Writerly Ways of Being

I’ve spent the better part of my life helping young adults become better writers. In all that time there has been no exercise, no trick, no clear and easy path to a better final draft. Sure, I can point to easy tweaks to tighten up writing like “Focus first on verbs–strong, specific verbs create stronger, tighter writing.” But on the whole (and I’m not saying anything new here…don’t look for startling insight from me on this) the work of improving writing is a process that is multi-faceted and intricate. It takes time. It takes focus and wandering/Wonder and Rigor. It takes patience. And while these are all things we can ask of our students, what’s more important is that we, the teachers, must own and offer the same.

And while it is the most precious of the commodities listed above, nothing is more important to writers than time. Sure, I think kids should be writing things every day in every classroom. But the kind of Writerly use of time I’m talking about is more than that. I’m talking about time spent writing even when one doesn’t know what to write about–writing to think.

Peter Elbow

For me, the greatest exercise in writing to think that I’ve ever encountered is Freewriting. Popularized (though not “invented”) by Peter Elbow in the 1970s and a technique my 11th grade English teacher taught us in 1984, I have never looked away from freewriting. Elbow’s insistence on writing simply to see what we are thinking, to get all the junk out of the way, to reveal the good pieces of thought, and work with them until we refine, shape, and better understand what we mean is just good cognitive practice. It’s a type of beneficial rumination…something that helps us develop a “writerly way of being.”

This “Writerly way of being” is a term I’ve turned to for the past 6 years. I borrow it from the work of the British design researcher Nigel Cross. Cross wrote widely and passionately about the need for the English schooling system to develop a classes in design. His book, “Designerly Ways of Knowing” is one aspect of that work. That we can think like/know in designerly ways indicates something of the very nature of human beings. We are designers by birth. We seek to act with intention to solve problems in our everyday lives, for ourselves and others.

The use of the adverb, “designerly,” then, indicates something about the mode of knowing. And it was abundantly clear to me that what had driven me to read about design in the first place–the similarity of its iterative nature and processes to the writing process itself–was a clear indication that if I could develop “Designerly Ways of Knowing” I could certainly help my students develop “Writerly ways of being.” And the first step in that is to write, a lot.

And there are other steps. I’ll direct you to others who have written and researched far more than I have on this: Donald Graves, Peter Elbow, Lucy Calkins, Ralph Fletcher, and poets like Yusef Komunyakaa, Mark Doty, Sharon Olds, Mary Oliver, Walt Whiman and others. They’ve lived full lives engaged in developing writerly minded beings–their own as well as those they teach. And all of them recognize either directly or indirectly the necessity of unencumbered, unplanned time as invaluable to the writer’s being.

And this is not a capitalist interpretation of time. We are not concerned with the passage of time and the counting of coins gained or lost. Instead, we, as teachers, must be concerned with a different kind of capital, a soulful, courageous capital…a capital of beauty, if such can event enter into our accounting of how time passes and is experienced in our classrooms. The Poets are instructive here… In her widely anthologized poem, “The Summer Day,” Mary Oliver “accounts” for this use of idling in this way:

I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed,

And one could not speak of idling and the necessity for “deep time” without speaking of America’s greatest “Loafer,” Walt Whitman who “leaned and loafed” at his ease, “observing a spear of summer grass.” Who admitted quite publicly how much he loved to loaf and watch, how he “enjoy[ed] so much seeing the busy world move by him, and exhibiting itself for his amusement, while he takes it easy and just looks on and observes.” 

If being writerly means loafing, observing, and bathing in deep time, but our most rigorous classes and most of our college preparatory classes demand soulless, technically correct writing because…? Because we think this is what colleges are looking for? Well, surely we note the conflict here.

The other day I was working with a student on his drafts of short essays for the common app. Both essays were on interesting topics: Astronomy, Drumming. Both were clear and correct. And both failed in achieving their promise. At first I struggled with expressing my disconnect. And then it struck me: Both pieces were technically correct. The problem was, both pieces were technically correct. We’d taught this student, and he’d learned very well how to achieve the lie of objectivity, but he struggled with the truth of subjectivity, the very heart of moving, powerful writing.

So how, in a curriculum packed with “stuff” (for that’s what most of it is), how do we find the “deep time” to allow students to loaf, observe, and fall down on their knees in the grass? Given our current predicament–The COVID-19 pandemic–I’d say we need to look at what we’ve been doing and consider seriously a deep revision of what we have in our overpacked, ridiculous curriculum maps. One popular article that would help towards this end plays off a pop-culture sensation and asks us to, “Marie Kondo the Curriculum.

But let’s say we don’t have that autonomy. We’re too far in already to back out. (I’d argue that’s never the case, but I do recognize the safety one seeks in padded, blanketed curricula.). What can we do then?

