Saturday, June 23, 2012

Collaborating with Campus Colleagues

Yesterday marked a "first" for the Rhode Island Writing Project. Yesterday we held our first ever Summer Invitational Institute for Adjunct Instructors of First-Year Writing at Rhode Island College. Though the institute has a much-too-long title, to be sure, I am thrilled with what we created yesterday. Thanks to my good colleague and friend, Becky Caouette, the Director of Writing at RIC, for daring to enact a new tradition at our College: collaborating with K-12 teachers to improve our understanding of and teaching of First-Year Writing at the College.

We invited 10 participants to enroll in a day-long Institute devoted to: (1) discussing the new General Education program at our College and how it will impact our teaching; (2) discussing the new Common Core State Standards and how they might impact our teaching of college writing; (3) hearing from a panel of high school teachers about their experiences and observations teaching high school writing. The Institute was filled, a good sign, and we welcomed a panel of three exceptional high school teachers to the Institute in the afternoon to share their experiences with us. By the end of the day, we had grown to 15, and there we were: high school and college writing instructors, at the same table, talking about teaching our students to write for various audiences, despite and in light of assessment pressures. It was AMAZING! And, in true Writing Project fashion, it happened in a tiny little corner of a tiny little state in a dimly lit, air-conditioned room in a weird little building on the far side of campus. But, nevertheless, there we all were, changing the world in our small but sincere way.

So, what happened as a result of this attempt to break down the institutional barriers between people who share the same passions and concerns?

We built a new community. We instilled some confidence and scooped out a lot of validation. We passed along some new and relevant knowledge. We shared our writing: stories of good and not-so-good memories of ourselves as high school writers. We marveled at each other's writing abilities. We ate good food and snacks. We drank lots of water. We listened to one another, with respect and good intentions, and without fear of judgment or evaluation. We shared practices. We shared secret fears. We compensated everyone. We also gave them nice tote bags. There's no doubt in my mind that everyone left the room--and the day--much lighter and much happier than when we had all entered.

At an institution where 95% of the First-Year Writing courses are taught by Adjunct Faculty, I am so proud to have begun a professional development resource for this under-served and under-recognized population of vital instructors on our campus. Becky and I both believe that without taking good care of our Adjunct Instructors of writing, without building a community in which they, too, feel that they are growing as intellectuals, as researchers, and as practitioners, the entire college community will suffer. Writing--and the teaching of it--is just that important.

Here's to many more collaborations between the RI Writing Project and RIC's First-Year Writing Program. It's one way that the Rhode Island Writing Project is working to make our presence on the RIC campus vital and our work, both on campus and off, indispensable to the College.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

RIP Ray Bradbury

I am so sad that Ray Bradbury has died at 91. Wasn't he supposed to live past all of us, to see robots making him eggs in the morning and to vacation on Mars? He will always be one of my favorite writers, someone who cracked open my imagination and my fascination with the space. When I was younger, I was slightly obsessed with aliens and with Mars. I even dressed up like a "Martian" once to do a report at school on Mars. Ray Bradbury helped me embrace my inner dork. Space continues to fascinate me and always will: all that eternity, time, darkness, mystery, and the unknowable. It scrambles my mind just right.

Bradbury once said in an interview, "Lone at night, when I was twelve years old, I looked at the planet Mars and I said, ‘Take me home!’ And the planet Mars took me home, and I never came back. So I’ve written every day in the last 75 years. I’ve never stopped writing." God, I love that!

My favorite Ray Bradbury book is Fahrenheit 451. The man was a prophet, a seer, a visionary. In 1953, he looked into the future and saw a culture ruled by fear, one in which people are burning books, have become slaves to their screens, and are addicted to substances that dull their senses. He envisioned a band of "Book People," living in the woods, in the margins, who dedicate their lives to memorizing books, which are outlawed. They "become" a book, and their life is about preserving the cultural memory that the leaders are so intent to destroy. (Sound familiar?)

