I’ve taught writing (and reading, and philosophy, and literature) to students of every age. It took me a long time to figure out that stories, and the fact that we are all storytellers, were my way in: they’re the bag of tricks, my song and dance, my sure-fire way to get and hold and focus attention. In the preschool classroom there was, of course, the RUG, where we’d sit and read book after book after book and construct around–the-circle stories of our own, each kid picking up the thread the kid beside him or her had spun, tracing it out, passing it on to the next kid. Goofy tangents and vivid detail abounded. And, amazingly but maybe not so amazingly, inherent structure emerged, meaning and shape that connected each member of the little group to every other, and made something entirely new out of words and imagination. Once we had that, there was a reason why we traced letters in sand, copied them onto paper, arranged magnet letters on a metal board. It was all about getting to the story. Sitting in that circle was where I began to dimly suspect that we are all of us, maybe even from birth, ‘wired’ for this.
These were the easiest students, these little guys: still jazzed, amazed, unfettered in their imaginative flights, still discovering and feeling their way to all the cool things people are able to do and making them their own. I was unaware of it at the time, but my experience with 3 and 4 year olds had laid the groundwork for the approach I would take all through my career as a teacher of writing, reading, thinking, listening, questioning and arguing and discussing: reawaken that jazzed, amazed feeling about stories, about imagination, about the things people do with both spoken, written and read language, humanity’s most powerful tool.
It took elementary and high school kids a little longer, and the older they got, the longer it took: the journey back to wonder was winding and dimly lit. They were asking for more than magic-on good days wanting explanations, context, purpose; on bad days a shortcut, a snow day, head-on-desk naps, smartphone games and texts. Assignments piled up, pressure about Their Future was brought to bear, sitting and absorbing then mechanically repeating back information took precedence and then, suddenly, a lot of them were in college, a few of them sitting in my classroom, in a course that would require them to write, and read, and talk, and think. With the exception of a few who appeared curious and engaged, it was a grim and apprehensive crowd.
Where to begin? It took me a long time to figure it out. What follows is a hypothetical approach to the teaching of writing, reading, thinking, listening, questioning and arguing and discussing-a prototype, I suppose you could call it. It’s made of my ideas and experiences teaching at all grade levels, and the ideas and experiences of others; plans and exercises; clipped quotes and videos, passages from favorite books; the things that worked from all of the various classes and students I’ve taught. I attempt to tailor the approach here and there to different age groups, although I’ve found from experience that there isn’t much tweaking required from one age to another: simplifying language in some places; shortening or lengthening various exercises, focusing on ‘external’ spoken and performed stories with younger children, more ‘internal’ written pieces for older ones; dredging long-term memory with older adults, skimming the short-term with younger; dropping or adding some theoretical or historical offshoots. Its essential structure, though, aspires to one-size-fits-all. It’s a sprawling Dr. Suess structure, constantly under construction, never finished, new things tacked onto old, often disorderly, propped up with sticks: sloppy but with what I hope is at least a stab at coherence. It’s ongoing; it’s accumulative; it’s recycled.
©Melinda Rooney, 2016
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