They say that a well-designed test allows students to learn; it is also a maxim of teachers that we learn from our students. In my case, not only did my students learn through their final projects; my students taught me. In an AP English class, each writer not only shared her concluding written work of the semester, but also responded aloud to two or three other students who shared. Time and again I was stymied by the perceptive and encouraging remarks students summoned within themselves in response to peers’ writing. They noticed things that I had completely overlooked because of my myopic view: I was so focused on completing my own suggested sentence stems in order to provide “useful” and immediate feedback, I ignored the artistry and voice of each writer. I learn that isolated teacher comments are such limited, fluttering birds, they ought not survive long outside the nest of writer’s conference; but with words young writers say about their own work and problem-solving, and with the addition of multiple responders, a teacher comment may contribute usefully to a healthy flock of writers in flight. In other classes, a research paper took students into unfamiliar territory as they explored writing in a genre they were curious about. Not only did reflective letters report enjoyment and learning, but I also found in the student journals, original writing and letters implicit critiques of existing genre limitations. “This genre had no color”. “This genre had no images.” “This genre had no visuals–I am a visual learner, so I created charts and diagrams to go with my subject.” I learn that the teachers I know communicate predominantly with words. What would it look like if even my instructions to myself – lesson plans, notes, to-do lists – began to take the form of “back-of-the-napkin”, Creativity Core, and aphasia communication book tools? Would my own thinking change? Thanks to my students, as I plunge into summer learning and pedagogical refreshers, I am particularly attentive to simplifying the way I communicate my ideas. Can I express this idea in a color, shape, or sound? How about a texture, object, or fragrance?
This means a new relationship between audience and purpose: even when I intend mainly highly verbal people like myself as readers or users of a list, article, journal entry, or letter, how does my own thinking change shape, take form and emerge as an expression of myself if I let go of genre conventions I feel most in control of?
My students yet again remind me to yield up control. Just as T.S. Eliot needed to find a new language for poetry that would speak to his culture, they seek rich and meaningful expressions that modify existing genres and invent new ones for this era. Instead of feeling like “I’m done” at the end of this school year, I am singing “We’ve Only Just Begun”.
I have even begun to record notes for a summer school class I am taking in colored pencil. Here are the results:
What are you doing in your content area or personal writing to implicitly or explicitly invite your students to contribute their voices and to become resistant to static forms? [Images: Communication Board, “Activities To Share” at Activitiestoshare.co.uk; student cover by TM; Unfamiliar genre page by MC.]