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Remembering the Nurse

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This is the matter:--Nurse, give leave awhile,
We must talk in secret:--nurse, come back again;
I have remember'd me, thou's hear our counsel.

Odd quotes from Romeo and Juliet tend to pop into my head since finishing last school year with the classic play. Again. It’s fresh for the kids, of course, and freshman are the perfect age. Those of us condemned to repeat ninth grade forever learn to love the nuances.

In the first act, Lady Capulet tries to convince her headstrong daughter to marry Paris, her parents’ choice. The often distant mother starts to send away the nurse, Juliet’s de facto mom since nursing Juliet as a baby and earthy confidante to them both. Lady Capulet calls the nurse back, recognizing in an instant that this is no time to quit dancing with the one that brung ‘em.

Though I hope I have better luck with board certification than Lady Capulet did with her daughter, there’s a lesson here: I must remember never to dismiss the student-centered approach at the heart of the writing project, especially when I get to the hard parts.

Doing the summer institute for the second time in my career reminds me of what is good and true about process teaching. While my style over the past years has been informed by that first experience, there’s a lot I forgot. Now it’s fresh again and, after spending 8 hours a day for five weeks in a room with other teachers talking about teaching, I am not sick of it. I’m renewed.

One familiar aspect that has a fresh sheen is the writing group. Five of us got together twice a week to share work in progress and offer feedback to our peers. Tracey wrote about a pet psychic; Alison avoided emotional slither in her poems; Jan reflected on her current role in her grown kids’ lives; and Stephanie, on the eve of an imminent marriage, shared stories of growing up Witness (Jehova’s). I revived a long neglected novel, one that allowed me to stretch my fiction chops in a way I normally can’t find time to do.

Beyond growing our own, the benefit to doing writing groups ourselves is to learn how to do it well with students. We learn to trust it so we can teach it. Another aspect of the project is the position paper. One at the start and one at the end of the institute track our revised attitudes towards the teaching of writing. I’m not the only cheerleader for the writing project. Janice Campbell, “mom emeritus” from our group, agreed to let me share hers below.

Summer’s almost over (sigh), and before we know it we’ll be back at school. Into the midst of another hectic cycle, but one that I’m sure will be different for me than if I’d not revisited the writing project. By fourth quarter, I’ll be back to Romeo and Juliet, the familiar ninth grade finale. One never knows how a year will go, but one thing I’m sure of is that I won’t have to pause and summon back the nurse. This time, she’ll be my side every step of the way.

Writing and the Teaching of Writing
Janice Campbell
NVWP—August 2, 2006

I still stand behind my words, although I chuckle at the tight formality in the lofty first few paragraphs that began my original position paper:

Writing is the code every child needs to unlock the secret passage from one mind to another, from one place to another, from one time in history to another. It can transcend the barriers of time and space with technology as simple as pen and paper, or as complex as the computer, always able to make that leap from one mind to another. It is no wonder that, for much of writing’s existence as a human invention, its knowledge and use was confined to the realm of a privileged few. Knowledge is power, after all. The ability to transmit knowledge in writing, therefore, is an ability to wield power in the world.

In that original paper I went on to explain, with sources referenced and carefully cited, how writing needs to be taught in cooperative collaborative groups, needs to be modeled with gradual release, needs an atmosphere of trust, and requires a developmentally appropriate sequence. There was more. But the truth is I, myself as a writer, as a teacher, and as a human being was nowhere to be found in that writing, except perhaps deep, very deep, inside that cold and distant authoritative voice of the first few paragraphs.

So now I will speak plainly. I used to think you could teach writing by teaching about writing. Oh, I would seldom admit it, but it’s true. Now I know that writing is a lot like riding a bicycle. You can’t teach someone to ride a bicycle by telling them all about wheels and handlebars, gears, and sprockets. Writing is just the same.

The grammar books in my English classes growing up had implied you could, in fact, learn how to write in parts and pieces. There was exercise after exercise as well as a collection of analytical terms to know rivaling any in science class: participle, gerund, phrase, clause, predicate. The list goes on and on. But none of that ability to label the sentence diagram correctly or to get 100% on a grammar worksheet made me a better or more confident writer. I just got better at exercises. How could I expect more of students?

It seems so simple now after experiencing presentation after wonderful useful presentation in the Summer Institute. Every instructional strategy, every lesson or unit plan I can remember, as I look back, involved the same steps. First you get the class’ attention, perhaps by an inspiring piece of literature, perhaps by an intriguing idea. Then you model with enthusiasm. You “show don’t tell” what could be done. Then gradually you let go. The student may swerve or fall off the bike a time or two—there should be room to crash without casualty when the terrain is new, and you may have to steady the seat awhile—but eventually will come the balance and control. There will be smooth bike riding, and powerful honest writing.

