Junot Diaz on the Writing Experience

Video

I’ve been musing a lot about design thinking lately. One of the key pieces within the design thinking process is the research or taking a deep dive into what you are doing. Finding out as much as you can about a topic or an area of interest and then zooming in on or identifying a unique problem that you can pursue further.

Junot Diaz, in this video clip, talks about two writing vantage points: feeling as if you are in familiar territory versus feeling lost. He advocates for being off the map or lost, as that is the place where you are actually exploring new horizons. Wandering off known maps, away from the mentor texts, toeing the waters beyond your research, you enter the space where you can actually begin to make discoveries, create something innovative.

Listening to Diaz brought me back to one of the most exciting parts of writing: the process of discovery, of finding something new to say, articulating a unique viewpoint, creatively communicating your understanding of the world. But this can’t happen without a deep dive into the unknown.

In the writing workshop, it strikes me that teachers should provide maps or models so students have strategies when they enter the unknown, but then we need to empower students to delve deep into their own unique stories, craft their own narrative worlds, get lost. On this journey the students will hopefully discover more about themselves and some may possibly tap into an experience that resonates for other readers, the empathy piece Diaz suggests, the point when a writer apprehends or tangles with something large and universal.

Students can only have this experience in the writing workshop if we let them wander, follow their own inclinations and hunches. When you bushwhack, there are lots of failed attempts. When you’re lost, there are lots of things to figure out. Making peace with ambiguity is something that children need to learn in order to be resilient. Life is mysterious, full of the unknown. The writing process is like that too.

I have a hunch that it’s a lot harder for teachers to embrace ambiguity than it is for kids but we’ll need to if we want to engage our students in authentic writing experiences. In this type of workshop, there will be moments when the maps you know, don’t help you at all, points when you’ll need to choose a route based on what you know solely about stars and currents, build your own tool out of scraps. Think MacGyver versus Dummy Guides. You’ll need to make choices based on your intuition, ford a river without Google Maps.

Lucy Calkins and her Columbia posse, in their new units of study, crafted in response to challenges presented by the Common Core, (speaking of uncharted territories!) asserts:

Writers write to put meaning onto the page. Young people will especially invest themselves in their writing if they write about subjects that are important to them. The easiest way to support investment in writing is to teach children to choose their own topics most of the time.

I’m suggesting we do a deep dive this year into what might happen in our writing workshops if we release our grip on the maps we’ve always used to teach writing and join our kids as explorers, embrace our inner Lewis and Clarke…Junot Diaz. What’s exciting about this? What scares the pants off you? You’ll never know what you might see if you don’t give it a go. Instead of giving away the ending for your students, this year let them write their own adventures.

The Writing Workshop: Design Thinking in Action

I’ve been musing a lot about design thinking lately. One of the key pieces within the design thinking process is the research or taking a deep dive into what you are doing. Finding out as much as you can about a topic or an area of interest and then zooming in on or identifying a unique problem that you can pursue further.

Junot Diaz, in this video clip, talks about two writing vantage points: feeling as if you are in familiar territory versus feeling lost. He advocates for being off the map or lost, as that is the place where you are actually exploring new horizons. Wandering off known maps, away from the mentor texts, toeing the waters beyond your research, you enter the space where you can actually begin to make discoveries, create something innovative.

Listening to Diaz brought me back to one of the most exciting parts of writing: the process of discovery, of finding something new to say, articulating a unique viewpoint, creatively communicating your understanding of the world. But this can’t happen without a deep dive into the unknown.

In the writing workshop, it strikes me that teachers should provide maps or models so students have strategies when they enter the unknown, but then we need to empower students to delve deep into their own unique stories, craft their own narrative worlds, get lost. On this journey the students will hopefully discover more about themselves and some may possibly tap into an experience that resonates for other readers, the empathy piece Diaz suggests, the point when a writer apprehends or tangles with something large and universal.

Students can only have this experience in the writing workshop if we let them wander, follow their own inclinations and hunches. When you bushwhack, there are lots of failed attempts. When you’re lost, there are lots of things to figure out. Making peace with ambiguity is something that children need to learn in order to be resilient. Life is mysterious, full of the unknown. The writing process is like that too.

I have a hunch that it’s a lot harder for teachers to embrace ambiguity than it is for kids but we’ll need to if we want to engage our students in authentic writing experiences. In this type of workshop, there will be moments when the maps you know, don’t help you at all, points when you’ll need to choose a route based on what you know solely about stars and currents, build your own tool out of scraps. Think MacGyver versus Dummy Guides. You’ll need to make choices based on your intuition, ford a river without Google Maps.

