Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Writing must be public - educators must lead by example

I remember writing when I was young. At home I wrote silly notes to my mom, letters to friends, diary entries and the like. In school I wrote book reports, plot summaries, even a few research papers. Yet it wasn't until my senior year when my AP English teacher, Mrs. B, began giving me constructive criticism on what I'd written. I grew as a writer. I gained confidence. At graduation I won a local award, the Johnson Award, for the most improved writer. At the time it was a great honor.

In college I realized that I received the award because my writing evolved from poor to mediocre. My confidence waned. Again, another mentor saved me. Dr. N supported my journey of discovery and critical thought. We read our works aloud in class - frightening at best, terrifying at most. I struggled, I drafted, I scrapped and re-worked. I grew.

A few years ago I lost a student through suicide. As her peers, teachers and counselors gathered to grasp her loss some of us wrote. It was on the cuff, at our chairs with scrap paper, pens, and boxes of tissues our tear-blurred eyes and muddled emotions managed to come alive on paper. We were asked to share, if comfortable, what we had written or thought. I shared my poem, the first draft. Fear overcame me as I read the poem that suddenly appeared on the tear soaked page. The students stared, the counselors were silent, my colleagues nodded or looked away. The silence was a time machine. Frozen with fear I sat and waited. My mind raced but my body wouldn't move. 'What are they thinking?' 'Didn't they like it?' How do I get over this humiliation?' 'Why did I read this out loud?' After the session, one student after another asked for a copy of the poem. My reply? 'Not until I re-work it'. With a resounding "no" my students demanded the poem be left raw, flawed. That day, as mourners and writers, we understood the purpose of writing and sharing our work. Not without fear or judgement, but with the common knowledge that we all loved our "Rach" and we were confused with the empty hole in our hearts.

As a teacher I expect my students to come to that same level of fear and progress, pride and recognition. It is hard work and in my opinion must be public to achieve meta-cognitive success. Yet, as teachers we must be willing to put ourselves out on that same limb and take a chance.

There is something about publicizing thought that takes the writer to a new level of cognition during the writing process and a scary yet rewarding meta-cognitive process through the eyes and ears of an audience.

My hope is that with technology a bit of the fear is reduced; we hide behind a screen and write. Yet, with that same excitement of Meg Ryan's and Tom Hanks' characters in "You've Got Mail"; we get a rush when we see "1 comment posted".

I'm teaching a new elective this year in creative writing. I'd like to use this blog as a way to allow students to not only publish their own pieces but to receive constructive feedback. I would like my students to fear not and 'shrug at their dread and write'.
I like the following quote from Janet Burroway in her book Imaginative Writing: The Elements of Craft-

" You started learning to write- at the latest-as soon as you were born. You learned within hours to recognize an "audience," and within a few days that expressing yourself would elicit a response. Your basic desires created the fundamental form of story- I want, I want, I WANT!- with its end in gratification (comedy) or denial (tragedy). Within a year you had begun to understand the structure of sentences and to learn rules of immense subtlety and complexity, so that for no precisely understood reason you would always say "little red wagon" rather than "red little wagon." You responded to rhythm and rhyme (One, two. Buckle my shoe). You matched images and explained their meanings (This is a giraffe. Dog is hungry). You invented metaphors (My toes are soldiers). By the time you could speak you were putting together personal essays about what you had done and what had happened to you and forecasting fantasies of your future exploits. By the time you started school you had (mostly thanks to television) watched more drama than the nobility of the Renaissance, and you understood a good deal about how a character is developed, how a joke is structured, how a narrative expectation is met, how dramatic exposition, recognition, and reversal are achieved. You understood the unspoken rules of specific traditions- that Bugs Bunny may change costume but the Road Runner may not, that the lovers will marry, that the villain must die.

You are, in fact, a literary sophisticate. You have every right to write.

This needs saying emphatically and often, because writing is one of those things-like public speaking, flying, and garden snakes- that often calls up unnecessary panic. Such fear is both normal (a high percentage of people feel it) and based in reason (some speakers do humiliate themselves, some planes do crash, some snakes are poisonous) and irrational (statistically, the chances of disaster are pretty low). Nevertheless, people do learn to speak, fly, and garden. And people learn to shrug at their dread and write.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Getting Engaged w/ Reading and Writing - What do you think??

Students: Throughout this year we will hold meaningful conversations about our writing and reading. This is your place to discuss your world, your thoughts, your ideas, and how they relate to literature and writing. You will probably surprise yourself - our literature is more meaningful to us than we think! Welcome to Mrs. McIntyre's blog! Have fun. Be smart. Give your insight and share with us why you think that way!!