The first thing our architect did when designing our house was ask each of us to write a narrative about our relationship to space–what kinds of spaces we felt drawn to, how we felt in various spaces, how we felt about colors and textures and memories of spaces and places we loved. He didn’t want to know what we thought our house should look like, or what rooms it should contain–he wanted to know how we felt, what we believed about the world, who we were. After he read our four narratives, he sat down in front of us and made a quick sketch of the exterior of what now looks very much like our house. It was remarkable. And it was us. It surprised us to discover things about one another through these narratives (it’s a terrific exercise for families, and communities of practice), and through talking through the design of the house. When we built the house, our architect made plaster casts of our faces, and embedded them into the gable ends. I look out over my garden, my husband to the sunrise, one daughter to the sunset and the other to the mountains. We are the place, the place is us, quite literally, as the impressions of our faces, the narratives we wrote weave us into the fabric of the house. We thus also connect deeply to one another, four points on our home’s compass. We like to think that our faces give the house personality, our collective, complex personality.
What does this anecdote have to do with writing, teaching and the teaching of writing? For me it suggests how I try to teach writing. I have to reveal my beliefs about writing, and the students do, too. We have to think about ourselves as points on the compass of this writing experience. I have to be available as a writer. Show them how I read as a writer. Show something of my struggles with writing, with writing digitally, with the decisions only I can make about and for my writing–all without imposing myself on the community. (I highly recommend Teaching One Moment at a Time, in which Dawn Skorczewski explores “the delicate negotiation” in writing classes.) Teachers, in my experience, tend to over-articulate or under-articulate–but do little modeling, have little self-awareness about how their own beliefs and attitudes are affecting the course experience, all while holding set (and rather mysterious) expectations for outcomes. We are, for the most part, terrible listeners. How are students to know what it is they are supposed to be creating if they have never seen one of these beasts before? Where is there room for student innovation? Beliefs? What does excellence look like at the intro level? The advanced level? Why? The University of British Columbia Murder, Madness and Mayhem Course Wikipedia projectThe University of British Columbia Murder, Madness and Mayhem Course Wikipedia project, described here so well by Brian Lamb, gives students real-world experience finding their way, collaboratively, to high standards of content and writing in their field. It’s an incredible example of what college students and their inspired teacher can do, collaborating, reflecting, listening, revising.
Today my creative writing class had our second discussion on grading. The group proposed and discussed percentages to assign the various areas of the course to be assessed–areas they had decided upon in the first discussion; after narrowing the field down to three proposals, they asked for a couple of days to reflect before we put it to a vote and finalized the balance between self and external evaluation.
This group has slowly, slowly come together, much more tentative about group practices than other classes, quieter in discussion, and uncomfortable with the need to comment on one another’s work. It is a situation that comes close to unnerving me, so delicate is this balance between all the learners and their writing journeys, so strong are my beliefs about what a good writing community looks like. Some days I have wondered if we’re getting anywhere, if I have stunned them with such newness that they cannot take the first steps, even. But things have shifted. As they do. Especially when I relax, when I become more self-aware. As I have increasingly pulled out of discussion, letting them wrestle with reading-as-writers after having modeled for them how I read, and then scaffolding the process, they have gradually gained confidence in discussion, on the blog, in conference and in workshop–and in their writing. Coming over to my house last week for food, laughter, collaborative writing exercises, and a glimpse of my life as a person with a house, a husband, a dog and some weird stuff around the walls helped them feel the power of the collaborative. They were ready to tackle the insides of the course, what we mean by taking this course.
And indeed, today’s discussion on grading was lively, provocative and meaningful–it belonged to everyone. They spoke out for what they believed, listened to one another, moved towards consensus. I asked tough questions. They asked tough questions. And they wanted more time–to go deeper, to think about it. They slowed down on their own.
The same thing is happening on the blog, where I am one writer among many; rather than primary respondent and feedback-giver. After a few weeks of fumbling with the blog, looking for me to take the lead, they are starting to take it over. After hearing their voices in writing and in recordings, they are losing their shyness. And they see me as a writer in action, playful and experimenting, sometimes writing well, sometimes missing my mark, struggling to find meaning and then to convey it in a way that moves my reader. I know how hard it is to write well. And they are learning to trust themselves, one another, and me. When I do give them feedback, it is always in response to specific questions they ask about their writing. They come to one-on-one conferences prepared to critique their work before I do. And when I give them feedback, they really take it in, and then I promptly narrate my thinking process for them, to show them how I read their writing. That’s the best part of the one-one-one conference, watching them learn how to ask good questions of their writing, watching them gain control of their writing.
I’m the architect, I suppose, of this course, but a resident, collaborative one, who tries to listen to their narratives about what they need to learn and why, connecting our points on the compass through the bones and veins of the coursework, weaving our personalities and beliefs and writing styles deeply into the story of this course.