The previous entries in this series follow a basic format of “I used to think X. Then I read Y and thought Z.” Although I regularly found my pedagogy being interrupted by whatever new theory I was reading, there was a certain linear security to my growth. I didn’t have to critique any claims or synthesize competing perspectives, just move from one system to the next. Dogma can be narcotizing to higher order thought. But the more I read the harder it became to sustain a singular methodology. In the last couple of months I’ve had to open myself up and attempt to honor multiple interpretations of composition pedagogy.
Instead of exploring the ramifications of a single scholar or book on my professional growth, this final post in the series explores how I came to rebuild my definition of what it means to be a teacher of writing through a variety of authors and perspectives. This is ultimately a story of turning outwards towards the community, of connecting with others, and of giving up the search for the elusive all-encompassing pedagogy fit to rule them all.
To review: by the end of the 2015-16 school year my composition pedagogy was in shambles. Fueled in part by a desire to escape the rigid prescriptivism of my early years working at a No Excuses charter school, I had launched myself into a form of teaching nearly devoid of direct instruction. Students read, wrote, and discussed, but I rarely tied their learning to specific skills. “As long as they’re reading and writing,” I told myself. Fluency above all else. And while this is of course true to a certain extent, as George Hillocks wrote, teaching requires a direct object.
Without that direct object, I was close to becoming the teacher caricatured in the opening chapter of Lisa Delpit’s book Other People’s Children.Delpit explores the failures of a particular brand of white progressive teaching. Talking about a certain teacher, one of the author’s friends says
What do they think? Our children have no fluency? Our kids are fluent. What they need are the skills that will get them into college. He needs skills, not fluency.
I had struggled with how to handle direct instruction and skills in my classroom ever since removing grades, quizzes, and tests from my teaching. I could guide children through the writing process all day, but if I wasn’t explicitly teaching students the literacy skills America would judge them by, I was derelict in my duty. The return to skills was bolstered by my reading of Class War: The Privatization of Childhood by Megan Erickson. Like Delpit, Erickson’s argument seemed tailored to my situation. She excoriates the contemporary unschooling movement, writing
Why do we assume that clear boundaries, a schedule, and a sense of hierarchy are so threatening to students? Why must the individual’s vision be so carefully and serenely sheltered from other people, who are experienced in this framework as interruptions? There is value in being pulled out of a daydream.
While this particular quote doesn’t touch on skills directly, it tapped into that part of me that used my understanding of expressivism as a retreat from my duties as a public school teacher. The writings of Hillocks, Delpit, and Erickson pulled me back into the reality of the classroom. It was time to reinsert skills and direct instruction into my pedagogy. But this time it would be on my own terms, in a way that made sense to me and reflected my agonizing yet productive journey through theory and reflection.
By the time I came to this realization summer was almost over. I put down the theory and returned to a portion of my book shelf I’d spent the last year ignoring: books by scholar-practitioners (Georgia Heard, Tom Romano, Katie Wood Ray, Penny Kittle, etc.). I cracked open my most recent purchase, Writing with Mentors by Allison Marchetti and Rebekah O’Dell.
The book offered an approach that incorporated almost everything I was looking for. It taught students the craft of writing through authentic genres and real world pieces. It was inquiry based and used student understanding to drive much of the instruction. The book also contained robust suggestions for handling classroom topics like grammar, media literacy, and lesson sequencing. Writing with Mentors keeps most of its theorizing underneath the hood; any analysis of the book’s contents, however, would uncover a pedagogy rooted in authenticity, inquiry, and collaboration. I ate it up.
With WwM finished and only two weeks left until the start of the school year, I had to act quickly. I chose my final book: Make Writing by Angela Stockman. I’d watched the maker movement saturate EduTwitter, and even though I’m wary of education trends, Stockman’s work has always been exemplary. Make Writing surprised me with its understated critique of the ways many teachers (myself included) have taught writing. Stockman illustrates how simple materials (white boards, sticky notes, wall space), tinkering with text, and a sense of play can reinvigorate the traditional writer’s workshop model. In the introduction, Stockman explains that Make Writing is about
pursuing outcomes in ways that support writers who need to move, build, mix, tinker, blend, sculpt, shoot, smear, and tack their writing together. Physically. Making writing obliges teachers to access the voices of those we serve and listen hard.
If one of my goals was indeed to push every student to learn to use writing to express themselves and shape their world, then I needed to put in place strategies that would help me reach as many young writers as possible. Stockman’s book helped me shake off my Peter Elbow asceticism, the belief that becoming a better writer required little more than sitting down, writing, reading, and rewriting. Just because I wasn’t interested in pipe cleaners doesn’t mean my students aren’t.
With Make Writing and Writing with Mentors finished, I felt ready. With a week to spare, I decided to reward myself with a copy of Karen Surman Paley’s I-Writing: The Politics and Practice of Teaching First-Person Writing. I-Writing combines theory, composition history, and ethnography to make a case for the value and complexity of first person writing. Surman Paley made it possible for me to identify as a social expressivist; I was able to reconcile my predilections for the personal with the political necessities of certain forms of knowledge. I felt at peace with my pedagogy.
“You seem to have a lot of epiphanies,” my mom said after reading a draft of my previous post. Her observation highlights my tendency to enshrine everything I read or come across as capital T Truth. I read something, become obsessed with it, preach it as gospel to whoever will listen, and then reorient everything in my life around it. Until the next book I read forces me to go into a spiral of guilt and the cycle begins again.
Up until now, every epiphany carried with it a total brain dump, an out with the old/in with the new mentality that forced me to repeatedly rebuild my schema from the ground up. At the end of every summer, my wife asks me whether or not I’m going to reuse any of last year’s lesson materials. Every year she becomes slightly more exasperated with my stubborn insistence that everything must be new. Some of this stems from a fundamental insecurity about my value as an educator. When you never feel good enough you become mired in the belief that your professional salvation can be found in the next book, in the next article, in the next technique.
Instead I’m learning to stand still, stick with something, and engage with the community. Allison Marchetti (Writing with Mentors) reads every panicked email I send (how many noticings should the kids be listing? When do I introduce the concept of touchstone texts? Am I doing this right?), responding always with patience and guidance. Similarly, Angela Stockman allows me to pick her brain about all things writing and making. Lastly, Katie Kraushaar listens to my lesson ideas and then improves upon them. How fortunate I am to connect with and learn from such wise colleagues.
Since the end of summer I’ve made the switch from theory to young adult literature. I miss wading through dense fields of text, spending hours on seven or eight paragraphs. I love the hermetic splendor of relying on nothing but the page, a highlighter, and my brain. But I know I’ll be back; my copy of Peter Elbow’s Vernacular Eloquence isn’t going to read itself.