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Seeing Beyond Imagination and
and Students in
the the Basic
Work of Teachers
Maxine Greene asserts that, "Imaginationwill alwayscome into playwhen becomingliteratesuggests an opening of spaces, an end to submergence, a consciousness of the right to ask why" (25). Greene'swords are not so much a reasonto celebratethe powerof writingto liberate, a call but to action, to "openingspaces,"to use our power and privilegeas academicsto work towardssubstantiveand systemicchange. Such change would of challengethe rigidhierarchies access to higher educationin the UnitedStates,in particular eduto cation in literacy and writing. In this regard, I understand as imagination the constantneed to see the ordinary, continue to question our to beyond own identitiesand purposesfor teachingand writing, even as we continueto challengeour students towardbecomingwritersthemselvesand learning I "aconsciousnessof the rightto askwhy." am espeinterestedhere in the imaginative work that cially become possible for both teachers and stumay dents in introductory writing courses as they extend the horizonsof theirwork together in the classroom.In other words, teachingand learning writingneeds to be about more than presenting basicskillsor preparing subsequentcourses. for In this essay I focus on the importance of both in terms of how I imagine my imagination, own work as a teacher,as well as how that work
I students'imaginations. disengagesin cultivating with whom I cuss two differentgroups of writers recentlyworked in Houston, Texas:childrenin a school creativewritingclassat a publicelementary in basic writing courses at an and young adults urban, open-enrollmentuniversity. "dayjob" My whereI was expectedto fulfill was at the university, the traditional descriptionfor assistantprofesjob sor of teaching, research,and service. Nonetheless, my experiencesof moving between the elementaryschool and universityclassroomstaught me that the categoriesof teaching,research,and Perserviceare not so separateas they firstappear. the most obvious link is that of context, of haps attemptingto managethe needs of classroomssituatedin largepublicbureaucracies are funded that the state of Texas.But beyond that, I found as by well that the students' hunger and passion for learning-their sense that the classroomwas an opportunitynot to be wasted-also provided a link thatwas richwith possibility. The workof teachingin university classrooms is usuallyperceivedas necessarily fromteachsplit ing in elementary school. Methodologies and goals, processesand productswould seem to bear no relation to each other. In fact, as I moved I between these writingenvironments, found that Thisseam an invisibleseam joined my classrooms.
was woven with the possibilitiesof seeing beyond the ordinarythrough imaginative writing.Partof work here is to make that seam visible by my reflecting on the writing of the students themselves, whether in nature poems or expository essays. In this regard,metaphorplayeda key role in the processof experimenting with new perspectives. With metaphor also came a criticaldissonance that further informed the work of both groups of students. Rediscoveringthe purposes of imaginative writingprovidesa crucialmeans of reconfiguring the work of theorizing pedagogy by examining how writing works across the continuum of schooling. Particularly importantin such work is our reexamining approachesto teachingstudents enrolled in college basic writing programs,students who are placedat the margins highereduof cation.Suchstudentshaveoftenbeen failedby systemic problemsthroughouttheir schooling, such as under-funded schools, largeclass sizes, deterioratedphysicalplants,and lackof access to necessities such as updatedtextbooksand technology,as describedby JonathanKozol in Savage Inequalities. Partof the workof theorizingpedagogymust, of necessity,includethe practiceof reachingall of our students,especiallythose who have not been servedby distressedschool systems. equitably
In terms of imagination,metaphor is a valuable means of gainingaccess to the complexitiesof the materialrealities.As CandidaGillisand CherylL. Johnsonand SusanV Wall suggest, metaphoris an importantmeans for teachers to describe daily classroompractice-the tasks,challenges,andsuccesses that constitute writing classrooms. Such are practices often lost in the cacophonyof schooling, of teaching and learning. Metaphoris one means of makingsense of what often looks and feels like unmitigated chaos. For 2 1/2 years,on Tuesday morningswhen I livedandworkedin Houston,I visiteda smallpub-