Well, one of the best ways I know of to have writers pause and observe them there, to try on the mind of the writer, is a specialized form of freewriting called “Process Writing.” I first encountered process writing in one of my countless trips to Bard College’s Institute for Writing and Thinking. (Their professional development in the field of writing is unparalleled.)

In Process Writing (which is also the title of a brilliant chapter by Prof. Alfie Guy in the Institute’s book, Writing Based Teaching: Essential Practices and Enduring Questions, students produce drafts for revision and publication, but never without first writing about their process. That is, each draft is accompanied by a “cover letter…that describes where the text feels solid and where they would like more help.” A solid assignment for a first Process Write might address thes three questions:

–What were you trying to accomplish in this essay?
–Where did you have success and where did you run into trouble?
–What would you do next if you were to work more on this piece?

The perspective flip here is startling to many students. They’ve never written in this way before. Never done more than turn in the results, the products of their process. Rarely, if at all, have any of them thought about how they wrote and why writing about their writing might be something valuable.

Since I have used process writing, the level and depth of my student’s growth as writers is palpable. It pervades the entire community of the classroom. When we think as writers and about ourselves as writers, when we adopt “Writerly Ways of Being,” we shift from passengers in a body asked to labor with words to authors of our own stories, owners of opinions and thoughts with value far beyond a grade.

And that, is a fine way to be.

Just a bit on Joy…and Boy

You know, at 52, and as a teacher of HS-aged students, I look back at my own HS years sometimes with sanguine eyes, and others with embarrassment. No one is, in their aging, any different. Our history is always a story in revision. And sometimes, sometimes that revision is one where we have to forgive ourselves for the quick and ignorant judgments of youth.

To whit…As a teenager, I had had just about enough of Boy George and Culture Club after about one week. I found the entire experience cloying. But this “naked/acoustic” version of Boy singing a different rendition of “Karma Chameleon”…well, I find that he and the song have aged well, like a wine that, at first, was too sweet, too upfront, but which, with time, has mellowed.

Comparing Boy’s look now to the image of him as a young adult in the 80s…It’s beautifully comforting to recognize our capacity for change, and yet also recognize that we retain so much of who we were. It is just differently placed. For example, the smile he flashes as he moves into the chorus and elsewhere. It’s a sublime expression of being in two places at once: Here (now) and there (past).

Sure, I know this is perception. That I, too, have changed. I know that the song is still pure pop candy. But, and perhaps this is why I teach, the recognition of joy on his face as he moves through the song…? Is there any expression in the realm of human experience more holy than joy? That flash in the eyes, the pull of the smile, in which we recognize someone is so “in their element” that action is fluid and emanates from a wellspring deeper and more mysterious than we will ever know.

Grace. Now…and For all(ways).

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My principal has been posting some moving items on her Facebook page about the upcoming year.  I am grateful for them, for they speak to the affective afflictions that all people in school systems–from admins to students to staff to teachers–are going through.  Today she posted one that resonated with me for the single word it points to, “Grace.” For decades it has been one of my favorite words because of the gift it denotes–a gift we must offer ourselves and others but which, especially in times of crisis, strife, or political infighting, we forget.

This summer I’ve been musing on Grace even more.  Certainly the pandemic has had something to do with that.  As has the revolution in thought and culture stemming from the murder of George Floyd.  And my belief in civil civic discourse having taken such a hit in these past 4 years…Grace there, too, is key.

Though perhaps more than any other thing that has moved me to contemplate grace is Gilead, 51gwphyskl._sx316_bo1204203200_Marilynne Robinson’s brilliant “wisdom novel” about an aging Congregationalist Reverend, his family, and the things we must learn to forgive through the granting of grace.  No book in decades has so shaken me.  The shift in how I see myself, my role as father and husband, and even as teacher was tectonic.  It is a book as quiet and comforting as a Quaker meeting, and in whose silences and stories we find such grace.  I cannot recommend it enough.

Anyway, my principal, posted this article.  Please read it. Regardless of whether you are a teacher, administrator, or whomever…read it. As you’ll note in my reply to her today (quoted below), it’s as good a recipe for being human as any I’ve seen.

