I spent a week (Sunday evening through Friday afternoon) at Bard's Institute for Writing and Thinking, and (other than the crappy dorm mattresses) I highly recommend this annual week-long July workshop for any teacher, college or secondary -- especially for those of us who teach courses that include writing, but also for teachers of subjects that don't traditionally include as much writing. (The program semi-regularly offers a workshop for math and science teachers that I bet would be wonderful.) There were many participants this summer who had taken one or more previous workshops through Bard and had returned for more, and I can understand why; after the first couple of days, I was already picking out the workshops that I want to take in future summers. The program recommends starting with either the "Writing and Thinking" or the "Writing to Learn" seminar, and I would second that recommendation, having not followed it myself! I decided to skip over those, figuring that I was a reflective teacher of writing who'd been doing this for years and not convinced that the program really had all that much to teach me ... and I was wrong! That being said, I didn't have any problems starting in one of the more specialized courses; apparently sometimes the program won't let people sign up for the later courses without first taking either of the introductory classes (and I can't tell that there's really all that much difference between those two introductory classes), but they let me do so, so perhaps they do take into account how long one has been teaching writing. Anyway, the introductory classes seem great, and many people then come back for later classes. There were teachers there from all over the country and from a couple of other countries as well -- mostly high school teachers, but college faculty as well, and I think that the pedagogy would work well at both levels (with obvious adjustments to be made depending on size of class, age of student, etc.).
So what was so great about the week anyway? The basic Bard IWT writing pedagogy is informal writing to figure out one's ideas before one then launches into further work (discussion or more formal writing) about those ideas. Most of us have had the experience of not knowing quite what we think about something until we start writing about it, or of thinking we were headed in one direction with an idea, only to have the idea switch up as we wrote. Reading Anne Lamott on "shitty first drafts" is what saved me in my dissertation-writing, so I was totally down with this philosophy, which is why I thought I could just skip over the introductory workshops. But it became apparent almost immediately that I'd never really used informal writing as the central component of teaching and that doing so could be powerful.
So here's how a typical session in the workshop went, and how a typical class could go if one were using this pedagogy:
- We started every class with a few minutes of private free writing, just to clear one's head from all of the distractions and help facilitate the transition from whatever one had been doing before class. The workshop leader always used the phrase "Write your way into the class," which I loved. We talked about this element as one of balancing "losing" 3-5 minutes from a class period with gaining more focused work from students in the remaining minutes of class, and when I think about the multiple hectic transitions FGS requires of students during the day, it makes sense to me to see this element as an investment in a focused class period.
- Then, we would turn our attention to one of the texts we had read for the day's class. Usually someone would read aloud the first paragraph or so of the piece, just to remind us all of the piece and its voice. Then we would do a focused free write about the piece, often 7 minutes in which we individually wrote down what we were thinking about the text -- thoughts, questions, connections, whatever.
- Then the leader would ask us a more pointed question for us to respond to in writing. Sometimes she asked us to look at a specific passage, or at two passages together. Sometimes she had us underline a particular sentence structure or an image. Sometimes she asked us a question about genre. Or maybe she'd ask us a question about this text in relation to another that we'd read. Or sometimes she asked us to write about a personal experience we'd had that somehow connected to the piece we'd read. Whatever it was, we then wrote in response to that question -- 5 to 15 minutes, depending on what it was.
- Important point: Whenever the class participants were writing, so was the workshop leader. Central to the pedagogy is that the questions asked aren't ones with a single clear answer that the teacher already knows and the students have to figure out; these are exploratory questions that we're all grappling with together.
- Sometimes we stopped writing after these initial two focused free writes. Sometimes instead of one longer response, the leader asked a series of related questions and we wrote for 5 minutes on each one (something that the Bard folks call "looping," although I think that the term "focused free write" covers both of these approaches well enough that one doesn't necessarily need a second term for a series of questions as opposed to one larger question).
- Then -- and this is the part that was new to me and kind of blew my mind -- instead of moving into a discussion about the ideas we'd come up with, we each read over what we'd written and marked the sentence(s) that we wanted to share. One person would start and read her contribution, and the rest of us would listen intently; when someone heard a connection between what the first person read and what he or she had marked to read, the second person would then read after that. We kept this going until everyone had read, but it's important that we weren't just going around the room with each person reading in turn; our read-aloud contributions were responding to previous contributions, which made the whole thing feel very much like a conversation. The teacher, having written beside us, also read her own work. In a larger class, one could do this part in small groups, but there was something quite amazing about hearing everyone (15 of us in my workshop) contribute. (So focused free writing is, unlike the private free writing, meant to be shared, but the writer still has control over what piece he or she is going to share.)