Building on Strengths: The LargerView of the Field
lic elementaryschool as a writerin residence to teach creativewritingto second, third,and fourth graders.Writersin the Schools, a Houston nonthat places creativewritersin profit organization residencies in Houston public schools, arranged in my residency(Writers the Schools).Amongmy favoritememoriesare the times we spent outside on naturewalks.Atfirst,allI sawwas a barrenfield with a few trees. I wondered what the children would find to observe, to write about as they ran throughthe field, looking for spaces to celebrate theirtemporary liberation fromthe classroom. I was often pleasantly surprised.WhereI saw patchesof grassparchedby the southernsun, the students found ladybugs,termites,fire ants, and trees, spiders.WhereI saw green, never-changing the childrenfound the odd red leaf fallen to the groundat the base of the tree,or yellowleaveshidden among branches of green ones. What this taughtme about teachingwas to learn to see the larger context of everything-to learn to see beyond the surface of the ordinary.That is, I learnedto takea metaphorical magnifying glassto to see teachingnot as a narrative of my teaching, but ratheras a seriesof framesoverlaying progress, each other, as in our naturewalksat school. First came the largerview of the field-and then the view withinthe view,the hillsof fireantshiddenin the forests of parched grass that the children found when they were on their handsand knees. Each view informed the other-and each view allowedme to begin to makesense of the other.So it was with teaching.Afterleavingthe elementary school, I would arriveaftera long bus ride downtown to the university campusto attend meetings (I did not teach classeson the daysI taughtat the of elementary school). Many the meetingsI attended on those days dealt with students enrolled in basic skills courses and challenges of complying with state-mandated standards. In some ways, the discussionsat these meetings provedto be an extensionof the ongoingconin school teachers versations whichthe elementary and I were engaged. Althoughwe spoke often of
the constraintsimposed by state-mandated Hardrocks,white flowers standards,we also addressedthe power and possibiliNastybugs, dead twigs ties of language for children (Writers in the Andgreen grass school teachThe smell of flowers Schools).In addition,the elementary ers and I focused on the necessity of facilitating The itchymud access to creativewritinggiven the material And the heat of the sun conditions of the classroomsthatwe shared.Moreover, I discoveredan additionallink between my older The flowersneed showers andyoungerstudents.One of my studentsin basic Theysmell like hogs had studiedcreative in her citypubThathavebeen in logs writing writing lic school classroomwith a writerfromWriters in I had assigned the students to walk through the the Schoolsseveralyearsbefore. fieldwithpapers,pencils,andclipboards, makinga backat the elementary Meanwhile, school, we list of the signs of springthat they noticed in the filled our weekly writingsessions with metaphor their taskwas and rhyme.Adam,a studentdiagnosedwith learn- field behind the school. Afterwards, turntheirlistsinto to see beyondthe ordinary--to ing disabilities who was mainstreamed in the fourthgradeclass,wrote the followingrhymedlist the more exactingwork of poetry.Forboth Adam and Daniel, this entailed adding rhyme and rearpoem: ranging commonplace images to imagine the naturewalk. mood invokedby theirlate-morning Signsof Spring Ants this Certainly urbanpublicschool was unusual for its small class sizes and its practiceof placing Squirrels Leaves students with learningdisabilities,students who Birds were English-language learners,and studentsdesFlowers ignated as gifted and talented in mainstreamed Trees classrooms(withpulloutservicesforsupplemental Moss support).But the factof the matteris thatthis sysRocks tem workedwell for the children.These elemenBreeze taryschool studentslearned,with the help of their to teachersand principal, valueand build on each Spiders Water other's strengths. In these mainstreamedclassGrass rooms, children were not segregated from each Bees other in order to reify their "special"status, Fleas whether remedialor gifted. It was this model of Bark building on strengths and exploringthe powers Life and possibilitiesof language and its uses that I Fun choose to focus on time and time againin the colFreedom lege basicwritingclassroom. Moreover, work in the elementaryschool my Daniel, who was in the gifted and talented prohelped me to become a more thoughtful and in gram but also mainstreamed the fourth grade meticulousteacherof basicwriting.As I observed wrote a list poem thatended in rhyme: class, the challengesand possibilitiesfaced by students and teachers in elementary school, I came to BigAnts,GreenLeaves the understand teachingof writingas a continuum. Big ants,green leaves
