Teachers and Students Collaborating as "Makers"

by Laura J. Roop, in collaboration with Laura Schiller

Ten summers ago, I spent much of my vacation in a National Writing Project (NWP) summer institute, an intensive five-week learning experience bringing together teacher-leaders across disciplines and grade levels. Like my colleagues, I was reputed to be a strong teacher of writing. Unlike many, however, I saw myself as a serious writer of poems and essays from the outset. Over the weeks, I watched many of these elementary, middle school, and high school teachers revise their identities­as they drafted, conferenced, read, and revised essays, stories, and poems, they became writers, too. As I wrote, I had an unprecedented opportunity to reflect on the relationship between my writing life and my teaching life. What experiences had permitted me to become a writer? What experiences had discouraged so many of my colleagues from writing, and why were they willing to engage in it now? Would it be possible to create a successful classroom workshop based on my own most positive learning experiences, as well as the model embodied in the summer institute?

I returned to my high school classroom eager to refine my teaching practice. That fall, I was invited by my writing project director to conduct several workshops for secondary teachers on the teaching of poetry writing and reading. Because of my summer institute experience, I knew better than to lecture at my colleagues; together, we read and wrote and reflected on reading, writing, and teaching poetry. With that strategic nudge by the director, I permanently revised my notion of professional behavior­l was responsible for sharing my learning with my colleagues as well as with my students and the larger community.

Five years later, I was named the director of the Oakland (MI) Writing Project, home of the summer institute that spurred my own professional growth. In that capacity, I have been able to work alongside other teacher-learners (and their students) as they revise their texts, their practice, and often, their lives. One such colleague, Laura Schiller, is collaborating with me as we explore the effects of Writing Project related experiences on teachers' lives. Since Laura participated in the 1992 summer institute, she has blossomed professionally. She and another Writing Project teacher-consultant, Kathleen Hayes-Parvin, brought colleagues together to form a whole language support group. These Southfield teachers planned and conducted workshops and courses for other district teachers and administrators. Because of their efforts, the district was selected to be a demonstration site for the Michigan English Language Arts Framework (MELAF) Project, a state standards effort. Laura Schiller has published articles in Changing Minds, Language Arts Journal of Michigan, and Language Arts, and is completing a book about her own experiences teaching in a multicultural classroom.

Schiller identifies an experience with poetry during the summer institute as pivotal to her development:

You were talking about the way poems are like photographs, pictures. I was looking for a photograph of personal significance. I chose not to write about my husband­there could have been ramifications­I could write about my grandmother. She was dead; what harm could there be? I didn't have any idea what I was opening up. It was a Pandora's box. I was closed out of her death­ she died when I was nine. This was something in my life that had been left unresolved.
The "photograph" she chose to write about was an image in her memory. Schiller describes the writing and rewriting of the poem as a cathartic experience. She tells of locking herself in the family study, then writing and crying all afternoon. She felt as though she were finally acknowledging her feelings. "To this day, I cannot read the poem without crying," she says. "I was given permission to be affected when I am reading; I allowed myself to feel more deeply." Schiller notes that this was the first time she ever wrote a poem or something personally significant. Her previous experiences with writing had been largely informational and detached from personal experience.

For Laura Schiller, the act of revision was the connection between writing poetry and writing other genres. Heidi Wilkins (then co-director, currently principal of Walled Lake Elementary School) and I conferenced a number of times with her, bringing up issues of audience, purpose, and craft. She also received extensive feedback from her summer institute response group. Her poem, "My Grandma's Arms," went through about eleven drafts, beginning as prose notes, then moving back and forth from poetry to prose to poetry.

That experience became emblematic for Schiller partly because it represented an episode of risk-taking and experimentation. She had written in a genre she had never before attempted, had written her way into something deeply personal, had willingly drafted and revised text (some twenty draft pages), and had allowed the writing of the poem to spill out of "school" into her life.

Schiller has continued to experiment with genre studies, and to school herself­and her sixth graders­in the art and craft of writing. This winter, after visiting her poetry classroom, I was amazed to receive their insightful written responses to a difficult, three-page poem on mortality and transcendence I had recently completed. Sara, a sixth grade student, wrote in a letter:

The third time I read (the poem) over, I grasped it even better, and then all of the sudden, the moral sort of hit me. My mind staggered a little, but I recovered quickly from the blow. I found a whole new set of emotions in the poem.... The poem was not about Uncle Rube, or Luke, or Aunt Tillie. It was about human beings, and how it's the faults that we have that make us so human. Nobody ever reached heaven without falling into a few potholes. If that was the point you were trying to get across, it worked. It hit me like a slap in the face.
Another of Schiller's classroom genre experiments during the 94-95 school year was a memoir study. Students read and wrote memoirs, as did their teacher. Schiller critiqued her own efforts in a letter to her Southfield colleagues, after rereading a chapter of Living Between the Lines, a book by Lucy Calkins on the teaching of literacy:
I never succeeded at getting my students to "pearlize," layer, or grow meaning from, their entries. Our writers' notebooks consist mostly of separate incidents. I now see my memoir, as well as many of my students', did not succeed at clearly connecting the strands of meaning in life. Before next year, I'll reread some memoirs and look for ways authors juxtapose moments and handle jumps in time. [M]ost important, I'll try to rewrite my own memoir. My guess is, my students' writing next year will reflect my own growth. If I can do it, then I can coach it.
When teachers like Laura Schiller are invited to see themselves as writers, they are being encouraged to tell, to tend, and to make their own unique stories. During summer institutes I've led, participants have talked about the risky but rewarding decision many writers have claimed to make: the decision to lead an examined life, paying close attention to what is seen, felt, heard, remembered, and imagined. On occasion, I've shared a passage from an essay, "Poems Are Not Luxuries," by poet Audre Lorde:
[Poetry] forms the quality of the light with which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into an idea, then into more tangible action. Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameles so that it can be thought.
Sometimes we've talked about and experimented with what I call "transformations," the unsettling but important moves writers make when they take slices of life, whether tedious, painful, confusing, or endearing, and imagine them "other," with different consequences, chronologies, and dramatic shapes. By experimenting with possibility in the seemingly safe context of a poem, story, or essay we may learn to experiment with possibility in our lives. In writing project summer institutes, the composition and revision of texts become the central metaphor for making and revising our professional and personal lives. Writing projects effect change in participants because they build literate learning communities among teachers where life narratives are valued and sometimes transformed into art. Teachers placed in the role of active learners may imagine and empathize with their students. Placed in the role of inquiring professionals teaching and learning with other professionals, they begin to imagine rich professional lives filled with colleagues who see themselves as learners, responsible to one another. Thus, workshop activities become exercises in imagination, leading participants toward empathic understanding of others­ students, teachers, administrators, parents, and of course, authors­ and their worlds.

In Stories Lives Tell: Narrative and Dialogue in Education, Carol Witherell identifies two central reasons for the rich use of narrative in teaching and counseling: "One has to do with the coherence and the ongoing autobiographical activity of the self, the other with the power of story and metaphor in human action and feeling." NWP sites around the country understand and tap the power of the word- -written, read and spoken­to mend the sometimes profound split between learning and teaching, between poetry and pedagogy, between our personal and professional lives.


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