This is where I was two years ago. Feel free to build or burn your own bridges with this brief critical paper. I was a little hesitant to post it; but considering we have Trump for President, Devos for Education Secretary, and I’ve been barely employed for the last four years, what does it matter. I have been drafted into the swelling numbers of our proud U.S. Precariat. If you don’t know we’ve been conned by now, pretty please read Noam Chomsky’s newly released Requiem for the American Dream.
Dialogical Discourse to Creativity and Liberation
in the Introductory Poetry Workshop
Submitted in Partial Fulfilment
for the Requirements for the Certificate
in Creative Writing Pedagogy
Antioch University – Los Angeles
The Humanities are not the Sciences; learning to write a “good” poem is not analogous to learning to solve a mathematical problem; and since poetry writing workshops are closely associated with understanding the human condition and language, it greatly benefits all participants to scrutinize and develop the human interaction, especially the dialogue and discourse in the room. Yet, this typically does not happen when instructors focus their pedagogy on delivering information, presenting model texts, and critiquing student work—at the expense of engaging the whole student. There is an often documented conflict between delivering academic curriculum/lesson plans and the activation of student experience and agency that encourages life-long learning (Kumpulainen and Lipponen, 194). This paper presents and explores a different orientation that radically centers student agency and discourse, promoting dialogue as the vehicle for all teaching and learning. Its corresponding approach is informed by existential, humanistic, and dialogic learning principles that concentrate on the identities and individual needs of each participant, with the ultimate goals of engendering greater critical thinking, creativity, and autodidactic (self-directed) learning. Of central importance is accurately defining discourse and dialogic learning and locating them, along with obstacles to promoting their understanding and use in traditional and increasingly “corporatized” curriculum-driven settings. With facilitated and self-reflective practice interrogating discourses that permeate the lives of participants and the writing of poetry, students as well as teachers, are positioned as practicing poets. Student-generated curriculum building is presented as an engaging opportunity to pragmatically apply theory: the curriculum being a natural starting point and a dynamic intersection of the participant’s lives, learning to write poetry, and the practice of dialogical discourse. It is not this writer’s intention to present a concrete methodology with scripted exercises and assignments at this initial stage of research and application, but rather an orientation, approach, attitude. Peter Elbow’s “teacherless” workshop model, focused on the writing process and personal reader responses, is suggested as a natural pairing for the specific task of responding to student drafts, without precluding other models.
Speculation, Research, and Theory
A Pedagogical Journey
A year ago I began my exploration of classroom discourse after once again becoming a student at the eager age of 55. During an initial Post-MFA creative writing pedagogy program residency, I was struck by the lack of sustained small group conversations within my particular PMFA cohort. As face-to-face interactions with instructors and peers continued during the ten-day stay, the dissonance between presented ideas and the meager short-lived group conversations that they inspired was noticeable. What passed as classroom (later online) discussions, normally became teacher-centered transmissions of information and expectations; all the core texts were assigned; we were given a list of texts to choose from for independent study; and we were asked to pick a critical paper topic—done with little time for actual group conversation or reflection; learning the necessary “academic language” and basic annotation and paper writing skills for working in unapologetically labeled “elitist” institutions of higher education was stressed early and throughout meetings; so what else but align personal goals accordingly? All proceedings seemed reasonable; yet, they prompted nagging feelings and questions; for example: why such a preponderance of conservative talk and texts in the PMFA program of an institution with a social-justice orientation and mission to foster critically thinking engaged citizens? Was I being oversensitive and needy or one of the many typical college students bell hooks describes in Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom.?
…they want and demand more from professors than my generation did…I do not think they want therapy from me. They do want information that is healing to the uninformed, unknowing spirit. They want knowledge that is meaningful. They rightfully expect that my colleagues and I will not offer them information without addressing the connection between what they are learning and their overall life experience (hooks, 19).
My most memorable conversation occurred off campus on a sunny day, in a nearby atrium by a decorative little concrete waterfall under full green trees. During a private one-hour talk with Alma Luz Villanueva, she delivered, like a mantra, these thoughts on teaching: “be with someone; truly listen to them; be with them.” Given my first and hurried impressions with the PMFA program, nothing could have resonated more with me. The lack of public recognition and discussion of Nelson Mandela’s death, shortly after the residency began, added to my interest in the conversations that were and were not happening around me. On the last day of the residency, in a rushed half-hour meeting scheduled for the explicit purpose of signing a contract confirming requirements and declaring a final paper topic, I blurted out “dialogue to creativity and liberation” without exactly knowing why and what I was getting into.