For students enrolled in basic writing, this meant
something more than a review of basic skills. I Rather, wished to facilitate experimentswith lanand form that were not generallyencourguage I curriculum. wanted aged by the state-mandated my students in basic writingto have experiences theme. writingbeyond the five-paragraph
Beyond the Victim Narrative: Setting High Goals
In contrastto students at the elementaryschool, students in basic writingare separatedfrom their peers who are mainstreamed in college-level courses, often for failingto meet predetermined standardsin placementtests.' Systemicproblems in previous education serve to restrict our students' options for college education,exilingthem fromelite institutions, furtherclassifying and them as "remedial" "substandard." or Students have been exposed to "basicskills training" years, for with the rise of accountability especially testing and the adventof the No ChildLeftBehindAct of 2002 (Bernstein5). Yet it seems counterproductiveto view our studentsas victimswho need to be savedby heroic teachers (Ayers 228-29). Students who are labeled as "under-prepared" nonetheless arriveat college with agency and subjectivity,although their needs and purposes for educationmay contraststarkly with our own agendasas teachers.As MinaShaughnessy suggested,"...byunderestimating the sophistication of our students and by ignoringthe complexityof the taskswe set before them, we have failed to locate in precise ways where to begin and what follows what"(261-62). Rather than foregroundingour students' weaknesses, we need to learntheir strengthsas well-and to buildon those strengths,as a meansof seeing beyond the ordinary. At the same time, as LisaDelpit argues,"Students must be taughtthe codes to participate fully in the mainstream Americanlife, not by being of forcedto attendto hollow,inane,decontextualized with the contextof meaningful but subskills, rather communicativeendeavors"(45 emphasis in the
skills,"taughtin isolation,do not original)."Basic students with the intellectualcontexts in provide which to use those skills.When "the basics"are separated from critical thinking, education can become a lonely exercise in rote memorization content. withoutengagingcritical PeterElbowsuggests that this dilemmaexists because "overthe years [students]have not been pushed hard enough on the substance of their thinking" because teachers focus instead on "clean (346 [ing]up the language" emphasisin origDelpit, and Elbow inal). As a result,Shaughnessy, studentsreceiveconfusedmessages seem to imply, about what constitutes"education," includingthe rather that learningis teacher-generated message When students operating than student-generated. under this epistemologybegin a new course of study,it seems reasonableto conjecturethat students' first course of action will be to determine insteadof findingwaysto the "what teacherwants" immersethemselvesin the subjectat hand. As each of these educatorsemphasizes, the processes of acquiringsuch an epistemologyare Thereare no easy solutionsfor facilicomplicated. a classroomin which studentsmaylearn to tating truly engage with course materials,rather than towarda finalgrade. merelycompleteassignments Nonetheless,a focus on engagingstudents'imaginationmayopen a waytowardsdefininga purpose At for writingand reading. the same time, it is crucial for us as teachersto set high goals for our students, while at the same time, in writing,teaching, and to it andlearning, is critical identify breakdown morecomplexgoals into a seriesof managelarger, able steps that value collaborationand process, with room for false starts and clear connections. This process seems especiallysignificantfor students and teachers in the difficultcircumstances of realities basicwritthatoften constitutematerial does not "dumb Suchan approach ing classrooms. down"the course work, but instead providesan opportunityfor students to experiencetheir own and learningin our classrooms beyond.
