Through The Personal Lens: Reconceiving Language
BY HECTOR J. VILA, PhD
Hector J. Vila is an Assistant Professor in Writing at Middlebury College in Vermont. He has been teaching writing in urban and rural environments since 1985. Hector is the author of Life-Affirming Acts: Education as Transformation in the Writing Classroom. Throughout his career he has always worked, in one way or another, with K-12 partners.
“When I initially signed up for this class,” writes Megan, a first year student at Middlebury College, “I imagined that it would be objective. Scenarios for Teaching Writing.” Megan goes on to say that she “instinctively latched on to the meaty education buzzwords, teaching writing.” She had no idea what the course would be -- perhaps a course where the teacher imparts information and students pass it on to their assigned mentees, 10th graders in an English class at Media and Communications High School in Washington Heights, New York City. This is simply the external architecture of the course. The course is an inquiry into our commitment to Education writ large; it means to challenge pre-conceived notions, individually and culturally, about the purpose of education; and it asks student to investigate their identities so as to better actualize a purposeful life. The course is done by privileging writing—the Middlebury students’, the Media and Communications students’ and theories of composition. This becomes our method. It is accomplished in the classroom at Middlebury, face-to-face in Washington Heights, where we visit students during the first week, and online (Google Docs), where Middlebury students tutor and mentor their 10th grade partners, justifying their approach by addressing a theoretical framework for working with student writing. The conflation of face-to-face and online work is an elegant way to address the complex needs of students, at Middlebury and in Washington Heights; it is a sustainable architecture for a K-16 continuum; and, perhaps most vital, it opens a dialog between communities that never speak to each other.
Scenarios for Teaching Writing is a one semester long (12 wks) course in the Education Studies Program at Middlebury. It is supported by Middlebury’s Education in Action, The Center for the Comparative Study of Race and Ethnicity and the Dean of the College. It is also supported by Middlebury alumni and parents of current Middlebury students, all of whom reside in New York and provide housing for Middlebury students. And it’s supported by Media and Communications High School. What makes this collaboration possible is the idea that education requires responsibility; that what we learn and how we learn have to be shared, particularly with K-12 partners; and that education has to be thought of as a K-16 continuum since the challenges we face as a society – early education, on one end, and an ongoing commitment to continue an education, on the other – have to guide us towards creative solutions. Scenarios for Teaching Writing is one small step in this direction, modeling a living classroom struggling to create byways for self-actualization.
In her final writing piece, Megan realizes that, “No, this class had hardly anything to do with ‘teaching writing’ at all; rather, the growth and self-actualization I’ve experienced throughout the semester lies in the somewhat ambiguous term scenarios.” She says that, “School is all about including, conceptualizing, and engaging scenarios. Scenarios are what give us context, personality, experiences, and voice. But perhaps the most critical product of one’s scenario is language.” For this to happen, we stress in the course, open and safe spaces for personal expression, at either end of the K-16 continuum, have to be nurtured.
After reading David Bleich’s “Reconceiving Literacy: Language Use and Social Relations,” Megan comes to understand that, “I determined that language is culture repurposed into its most authentic form of communication.” This determination comes about after meeting a student at Media and Communications, Bonnie, that Megan describes as “eager, mysterious, inquisitive, brooding,” a young 10th grader that “probed the teacher with questions that were both interpretive and evaluative.” But as she observes Bonnie, Megan begins to notice the challenges and obstacles towards self-actualization: “I knew that he was struggling mightily to stay afloat, to stay engaged, to make something real and worthwhile....I watched as the teacher withheld his flotation device – deflecting questions, beating him down with no and not now and stay on topic – ignoring his grasping, slipping hands bobbing out of and back under the water. I wondered how much longer until he gave into the roaring, rhythmic pull of the sea?” Megan wonders how long it might take Bonnie to give up; she has come to understand that some educational experiences are disruptive, others enabling, and that this divide is most pronounced when we look at race and its relationship to economics. One of the reasons for the collaborative is to open safe spaces for difficult subjects.
