A house made of words? Jim Edwards is building a house made of words. Propaganda, advertising, and stories about mystical islands in the Pacific line his walls. Words pressed together by time, bleeding into one another along with pictures, poetry and cartoons. A house made of words – that when finished – will help shelter the inhabitants from fate, and the elements.
I can’t think of a better metaphor to conclude my 13 years here at Kenny Lake School. More than anything else, I have pushed my students to understand that words matter, that ideas matter – they hold up our world, provide shelter from adversity, and permeate all of who we are – just like Mr. Edwards’s catalog house.
I have always been dismayed by the direction of conventional education and its fixation on finding silver bullets – canned curriculum that will somehow elevate all students to high scores on standardized tests. This approach invariably fails, yet we cling to the same pursuit like a dying man fixated on a mirage in the desert. Two years ago I wanted to try something different, to make a statement of sorts and its proposition went as follows: The secret to improving student writing would depend on how quickly I could unshackle my students’ hearts and help them discover their voice. I wanted, as Thoreau said” to rout all that was not life,” and with apologies again to Henry, “drive” real writing “into a corner.” I wanted to build a classroom made of words – a place where students – if nothing else – understood that words and ideas matter.
I set out to improve student writing not through a standard curriculum choice -- which can sometimes allow teachers to abdicate their better judgment -- but through adventure in our own backyard. We live on the edge of the largest national park in the country. We have many interesting people in our midst – hidden jewels with unique stories. We also live in one of the most beautiful places on earth – and I knew its power could help inspire my students along the road to becoming better writers. A trip to a glacier, or a grueling ski tour, for example, would serve as just the laxative to relieve what I inelegantly call “writer’s constipation.” My students were touched and inspired by these experiences, whether it was describing the sound of crampons on ice, or listening to Jeremy Keller talk about the importance of living a discerning lifestyle; or whether it was telling tall tales around a campfire, or understanding how David West found solace and therapy on his Alaskan farm. Alaska itself became our curriculum.
The idea was to use technology not to improve student writing, but to leverage it. Writing, afterall, is still a very primitive act. The mere presence of digital technology cannot by itself improve writing -- just read some of the posts on Facebook and Twitter and you quickly learn that. Writing is still fundamentally a lonely act of one person summoning his/her thoughts – like water from a deep well -- shaping them on paper until they express the writer’s voice. Too often in education we try to make everything effortless – we talk of scaffolding afterall – but achieving meaningful results requires great exertion. Anything easy is not worth doing, it’s been said. The recognition of this fact helped two of my boys in particular understand that it was important to slow down their writing, and focus deeply on exactly what they were trying to express.
To develop as a writer you need to grow as a person. To grow as a person requires one to step into new experiences, to see the world from a different perspective. Living well and writing well are interconnected. The reason this idea is not in a canned curriculum is because no one makes money from it.
I decided I would teach from the inside out, and help students find their own peculiar voices. Once the stories were on the way, technology would be harnessed to help hurl those stories to the world via the internet. Students could shape their stories using technology, and then connect these stories to a large audience. Amanda Friendshuh received comments from an educator living in New York on how her words inspired him. Elias Christian produced a podcast that was “heard ‘round the world.”
And it all worked out. I saw some tremendous growth among my writers. I saw students write concisely and with clarity. They took chances. Students shared their writing with their peers and with me, while boldly accepting criticism, sometimes learning how to defend a phrase, a sentence, or a word that was marked for revision. That’s the real stuff of writing – it resembles little of what you see on standardized tests, and all the test prep materials filling our schools, which by the way, I never had the heart to use this year – at any time.
Virginia Woolfe said it best: “So long as you write what you wish to write, that is all that matters; and whether it matters for ages or only for hours, nobody can say. But to sacrifice a hair of the head of your vision, a shade of its colour, in deference to some Headmaster with a silver pot in his hand or to some professor with a measuring-rod up his sleeve, is the most abject treachery, and the sacrifice of wealth and chastity which used to be said to be the greatest of human disasters, a mere flea-bite in comparison.”
Oh, and yes. My test scores did go up – an average of 20 points from the 2012 SBAs to the 2013 SBAs. That ought to satisfy someone of no particular consequence. Ultimately, writing is first and foremost about reconciling that voice deep inside your soul; and as in the case of Jim Edwards – the words must first square with the heart of the author.
Writing (and life) are as simple and as complicated as that.