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Film Teaches How To Write by First Teaching How To 'See'

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New York--On a recent day on Sullivan Street here, two men in a small corner market were arguing about the opposing teams in a football game they were watching on television.

The [expletive deleted] referees, one said, are on the Cowboys' payroll--that much is obvious.

No, no, the other said, launching into a monologue that featured non sequitur, hortative profanity, and sullen broadsides against the talent and virtue of the Redskins and their fans.

Differing perceptions--that's what arguing is all about.

And, say the creators of "Before the First Word"--a new film for teachers that is set on Sullivan Street--that's what writing is all about, too.

The film's creators would tell you that the scene described so delicately above, in which this observer took a brief, funny, and coarse encounter and stiffly transformed it into some-thing safe enough to send home, could have been rendered any number of ways by different people.

That idea--the importance of individual perception and style as a part of the writing process--is central to "Before the First Word." The film is meant to help teachers help students open their eyes to the myriad ways of looking at, and writing about, the things that surround them.

Conceived by Alice S. Trillin and Jane M. Garmey, and produced with a filmmaker named Tom Simon, the film is the first part of a project (tentatively called "Writers Writing") designed to include three films and one audio-cassette.

The series is meant to follow the "complete writing process," Ms. Trillin and Ms. Garmey said at a workshop recently held in New York for teachers who will help them test how well the film works.

"Before the Word" is about the first part of that process: seeing, hearing, and recording.

The film itself is both a documen-tary look at the diversity of a largely Italian neighborhood on the edge of New York's SoHo district, and a demonstration of the types of observation, reporting, and perceiving that its creators believe should precede composition.

The film follows three writers--one professional and two students--as they spend time on Sullivan Street "looking, learning to observe, and looking again."

Anna Quindlen, who writes the "About New York" column for The New York Times, serves as a peripatetic guide through the bewildering array of sights, sounds, colors, and people on Sullivan Street. Her function is to tell the students (and viewers) how she goes about sifting through her impressions as a first step toward a finished piece of writing.

Although she gives advice, she notes that there is no single way to write about something; there are as many ways as there are writers.

"Becoming a writer," she says, "is a leap into saying, 'I can do that differently from everybody else."'

In the film, Ms. Quindlen is preparing to write a column about the Feast of St. Anthony of Padua, an annual festival held on Sullivan Street in early summer. The students, Maria Hampton and Wilmer Ortiz, are on assignment, too: to learn what they can about the street, its history, its people, and the changes that have affected it, and to write about some aspect of what they learn.

The film follows the students as they talk to people like Mary and Nino Mazzeo, an Italian couple who have lived in the neighorhood all their lives, and to Colette and Jim Rossant, who tell them about the early resentment they encountered as one of the first families of "outsiders" (non-Italians) to move onto Sullivan Street back in 1968.

The street and the film are suffused with contrast: between the old and new residents of the street, between the starkly different reactions to the feast of St. Anthony itself. To some, the feast is an indispensable part of neighborhood life; to others, it's only a noisy, smoky, smelly, yearly ordeal that keeps them awake at night and leaves the streets littered.

Again, reactions to similar events differ, and no one in the film, not even Ms. Quindlen, provides any "answers." In fact, Ms. Quindlen suggests there may not be any answers, and warns the viewer against trying to devise a unity to what he observes on a street like Sullivan Street.

How To 'Generate Chaos'

"Before the First Word," Ms. Trillin told teachers attending the workshop, is designed to show students how to "generate chaos," how to saturate themselves with observations and impressions by listening and seeing. The two subsequent films will be about ways to look for patterns and connections that could give form to the chaos (writing), and how to reform it (rewriting).

Ms. Trillin, who is a writing teacher, and Ms. Garmey, who at one time worked for WNET/Channel 13 in Manhattan, became interested in the idea of producing a series of films on writing in 1980, partly because of a study conducted by Channel 13 that demonstrated an interest among educators in such a concept.

They formed a corporation called "Learning Designs" in 1981, and in association with Channel 13 (with funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Christian Johnson Endeavor, the William H. Donner Foundation, the Sachem Fund, and the New York State Department of Education), they produced "Before the First Word."

Ms. Trillin and Ms. Garmey also have a grant from the Fund for the Improvement of Post-Secondary Education (fipse) to conduct an evaluation of the film using 75 teachers from high schools, colleges, and adult-education centers in Maine, Virginia, and New York.

Teachers taking part in the workshops will take a copy of the film back to their schools, show it, and keep detailed journals on how they used the film to teach writing and how it worked.

The workshops and follow-up work are being conducted with the help of Dixie Goswami, director of the writing program at the Breadloaf School of English at Middlebury College. The results will be used to develop print materials to accompany the films, and to make the two remaining films.

Production on the next film, which will probably be in a rural setting, should begin next fall, Ms. Garmey said. "Before the First Word" and its print materials should be available for distribution then.

During the New York workshop, Ms. Trillin warned the teachers that the success or failure of the film as a tool to teach writing depends largely on them.

"This film will be a disaster if it's just shown to a class," she said. "You have to make the connections."

The teachers in the group came from diverse settings; Ms. Trillin and Ms. Garmey say the film can be used effectively with students in high schools, colleges, and adult-education centers, and with both advanced and remedial students.

Among those attending the workshop were a teacher of remedial courses in a Brooklyn high school, a teacher at a technical college who works with students who have 5th-grade reading skills, and another who teaches composition to students at the Pratt and Parsons schools of design in New York.

Not surprisingly, many different ideas about how the film could be used to teach writing emerged from the workshop.

Some teachers plan to send students on similar assignments in their own areas. Others want to have students contrast Sullivan Street with their own neighborhoods. One plans to have students write imaginary accounts of encounters between characters shown in the film.

The teachers were enthusiastic about the film, with a few reservations. Some thought Maria and Wilmer, the students, seemed too facile in their interviewing techniques, too relaxed. The teachers worried that interviewing would be a major stumbling block for many of their students. Some thought the film should contain more discussion of the pre-interview, pre-observation process that writers must go through.

But most teachers liked the way the film led to discussion and new ideas, its emphasis on reporting and personal observation, and its inherent suggestion that there is something worth writing about wherever one looks carefully.

Or as Wilmer Ortiz put it: "I made an error when I perceived the neighborhood as being 'boringly normal.' Although it is far from bizarre, it is, nevertheless, filled with a great deal of excitement."

Additional information on the project is available from Learning Designs, 61 Gramercy Park, New York, N.Y. 10010.

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