Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The High Priestess of "Real" Writing

As a teacher of writing, I spend a lot of time reading about the process of writing...how to prewrite, how to write, how to revise, how to edit, how to evaluate...blah, blah, blah. Personally, I have never thought of writing as a process or exact science. Writing, to me, is messy and creative and confusing and wonderful. Writing definitely is difficult to teach, because it is such a personal endeavor. This is precisely why I am frustrated with the cookie-cutter methods of teaching and evaluating writing which are so prevalent today. We, as writing teachers, are presented with four squares and six traits and five sentence-five paragraph essays and six point rubrics...all of which make me want to shout from the mountaintops, "Is this writing or math?!?"

One particular sore spot with me is our state writing test. I have never been able to put into words the exact animosity I feel toward these tests. The students understandably hate them, but let me tell you...the teachers hate them even more. Why? The answer became clear to me as I was reading the words of Barry Lane yesterday. Barry is a respected teacher of writing in the literary community, but he is also a rebel. He despises writing tests as much as I do; however, he is very eloquent in describing his disdain. "No matter how much we would like it to be otherwise," states Barry, "tests promote uniformity, whereas writing teachers, at their best, promote endless diversity. At some level, testing and teaching are diametrically opposed activities." Barry goes on to list his "Truths of Testing" as follows:
  • Tests promote uniformity. (Non-compliant writing is often not scorable.)
  • Tests promote failure. (If everyone passes the test, it is too easy.)
  • Teachers promote diversity. (They want to reach all students.)
  • Teachers promote success. (Teachers want all of their students to succeed.)

He, in his most honest and sincere voice, then poses two thoughtful questions, "Are we testing writing, or are we testing compliance?" and "You don't fatten a pig by weighin' it, do you?" Ponder on THAT for a minute.

As I pondered these words, I began reminiscing about one of the finest student writers I have ever had the privilege to work with. Deedee's writing was unique. She wrote with passion and voice, and she rarely followed the five sentence, five paragraph format. However, when she took the state writing test, she did not "meet state standards." Her writing was not normal enough, not formulated enough, not compliant enough for the state. No, Deedee's writing was exceptional in every sense of the word...the state just didn't recognize it because it did not fit neatly into their state-approved, state-standardized six-point writing rubric.

Rethinking Writing Rubrics with Maja Wilson

The thing I loved about Deedee, though, was that she did not need the approval of the state to validate her writing. She knew in her heart she was a good writer, and she loved writing. Deedee has since gone on to higher levels of education, but I spoke with her just the other day. She told me she has not lost her passion for writing, and she has enrolled in a summer creative writing class. She thanked me for always encouraging her to write HER way. I think that is about the highest praise a writing teacher can get.

Deedee's words have motivated me to begin thinking differently. I am no longer going to be a writing teacher...I am going to be a writing encourager. I am going to stage an elegant rebellion whereby I creatively dance around the test and at the same time encourage great writing in my students. It may take me awhile to get my groove going, but I know it can be done. I will listen to the words of Barry Lane as he suggests, "Be the best teacher you can be. Remember who you are and why you are a teacher. Bring your passion into the classroom. When faced with monolithic programs, be eclectic. Choose what works for you and hurl the rest. Cast out the phony lessons in your midst. Make room for real thinking and writing and reading in your classroom. Be the best, most passionate, loving, caring, creative, tough, humanizing teacher you can be. Be a high priest or priestess of "real" education. Be the most glorious teacher you can be."

Me...a high priestess of "real" writing? If I just close my classroom door and do what I know is right in my heart...if I just remember that the true purpose of writing is to help us discover who we are...if I just become a humanizing teacher who encourages her students...it can and will be done. I have to believe this with all of my heart, so that all of my students will find that messy, creative, confusing, and wonderful pot of writing gold at the end of their rainbows.

Barry Lane Presents "What's at the end of the rainbow?"

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Aunt Jenny...Ten Years Younger

Any Brady Bunch fans out there? I am a child of the 70's, and The Brady Bunch was "must see" T.V. for my generation. I was thinking the other day about one particular episode of The Brady Bunch that revolved around Jan...the younger, whiny, jealous sister of Marcia.

Now...I must admit that I loved Marcia. She was beautiful. She was sophisticated. She was cool. I wanted to be popular like Marcia who could join every club in school and still have time to woo Davy Jones to take her to the school dance. I wanted to have Marcia's uber-flowing hair that would swing perfectly from side to side as she walked down the halls of Filmore Junior High. I wanted to have Marcia's charm and personality that could attract boys like Harvey Klinger. Yes...I wanted to BE Marcia Brady. But Jan? Jan's continual whimpering about Marcia, Marcia, Marcia drove me crazy. Who wanted to be Jan? Nobody I knew. Even little sister Cindy with her lisp and banana curls was more appealing.

