English 521:
Composition Theory and Pedagogy

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Personal Essay


by Paula Beaudoin


Last semester I led a ninth-grade class room through a reading of Romeo and Juliet. I had little time to prepare for this unit of study, and had never formally studied or written about the play. I worked my way through each scene, preparing prompts and discussions that seemed relevant to the content of the play, to its connections to private and public social issues (both Elizabethan and modern), and to why the play was written in poetic form, or what the poet was trying to do with language. The play is rife with paradox, oxymoron, and ambiguity, so finding a focal point or common theme to unify the various lessons was difficult. However, as we approached the final act, everything that the students and I had explored in this play seemed to me to be pointing back to a line early in Act I, "Part fools! You know not what you do."

Born into a world of contradictory and opposing forces of control, authority, and traditional obligations, a young person does not have the means to make judgments but is swept along on the tide of what others say must be done. If one's heart or conscience cries out for a different course, lack of experience and of developed judgment can be fatal. Role models are required who can model the skills of weighing the pros and cons, of balancing the heart and the head, of inquiring and seeking out knowledge before a final decision is made. Friar Lawrence spoke this lesson, but cryptically, through the metaphors of poison/medicine and haste/patience, yet he did not model the exercise of inquiring, balancing, and weighing before acting. It suddenly occurred to me that the wisdom that Friar Lawrence advocates but does not exactly inspire, is exactly the sort of wisdom that we were exercising in the classroom as we explored, questioned,and examined the play. We were attempting to move from a level of aesthetic pleasure and sentiment, which, if it is the only aim, can become a sort of foolishness, into an area of considered judgment and of balanced interpretation. We were seeking knowledge not only in terms of understanding the language and themes of the play, but also in terms of understanding the relevance of this play to the present, and of understanding why we were reading, discussing and writing about language and literature. We were trying to expand on our natural and immediate gut responses to the story in order to know something about ourselves, our world, and about the type of mental activity that is required if one is to truly "know" what one is doing.

On the last day of class I had finally figured out how to say this to the students. We were having a student teacher farewell party that day, but I had a few minutes to make some wrap-up remarks. This is what I said: "Don't let anyone tell you what to do. You must know what you're doing, and have your own solid reasons for, and commitments to, your actions. How do we find out what we need to do? Is there a manual we can consult? No. It is a matter of actively engaging all parts of ourselves, our minds, emotions, principles, and prior experiences, and also of seeking out information, of researching, and of asking the advice of those who are considered trustworthy. Finally, it is a matter of weighing all the contradictory options and opinions the world has to offer. The things that we need to do to follow a wise course of action through life are exactly the kinds of things we need to do when we read books in school. Judgment, interpretation, opening our minds to alternatives, these are not things we are born with, we must exercise and develop these abilities, and one way we can do this is through the study of literature and language."

Why didn't I say "write about" as well as "read" books? I did not believe, as I do now, that writing was the core element of our journey through Romeo and Juliet. I am now tempted to say that all of the classroom activities, beyond the initial reading, were forms of writing, including discussion, which I believe is a type of mental writing or "scripting." Writing is not always done with pen and paper. It can be accomplished solely in the mind through meditation. The manipulation of language is the core of thought. Not all thought is verbal, but the majority of thought is internal discourse with ourselves. Writing on paper is the objectification of our mental scripts in order to examine them more closely. It is a visual replica of what we do when we think. Through teaching Romeo and Juliet, I have realized that writing about literature is a wonderful way to approach writing in class and to stimulate thinking because literature has so much to say about itself and about language in general, about speaking, listening, hearing, reading, interpreting, and thinking.

Theorists model processes and procedures for teaching writing. They try to line up cognitive and other developmental phases with the phases of the writing process, but the brute fact is that we do not understand these cognitive and developmental processes. A teacher can say, "begin by planning," and offer some techniques for doing this, but the teacher does not really know what we do when we plan. It is a thing learned through experience, through doing it and re-doing it, and through observing others. These beliefs align me with constructivist learning theories, in which "making meaning" is a student-centered and student driven process. What happens when we write cannot truly be categorized, controlled, and directed into its proper course through a procedure alone. In her article, "The Rhetorical Approach: Stages of Writing and Strategies for Writers" (1980), Janice Lauer describes a step in a formalized writing process. She then says, "If this articulation satisfies the writer, he or she has a working focus for a paper. ... The student should submit at least one focus to the instructor who can help determine if the formulation clearly expresses the significance the student has been seeking and now wants to communicate" (p. 59). I question the idea that any instructor has this much power. The most that a teacher can do is to ask the student if he or she has actually found what was being sought, or to simply ask them to think about and reflect on their own writing with this particular focus in mind. Learning how to write is a matter of a whole person developing many complex skills, therefore, the teaching of writing is a matter of putting the student in charge of his own mind and of modeling the ways in which experienced writers accomplish their work. This activity must be directed by and for the student. The same process will not work in all cases.

Teaching writing is a multi-dimensional project that cannot be set in stone with one specified process. This idea was substantiated for me through another teaching experience with a creative writing project in a different ninth-grade classroom. We were required to followed a writing workshop process, but the process was not well utilized. Students jumped from reading published children^^s stories to creating their own drafts. Peer response, teacher response, and drafting appeared to be ineffective exercises because revision was slight, and did not usually stem from the responses that were collected by the writer. Peer discussions and teacher conferences also had little if any effect. Peer conferences were simply a chance to talk to a friend about anything but writing. The wonderful thing is that every single story was interesting, entertaining, relevant to the students' lives, and original. Good writing was produced because the students wanted to do this kind of writing, they enjoyed doing it, and they had examples of good writing to stimulate their own efforts. This is not to say that writing workshop procedures are useless, but that different learning styles must be taken into account. One student might benefit from a structured series of stages, another may need to stop an draw pictures for a while, another may need to act out something that relates to the subject, another may need to discuss the issue with a friend.

Becoming literate, in the broad sense of becoming an educated person, is equivalent to becoming a committed thinker and communicator . The teacher's job is to stimulate awareness of, and interest in, this fact, to raise awareness of the power and ubiquity of the written word, and to help students to take charge of their own minds and gain confidence in their interpretations. The teacher can also create an atmosphere where different approaches to writing are accepted; where the students own needs, aims, and goals for reading and writing are taken into account. Such an atmosphere increases students' enjoyment of reading and writing and also their desire to participate in language arts.

Another experience confirmed my belief that learning and teaching is not a one-way street in the classroom. Teachers are not the privileged literati who are desperately trying to inculcate knowledge into the uneducated mass of students. Teachers need to respect the human mind in any stage of development and accept the fact that they can learn things from someone who is not an expert in the field. The teacher is a learner, and the students are teachers. The study of Romeo and Juliet during my student teaching experience was a collective effort to examine and interpret eternally recurring human achievements, failures, struggles, goals and desires. I learned a great deal through reading and discussing the writing of the students, and I hope that they learned something from me.


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