Education Opinion

Rosenfeld’s Monster

By Emmet Rosenfeld — May 16, 2008 4 min read
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I predict there will be at least 38 comments on this post. My kids do their homework, that much I know. I’m not so sure they all freewrite right. I take some of the blame; I’m not sure I’ve peeled back my skull enough in using this technique in class so as to make them understand just how undisciplined and generative the technique can be.

Regular readers of this blog will know that one of my favorite teacher tricks is the “quick write.” I use it when we are discussing or doing or watching something. At a certain point, instead of calling out questions to the group—a practice which generally results in a meaty conversation between me and ten percent of the students in the room—I ask kids to write their thoughts in their ever-handy writer’s notebook. What generally follows is a three- or ten- or eighteen- minute burst of intense silence, as every student scribbles out loud in his or her marble comp book.

I write, too. If I were to start puttering with papers or, even worse, walk around like a warden peering over their shoulders, I would be undermining the effectiveness of the freewrite. By writing intently, I send the message that this is thinking time for all of us. And it is. I usually have so many ideas after engaging in a class discussion that I can’t wait to make sense of them on paper.

My enthusiasm may be part of the problem. Every now and then I look up and notice with surprise that someone is twirling her pencil, or staring off into space. Why aren’t they madly scribbling, I wonder, generally before ducking my head back down to my own notebook page to keep up with a pen that hasn’t stopped moving.

One reason some stop writing, I think, is because they assume they’re done. Meaning, they’ve recorded a few lines for the assignment in case I check it, and now they just need to wait out the next five or fifteen minutes to get to the next thing (or even better, the end of class). Yes, even TJ students sometimes go through the motions. In fact, there are those who would argue that they tend to go through the motions even more than “regular” kids, so adept have our students become at the business of school.

Freewriting isn’t business. It isn’t about doing an assignment efficiently or for the grade. It’s really about letting go, losing yourself in a swirl of thoughts that may or may not go where you think it should. This is the creative ferment that leads to original ideas, in my experience, an absolutely essential stage along the path to more ordered, meaningful expression. I’ve explicitly taught it in a limited way, moreso implicitly by modeling and consistently having kids do it. Some get it, some don’t.

At any rate, I figured I’d take another stab here. Below is my own ten-minute freewrite at the end of a class discussion on Frankenstein. I’ve reproduced it verbatim, just the way it came out in my notebook. I’m assigning my tenth grade students to read this post and respond with a comment either directly from or based on their own freewrites. If they (or you) also want to weigh in on the process of freewriting itself, please do.

As context for those brave enough to wade through the responses, the reading covered was the last volume of three in Mary Shelley’s book. The day’s lesson consisted of sharing charts made last class in groups of four. Each chart had four sections. The first quadrant listed plot points using selected quotes. The second quarter noted “swoons and screams,” or other expressions of Romantic emotion. Third, I asked them to make a connection between Wordsworth’s “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey” and the novel. Last, they had to find something that had recurred three times in the book, like an image, event, or an aspect of language.

While they shared the charts, I asked them to make notes on three questions in their writer’s notebooks. First, why are swoons and screams important? Second, what makes this a Romantic work? And third, write three thesis statements based on recurring aspects. At the end of class, we all wrote for an additional ten minutes. Here’s my unmediated response. Read on and my kids will show you theirs.

Start 9:50- end 10:00
Most swoons [my kids claim to have experienced] are girls screaming at bugs or caterpillars. My example: the popped-out knee in art class yesterday, the teacher’s grief-stricken expression as he waited in the office for the ambulance. The rarity of true experiences in life that take us to the edge, the heights of the sublime or the depths of despair. Maybe Burma or China right now, the desperate villagers trapped under rubble of cheaply-made schools because corrupt officials were on the take and the cement crumbles in your fingers…

Authenticity of experience, being truly alive, awake—not asleep, not “calmer” or “relaxed.” The possibility of violent emotion…

Frankenstein as an anti-Romantic novel, a Gothic story in which nature does not sooth, it blasts. Repeatedly, Victor tries to find solace in the beauty of lakes and mountains, with ever-diminishing returns. Ultimately, he ends up in the blasted lifeless frozen North, more truly expressive of his internal landscape. Not sublime, but cast down from heaven with violence to a frozen hell. Nature, subverted, twisted punishes Victor with endless pursuit. Because he violated her laws, created an unnatural scientific contraption, machine, machination, manipulation, perversion… because of his Promethean hubris, he is cast out of heaven, denied the Wordsworthian sublime. Instead of dissolution of self in Edenic nature, he us utterly self-bound, locked in his own obsession, bound by his own creation in chains that prevent him from escaping a crushing sense of guilt, defeat and loss.

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