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Leadership and Activism

Then I Met the Writing Project

This guest post is from #blog4nwp supporter Marilyn J. Hollman.

I wrote little in my very small high school, but I also never thought that I couldn’t. My first day at community college, we met, about 350 freshmen, in a fieldhouse and were asked to write to a prompt which had “stairs” in it, can’t recall exact prompt. It seemed, I recall, natural to organize by step, from bottom to top. So, I did. We learned these writings were read by faculty and used to place us in 101 sections. I wrote more than I read during those two semesters – research, essays, poems, fiction. In the sophomore year, we (most of us) took World Lit, and wrote an essay about each book we read which we read aloud and discussed in a seminar. No tests over the reading the usual suspects, no monitoring to be sure we read Dante or Eliot. The value was in the writing and the discussions in seminar. Each essay was read carefully, the instructor had one reader. We could write about the featured readings, and we could write about bestsellers or whatever we picked up. I wrote for the biweekly CC newspaper.

It came to me a number of years later that I wasn’t all that well prepared for my more traditional literature courses at the University of Iowa, and I struggled in the advanced composition class required for English majors. However, I didn’t realize that at the time, and I suspect it was just as well. Grades were not quite the do-or-die thing in those days; “B’s” were good. I received a “C’ in that comp course, but I never thought I couldn’t write. Or read. My lit course grades were also uneven, not so much because of my writing, I suspect, but because I didn’t know “how to read” like a literature scholar.

What saved me, perhaps, was my journalism minor. Even the minor called for four intensive reporting courses and a copyreading and editing course –all but one with labs, plus “real” assignments for the University daily. The lab writings were carefully read and annotated by the instructors; the paper’s editors read and edited the real stuff. I learned to read and edit the real stuff, also, in two, three-hour shifts each week. I continued to write feature stories now and then. When I began to teach seventh and eighth graders, it was natural to ask them to write, and I borrowed the assignments from those good teachers and from my student teaching experience at the Lab School where writing was a major component at all levels.

Therefore, when I read James Moffett’s “A Student-Centered Language Arts, K-12″(first edition) when my chair ordered everyone a copy, it gave me delight to learn that someone thought I had a perfectly dandy writing background.

Jim mused about how journalism and creative writing were marginalized in the school curriculum. He didn’t explain why, but I knew he was right. He wrote, “Students should be producers, not only consumers, of text.” I doubt if that’s exactly the sentence, but it’s close. When I began to read his chapters about elementary writers and readers, I was willing to pay attention — remember, I shared the typical English major’s disdain for K-6 — and found it all fascinating. Why, there were writings based on observation, on interviews, on other primary research plus secondary research, as well as stuff out of one’s own head — like personal essays and phase narratives. It was no trouble to begin to connect this “universe of discourse” to my continuous reading from age 5. Why, essays were like the columns by Sydney Harris and Fletcher Knebel (before his fiction career) that I read while stretched out on the linoleum at home every day, and like the book and film reviews I began reading in “Newsweek” when I was 17. DUH!! The value and “primacy” of primary research in my own mind made theoretical sense. Fiction and poetry were not “extras.”

Plus, I learned in student teaching that when you asked students to write, they would.

Then I met the Writing Project in 1980. I taught a week and a half of the Summer Institute that summer, one of those Old Ones who never was a participant. Later, I became a co-director as well as a SI facilitator and served as assistant director for three years in another project. Having already been teaching in a developmentally sequenced high school writing program, it seemed natural to continue as well as do workshops and courses as needed. We all have heard SI participants say, “This summer – or that workshop – changed my life.” And I believe them. Mine was changed by my chairperson Walt Kirsch and James Moffett.

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Discussion

2 thoughts on “Then I Met the Writing Project

  1. It won’t be much longer that people can say “journalism saved me” — like you, I remember reading Moffett and how reading into his work altered my way of thinking about writing.
    Great post
    Kevin

    Posted by Kevin Hodgson | March 20, 2011, 6:26 am

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