I have found or rediscovered some great guides to cycling this summer. The energy and enthusiasm of Tom Romano and Barry Lane make me want to get up and pedal now down the uncharted avenues of multi-genre writing with all kinds of voices calling out, “Speak for me.” Sure, I had an intellectual understanding of the power of writing to learn, based on Murray, Graves, Calkins and the rest before I started; I could cite the research chapter and verse. But my firsthand experience was limited. You can have the best guides in the world and still be a wobbly rider in need of training wheels. There were still elements of unreality and distance. It was just too alien for my mental model of English class. My attempts use student-centered writing groups were not fully committed and only somewhat successful. Now I understand why.

The day of my own presentation I had an epiphany. I realized that I had applied to be a fellow in this summer’s institute not because of what I knew, but because of what I needed to know: that I am a writer. For much of my life I believed being a writer required some sort of mystical God-given talent, and clearly I had been passed over in that department. At least that’s how I felt when a written assignment was returned to me awash in red ink. I would read notes like “Awk,” for awkward, and “Colloq,” for too colloquial; it did not matter that these were stylistic comments. They were not distinguished from the editing marks and still equaled wrong, wrong, wrong. It felt like showing up for the Tour de France on a tricycle.

It’s a wonder I didn’t park that writing bicycle in a dusty corner of my mental garage and avoid it forever. What I learned was to play it safe, to stick to the forms and the formal when it came to writing for school. I only pedaled down well-lit roads with well-defined lanes; you can’t fall off if you play it safe. This strategy served me well, even in graduate school thirty years later.

All the while I have been a writer; I just didn’t know it. My audience had always been myself alone when it came to writing true. I feel strangely like I’m confessing to midnight naked bike rides. I think back on those piles of dog-eared spiral notebook journals, which got me through life in the crazy years, the years of coping with a family member’s alcoholism, my own chronic disease, single parenting on a shoestring, and the culture shock of moving to Alaska. I wrote to make sense of my world. I never thought of it as “real” writing. This summer’s unexpected gift to me is finding out it was. Teaching writing had been a challenge for me, and the reason has been my own ambivalence and insecurity toward any writing except that which was personal and private or so formal and controlled as to leave no doubt. The training wheels might have lingered forever.

When it comes to my classroom, it’s not that I couldn’t get students writing. I can; I do. I knew that much. The problem was always figuring out what to do then. Now I know. You take that cross-country bicycling trip together. You inspire; you write alongside; you assess as a navigation tool, as a compass pointing where you need to go next to meet their needs. You make it about improving the writing not making wrong the writer; you create a workshop environment not a butcher shop. Now that I have seen myself grow as both writer and critical reader, writing groups in my classroom seem a more viable choice, a necessary choice to nurture the writers that students can become. You stay inspired, you keep reading, and you keep writing. You get on, pedal, and go where the writing takes you.

As part of a writing group this summer I have begun to shed much of my unacknowledged fear-driven ambivalence toward writing. I still apologize too much, but I pedal on bravely. The group experience has been the balancing and stabilizing structure I needed to take that bicycle off the road and onto the terrain of my inner life where that real writer has lived in exile. Now that I have grown, both as a writer and compassionately critical reader, writing groups in my classroom and writing to learn seem viable choices, even necessary choices to nurture the writers that students are right now and the writers they can become. I can’t wait to grab the handlebars and get started.


2 Comments

Emmet! You won't remember me but I grew up in Hollin Hills, was good friends with Erik Bloom, who you're more likely to remember.

I just took a job at Edutopia magazine, the publication of the George Lucas Educational Foundation, and in the daily search for story material stumbled across your excellent blog. Just thought I'd say hi, and I hope I get to keep reading more. Always nice to read someone making good sense.

(Incidentally, I had no idea you were at TJ. I wrote a book about the place a couple years ago. Little about it here, at my dorky web site: http://www.chriscolin.com)

Hope this finds you well, and regards to my alma mater.

chris colin

Mr. Rosenfeld:
I am director of the Onslow Co. (NC) Museum and was told by one our local teachers about your canoe project. We have a 38' dug-out *(approx. 800 yrs. old) in our permanent collection and am excited to hear what you and your students are doing. Look forward to your progress. Best
Lisa Whitman-Grice

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