The Perplexities of Writing, Teachers Find, Baffle Not Only Pupils
Annandale-on-Hudson, NY--A group of secondary-school English teachers swallowed a dose of their own medicine here last month, when an intensive two-day workshop at Bard College forced them to spend hours writing and reading their work aloud.
It appeared to be a painful experience for the many teachers who said they had not written an essay since college. "At first I panicked," said Josephine Glorie, a junior-high school teacher from Marlboro, N.Y. "I didn't know what to say."
But by the end of the weekend, most seemed to have decided that the experience was enlightening. "What I've discovered here is that it's fun to write--that's what's missing in the classroom," said Wendell Scherer, a 9th-grade teacher from Kingston, N.Y.
Teachers Put to Work
The workshop, sponsored by Bard's Institute for Writing and Thinking, provided little advice about classroom procedures for teaching writing. Instead of attending a round of lectures about methodology, the 55 teachers, who had come from as far away as California, were put to work.
The concept behind the institute is simple, said Bard officials: You cannot teach students to write if you can't--and don't--write yourself. After all, they told participants, music students expect their piano teachers to actually play the piano, and students learning to write should find similar expertise in their English teachers.
"One cannot talk about writing without doing it," said Bard's president, Leon Botstein. "It is a very simple insight, and one which I never thought of until this [institute] began. It seems so obvious."
Established last August, the institute began offering workshops for secondary-school teachers in November. It plans to hold two sessions each semester, with the next one scheduled for May.
With grants from the Ford Foundation and the Booth Ferris Foundation, the institute charges $125 for a weekend of classes, room, and board. Many of the participants at last month's session had their way paid by their school district's professional-development program. Institute officials also hope eventually to attract teachers from disciplines other than English.
Last month's participants crammed a lot of work into the weekend. Their Saturday session, for example, began at 9 A.M. and continued until 10 P.M. In classrooms on the 1,000-acre wooded campus 100 miles north of New York City, the teachers were handed thick, yellow notebooks and told to write.
Each session began with five minutes of "free writing," in which participants wrote continuously on any topic to "warm up." Then the teachers were asked to write about the importance of writing.
"Ordinarily, I don't even think about my own writing because I don't do any," one teacher confessed as she read her prose to her colleagues. "I want to feel how the students feel when I make them read their writing out loud. They sweat. They break out in hives."
Later, the teachers were handed copies of "Poppies in October," a poem by Sylvia Plath. In pairs, they wandered off to isolated spots in the building to practice reading the poem aloud. Upon returning to the classroom, they were told to list images they remembered from the poem and then to write some personal reflections about three of the images. Next, they wrote about the images in the context of the poem and, finally, they used what they had written to think critically about the poem and write some literary criticism.
The process, the teachers agreed, could be applied to their classrooms to force students to confront both lit-erature and writing in more personal terms.
"In school, the themes [that students are given] don't come out of their lives. They are not engaged in their writing," said Ellen Solomon, a teacher, writer, and former editor of The Harvard Educational Review.
"Writing is being taught as a phony activity--not at all the way professionals write," Ms. Solomon said.
"One writes for a purpose, to find something out or to discover something."
Paul Connolly, the institute's director, said most students "seem to be going through the motion of writing. They're not attached to it. Their writing tends to be perfunctory and it tends to be thoughtless."
The institute's leaders argue that much of the concern about poor writing is misdirected toward symptoms such as bad punctuation, spelling, and grammar. The more serious problem, they say, is that students simply do not care about writing.
Students must understand that writing helps them learn to think, Mr. Connolly asserted. "Language is inseparable from thinking," he said.
The weekend of writing was described as exhausting by many of the participants. "I haven't done this much writing since I was in school," said Janet E. Jones, a teacher and administrator from Ashburnham, Mass.
But they said they appreciated the opportunity to see things from the other side of the classroom. "By doing all this writng," Ms. Glorie said, "at least I'll know how my students feel when I give them a writing assignment."