Nonetheless, the episode I was thinking about did indeed center around drippy Jan. For you Brady connoisseurs, this was episode 66 during season three where Jan discovers a picture of her Aunt Jenny which was taken when Aunt Jenny was Jan's age. Wow! The young Aunt Jenny looks exactly like Jan! Curious to see how Aunt Jenny looks now and thinking perhaps that is how SHE will turn out to look, Jan writes Aunt Jenny and asks her for a current picture. The picture arrives in the mail, and horror of horrors...Aunt Jenny (played by Imogene Coca) is NOT at all attractive. In fact, Aunt Jenny is old and down right ugly and on top of all this, she dresses really weird. This causes Jan to become more than a little distressed. Will she grow up to look like Aunt Jenny? Oh, we can only hope not. (Fade to commercial so that we might all ponder this tragic thought a little bit longer.)

The crazy thing is when Jan actually meets her, she finds Aunt Jenny to be an amazing person who cavorts with kings, queens, movie stars and yes, even Ari and Jackie O. It seems everyone loves bubbly, vivacious, albeit unattractive Aunt Jenny. All of a sudden Jan realizes...could it really be true...maybe Aunt Jenny isn't so bad after all? And here come the Brady lesson of the week: Don't judge a book by its cover...or....appearances can be deceiving; it is what is INSIDE a person that really counts. Hugs all around.

So what is it that made me think of this Brady episode, you ask? Actually, it is my current obsession with another T.V. show called Ten Years Younger. The premise of this show is that one person is invited to step inside the "big box" — a soundproof display case placed along some of the busiest streets in two of the most appearance-driven cities in the world...Los Angeles and New York. As complete strangers critique the participant's looks and try to guess her age, the show's glam squad of fashion stylists, makeup artists, and hairstylists are standing by in the studio with a plan to take a decade off the person's look in just ten days. The glam squad is teamed with Hollywood and New York's finest doctors and dentists schooled in the latest non-surgical dermatological and dental innovations who will work their magic as well. Finally, the "brand new" participant returns to the "big box" to see if a new set of complete strangers pegs her at an age that is at least TEN years younger. And thank goodness...they always do!

Ironically, Ten Years Younger is on TLC or The Learning Channel...so I'm thinking, what exactly are we supposed to be learning? That looks ARE everything? That white teeth and a new outfit can make a person instantly attractive? That it takes a "glam squad" to make a person feel good about herself? Heck, I want to be on this program and have the glam squad work their magic on me, but will I really be a more remarkable person capable of cavorting with kings, queens, and movie stars just because I have unclogged pores and a new haircut? What exactly is the Ten Years Younger lesson of the week?

Sadly, there are a plethora of shows on T.V. today with this same premise, and our young girls (including my two teenage daughters) are watching them religiously and learning their "lessons." As I said, even I am obsessed with seeing if the transformation can really take place on each and every show. And...I'm more than a little disturbed to admit that I am definitely infatuated with this program. It fascinates me.

That said, I can't help but think how episode 66 of The Brady Bunch might be different if it were filmed today. Aunt Jenny would be a sad, pathetic person because she is not beautiful. Jan would convince Aunt Jenny to get an "extreme makeover" which makes her look gorgeous and at least ten years younger. All would be right with the Brady world. And the Brady lesson of the week? It is what is on the outside that counts...or...a book can always get a new cover. Hugs all around...just please, please, please don't mess up my new outfit.

For more Brady fun check out: http://www.bradybunchshrine.com/general.htm

Monday, June 2, 2008

Saying It Hot

I have spent the last fourteen hours trying to figure out how to set up this @#$*! blog, and I have my friend Marsha to thank for that. Her beautiful blog, Breathings of the Heart, has inspired me to shift some of my writing from the pages of my notebooks and journals to the posts of this blog. I say "some" because I believe there are certain words from the handwriting of one's heart that should still be held private and sacred, and those writings will remain mine and mine alone. However, as I am not one to defy change, I will triumphantly join the twenty-first century with the creation of this blog and write about topics I am passionate about...things that make me wonder...things that make me cry...things that make me laugh. I will, as D.H. Lawrence so eloquently suggests, be still when I have nothing to say, but say it hot when genuine passion moves me.
Writing is not easy...I tell my students that all the time. Writing it hot is even harder. Flames do not just automatically burn in my brain, travel down my arm, and explode out of my fingertips as I type. But when true passion for a subject ignites in my soul, I have to let it out...and I find writing the perfect avenue to accomplish this.
So, I will try to breathe the fire of passion from my soul into this blog...to say it hot...to write it hot. I hope those who read this blog will be enlightened or entertained or even enraged at times. I hope I ignite your passion to "say it hot" along with me.