Sunday, August 23, 2015

Writing Alongside Students, "Readicide", & Empathy

"You are the best writer in the room!" The facilitator repeated this refrain several times during his workshop for English professors. He seemed to know I needed a push, a reminder that, in my classrooms, I am the most experienced writer. I'd never thought of it that way. Yet the fact is, I've written quite a bit already - as a student, as a professional, and now as a neophyte blogger - I have decades of experience. Definitely more than most if not all of my students. I see now that this isn't bragging; it's the truth. 

The facilitator, Kelly Gallagher (a major proponent of using mentor texts) put us through several activities demonstrating how we, as the "best writers", could (and should) model writing for our students. That's a message I've heard before: write alongside ours students. Students need to see the how writers (I'm still uncomfortable with that label) generate ideas, craft sentences and paragraphs, and make revision and editorial choices - it's the "show" part of "show and tell" so crucial to learning. 

I've always liked the idea of writing alongside students. And I've "threatened" to do so a few times, doing an activity here and there with them. I've drafted a few paragraphs, demonstrated how I brainstorm to generate ideas, and have on occasion shared a draft, asking students to make suggestions about what I could do to clarify my ideas. I've even shared a couple of blog entries with them, but have been hesitant to encourage them to read them because I don't want them to feel obligated to "like" my entries. 

I decided this summer would be a good time to give "writing alongside students" another try. I teach in a special program for first-year college students that began in June. Our summer assignment is to read Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye and write a response over the summer break. The purpose of the assignment is to introduce the theme of our learning community (African American perspectives), reduce "summer melt",  to promote reading, and send students a message that we mean to work hard in our program.  

I didn't want the assignment to be too easy, so I chose a challenging and meaningful text. At the same time, I didn't want to overwhelm the students with a complex set of reading and response questions, especially since this is an independent assignment. I wanted to respect their final summer before college. And I didn't want to "kill" the reading experience. 

Yes, "kill". 

That was a definite nod to Kelly Gallagher (again) and his provocative book Readicide: How Schools Are Killing Reading and What You Can Do About It. Gallagher argues, convincingly, that many of us inadvertently turn students off to reading. With the best intentions, the assignments, tests, note-taking strategies we use to instruct students risk suffocating the joy out of reading. We risk "over-teaching". I saw myself described in several of his examples, and I promised myself to consider taking some of the steps Gallagher suggested to maintain challenge and rigor without poisoning the students' potential reading pleasure. 

Looking over the questions in my original draft for the assignment, I saw that I was guilty of "readicide", even though my hope was to have students was to encourage reading. 

So I adapted the reflection questions Gallagher suggested we use. I decided to ask questions that focused on the students' experience as readers - what struck them, what they found boring, what felt familiar or unfamiliar, which passages seemed to relate to something they experienced or knew. I also asked them to imagine asking Toni Morrison any questions they might have of her. 

Pretty standard questions - the big difference for me was that I intentionally composed questions that asked about the students' experience of reading rather than for close reading. We can attend to analysis when the semester starts - without potentially burning them out on Morrison over the summer. 

I crafted the questions to preclude a "right" or "wrong" answer. And even though I didn't want a "close reading" response, I urged them to cite or at least refer to sections in the book that illustrated their reactions. 

So where does "writing alongside them" figure into the assignment? About three weeks after giving the assignment, I composed my own responses to the questions that struck me. Since this was (I'm embarrassed to admit) my first time reading The Bluest Eye, I was in the same place as the students are, so I practiced the kind of responses and reflections I hoped they would engage. 

Not that I want the same answers. I wanted students to read how a human being responds to a texts - how Morrison's book made me remember certain instances, remind me of current events. I shared about how particular sections were meaningful and others that were "boring". I believe  "boredom" means we are frustrated because we want something else to happen - and that happened a lot to me as I read Morrison's book. So I wrote about how I got frustrated, puzzled when Morrison shifted perspective, time, and voice. But because I have read (and loved) Morrison's Beloved, Paradise, Jazz, Sula, Song of Solomon, and Love, I knew working through the frustration would pass and I would be rewarded for my efforts. 

Following Gallagher's advise, my intention behind sharing my writing was meant to teach students by providing a helpful model.  I'll see their answers soon enough - the semester starts tomorrow (gulp). I have to admit, beyond by goal of being helpful, I learned (and re-learned) unexpected lessons about empathy - feeling the burn I'm asking students to experience.

I found myself hesitating to publish and send my responses, reliving the anxiety I would feel when turning in themes or seminar papers - that sinking, heavy dread that what I wrote wasn't worth reading, that someone would discover that my writing was below standard. Add to that my anxiety of my less than stellar proofreading skills. I spent more time than I had expected revising and editing over my insecurities. And this was supposed to be an easy assignment!  A large part of my reluctance to "publish" had to do with being afraid of ruining my reputation as the "best writer in the room".

Sharing my writing made me remember that sharing what we write can make us feel vulnerable - almost as vulnerable as singing, dancing, or speaking in public. This isn't brand new discovery, but it's sure is a great reminder what it might feel like for writing students. 

Feeling the burn I ask students to experience isn't just about having. It's about taking into account the affective experience of learning when I plot lessons. Not that I am ever going to able to preclude anyone's' fears or insecurities. Indeed, encountering new skills and different points of view should be challenging, should throw us (a little) off balance.That "proximal zone of development" where true growth occurs is meant to feel disorienting. Anticipating that disorientation may help me create the conditions where we can effectively operate in a space of productive anxiety. 

I'm curious how (or if) sharing my writing might affect our classroom. My next pass at writing with my students is already in the works: linking a theme of Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye to the message of a song of their choice.  

Anyone else out there write alongside their students? Had teachers who shared their writing with you when you were student? Any wisdom you'd like to share? Post your experiences in the comments section - I promise I won't judge your writing!