Dissonance and FigurativeLanguage
Our students themselves provide the best occasions for reconceptualizing their own experiences in a more imaginative context. The followingstudent writingsampleand discussionillustrates how a smallstep can lead to a largerproject.
projectof by ing of the readings takingon a writing theirown. With Alex's permission, I read this excerpt fromhis longer essay aloud to the class and there was a sigh of recognition-of the angerin the communityprovokedby the raid-and of the power of The room was dark, petite; the bed languageto communicatethis anger,still so raw was cold like an ice cube and hard like for manyof the students.Most of the students in wood. The minutesspent there were like this linkedcoursewere often categorizedas "Genhours and the hours like days and we eration 1.5,"which LindaLomonBlantondefines feared for our lives as .we went through as English-languagelearners whose significant sleeping. In other words, that place was educationalexperiencestook place in the United the same as hell, just for being on [the States,althoughtheirhome languageis not usualstreet] on Saturday night. ly English.Manyof the studentswere born in the -Alex United States, or immigratedat a relatively early age so that they had completedmost of theireduOne steamyAugustHoustonnight,278 young cation in U.S. urbanpublic schools. Not a few of people were arrestedfor "attempted trespassing" these studentswould write about their own chalin whatwas supposed to be a raidon street racers. lenges with languageand schooling, strugglingat But none of the young people arrestedwere actu- this earlypoint in the term to produceknowledge studentsin allyracingand no one gatheredthere was warned of theircollectivesituationas first-year courses that,as IraShoremphalinked"remedial" of the impendingarrestsor told to leave. Some of those arrestedwere patronsof a largechain store sized, would not count towardcollege graduation. and a fast food restaurant who had been walking As studentswho encounteryet anotherroadblock in their experience of education,a certaindissoout to their cars when the raid unfolded.Laterit nance can arise.This dissonance,if fullyexplored, was determinedthat the raidwas illegaland all of with canlead to powerfulandpositiveexplorations the chargeswere dropped.The police officerwho As andwithwriting. NancySommerssuglanguage gave the orderfor the raidwas firedand laterput on trial and acquitted on charges of "official gests, oppression" (Salleeand Nissimov). Good writing disturbs;it creates dissoAlex was one of those young people. A few nance. Students need to seek the dissoweeks after the arrest, he enrolled in my linked nance of discovery,utilizingin their writbasic writingand fundamentals readingcourse of ing, as experiencedwritersdo, the very and wrote his first essay, "The Night I Went to differencebetween writingand speechabouthis nightin jail.The coursehadbegun Hell," of the possibility revision.(53) with readingand identifying figurative languagein narrativepoems by LuisJ. Rodriguezand Sonia Suchdissonance,whichis one of the most tangible Sanchez.The studentswere invitedto writenarra- frustrations eventualjoys of my own work, is and tives of their own with the requirement that their clearlya necessityfor studentswho are enrolledin the first few semesters of college where dissoexperimentswith figurativelanguage,as well as severalnew words from the readings,be incorpo- nancewillgreet them at everyturn. In ratedinto theirown narratives. thisbasicwriting One of the ways that I facilitatepracticewith this assignment an opportunity the was dissonancefor studentsis throughthe assignment for course,
students to practice and extend their understandthat I described above, through work with figura-
MODERN LANGUAGE STUDIES
tive language. Watchingthe elementary school students transformthe field behind their school into a wonderlandof naturehas helped to inspire this work.The youngerstudents experiencedthe dissonance of transforming seemingly everythe world of the field into an unfamiliar natural day wonderland. Theylearnedto see theirworldfrom new perspectives.Forcollege students,the transition of leavinghome communitiesand the familiar world of high school for the new and often quite different experiences of college (Anzaldu(a 43; hooks 143-46), can be an exercise rich in dissonance in and of itself,a metaphorfor other times and places when dissonancefiguredprominently in students' lives. As such, the first few weeks of the semester providea significantopportunityto experimentwith languagethatlatercan be revised and refigured. The following examples from the students' firstessaysbegin to explorethe possibilities. Linda and Tomwent on to writeprize-winning essays in a competition sponsored by our Englishdepartment. Miriam, who repeatedthe course in the second semester, became a class leader and passed the course at the end of her firstyear. I felt as if I were insidea balloon,not being able to breathe.No one was ever there to hear me. -Linda Other students were staringat me like I was a criminal a birdin a cage, I felt like or I was on anotherplanet,with no familyto help me since I was shy and did not care to talk with anybody.I saw myself as a like "pipsqueak," a littlebacteria livingin a Microsystems. -Tom I felt like the twin towers. I felt like I was going to collide. I felt my life was like a dead end street. Youhave no choice but to go back. There is nowhere to go and