“[C…], you’ve been in my classroom many times. You might recall the way my blackboard looked and the fact that I use a set of “values” to guide the students in my classes (see image). This summer I read a magnificent book, Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson. So much of it revolves around grace and forgiveness. It moved me in a way no other book has done in decades. Between that and all the thoughts and posts and other readings I’ve done this summer, I resolved to add another word to that board. It is not a value. Instead, it is a virtue, and while we’ll be virtual for some time, the word will play a huge role in the way the class community grows.
That word is “grace.” We all need more of it, for so many reasons this year (and always)–many of those reasons are in this article you posted. (Which, by the way, is as good a “menu” for how to be a decent human being as any I’ve seen in a while.)
Without granting grace to others (and ourselves!) and practicing it as a class virtue, we will not develop the courage we will need to evolve, as teachers, administrators, and learners this year. And we need to evolve. Because without grace, many of us will be unable to imagine how things can/need to be different.
My Classroom with Grace
The greatest tool in Chaos/Crisis is imagination. Teachers, administrators, Students, all the staff…we will never feel comfortable enough to employ our imaginations if grace is not at the foundation of our culture. Permission to research, prototype, and try out new ways of doing things requires grace, because we will, inevitably, fail in some of our attempts. But as the by-now clichéd usage notes, we will be “failing forward,” always in search of the better–the better system, the better teacher, the better school, the better self.
We need grace for that evolution to happen.”

(Cover image by Birgit Whelan)

Wicked Problems and Social Messes: School Reopenings–COVID-19 Edition

 

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from USA Today

In designing solutions to wicked problems like how to best educate our children in a time of COVID, we can’t just rely on opinions. We can’t even rely on the facts. They are not inert. They shift in different contexts. But here’s one thing we can rely on. If we don’t approach the design with the users in mind, that is, if we don’t try to understand, at a deep and empathetic level, what our children and teachers will be encountering, we will not design the best solutions. We will only design something that, perhaps, efficiently relieves a host of pains we’ve been suffering but in turn creates pains in other areas. Unless we build empathy for the users of the system we’re trying to re-create, all this is just bluster and posturing.
 
To whit…how many parents and board members have actually walked in the potential shoes their children/teachers will wear? How many have tried to follow the rules of social distancing , cleanliness, mask-wearing for hours and hours with the mind of an 8, 11, 16 year-old? All the while working to learn new information, but in the back of their mind, wondering, after Justin sneezes, or Susan wipes her eyes, or Tom takes his mask off, wondering…did I just get exposed? This district’s superintendent did it and it was an eye-opening experience. A little empathy goes a long way to understanding the successes and limitations of any solution. 
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Cognitive science makes it clear, but our experience makes it self evident–we cannot learn well if our emotional state is one of heightened anxiety and fear. Sure, our teachers would do their best to create communities of learners that are inclusive, safe, and trusting, but even then, the variables of interactions that occur outside the classroom mean that those safe little bubbles of communal learning would still be fraught with worry. And no amount of statistical spinning would allay those fears.
 
We know that since the rise of the two-income family, Public Education’s purpose is not solely to educate and promote learning. At the point that two parents are in the workforce, public ed is also a way to provide daycare. It has supported the rise of the American Economy to the top of the world. Now that we’re doing a cost-benefit analysis of the risks involved with opening up vs. those involved in remaining closed I suppose we have to be rather brazen and ask ourselves: What’s the cost of a human life? Or, how much of my child’s quality of life am I willing to risk?
 
Sure incremental risks enter our lives every day, and we bear them. But most of those risks are known. So much with COVID 19 is uncertain. Just recently we’ve seen studies like this that point to long-term risks to the heart from those suffering with infection: https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamacardiology/fullarticle/2768916. And the data changes all the time.  As much as I’d like to “Partner with Uncertainty and Confusion” as Maragret Wheatley suggests, I think I’d rather do it from a distance in this case.  But to be clear…such a partnering must be done by everyone.
 
Yet I know there are those who would just grab the seat next to uncertainty and push it to the side.  Social media is full of these people.  They have a right to be angry, a right to be upset at the decisions their district boards have made.  Their lives may be far more dependent on a return to normal than my own.

Thus, the argument is between those who would be prudent, and those whose livelihoods depend upon finding a way for the village to care for their child(ren). No one is wrong in that argument. As in all multi-faceted, wicked problems, any proposed solution can have a negative impact on another facet of the problem. There are no “right” solutions to this problem for all.  There are only actions that result in better states for some.  Perhaps we should “think about our actions as interventions. We must “shift the goal of action on significant problems from “solution” to “intervention.” Instead of seeking the answer that totally eliminates a problem, one should recognize that actions occur in an ongoing process, and further actions will always be needed.”  

In a related and, perhaps, more relatable description, Russel Ackoff refers to these problems as “Social Messes.”  Yes. In. Deed!
 
In a world that has grown to expect quick answers and easy solutions through technology, this pandemic has caused us to face our own limitations, and it has forced us to slow down. Normal isn’t coming back anytime soon. Either we do what humans have always done to make us the top of the heap–adapt–or we try to claw back towards “normal” against a force we can’t even see.
 
Strategically, if I’m trying to ensure my survival and the survival of my family and the race itself, I’m betting on my ability to adapt.  In the end, I think this is the manner in which many school boards have voted. And that gives me hope.