So long, Mr. Bradbury. Thank you for the stories, for feeding my mind with visions of other worlds. In my fantasy world, here's how it all went down: You simply hitched a ride with Venus last night, as she sailed across the face of the Sun. You planned accordingly, packed your bags, and waited for the right moment. What a genius. I hope it's a great ride up there.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Achieving balance

The summer is nearly here, though you wouldn't know it from the weather in Rhode Island this week. Our minds are easily fooled by the weather, and when I stepped outside this morning and smelled the crisp, wet-leaf air, it felt, just for a moment, like back-to-school and not the end of the school year. I'm sure my sensory confusion also has something to do with the fact that I've been on sabbatical since December 22, freed from my teaching and administrative duties for six months to rekindle the creativity and drive from within. I have been a teacher since 1994, the year I graduated from UMass Amherst with my M.Ed. and my Massachusetts 7-12 English teacher certification. I was full of fire then, my desire to affect change, to make a difference, to make a mark, fueled the gears and pistons inside of me. But, as even a hybrid car will show you, engines cannot run without fuel. After 18 years of teaching high school, completing a doctoral program and dissertation, co-founding a non-profit organization, hopping on the "tenure track" and eventually earning tenure and promotion, the brain and the body deserve a rest, a recharge, a renewal.

I am happy to say that I have achieved this goal. I've found renewal in an odd combination of lo-fi and high-tech. I've found new joy in the exploration of Nature, in drawing with a pencil, in writing cards and letters and mailing them, in resurrecting forgotten technologies in order to access old memories (slide projectors, reel-to-reel tapes, record players). I've also found joy in Twitter, where I've formed a professional development network of people I respect and want to commune with as intellectuals. I've found joy in digital comics-creating tools, in creating YouTube videos of my mandolin playing so I can share my music with others, and in creating a digital presentation using my ethnographer's skills.

I find that the slower technologies--paper, ink, stamps, magnetic tape--slow me down, too. And, I like that. The reward is in the doing, in the process, in the unfolding. It's also in the inconsistencies and idiosyncracies of these tools. ("Oh darn! The rain is smudging the fancy ink on the card! I should have used ballpoint. Oh well, I'll put it in the mail anyway and see what happens.")

The faster technologies--namely Twitter and Facebook, all accessed with one device, my iPhone--allow me to cast a wide net and catch halfway decent-sized fish very quickly. The reward is in the instant gratification. The reward is in the instantaneous publishing of, well, anything. ("Look at what I found, everyone! Make sure you read this! Right now! It's important! I'm important!)

These two modes of being--slow, deliberate and quiet and hasty, multifaceted and public--have gotten me thinking a lot about teaching and learning and schooling. As with most things in life, the answer to the riddle we are all trying so desperately to solve lies in the balance: balancing what we know about how people learn and grow with preparing young souls for the the imminent rapidity of technological change in this futureworld.

I read an article last summer about how young children in China are growing up without knowing how to create, with brush and ink (or brush and water for the novice), the individual characters of their language because they've been taught to read and write on computers and keyboards, where they press a button for a character instead of learning the brushstrokes needed to create it. Surely this isn't only happening in China. I think about the muscle memory of learning how to write, the slow, artistic process we use when we create letter after letter, words after word, the complex brain and fine motor function that we cultivate by practicing and practicing this most basic form of communication. I think about a teacher showing her students how to make letters, how to move their fingers, hands, and arms to create these abstract symbols that indicate sounds that make up words that form sentences that allow us to talk to one another, face to face and screen to screen.

I worry about losing these things--these ancient human traditions and interactions--because we are so drunk on solutions, competitiveness, and "reform." We need to resist this strong pull to let the machines and the men who own them take over our schools, our jobs as teachers and teacher educators, and our expertise. There's no balance in their "solutions;" they are quite one-sided, in fact, in that these "solutions" benefit the purveyors and not the consumers. Until we remember that balance--of the old and the new, of the slow and the quick, of the bland and the sexy--is how we achieve our fullest potential, we won't be able to "fix" anything. Balance=sanity.

Here's some further reading to get you up to speed.