Megan is elegantly confronting the chasm between Bonnie’s education and her own, privileged one that quite efficiently brought her to Middlebury via Texas. Her Texas upbringing is closer to Middlebury then Washington Height is, a mere 260 miles away, something that was not lost on the students in the class. This is one outcome of the course: to ensure Middlebury students see the entire Education System, with all its warts, and confront the problems we’re facing when we speak about the importance of a college education, affordability and access. We all share the responsibility of ensuring education results in meaningful action.
Looking at Bonnie’s writing, which the entire Middlebury class also examined daily using an overhead projector, Megan critiqued the work:
Bonnie’s writing in no way mirrored the inquisitive student I had engaged in Washington Heights. His expression had clearly been constrained....Plainly stated, the piece was uninspiring, unstructured, and lacked clarity and brevity. Sentences were often jumbled and wordy, clearly indicating a lack of vocabulary and exposure to examples of sentence construction. For instance, Bonnie wrote, “Looking from Snowball’s position, he seems to define all aspects of Leon Trotsky in which Snowball’s story resembles Trotsky’s characteristics and perspective.” I rephrased this succinctly as, “Snowball shares many attributes with Leon Trotsky and his story resembles Trotsky’s characteristics and perspective.”
Megan’s response is complex. She notices the difference between Bonnie the articulate speaker and Bonnie the “constrained” writer. And she wonders whether this dichotomy has something to do with the system he’s in, particularly, as she notes, since she finds flurries of the Bonnie she first encountered in a class discussion on Animal Farm:
But this articulate voice, however valued by his teacher or by standardized tests, was hollow. To me, it reflected an existence of double-consciousness, an idea captured by W.E.B. Dubois in his seminal piece,
The Souls of Black Folks, which he describes as a “sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity”.
Bonnie’s work shows a struggle to comprehend and internalize a foreign way of communicating – a language outside the realm of his own culture, experiences, and scenarios – that he knows is the only way voice is given legitimacy by the dominant culture. And while “correct,” it was disloyal to Bonnie’s true voice, a mere imitation reflecting uniformity rather than the work of a creative and multi-dimensional thinker.
Megan’s response is colored by despair; others in the class felt the same. Megan sees the problem and is desperately trying to bridge the chasm between her world and Bonnie’s, an evolving theme of the course. We were all trying to build scenarios, as Megan would say, that enable meaningful, creative engagement across race and class lines. And that likewise place students in moments of deep reflection – the first step to actualization.
Education is the only remaining space advocating collaboration, cooperation and dynamic engagement; and it’s the only place where self-actualization through deep inquiry can be accomplished – and shared.
“From the haven of our classroom at Middlebury we fantasized about progressive education and abolition of current systems and practices– get rid of police in schools, of structured curriculum, standardized testing, tracking, complacent teachers, chairs in rows, separated classrooms,” Megan writes. “It was hard for me to reconcile the merit of these ideas with the reality of what I saw, of what Bonnie and I are both working against and within.”
Megan and her classmates face the problem of self-actualization: it has everything to do with revision and reconciliation. As Middlebury students worked with their respective students – we are all in this together – my own responsibility was to model my work with the principal of Media and Communications, Ronni Michelin, and the 10th grader teacher, Susan Friedenberg. I provide information on pedagogy and composition theory; I respond to queries about teacher morale, socio-economic challenges that strap creativity and ways of working with a data-driven, high stakes testing environment where outcomes are measured solely by the numbers. I suggest assignments. And I suggest ways in which writing can be used to creatively tap into the student, and ourselves. The course works because it is a constant give and take between students in both schools, students and faculty, and faculty to faculty.
“Education is the power to be vulnerable and to constantly question,” writes Megan. “It is diving in and approaching learning through the lens of personal experience; it is having the courage, despite the confines and repressive nature of the institutions we work within, to envision education as inclusive, diverse, and emancipatory – to transgress syntax, systems, and standardization, and truly see the scenarios.”
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