To be clear, AULA is a progressive university and the PMFA program is a one-year non-residential course primarily intended to prepare MFA students for teaching in higher education; so it is not surprising that one would appreciatively sit through lectures, presentations, and teacher-centered small group orchestrations rather than authentic student-centered dialogues. I was probably expecting too much too early in the game; however, subsequently, the program’s follow-up online “discussions” with their “dyssynchronous” peer and teacher entries and lack of group cohesion (participants dropping in and disappearing with little to no account) affirmed my early impressions: a certain kind of talk was missing—often averted at critical moments. The process of passively “fitting in” and “getting with the program,” one that most students come to know in grade school, was once again highlighted.
My interest in a particular kind of dialogue as the vehicle for learning goes back to my academic and professional experiences while on a counseling and advisement career track as a young man. On this path, small group work is normally keyed to exploration and mutual meaning-making talk; and of all the different psychological theories I was exposed to, the existential-humanistic approaches were the most affecting and useful. This bias especially grew while completing my undergraduate work with John B.P. Shaffer at Queens College in the `80’s. His small groups (8-12) were dialogue driven and experiential, covering interpersonal interaction and small group communication; he authored and co-authored the assigned texts: Humanistic Psychology and Group Therapy and Sensitivity Training. He was a respected analyst and professor who was influenced by the sixties’ human potential movement and existentialist orientated educators, psychologists, and philosophers such as Martin Buber, Ronald Laing, Abraham Maslow, Michael Murphy, Carl Rogers, Thomas Szaz, among many others. Here is Shaffer’s brief summary of humanistic approaches to education.
Starting with Paul Goodman’s Growing up Absurd (1960), a series of books began to appear that documented the degree to which American schools at all grade levels encouraged mindless conformism, a deadening of excitement, and a sense of pessimism concerning the possibilities for meaningful work and creative play in adulthood (for example, see Friedenberg, 1965, and Kozol, 1967). Humanistic conceptions of education generally try to eliminate the distinction between means and ends, so that learning is experienced as a source of pleasure in its own right, rather than as an instrument for competing with others or for guaranteeing one’s social status in the future (here the emphasis is on the importance of present-centeredness; learning is exhilarating and meaningful now. Humanistic approaches also attempt to ensure that a lesson’s content is not divorced from its personal meaning for the learner. Therefore, the teacher is encouraged to pay some heed to students’ emotional response to what he is learning (here the stress on the learner’s holistic need to integrate feeling with thought). Lastly, humanism casts the teacher into a catalytic, not an authoritarian role. The more a teacher becomes an authority who determines what a pupil is to learn, why it must be learned, and how well it is to be learned, the more her pedagogy falls within the traditional approach (Shaffer, 95-96).
It is important to note that centering the student and his or her talk in a classroom does not mean turning poetry workshops into therapy or encounter groups and stripping the instructor of all authority (as if this were possible). These are concerns many English teachers have when addressing the expectations of students, especially when the teacher has clear ideas about her pedagogy, craft, and what is literary. In Ann Leahy’s Power and Identity in the Creative Writing Classroom, several contributors write about their successes and failures negotiating authority with students—in particular, moving them away from self-indulgent personal writing to what is academic and “literary.” Nancy Kuhl, in her essay “Personal Therapeutic vs Literary Writing” makes this distinction clear. She concludes: “While I am glad that many find comfort and insight through the writing process, solace and self-discovery cannot be the goals of a productive literary creative writing workshop” (3-12). In “Value and Cost of Nurturing,” Leahy herself describes her struggles against the student expectation that she be nurturing in stereotypically feminine ways that detract from her authority and ability to deliver the kind of instruction she believes students need to become better writers. “I continually work, then, to contextualize caring with professionalism, to define nurturing as authority” (13-25).