A Gnostic Gospel: Gradelessness in the Time of Covid

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From Amy J. Ko

(Like many teachers, I’m suffering from so many feelings right now.  July is winding down.  I’ve been taking classes on distance learning, working on new units, and rethinking how to build a culture of caring, community, and creativity on-line, as it seems that’s the way things will be heading for a while.  I’m also, as my friend @MonteSyrie notes of himself (and so many educators) mourning a loss of place and self…of who I was in the classroom.

But there are also ample opportunities to do things better, to become more and constantly evolve.  After all, as I often note, we are all human beings in the becoming.  We are all chasing a better version of ourselves…or we should be.

And that’s where this blog post comes from.  How can we be better in the classroom for ourselves and for our students?  Perhaps an admission that love is at the core of our work is a good place to start.  Not that most of us don’t already know that…but, as with so much about love, we may not always show it.)

Three years ago I began moving my classes to a grade-less system.  It is still a work in progress, but it is one I will not abandon.  Still, I sometimes forget that not everyone is in that same headspace.  When I recently came across a blog that recalled a small school’s pivot to standards-based grading during the spring of 2020, I started to think back on all the reasons why I’d switched to a gradeless system.  And I discovered, in the musings recounted below, one more reason–love.

I have to think that there are many teachers who now, in this time of uncertainty and crisis, are wondering how they’re going to grade fairly.  How they’re going to overcome issues of -plagiarism, fair testing, etc.  I also have to think that many teachers and schools will push back with more punitive systems to force student compliance.    Why?

 Rather than trying to create punitive mechanisms that punish students for seeking ways around the system (which, come on…teenagers?  Rebellion…?  No kidding?), what if we were to make a switch to standards-based grading?  It is not that hard a shift, but the culture behind it utterly alters students’ perceptions of what school is and how much more meaningful and purposeful the learning that happens here can be. 

That Culture shift is huge. As Peter Drucker noted a long time ago: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”  And really, our schools, at this crisis point…?  If all we’re looking for is a strategy or methods to bridge the gap between now and a return to “normal,” if we’re not thinking about culture shifts, we’re missing a huge opportunity, and we misunderstand the potential of this moment to shift our culture for the better of our students.  We can add as many apps as we want to our “ClassLink” landing page, we can create as many virtual opportunities for kids to meet with us as time permits, but if at our foundation we’re still about ranking and sorting of humans?  The system is built on sand. 

 Given the uncertainties in so many areas of our lives, to what extent does the compliance-and-extrinsic-reward model that grades represent really serve anyone?  Is anyone not getting the fact that compliance and working for extrinsic rewards doesn’t foster meaningful learning for many students? That it certainly hasn’t done much for critical thinking in our country (though I’d not lay all the blame for that at the feet of education)?  One vivid example of the problem with grades is that they perpetuate the inequities in the system and enslave the mind to working for others’ approval.   

Traditional Grading for a VUCA World…Really?

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 And in that, grades don’t serve the country well.  If we look to the numerous future-of-work documents populating the web, there’s little there to support a continuation of a grading system that harms more than it helps, that reports little but how well one meets deadlines and turns in what’s expected.  In a VUCA World, the skills required to thrive in the future are not skills of compliance and climbing the corporate ladder by performing the right tricks at the right time for the right people.  They are far more about experimentation, iterative improvement, innovation, and working for a common good.  Grades and the competition inherent in that system drive all those things underground, and in doing so, bury many a great learner.  

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I’m not saying we’re not already shifting in this direction.  But if school this year is going to be a huge change for all of us, why would we try to stuff the old experience–the good, the bad, and the ugly–into some new box that we’re trying to make just like the old box?  That old box was broken from the get-go; we have a huge opportunity to pivot and change for the better.  If the school in the article I’ve cited can make the change during the spring remote learning emergency, surely we, as a department or as a team can pilot something that could truly increase students’ voices, and promote deeper and broader ownership of their learning.

A sermon of courage, fear, and love

This has been my liturgy for several years now.  I preach it not to raise specters of fire, brimstone, and damnation to those who believe in grades, but to bring those who question the orthodoxy and dogma into the fold.  Perhaps I’m the wrong person for this pulpit/that purpose.  I’ve no real congregation at my school…no one comes to this church; my outreach is paltry and, perhaps, intimidating.  After all, my teachers are offering up a gnostic gospel.  We could be burned at the stake.  But as Parker Palmer noted, it takes Courage to Teach.

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It doesn’t take weeks of work to switch.  What it does take is courage, a willingness to be vulnerable, and a love for others we serve that supplants the power we lose by abandoning the “rod” of grades.  And if love isn’t reason enough to change, I think we’re in the wrong business.