Monday, December 16, 2013

Unscripted Moments in A Writing Class: Learning from Papi's Cologne


This morning in a fifth grade class, I read aloud a writing piece I had begun about the death of my father a decade ago and his penchant for wearing black socks with sandals. It was a difficult piece to read out loud, unfinished and raw, and I told the children this as I struggled to read.

A bit later in the class, a child told me that her writing piece, like mine, was a difficult one.
"How so?" I asked.
She motioned to her notebook where I could see pencil and blue pen markings all over a page, including lines of print crunched into the margins.  We had talked about rereading with a pen in hand and I could see that she had done so.  She said that it was a struggle to get on paper what she wasn't sure about.  I might have sighed at that moment.  I listened as she read aloud a narrative about memory and how at night when she is alone in her bed, when her home is quiet, she recalls the smell of her Papi's cologne and this triggers her to think about the man who no longer lives with her.

She's struggling to get the words just right and this I think is the more important lesson to learn than the actual writing.  We have been exploring narrative techniques and no technique prepares the writer for the struggle to say what must get said.

I listen as she rereads again, noticing this time she has also drawn her bedroom with herself in bed and a thought cloud above her that contains a man.

"It's a difficult story to tell and it is brave one for you to try." I say this to her, feeling the inadequacy of my words while knowing such words from me are most likely unnecessary.  She's flirting with the power that comes from telling something true. She is an agent acting.


I am learning as I work each day with the children and their teachers that in writing workshop where there are no units of study to be employed or scripts to be memorized, or prescribed evidence to be mined--that the present is mostly all we have. And, there is no grander thing than the present unfolding before us as we make it.

It is in the making that deep learning takes hold.


Later in the day, well into the evening, my husband finds me and tells me about a protracted lesson for seventh graders he has read in preparation for some work with a teacher. The teacher is working from a script and the kids need to debate (using sentence starters) an action the speaker in a poem took.  The students' task is to "find evidence to support or refute the narrator's (not speaker) decision to take a specific road" in Frost's "The Road Not Taken."  They need to ponder (and of course find obligatory evidence) about whether the speaker's turn up the untrodden road was a good or bad decision (I kid you not).

I cringe, thinking about Billy Collins's poem, "Introduction to Poetry," where readers want to tie a poem to a chair "and torture a confession out of it."

Best get out the rope, I tell my husband.


Scripted lessons, especially jam-packed ones, leave little room for the unexpected, the unplanned, the unimagined, or the turn down an untrodden road.  There simply is no room left for anything novel to arise--such as your Papi's cologne--as time ceases to be about what is emerging and instead presupposes an epic construct.  Scripted classrooms are worlds where the action has already been performed.  The task in such narrow, poorly lit places is to mime.

I think of these scenarios as ones that lead to entropy--where the available energy in a room is sucked out quicker then it can be replaced as students dutifully (or not) complete the assignments.  I mean, really, how can new breath even happen in an epic world?    I think of Maxine Greene who wisely told us:
"We need to recognize that the events that make up aesthetic experiences are events that occur within and by means of the transactions with our environment that situate us in time and space” (p. 130).
Us situated in time and space by means of the transactions we have with our environment?  Not in a scripted classroom.  Already made stuff being enacted over and over in thousands of classrooms defy the physics.

Surely, we might want more for our learners and for ourselves. Surely we might want the satisfaction that comes when the child holds his or her power and pen in hand.


  1. Powerful and challenging. I start a focus on narrative soon--I will be thinking of your rich thoughts and experience. I love to read what you write. Thank you.

    1. Be glad to share. We began by keeping notebooks, paying attention , living wide awake, and making life maps.


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