Wednesday, July 2, 2014

It's More Than Having a Purpose. A Writer Needs a Genre, But First They Need to Write Through Their Thinking.

Yesterday, day one of the summer institute, teachers and I benefited from the brainstorming exercises of @SonyaHuber and allowed ourselves to listen to what our blank minds had to tell us. For two minutes, she asked us to sit in silence and to record the images that flashed before us amongst the serenity. Like many of my colleagues, I grew panicked that all I had was darkness and a paranoia that nothing would cross my mind. I pictured Sonya's orange dress and beautifully sculpted Hindu tattoo. I thought about my new Kermit-mobile and then about Chitunga taking a Greyhound back from Maine where he was visiting his college's campus. I thought about relocation, departure, academic advancement and hope for intellect inquiry. Dispersed in this thinking were images of the beach, including the thin legs of the sand piper and lapping waves.

My mind wanted the serenity of summer and its clouds, but I kept thinking about the days of as a location to redirect where one hopes to go.

As a result, when we did Kelly Gallagher's One Topic = 18 Topics prompt from the first chapters of Write Like This, I chose Chitunga as a subject and realized that there are at least 18 topics to write about. Later, after I did the egg activity for teaching perspective, I realized there are even more topics, depending on whose point of view I wanted to wrestle with.

The critique of Gallagher is that one topic might freeze a writer to be overwhelmed with all the possibilities and that a more direct, succinct writing prompt would be better for reluctant writers. My work with ESL students, too, make me apprehensive of giving too much freedom. I began to think more critically of genres and how important it is that students have plenty of opportunities to compose in a wide variety of genres so they know what to do to hold their thoughts in place. Sometimes there is a poem. Maybe there's a short story, or an Op-Ed piece.

My argument refutes the whole language, open writer's workshop approach because it benefits students to spend several weeks exploring a particular writing genre. I wonder how often our schools offer instruction in the vast ways individuals write throughout the academic years. What do we do to kids when the only expected writing is a perennial research report and/or a piece of literary analysis? How much do we encourage youth to see the vast outlets for written expression and the patterns of genres - social glue - to participate in communities BEYOND school? To me, the best schools offer opportunities to explore the power of writing in multiple ways.

This blog is an example. It's a place to capture my free-for-all meandering, and it is read by some people. Still, it is a location to write through my thoughts, to write about the 'why' that matters (in reference to Huber's prompt), and to organize first ideas I have in my head.

What happens when we don't teach kids to write their ways to knowing? I think it is simple - they don't know what they think or how to think because they've been provided too few opportunities to learn how to do it.

For this reason, I continue to be an advocate for teaching students to read like writers - to find out what they know by asking them to compose. If we don't do this, we fail to teach them how to think.

I also noted that brainstorming is key and beneficial, but students, like me, also need lengths of time to actually write - this is the one thing none of us ever seem to have and what we need to find time for every day. It's a discipline that I feel is totally underserved in the ways we're expected to reach a new generation. This has to change.

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