Lucy Calkins and her Columbia posse, in their new units of study, crafted in response to challenges presented by the Common Core, (speaking of uncharted territories!) asserts:

Writers write to put meaning onto the page. Young people will especially invest themselves in their writing if they write about subjects that are important to them. The easiest way to support investment in writing is to teach children to choose their own topics most of the time.

I’m suggesting we do a deep dive this year into what might happen in our writing workshops if we release our grip on the maps we’ve always used to teach writing and join our kids as explorers, embrace our inner Lewis and Clarke. What’s exciting about this? What scares the pants off you? You’ll never know what you might see if you don’t give it a go. Instead of giving away the ending for your students, this year let them write their own adventures.

Beginning Again

“Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart.”

William Wordsworth

It’s time to start again. As teachers we get a do-over every year, a time to hone, tighten, delete, enhance. How spectacular is that? Just like a phoenix, we rise from the ash and release our scoured summer selves into the turbulence of another school year. The choice is ours for the most part: do we continue on the same path continuing to do business the way we always have or do we change, reinvent, and revision?

I have a bit of Shiva the Hindu god of destruction in my soul. I like to break things down and reinvent. I’m not suggesting that the baby go out with the bath water because I am quite aware of how tense that makes seasoned educators. What I am proposing is that it’s worth a moment to think about curriculum as if it were living in a burning house: if you could only save a few things, what would they be? What do you hold sacred? What’s dispensable?

I’ve been throwing this lens on my writing workshop practice this past week as I prepare to ramp up again. Why do I value the workshop model so much? Why do I think writing is so important? What do I want to hold on to? What might need to disperse?

I think that writing is a means of understanding yourself. When I write, I find out more about myself, how I think, what I wonder about. When I read, I enter other author’s worlds, get sucked up in stories that aren’t my own but for the duration of the read, these stories own my heart. As I go into another school year, I want to inspire my students to leave their heart on the page, breathe it out in print. Find a shape to their stories and by shaping stories, my hope is they’ll discover a little bit more about themselves.

This year, I’m running out of the flaming house with the following things:

  • Writing notebooks. I still believe in a 3-D tangible place to stash your heart. I believe in markers, crayons, scissors and pockets. I still cram my own notebooks with old photos, author interviews, favorite poems, pictures that flame my imagination. These are the bits that bring me back into the creative process when I’m broiling from too many meetings, too much screen time, too much conversation. There is nothing more sacred than the possibility inherent in a cool empty page.
  • Spaces and places for sharing written work. Authors need to be heard and celebrated. Writing is a vulnerable undertaking, an intense cognitive pursuit. When I write, I want to know what someone else thinks. Every writer needs a support group, readers who recognize what he or she is attempting to do; readers who can applaud the novelty and help bring the fuzzy edges into focus. This year I want to create more opportunities for my young writers to fuel each other, to voice their thoughts in community, to publish and flourish.
  • My own writing practice. Young writers need teachers to write, to model the process, the challenges, to understand the journey. Last year I started a writing notebook with just my students in mind and I was startled by their positive response; they were interested in how I crafted my ideas, they wanted to explore my thinking, read my written work. By sharing my own writing, I validated their pursuits, became an authentic member of our writing community. They forgave my sloppy drafts, my lack of attention to deadlines, and my tendency to generate more starts that endings. They taught me the necessity of walking my talk.

What are your three things? You don’t have too much time to run into the flames and escape with the goods. What will you grab? Why?

Roots of Design Thinking

Video

As part of the outcome of the strategic planning initiative at our school, we have opted to embed design thinking concepts into our teaching and learning architecture. This 60 Minutes interview with David Kelley, the founder of the Stanford d. school and the company Ideo, gives a great introduction to how this type of thinking works and why it’s important. Once again, the challenge will be how we open space in our curriculum to allow us to swing on this rope, build a cohesive understanding of what DT is, and create opportunities for all students to participate.

Sir Ken On Creativity

Video

Sir Ken Robinson, a leading expert on creativity and education, has posted up some short clips focusing on making space for creativity in school curriculums. In part of this video series he cites a study by IBM where CEOs were interviewed and basically asked what keeps them up at night. They universally responded that they’re plagued by the need for creativity in their companies to keep them relevant and evolving. It is interesting to me that I find myself connecting philosophically with most current literature coming forth from the business trench yet I find it nearly impossible to find wells of inspiration in contemporary educational circles. I can’t help but wonder how we’re going to synch up.

Folding It Altogether in the New Year

As I shift the idea of this blog into a bigger space, the space of educational topics that pull and push me, my hope is to create more room for multiple perspectives on the shimmering shifting turf of educational trends and to create spaces for innovative ideas to converge and inspire. I notice through my own evolution that the writing workshop concept is linked tight to other educational movements that I’m on about. One of these trends is the “Maker Movement.” I’ve been thinking a lot lately about our human instinct to do and create, to make versus replicate. Despite all the information out there on the writing workshop, or maybe because of it, I still find that teachers want to “get it,” mimic it, learn the formula versus let the workshop be a space, a place where students dream, think and make “stuff” out of words.

