apprehensive but she is a student. She nods okay.
Gleefully, I mess around for a few lines or for a few paragraphs. I sharpen, I cut, I develop; I add my words for hers, my rhythm, my meaning.
"That isn't right at all. That doesn't sound like me," she says. "That isn't the way it was. Give me back my writing."
She grabs it from my desk and charges out of the office.
Good. She has the feel of writing. (49)

Works Cited
Jackson, Richard. "Under Constant and Careful Revision: Creative Writing in the University." Unpublished essay. SAMLA Conference. Atlanta, 1 Nov. 1985.
Murray, Donald M. Learning by Teaching: Selected Articles on Writing and Teaching. Boynton/Cook Publishers, 1982.
Pinckert, Robert C. Pinckert's Practical Grammar. Cincinnati: Writer's Digest Books, 1986.
Plimpton, George, ed. The Writer's Chapbook: A Compendium of Fact, Opinion, Wit, and Advice from the 20th Century's Preeminent Writers. New York: Viking, 1989.
Reed, Kit. Revision. Cincinnati: Writer's Digest Books, 1989.
Stafford, William. Writing the Australian Crawl: Views on the Writer's Vocation. Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press, 1986.
Stifler, Bill. "On Writing." Bridging English. Joseph O'Beirne Milner and Lucy Floyd Morcock Milner. MacMillan, 1993.
Winokur, Jon, ed. Writer's On Writing. Philadelphia: Running Press, 1986.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

toward some notes on yesterday (which was mardi gras)

all ages crowd the streets. beads shower from balconies in sprays of metallic purple and silver and green. never have so many people from so many generations come together. old or young means nothing. you see kids no taller than the instruments they're playing. you see grandma's and grandpa's dancing out of bars. trash piles along the curb, huge styrofoam cups, soaked cardboard, broken beads. the trash becomes a sort of terrain, a temporary topography. people walk in circles, sway. others hunch over themselves in doorways. and still others bang on drums, shake maracas, sound their horn. and then more purple, more gold, more green. the sunshine casts the parading and partying in an atmosphere of good will. and while, yes, things might turn ugly when they begin to fall apart, mardi gras remains a well-meaning tableau of the absurd, of the Cosmic Joke, of the our collective court jester. at least during the day.

preserve the chaos, invite the mess

there's a dance to writing. and when the moves are right, the result is music. the key is nothing more inventive than writing down whatever thoughts tumble out—preserving the chaos, inviting the mess. then, and only then, listening for where they want to go next. i must lead but i must also follow. it's a dance. set to the music of its own making.

the struggle is where the learning happens

the struggle is where the learning happens; it's not the thing we try to avoid, or a sign we're doing it bad.

i've been thinking about that idea ever since my Tulane professor brought it up last semester. the above quote, i believe, calls on both teachers and students to re-frame how we understand "errors" and "mistakes." if we allow ourselves to truly engage in activities that are challenging, then we are going to struggle. that's a fact. but it's a good fact because if our engagement is authentic, then we'll also be developing the skills to meet those challenges. and that's precisely what i love about the above quote. without explicitly stating it, the message is clear: as challenges increase, so does the skill level required; thus, persistent trial-and-error is not only encouraged, it's required.

simply put, if we are going to get from where we are (X) to where we want to be (Y), error must be one of the main sources of our learning. and i think most people (on some hidden, locked-away level) already know this. so i say, let's finally sing what we all know to be true: errors are a key indicator of learning—what else can offer such a rich source of material from which to study, from which to meaningfully reflect? without error, what does the word "better" even mean?