you feel lost. -Miriam Creating figurative language as a way of describing dissonance seems a visible and an important preliminarystep in moving forward with subsequent goals for more complex assignments in the writingand readingcourse. Sincethe students in this course were English-language learners,IlonaLeki'sperspectiveson the reciprocal connections between readingand writingare of greatsignificance: If we use readingand writingreciprocally in L2 classrooms,focusingless on teachor reading, writingandmore ing language, on allowingstudentsto engage intellectually with text, this engagement with text fosters a view of reading and writing as activeconstructionof meaning.(184) In other words, to present readingand writingas a discrete set of skills to be mastered (such as and rhetorivocabulary, readingspeed, grammar, cal modes) would seem to invoke PauloFreire's banking model of education, in which students function as repositories of the teacher's knowledge, ratherthanas activecriticalthinkersin their own right(58). Instead, as Leki suggests, students need to with text,"to strugglewith "engageintellectually of "construction meaning,"learningto find their own purposes for readingand writingas clearly connectedto each other-that readingcan help to generate writing, and that writing can help to informreading.For instance,as Alex struggledto comprehend assigned readingsfrom our course, he also learned to make meaning from his own workof the experiences.In understanding difficult he also learned to build patience and writing, confidence in his reading, reading one of our assigned full-length texts for the course three the times in order to better understand complexities of its arguments.In this way, students can
sibilities led to the dissonance of figurativelanof guage and the hope fora broaderunderstanding theirown situationwithinthe university. Especially was important the need forstudentsto takecharge At with an extenof theirown learning. a university educationcurriculum, sive state-mandated general students were often faced with largeclasses once they left the basicwritingcourse. Studentsneeded to learnto advocatefor themselves,which includConcludingReflections: in ed seeking assistanceas necessary, orderto not Challengesand Responsibilities I am remindedof the challengesand responsibili- become lost in theircoursework-and indeed,lost ties that informour classroomwork by Adrienne in the systemitself. Freireaffirmsthat "adeepened consciousness Rich,who writesof her experiencesworkingwith MinaShaughnessy CCNY: at of theirsituationleads men to apprehendthat situation as an historicalrealitysusceptibleof transThe factthatour languageis taintedby the realitiesfacedby stuformation" (73). The material qualityof our society meansthatin teachdents in basicwritingcoursespoint to the necessiing we need to be acutelyconsciousof the workand the comas ty of basicwriting intellectual kind of tool we wantour studentsto have of local conditions not addressedin textplexity available,to understandhow it has been and Giventhe books that emphasize"skills drills." used againstthem, and to do all that we that motivate our pedagogical conexigencies can to insurethatlanguagewill not someis cerns, the hope of transformation perhapsthe day be used by them to keep others silent most significantoutcome of continued engageand powerless.(68) ment in teacherresearchin all its variousforms. AlthoughRichwas writingin the early1970s,clearly manyof the challengesfacingteachersand students coming to understandthe joys and difficulties of engaging with writing remain more than thirtyyearslater.Partof our workin the basicwriting classroomis to assess these challengesby linking writingto readingand criticalanalysis,and by inviting and facilitating opportunities for students-as well as in my own workas a writer-that addressthese challenges. As I learnedin my work with the elementary school students, seeing beyond the ordinary allows us to observe the world around us with more acuity-and to experiencethe waysin which imaginativewriting may create new views and For possibilities. my studentsat the eleintriguing these new views facilitatedan mentary school, opportunityfor experimentingwith language in order to better make sense of the worlds around become advocatesfor their own learningas they workthatwill begin to grapplewith the intellectual a vital necessity throughouttheir progress prove workand beyondinto colthroughdevelopmental as Marilyn lege-levelcourses, Sternglass suggested in her importantlongitudinalstudy of students enrolledin basicwriting,Timeto KnowThem.