In a recent article in the Huffington Post, Joshua Glenn and Elizabeth Fox Larsen discuss the power and validity of students using their hands to create and innovate:

“Making creates evidence of learning,” says Dale Dougherty, the founder and publisher of Make. “Students are taking an idea and substantiating it in a way that could be a sketch or a model or something else. That process gives them a lot of feedback.”

Note the word “process;” it’s the feedback along the way that really counts. Jaymes Dec of the Marymount School in New York who orchestrates their Fab Lab says:

“My goal is more about inspiration than education…I don’t believe you can just pour knowledge into students. They have to learn things by trying them out.”

I keep wondering how kids are going to try things out if teachers keep constantly getting in their way? I wonder what might happen if instead of teaching a “unit of study” one day, we just ask students to create a piece of writing that tells somebody about your life, or about your dreams, or about what you know about the world. What would they do? Aren’t you a little bit curious? What would happen? Would they surprise you? Maybe.

Interestingly enough when I attended the Literacy Coaching Institute at Columbia University this fall, their emphasis on units and content has shifted to highlight creativity, volume and stamina. Students need to be able to generate ideas and practice a lot in order to build tenacity and skill as a writer. As the pros at Columbia fold their ideas with the objectives of the Common Core, a whole new mini-lesson concept is evolving, one that engages the students actively, has them think across domains and use what they know to build something new. Students are seen as having resources and skills. Teachers are there to help them activate their thinking and engage meaningfully in their own learning. Being able to solve problems and make important choices independently are now seen as key lesson fodder embedded in the writing workshop.

Abraham Maslow had some interesting thoughts on the topic of creativity that mirror my own:

The key question isn’t “What fosters creativity?” But it is why in God’s name isn’t everyone creative? Where was the human potential lost? How was it crippled? I think therefore a good question might be not why do people create? But why do people not create or innovate? We have got to abandon that sense of amazement in the face of creativity, as if it were a miracle if anybody created anything.

Unfortunately, Mr. Maslow, I fear education has killed creativity. Want the good news? People aren’t just buzzing about creativity and innovation these days, mapping its history like it’s the bottom of the Dead Sea; people are actually doing something to create change: they’re making things, trying out new ideas, failing, trying again. The tinkering movement and the workshop environment may yet make a difference in 2013! Pssst, “creativity, it’s contagious, pass it on!”

Joshua Glenn and Elizabeth Fox Larsen: “Unbored: the Power of Making in the Classroom”

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/joshua-glenn/hands-on-learning_b_2316955.html

Maker Education Initiative:

http://makered.org

Handwriting: Should it stay or should it go?

As I wade through the ever-thickening tech sludge, I find myself feeling guilty for teaching handwriting and anchoring handwriting firmly in the writing workshop experience. Am I just old school? Am I just descending to my own preference menu?

After doing a little research, I think I might have some potent backup when it comes to sticking with the pencil versus the keyboard.  Findings compiled in the Wall Street Journal rough out a compelling argument for maintaining a balance between the pencil and the keyboard.  Currently most elementary students in the US only engage in an hour of handwriting a week. Here are some of the robust data points:

Writing by hand can get ideas out faster
 University of Wisconsin psychologist Virginia Berninger tested students in grades 2, 4, and 6, and found that they not only wrote faster by hand than by keyboard — but also generated more ideas when composing essays in longhand. In other research, Berninger shows that the sequential finger movements required to write by hand activate brain regions involved with thought, language, and short-term memory.

Writing increases neural activity 
A recent Indiana University study had one group of children practice printing letters by hand while a second group just looked at examples of A’s, B’s, and C’s. Then, both groups of kids entered a functional MRI (disguised as a “spaceship”) that scanned their brains as the researchers showed them letters. The neural activity in the first group was far more advanced and “adult-like,” researchers found.

Kanji form is evidently going down the tubes too if that makes you feel any better. The article wraps up with an interesting observation by Heather Horn of the Atlantic Wire who muses that all this research fascinating albeit “mostly shows that scientists are finally beginning to explore what writers have long suspected.” She cites an article in the Paris Review in which the interviewer asks novelist Robert Stone if he predominantly types his manuscripts. His reply: “Yes, until something becomes elusive. Then I write in longhand in order to be precise. On a typewriter or word processor you can rush something that shouldn’t be rushed — you can lose nuance, richness, lucidity. The pen compels lucidity.”

For the moment, I feel a license to keep my electric pencil sharpener on alert and those number two carbon critters in supply!