Control #1

What I saw in class the second day of school was really interesting and rewarding. At one table, three students spent 10 minutes voluntarily analyzing two lines of poetry – then when given a choice, decided to continue with the same work.

As I strolled around the room, I found a delightful range of experiences of a single Emily Dickinson poem – from enjoyment found in its depiction of a season, to deliberation about whether the speaker was a human or a living thing found in nature. I overheard attention being given to themes, various levels of meaning, to spiritual and psychological complexity, and to denotative meaning of words (such as trinket) versus connotations of words. What would it mean for a tree to wear a trinket? for a person to be old-fashioned? How do you define lest?

Although I wondered at the moment whether I was more exuberant or disappointed with the various outcomes, I know now that what I wanted more than any other single thing in that room was about control.

Despite one part of me imagining that by osmosis somehow, everyone in the room would learn from everyone else’s investigations—unrealistic, I know!—and emerge from Room 209 with a profound sense of the creative presence of God in our lives, a divine spark kindled by St. Emily of Amherst, the larger part of me was practical, hoping merely that students would engage with texts, and in the process engage with each other.

How does this relate to control?

I implicitly hoped that the way I had structured the time in class would necessitate that students assumed control over how they spent their time. Control at the initial level means having a choice. Students today had control over what text they read, over the pace of their reading, over what was said about that text, and over what was relayed to the whole class at its close.

Students also had control over what they would share from their thinking log of the night before. In that log and in tonight’s each of us had control over what we might write. But these issues of control seem rather mechanical. They are all about disclosure, choice, and about the will and desire. Middle schoolers might exercise similar control. But these were high schoolers. Where is growth?

I am thinking that control by writers over their language is an essential domain. It is a place we writers want to be able to keep under our direct supervision. I want the words to come out in order, sounding right, to my own and to listeners’ ears. And not only in speech, but in my writing. It can be hard to say exactly what I mean; I want a process that makes it easier, that makes me better. Perhaps the classroom is a place to practice new processes that put me in greater control of my own writing. If a writer – student or teacher – learns greater control through such experience, that is growth.

Lately I have incorporated procedures for greater control by students of the feedback they receive from me on their writing, including telling me what they think needs work. When they exercise such control, they learn to think critically about their own writing. I am pretty sure that learning to evaluate your own writing is a form of control, too. If I can start to see in my own work its strengths and its weaknesses, I rely less on another person to help me with it; I become responsible to myself for what I produce. This kind of self-reliance is a form of independence that is valued at my school and in my classroom.

I am wondering what any of you see as in your control today, or out of your control? What procedures might you enact where you are that would lead to a greater sense of control over your own thinking and learning, and for that of those around you?

Art: Painting of Emily Dickinson by William Rock and Calligraphy by Huang Xiang found at http://www.voiceseducation.org/content/emily-dickinson-poems-about-words


4 Responses to “Control #1”

  1. August 30, 2011 at 2:11 pm

    I like this. I tend to think of control as a negative thing in my life, and something I need to…control. i.e. that it is an illusion, and to really get to deeper levels of creative thinking I need to let go of the idea that I’m in control of the creative process. But, on the other hand, as I blogged recently, good writing is all about a constant series of good decision-making and ultimately as writers or speakers, we are in control of those decisions, or at least responsible for them. And the self-reliance aspect is really important for any writer.

    • August 30, 2011 at 10:15 pm

      Thank you, Sara. Although I began writing the post with an eye toward teaching control of other people’s writing, I found that I had as much to learn myself, and that writing was only a subcategory of disciplines or domains in our lives where we need to make peace with control.

  2. September 4, 2011 at 4:33 pm

    As someone who began writing seriously during high school, I believe that the most important skill I learned during that time was the kind of control that you write about here. The ability to look at your own work with a critical eye and make decisions about its strengths and weaknesses is an incredible tool. One that many never really acquire. That kind of control takes the power out of the hands of others and places it firmly in the writer’s grasp. Even if your students never become “writers” that kind of control can benefit them in all areas of their lives as they grow older (for example: whether or not to take advice given to them).

    • September 4, 2011 at 10:35 pm

      Thanks! I am beginning writing conferences this week (short meetings with individual students based on Donald Murray model) and hope that the students are the ones who feel a sense of accomplishment and control afterward – I am curious to see how they respond.

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