BRING a leaf to me
just a leaf just a
spring leaf, an
Reach up and
take a leaf and
Paul Blackburn, (1926-1971) from The Cities, Grove Press:1967.
Paul Blackburn, son of writer Frances Frost, was born in St. Albans, Vermont.
“Learning to write is a slow process that begins in kindergarten and continues through high school and beyond.” Donald Graves, Testing is Not Teaching (2002)
Years ago, at the dawn of my life as a public high school teacher, I attended a workshop about writing across the disciplines presented by Toby Fulwiler and other UVM faculty. At that time, in the late 1980s, this initiative at UVM was novel, but many of Fulwiler’s colleagues across the curriculum, particularly in the Liberal Arts, were early adopters of his pedagogy.
Fulwiler’s philosophies and practices were not at all foreign to my concepts about writing, the teaching of writing, and the role of writing in learning. I had been educated by a father, who as a medical school professor, required essays of his students in Gross Anatomy and Pathology, and a mother who read widely and wrote vivid letters, monographs about historical architecture, and occasional essays. I had been taught by my iconoclastic and progressive English teacher at Champlain Valley Union High School in Hinesburg, Vermont, about the pioneering work of James Britton, Donald Graves, David Holbrook, Ken Macrorie, James Moffett, and Donald Murray. These influences and examples, distilled and refined by the remarkable woman who was my high school teacher, and reinforced by the most skillful teachers at the university level, demonstrated how the practice of integrating writing across the curriculum has long been a natural, graceful way to enhance learning. The “discovery” of the importance of writing to our learning is not at all a recent phenomenon, but a sensible tradition with its roots in an eclectic, wide-ranging education in the Arts and Sciences.
Even more compelling an inducement to concentrate on writing in all learning is the point Donald Graves makes about “what writing does.” In his little book of 2002 (Heinemann) Testing is Not Teaching, Graves says:
Writing is an important medium of thought in which each student knows he or she can discover new ideas and express them within a democratic society. When…students…express their ideas in essays, poetry, and fiction, they gain experience in accepting or debating other points of view, skills essential to the future of a democratic republic…Democracies depend on the quality of their citizens’ thinking. (Graves, 58, 61)
Babies don’t appear magically on a due date–we understand that gestation differs for each individual. What with deliveries by appointment and other devices, that truth may be conveniently ignored—and what might be the detrimental results? Writing, as Graves points out, is not a skill that lends itself to immediate gratification, and it is not “taken care of” in one slug of qualifying practice sets and a summative assessment. Many learners and teachers are aware of this quality, but many of us are impatient about the importance of slowing down in order to speed up growth. A writer grows as a thinking animal, and the writing grows with them. We have all witnessed, heard and read both the oral and written outbursts, vituperative, accusatory, reactionary, irrational and illogical in tone and content that too often issue forth from blogs, Twitter, FaceBook, and the like. In a world where the breakneck speed of social media and news media (and their permeable interfaces) press for immediate reaction, the act of slowing down the thinking process to provide time for reflection and clarity is rare. It is a skill, an art and an indispensable requisite. Writing is an invitation to strengthen thought. How can we, especially in this time of cloistered and truncated schooling, refuse the summons?
SLOW DOWN AND LISTEN:
Just as the feet of soldiers marching in rhythm carry men forward, so the rhythms of sermons or speeches or poems carry words marching into your mind in a way that helps you to remember them.
Langston Hughes, The Book of Rhythms, 1954.
The great Scots percussionist Evelyn Glennie is profoundly deaf. Yet she “hears” sublimely and accurately, intuitively and pulsatingly. It is hearing in the body, beyond the ear, and from the soul—full sensory and intellectual involvement and muscle.
When we write, the hand feels the shape, the ear hears the interval, the body echoes the whole. When writers lose track of sound, their writing loses force and sense. How often do you notice the stilted quality of sentences, or the crabbed awkwardness of misplaced words or misused prepositions? Or even a simple omission of a word or words confirming a sensory silence? Writing teachers, writing coaches and writers alike all believe in the power of the body-brain connection to establish a pleasing rhythm of words, phrases, clauses and sentences. How can we emphasize sound and sense?
Does composition using a word processing device denature writing? There is evidence that it does; movements and patterns that connect hand and brain are short circuited. William R. Klemm notes:
In the case of learning cursive writing, the brain develops functional specialization that integrates both sensation, movement control, and thinking. Brain imaging studies reveal that multiple areas of the brain become co-activated during the learning of cursive writing, as opposed to typing or just visual practice…The benefits to brain development are similar to what you get with learning to play a musical instrument. (http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/memory-medic/201303/why-writing-hand-could-make-you-smarter)
I wonder if the percussive qualities of words, of their qualities of sibilance and euphony, if these too are short circuited when the brain and the hand lose immediate contact?
How can we help apprentice writers write by ear? To read aloud, to read aloud, to read aloud and to write with the hand, the hand, the hand—in a quiet space and time-–to honor the patterns that emerge from kinesthetic action, and to realize that muscle memory includes the intellectual as well as the physiological, these may be remedies.
We should not be reactionary Luddites, but like yogis, we should yoke mind and body to create vitality. The simplicity of working near the ground and on the mat should be a way of teaching writing too. In my old fashioned way, I find comfort in Langston Hughes syncopated jazz improvisations in The Weary Blues, and an equal measure of comfort in the 1953 work by H. Coombes, Literature and Criticism, where he says of D.H.Lawrence’s prose: the writing becomes informed with a superb rhythm which seems to have a pulse of its own and to move with the triumphant inevitability of the processes that it presents.(30) How wonderful to give young writers the power to infuse rhythm into their words, and to hear the resonance of a sound that matches the sense of our beautiful language.
—Melanie Stultz-Backus, April 2021
Melanie Stultz-Backus, M.Ed., Literacy Consultant
Melanie is a retired English teacher whose career spanned thirty years at Mount Abraham Union High School in Bristol, Vermont. She first worked as a Chapter I teacher of reading, collaborating in many classrooms across the disciplines in Grades 7-12; next, she taught an array of required and elective courses in grades 9-12. American Studies, a course in 20th century Literature, History and Culture she team-taught for over twenty years, was critical to her growth as a practitioner of collaborative teaching and performance based learning. Influenced by mentors from her high school and college years, she strove to make student agency central to her teaching. Mount Abraham’s early initiative of a school-within-a-school focused on both personalized learning and rigorous development of competencies and performance based assessments. Melanie was privileged to integrate her roles as teacher leader, literacy coach and English instructor into efforts to refine and forward the goals of the Performance Assessment Working Group under the Investing in Innovation (i3) grant through the Center for Secondary School Redesign (CSSR, Providence, RI). This culminating experience deepened her interest and expertise in authentic learning, the art of coaching, and cooperative approaches to professional development as exemplified by Critical Friends Groups’ philosophies. She treasured her twenty-year tenure as a member of the Coordinating Committee of the New England Young Writers’ Conference at Breadloaf. In 2008 Melanie was named a UVM Outstanding Teacher for the Addison Northeast Supervisory Union.