them. For my students at the university,such pos-
1 This is not universally the case. See Royers and Gilles.
Anzaldfia,Gloria.Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza 2nd ed. San Francisco:Aunt Lute Books, 1999. Ayers,William.'A Teacher Ain't Nothin' But a Hero: Teachers and Teaching in Film."CityKids, City Teachers:Reports from the Front Row. Ed. WilliamAyers and PatriciaFord. New York:The New Press, 1996. 228-40. Bernstein, Susan Naomi. "Teachingand Learningin Texas: Accountability Testing, Language, Race, and Place."Journal of Basic Writing 23.1 (2004): 4-24. Blanton, LindaLomon. "ClassroomInstruction and Language MinorityStudents: On Teaching to 'Smarter'Readers and Writers." Generation 1.5 Meets College Composition: Issues in the Teaching of Writing to US.-Educated Learners ofESL. Eds. Linda Harclau, KayM. Losey, and Meryl Siegal. Mahwah, NJ:Erlbaum, 1999. 119-42. Delpit, Lisa. Other People's Children: CulturalConflict in the Classroom. New York:TheNew Press, 1995. Elbow, Peter.Everyone Can Write:Essays Toward a Hopeful Theory of Writingand Teaching. New York:Oxford UP, 2000. Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York:Continuum, 1970. Gillis, Candida, and Cheryl L.Johnson. "Metaphoras Renewal: Re-imaginingOur Professional Selves."English Journal 91.6 (2002): 37-43. Greene, Maxine.Releasing the Imagination: Essays on Education, the Arts, and Social Change. San Francisco:JosseyBass Publishers, 1995. hooks, bell. Where WeStand: Class Matters. New Yorkand London: Routledge, 2000. Kozol, Jonathan. Savage Inequalities: Children in America's Schools. New York:HarperCollins, 1992. Leki, Iloni. "ReciprocalThemes in ESLReading and Writing." Landmark Essays on ESLWriting. Eds. TonyJ. Silva and Paul Kei Matsuda. Mahwah, NJ:Erlbaum,2001. 173-190. Royers , Daniel J. and Roger Gilles. "Directed Self-Placement: An Attitude of Orientation."College Composition and Communication 91.6 (1998): 54-70. Sallee, Rad and Ron Nissimov. "JuryFinds Aguirre Innocent in K-Mart Raid."Houston Chronicle online. 17 June 2003. (Assessed 17 June 2003). <http://www.chron.com/cs/CDA/ssistory. mpl/metropolitan/1955398>.
Shaughnessy, Mina P "DivingIn: An Introduction to Basic Writing" (Appendix B). College Composition and Communication 27.3 (1976), 234-239. Rpt. in Maher,Jane. Mina P Shaughnessy: Her Lifeand Work.Urbana, Illinois: National Council of Teachers of English, 1997. 255-262. Shor, Ira.Empowering Education: Critical Teachingfor Social Change. Chicago/London: U of Chicago P, 1992. Sommers, Nancy. "RevisionStrategies of Student Writersand Experienced Adult Writers." College Composition and Communication 31.4 (December 1980). Rpt. in CrossTalk in Composition Theory:A Reader. 2nd ed. Ed. Victor Villanueva.Urbana, Illinois: National Council of Teachers of English, 2003. 43-54. Sternglass, Marilyn.Time to Know Them:A Longitudinal Study of Writingand Learning at the College Level. Mahwah, NJ:Ehrlbaum, 1997. the Wall,Susan V "Writing 'Self' in Teacher Research: The Potential Powers of a New Professional Discourse." English Education 36.4 (2004): 289-317. Writersin the Schools. <http://www.writersintheschools.org>. 26 September 2004.
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