Tradition to Today
Graeme Harper prominently includes in his foreword to Dianne Donnelly’s Does the Writing Workshop Still Work these primary questions: “…what is it that we value in and about the workshop, and for what reasons?” The book contains a collection of essays by experienced creative writing instructors grappling with these questions and coming to varied conclusions. Graeme begins his contribution by considering, among other things, product vs process. He believes that the academic discourse promoting the creation of artifacts at the expense of the actual creative experience is something Academia has “gotten wrong.” He states, “that logically, intuitively, experientially, humanly, creative writing exists first and foremost as the things we do. But we have frequently spoken about creative writing as if it is the objects we made” (Xvi). He of course, begs the follow-up questions: what are we doing, what should we be doing, and why? Donnelly’s contributors approach these questions, as expected, from different angles. There is certainly a difference of opinion based on each contributor’s character, pedagogy, and teaching philosophy. Donnelly states her “…overarching goal is to ascend creative writing studies” (2). Consequently, she takes issue with the traditional workshop model, as typically seen in the great number of undergraduate programs that have proliferated exponentially around the U.S. since 1975. Based on her research and study, she claims that with the workshop’s core curriculum position in nearly all of these programs, yet its actual substance and value still in doubt when compared with that of composition and literature classes, “a more robust and intelligent model” and not only the unquestioned signature model of the last century is needed:
Sharing stories and poems, reading from a writerly perspective, providing helpful feedback, re-envisioning works-in-progress, are at least some of the functions of the traditional workshop model. Its practice has become so deeply ingrained in our pedagogy that it continues without investigation. Or if it is questioned, in the sense that many of us are uneasy with varying degrees of a workshop’s artificiality, ethical disparities, multiversity, idleness, singularity, program design, authority, evaluation, absence of theory, and/or range of student readiness, preparedness, and motivation; we are at a loss at how to fix them (8).
After reading about what her contributors do with or to their students, one can easily gather that the workshop, given all the players involved and different scholastic situations, can morph into a variety of serviceable forms, which stretch to obliterate the “traditional model.” However, when one looks closely, only a couple of contributors present concrete examples of classroom interaction and discourse; a vivid and critical exploration of the actual communication (utterances) in any particular model or workshop is missing. Donnelly’s contributors describe what they and students say in general terms. This lack of specificity when it comes to actual classroom dialogue is something I have come to expect in pedagogy and creative writing texts. Phrases like “small group discussion,” “whole class discussion,” and “student teacher conferences” are found throughout these texts, but the critical details are normally vague or missing. Bluntly speaking, with worst case scenarios in mind, I have always found it puzzling to hear a supercilious teacher conducting “discussions” with students on topics such as democracy, justice, equality, truth, beauty and other lofty abstractions while behaving like a tyrant. The irony is hard to miss. I also believe most good-natured well-intentioned teachers want neither to become victims of manipulative authoritarians or authoritarians themselves; yet, for reasons, some to be addressed later in this paper, they find it difficult to adopt a truly authentic dialogical stance with their students.
From Teacher Monologues to Group Dialogues
My meandering journey has run me through texts on conversation, appreciative inquiry, discourse analysis, critical discourse, critical pedagogy, dialogue, dialogic learning, and finally to what I see as gold—the timely Post-modern work of Teun A.Van Dijk (see Discourse and Knowledge: A Socio-Cognitive Approach) and Hubert Herman’s Dialogic Self Theory (see Handbook of Dialogical Self-Theory). I began a trek towards the summit of my particular Mt. Fuji—teaching poetry writing—with theorists and teachers of psychology; and along the way was joined by Socrates, Bhaktin, Paulo Freire, bell hooks, Peter Elbow, Ken Bain, Jane Vella, Dimitri Nikulin, Gordon Wells; and when Hermans and Van Dijk arrived, they helped develop my understanding of the others with two powerful theories that center dialogue in human existence and learning. The proposed speculative model called Dialogue to Creativity, Liberation, and Poetry Workshop (DCLPW) is informed by these scholars and it includes the following list of expectations for “learning talk,” implicated in a dialogical stance, adapted from British researcher John Alexander’s typology:
Speaking Out: speculating, imagining, hypothesizing; narrating; arguing, reasoning, justifying; explaining, instructing, asking questions, analyzing and solving problems. Taking In: active listening; being receptive to alternative viewpoints; thinking about what is heard and giving others time to think. (Juzwick, 14, 18)
Of course, adeptly carrying out all of the above, as any teacher knows, is easier said than done; it requires specific learning, scaffolding, practice, and reflection. Inspiring Dialogue: Talking to Learn in the English Classroom offers, along with research and elaborations on “learning talk,” some dialogic learning tools and a chapter on handling student challenges. The life-long pedagogical enterprise will always remain building greater capacity for such talk in both students and teachers. Luckily, there is a rapidly growing body of work that zeros in on classroom talk within the context of Post-modern globalization. Strong examples are Discourse Analysis of Classroom Literacy Events: a Microethnographic Perspective and Using Discourse Analysis to Improve Classroom Interaction). In the latter, authors Rex and Schiller, urge teachers to diligently analyze their own discourse to “help align their instruction with their intentions,” and to develop greater “interactional awareness.” Moreover, they correspondingly foreground “the importance of understanding that socializing, building significant relationships, and making knowledge meaningful are key to group engagement, participation, and learning
Building with Freire in Mind
For Paulo Freire, dialogue, posing existential questions and communal problem solving are necessary for any deep and transformative learning; however, he found these approaches lacking in the traditional “banking” model of education that positions students as passive repositories of knowledge transmitted by authoritarian teachers. (Freire) He saw this normative educational model as a tool of political regimes that keep students from fully realizing their position in oppressed situations and away from gaining the agency to resist and change their conditions. Freire believes that it is only through a dialogue-driven process of consciousness raising (Conscientization) inculcated through theory, practice, and reflection (Praxis) that students are able to struggle for the full realization of their self-actualized humanity. Fully realizing one’s humanity is the ultimate goal of liberation and dialogue is the revolutionary means. (Freire) He is considered one of the grandfathers of Critical Pedagogy—a pedagogy that has generated many analyses of power and inequality in primary to higher education since his founding work. In On Critical Pedagogy Henry A. Giroux focuses on the legacy of Paulo Freire:
Indeed, Freire’s contribution to a progressive politics of education has become that much more conspicuous in recent years, when many colleges have become dominated by ideologies, hooked on methods, slavishly wedded to instrumentalized accountability measures, and increasingly run by administrators who lack either a broader vision or a critical understanding of education as a force for strengthening the imagination (my emphasis) and expanding democratic public life. Within this increasingly oppressive context, critical pedagogy continues to offer the best—perhaps only—model enabling educators and young people to develop and assert a sense of their rights and responsibilities to participate in self-governance despite growing anti-democratic tendencies in educational theory and practice (Giroux 152-3).
Locating Dialogical Discourse in the Workshop
Curriculum: The First Problem Posed
In What the Best College Teachers do, Ken Baines, concludes from his research that the best know their subjects well, prepare, know their students—are open and trust them, favor “thinking and acting expected for life,” build “critical learning environments,” evaluate their students’ progress, and perhaps most importantly, plan curriculum with student learning objectives in mind (15-21). A DLCPW facilitator needs a level of familiarity with and trust in students (and self) that may be considered extreme by Bain, as well as most teachers when it comes to curriculum planning, since the model’s only constraints on students owning the curriculum—deciding what to learn and how to do it—would be imposed by the setting, be it CBO, secondary education, higher education, correctional facility, etc. Here is where the DCLPW model may be considered weak or unsustainable: it does not prescribe any curriculum, exercises, or assignments. I would argue that trying to implement any predetermined scripts without truly knowing students (and self) would go against the spirit of the model; having a student-generated curriculum presents a pedagogical space loaded with possibilities; this is a space where students and teachers learning to write poetry, and dialogic learning, can immediately and dynamically grow.
Curriculum: Object Lesson on Dialogical Teaching and Learning.
