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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.