I'm not saying that teaching math is one big continuous picnic of sparkly rainbows, unicorns, and effortless class periods of absorptive learning, but in English Language Arts -- particularly at the middle school level -- you have to teach some of the most thought-numbing, soul-dissolving parts of the curriculum ever to torture the human mind. Spelling. Grammar. Vocabulary. I throw up in my mouth a little bit each time I have to schedule time for them on a new weekly assignments calendar. But they're a part of the curriculum that's mandated, and so they have to be taught. Some things you just have to pinch your nose and swallow as quickly as possible.
On the other hand, or possibly as my reward for fulfilling these less satisfying obligations of my curriculum each week, I get to work with kids on one of the deepest and dearest endeavors of my heart. I get to teach them writing.
Now, one of the things I have learned in my many decades on this planet is that writing -- and learning how to write -- is MESSY. Learning to write a first draft is more about learning how to tolerate the waves of revulsion that come over you as you confront the your own feelings of inadequacy at what you put down on the page than it is about about learning how to structure a proper academic paragraph. In fact, I'm convinced that I could teach a goat to structure a proper academic paragraph. What takes genuine human maturity and emotional/psychological courage is learning to get a first draft down on paper.
For that, you have to gain the willingness to produce what writer Anne Lamott calls "a shitty first draft."
Since I'm not permitted to use that kind of language in a public school classroom with middle schoolers, I use the methods I first learned from, and later taught with, celebrated writing teacher Natalie Goldberg. Her system of "writing practice" emphasizes "separating the creator from the editor," and basically involves a small number of inviolable rules for producing your first draft of an idea. These are:
- keep your hand moving
- don't cross out
- don't worry about spelling, punctuation, grammar, or other rules
- lose control
- don't think
- go for the jugular
- follow and trust where your mind takes you
- give yourself permission to write the worst poop in America / on Planet Earth / in The Milky Way Galaxy
We close the door and the windows (so we don't bother anybody trying to do more traditional learning), I make earplugs available to anybody who needs to block out noise in order to think, and I tell my students to let it rip.
As soon as they finish a draft, they can come find me or a peer-editing partner and they or we look at what they have done. First we do so aloud but with no comment until the draft has gotten a first hearing. Natalie says, you can't know what you've written until after you've written it, so first we give it a hearing, then we go to town giving it a quick edit. We look for what our rubric tells us to look for. Then they go back to their desk (or to the floor, or to the back table -- wherever they want to be writing) and they bang out another draft.
The beauty of this system is that it gives them a lot of practice compressed into a very short space of time. Everyone can get a fast, free, immediate edit from a published working writer without time for judgment, shame, or a sense of disgrace to take hold. The kids have very quickly grasped how to use writing practice to harness the flow state, get their juices flowing, and not become too attached to what they've put down on paper. It gives them a wonderful experience of the feedback loop in writing and it gives them immersive time in the flow state that has rapidly improved everyone's basic writing skills noticeably and quickly.
The, um, downside of this system is that while we are having one of these in-class writing workshops, my classroom looks like a chaotic free-for-all. Or so I thought until the other day.
See, when we're doing this, even though I am not actually writing, I fall into the flow state too. I get absorbed in reading, writing, listening, editing, coaching, and cheerleading and I completely lose track of time. In a good way.
But the other day, one of my English colleagues and I were scheduled to trade classes halfway through the period to teach each other's classes part of a jigsaw lesson we were doing. I knew we were doing so, and I had everything ready and prepared, I just lost track of time. So when she arrived in my classroom to trade, she got treated to the sight of me on my knees next to somebody's desk giving one quick edit after another, kids reading aloud and giving each other peer edits, one kid sitting under the phone table next to the flag because he concentrates best down there with earplugs in using an Algebra textbook as his lap desk, and other kids writing (with earplugs in) either alone or together, but in what I imagined to look like total unfettered chaos.
Fortunately, this teacher is both an enlightened person and a reflective practitioner in her teaching, so she was absorbed for a few minutes just watching what was going on, taking it all in and finding it extremely effective and engaging.
Then she came over, tapped me on the shoulder, and reminded me that we needed to switch classrooms and finish the jigsaw activity.
At lunch later, she told me how much she had enjoyed getting the chance to watch our process unnoticed because it gave her a totally different vision of what an in-class writing workshop could be.
That made me feel both grateful and relieved, since I had felt certain that doing what I was doing was the straightest path to getting myself fired (except for the part about my kids' writing improving more and faster than many other teachers' classes).
Anyway, it was really interesting to have been observed while I myself was in the flow state.