“The traditional paradigm. First, its adherents believe that competent writers know what they are going to say before they begin to write; thus their most important task when they are preparing to write is finding a form into which to organize their content. They also believe that the composing is…”
Most teachers are daily writers. They compose comments on papers and write a huge number of lesson plans and reports.
Writing Matters gives teachers time to use writing for their own ends, to research their classrooms, reflect on their practice, and of course teach writing more effectively in their classroom.
Innovative writing approaches can help teachers meet state standards and their personal classroom goals, even when the two do not dovetail.
How’s that for a nice way to put it?
Writing Matters, the conference at SUNY Cortland, March 8 and 9, is really unusual in some ways. Teachers present (that’s in itself unusual) on using writing to teach (ditto), and some will talk about their own work as writers of research and creative projects (ditto, ditto).
Today I was lucky enough to sit in on our first Open Institute, a six-day intense hands-on technology seminar devoted to MAKING: teaching strategies, practical knowledge, connections with other teachers, radical claims about technology, ways to teach writing. What struck me was the deep way they were thinking. At one point we were discussing whether speech transcribed was writing — that is, what’s unique about writing, what’s special about it. What does it do that speech (or video) doesn’t do? Lots: it makes the writer’s understanding proceed word by word, creating an extraordinary sensitivity to the meanings of words (or just driving the writer crazy with the complexity and the surging surplus of it all) — their rhymes, allusions, homophones, histories, syntax, etymology, and the like. Walter Ong lists a lot more of this in his articles, and Bob Yagelski picks up on this in his (http://www.nwp.org/cs/public/print/resource/3220). What got me enthused from stopping in is that the group was able to grab on to fundamental questions, not just safe ones such as “does spellcheck make writers lazy” or “how do we protect kids from pornography?”
Yet what struck me today and has me up late at night is 1) the discussion about stories. How classrooms are really story factories. Stories as attempts to make meaning, to find explanations for complexity and to arrive at satisfactory endings. How stories are all we really share when we talk about process, history, development, reflection, and learning. How stories are really the big challenge of FORM: finding a beginning, a buildup, a payoff. I racked my mind looking for a genre that had no narrative. A time-less collection of data with no beginning, middle, or end. I guess painting might not “tell a story” sometimes. An index. A grocery list. But just as any circle, no matter how un-face-like, will become very face-like if you put two eye-dots anywhere in it (try it, you’ll see), any list of more than one item starts to become a story, something that Stanley Fish discovered in his essay “How to Recognize a Poem When You See One” (http://academic2.american.edu/~dfagel/Class%20Readings/Fish/HowToRecognizeAPoem.htm)
So the real issue becomes, for us as teachers and students, what do we want our stories to do? Whatever the answer, I am pretty sure everyone wants their stories to be memorable, sticky (as in Gladwell), even transformative and restorative. But what would such a story look like? I can be sure that it’s a story that develops over time and grows up—that is, starts to accumulate a history, the callouses and shine that comes from frequent re-telling. It starts to play a role, the characters become mythologized, the act of telling the story is socially sanctioned (or creates a social situation) that is recognized by others. In other words, our stories start to tell stories about us when they are taken up as a collective, not just by one storyteller in first person. One way to think of the purpose of the classroom is not as a tarmac for developing skills or knowledge, but as a campfire meant to elicit the art of storytelling in teachers and students. If we do this through technology, great. But whatever medium we use, the problems ultimately are of storytelling, not of spellcheck or pornography (though those are the sorts of stories that are more convenient and lurid to tell). This Seven Valleys group was able to push for better stories regarding technology, and I found that thrilling.