You can’t breathe in a vaccuum

I remember when I was in high school, everyone dreaded 12th grade English. It was called English Comp (even the name is off-putting), and it was here that we were to learn how to do research and synthesize whatever we came up with into a research paper. If there was a thesis for your intermediate years, this was it.

It was a double edged sword because no one wanted to do, but everyone kind of did, just to get it out of the way. I was always inclined to write anyway, so it wasn’t a huge deal for me, but even those of us who were into writing and did so regularly, were a little put off by the daunting task of having to engage in a lot of research.

The topics were not chosen for us, but that was the limit to the freedom that one had in the project. The research process was as dry as a crypt, (the internet was not really in full swing as an educational tool yet, and even if it was, I doubt that our “old-school” bulldog of a teacher would have known the first thing about directing our efforts with it- this was 1996), and I seem to remember that the main thrust of what we were taught was solely and rigidly on structure. I suppose it’s not surprising, then, that most of the projects that came out of the class were stumbling attempts at giving the teacher what she wanted and doing just well enough to graduate.

Anyway, I found myself remembering that awful writing project as I was reading Solomon delineate the uses for blogging. How much more engaging the entire project would have been if it had been work-shopped on a blog. I can’t really hold that against my teacher, as there was no such thing available then, but it strikes me that the kind of collaborative approach that blogging software naturally uses is really not much different than how any successful writing team approached a project in the analogue past

If we look at any really successful writer, whether it be a novelist, a writer for a magazine or television show or movie, there has always been a team effort involved. A novel is given to editors who speak back to the author: What did you mean here? I found this chapter to be incongruous with another. How did character A accomplish this feat when you already stated different ground rules for his setting, etc, etc. Or a team of writers on a movie or comedy show have brainstorming sessions, write treatments and scenarios and then rewrite and expand on one another’s work.

I understand that the main goal of my high school was to get its students prepared for college and/or professional writing, but why did/does collaboration have to be divorced from the relatively simple task of teaching structure? More importantly, why would we relish, (because it was a largely accepted fact, even among faculty, that English comp was going to be a pain), allowing the vacuum of strict teacher-to-student feedback suck all of the creativity and joy out of the process?

There is little critical thought happening when feedback is simply a matter of cleaning up this and that, tightening grammar and sentence/paragraph structure, and focusing only inward on creating something out of nothing. It would have been so much nicer and probably a great deal more inclusive a project if the students responded to one another’s work throughout, garnering new ideas and opinions from the responses of peers. Who knows, perhaps some of us may have even been inspired to continue writing, rather than simply doing what needed to be done to make the teacher happy and put the project behind us. Perhaps that would have assuaged some of the cynical, pain-in-the-neck mentality that the faculty carried around as well.


3 thoughts on “You can’t breathe in a vaccuum

  1. Tim, I really like the way that you started by talking about your own experiences. I really wasn’t sure where you were going at first, and that made me want to keep reading. Then, you tie in your experiences nicely with the point about blogging and collaboration in the classroom, whether it is technology-based or not. I also love your descriptions. The image of the “bulldog” teacher was funny because it was successful in giving me a very strong image. You have some great ideas!

  2. One of my favorite pedagogy books is Teaching for Joy and Justice by Linda Christensen , and one of the reasons that I love it so has to do with the sentiment that she apparently shares with you: there is (or rather, there SHOULD be) joy in expressing our true selves, be it our ideas in an essay or our passions in a speech. Centering pedagogy around the students — as your teacher seems to have tried to do to give you a choice of topic at least — is the only way to do that. STudent-centered pedagogy also includes choosing genres that “speak” to students and that motivate them to write. While I detest the way that the essay (esp the 5-para version) has become the gold standard of secondary ELA (I mean, aren’t there a zillion more genres that teachers could have kids practice — some that they encounter daily?), both genres do have their place.

    Writing blogs is a great way to scaffold essay-writing — to get students’ creative juices flowing, to help them access their voices in order to express their strongest opinions and most deeply held beliefs (justice). Through them, a clever teacher could build writing fluency, development, heck even grammar. And all the while she’d be upping students’ “buy-in” in English class since they’re undoubtedly going to be more engaged when, as you say, they know that they’re not writing in a vacuum, or to an empty house.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post, Tim. I look forward to reading more of you!

    • I really enjoyed that book, too! So many good ideas. I like the organization to the book as well; each chapter concerning using a different genre and then providing some good advice for synthesizing that genere study with critical theory. One of my favorite sections is called “Locating Writers’ Tools, Guided Visualization, and Creating the Collective Text”.

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