- When everyone had read, we'd often pause in silence for a moment -- and maybe that's not a formal pedagogy but just our collective response to having heard from everyone -- and then we'd do a few minutes of "process writing," in which we analyzed our own ideas or writing or what we'd heard from others.
- After that, we'd sometimes talk, in a more traditional open discussion, and sometimes we'd start the informal writing process all over again.
There were plenty of other things that we did -- dialectical notebooks, a guided response to a poem, small group workshops in which we read and responded to one another's writing, longer writing sessions, etc. -- but the basic lesson plan laid out in the bullet points above was the basis for everything else.
So here's what I found really powerful about this basic lesson plan: I enjoy the sometimes frenetic pace of discussion as much as anyone, with ideas bouncing around and people vehemently agreeing or disagreeing -- indeed, when that happens in my classroom I usually think of it as a successful, engaged class session -- but it is very easy for a few people to dominate in those instances and for others to shrink into the woodwork or somehow get squeezed out by more assertive students; I try to keep an eye on these patterns, but I'm well aware that they occur anyway. Plus, my own experience in such discussions is that I'm often thinking more about what I'm going to say than listening to what other people are saying. And I'm not so sure, after those lively conversations, that ideas or insights have necessarily "stuck." That is, do my students individually and collectively learned from those conversations in a consistent way? Some do, I'm sure, but I'm equally sure that some don't.
So I found the reading-aloud-as-discussion moments really amazing, often quite moving. Everyone knew that he or she was going to read his or her work, so that certainty eliminated all sorts of stress and strain. And no one was going to predominate; everyone would have an equal voice. The mood was quieter and calmer that a lively class discussion but also more intense in some ways because we were all listening so intently to one another. People would often nod and jot something down as others spoke, so we were actually absorbing what others said instead of being on the lookout for opportunities to speak ourselves. I really found it quite amazing, and when we would have free-for-all conversations, I was more aware than ever about how that model is tons of fun for quick-witted extroverts but leaves out folks not in that category.
Now, a reality-check is called for at this point: Everyone in my seminar was an English teacher or in a related field or a writer, and we'd all willingly signed up for a week-long seminar that we knew would be filled with writing; clearly we are not exactly the same as a group of students who are in a class because they have to be there. So how does this pedagogy work in the real world of the classroom? Well, I don't know that yet for sure, of course, but I've made my summer high school students my guinea pigs. This is always the toughest crowd I teach in the year -- only three weeks together, from all different schools, with no sense of community, and most of them resentful that they're in school in the summer -- so I figured that anything that works with them will probably work with my FGS students. The private free-writing is definitely going well, and actually it's good for me as well, because of course I'm writing with them; it's a moment where I check in with myself and write out my goals and plans for the class, all of which I've thought of the night before, but it's good to focus on them right as we launch into class. The focused free-writing is going okay, although I'm still experimenting with what works well as a prompt, and I'm sure that this playing around with questions and prompts will take awhile before I'm feeling really confident about it. And the reading aloud of their own writing is going okay; I have a couple of super-quiet kids who never speak voluntarily, but once it became clear on the first day that they HAD to read, we at least hear from them once or twice during a class session when they read their work, and I don't have to call on them or nag them, so it's definitely more pleasant for me. We don't do this informal writing for the whole class period; it's definitely just one strategy I'm using in these 90-minute class periods (although maybe that won't be the case when I'm back to 45-minute classes at FGS), but I'm going to do more of it this coming week now that the students are reading more outside of class. It's clear that the informal writing is something that it takes students awhile to get used to and to recognize as valuable, but I think that FGS students will be willing to give it a shot, and I'm looking forward to trying all of this out at this coming year.
In 2009 the IWT program faculty published (through SUNY Press) an edited collection, Writing-Based Thinking, which I'm halfway through reading now, and I'm finding it a very helpful addition to the week-long seminar and am expecting to return to it frequently this year as I try putting into place the pedagogy. But I don't think that book stands on its own, really; it's no subsitute for the week-long seminar. Bard also offers one-day and weekend workshops during the school year, but I think that the week-long immersion is really the way to go for one's introduction to the program.
So, bottom line: Sign up for one of the week-long seminars for next July. You won't be sorry! (And sign up early in the spring, because they do fill up.)