On first meeting, two essential threads that will run through all subsequent workshops need to be deliberately and dialogically addressed in class by the facilitator: poetry writing and dialogical discourse. Fundamental existential questions that would help blend them, which I would like everyone in the room to ponder are: Who am I? Where am I? What will I do with others, given the goal is to write poetry? Following up by asking what kind of relationship everyone has with poetry and questions that treat poetry writing like a potential research project would be ideal. Simply asking what everyone knows about poetry or what it would take to become a writer of strong poems would be reasonable. What are some commonalities among recognized poets in the way they developed their craft? How can we find out? What is essential that we do in the limited time that we have? What should we do first? How much time do we have to work with? Are we going to talk about all the necessary poem ingredients today? What if I am just here to fulfill a program requirement with an easy course and do not want to become a poet? A facilitator can pose a broad range of questions during this initiating experience; and students could offer all manner of rejoinders, questions, comments, and concerns (some possibly perceived as irrelevant to everyone in the room) making this a highly unpredictable and seemingly unfocused first day. Students expecting a teacher lecture and a course syllabus with assignments—expecting to be told what to do moment-to-moment—after finding out the curriculum is to be explored and negotiated collaboratively this way, may find this day confusing, unsettling, daunting, and otherwise disorienting rather than orienting; however, the demand for creative talk and an exchange of ideas would be immediate; the job of the facilitator is to make sure the talk in the room continues to be dialogical and addressed when it is not.
Introducing the concepts of autodidactism and self rule-governed behavior to encourage autonomy and initiative may be called for in the first few meetings, as well as introducing ideas about mastery or high proficiency and the stages of learning from novice to mastery. A facilitator is obligated to encourage that students recognize their own power in the learning process. In his seminal work, Writing Without Teachers, Peter Elbow describes early difficulties with writing to satisfy his university professors; he concluded: “I had come to a fundamental asymmetry: students can learn without teachers even though teachers cannot teach without students. The deepest dependency is not of students upon teachers, but of teachers upon students.”
Admit Impediments: Digressions, Caveats, and Meandering in Practice
The DCLPW is a hypothetical model that calls for a messy unpredictable process; I have had only brief and limited opportunities to practice “learning talk” and dialogical teaching as proposed here, and no experience using them within a sustained workshop series. My AULA program supervised teacher assistant placement at Queens College [CUNY] was in a graduate level workshop course (and invaluable), yet featured the overall traditional approach. Soon after, I impulsively attempted to begin DCLPWs in several locations that have not been ideal. One series, for mostly older adults, at a Kew Gardens Community House in Queens and another series for a younger demographic as part of the NYC Meet Up social network, are just getting started. These locations, while still not scholastic classroom situations, seem promising. On a more cautionary note: the attempt to set up a series, as a volunteer for the PEN Writers-in-the-Schools program, at a “high needs” High School in Queens, was a failure. The scheduling near the end of the school term with a class totally unaccustomed to entering into authentic dialogues and a resistant “cooperating” teacher set on teaching poetry with rubrics, forced assignments, and worksheets, made implementing some semblance of the model impossible. A high school would need to be very progressive to support it.
This last experience made me focus: there are countless texts filled with tried and tested strategies, exercises, and assignments for teaching the craft of poetry that a teacher can impose on students with short notice (for example: see Behn and Twitchell’s The Practice of Poetry); employing the DCLPW, because it involves much more than poetry craft, will foment an apparently chaotic process; so early well-planned foundational work is critical. Students must understand and buy into the concept of mutually selecting DCLPW’s curriculum and exercises for any chance of success.
On a positive note: my personal experience and initial research tell me that this model is infused with concepts that are sound and that I have been working with (at a basic level) since my undergraduate days and increasingly since my first attempts at classroom teaching. In 2004, during my second year as an NYC Dept. of Ed. Teaching Fellow in a historically troubled South Bronx high school, I found myself in a class of freshman that had experienced a string of substitute English teachers since their original teacher quit several weeks prior. The students, many with emotional and behavioral problems (one diagnosed autistic) were all years behind in reading level. This was shortly after national No Child Left Behind policies were being adopted in NYC and I was handed Ramp-up to Literacy, a “research-based” prefabricated curriculum and instructed to deliver it and manage this surreally out of control class, where students abused each other beyond belief. A clique of the most dominant students had been torturing the autistic boy daily. To keep it short: the only thing that saved me and the class was stopping the whole show–essentially putting the curriculum aside for a couple of weeks since under those conditions it was useless–and entering into genuine individual and whole class dialogues that focused as much on who we were and what we were doing with each other as on what was mandated by the school.
Nothing helped their writing more than a consistent (assigned) exchange of letters with each student throughout the year since we rarely had the time or opportunity in class to actually communicate in wholesome integrated ways about learning and other classroom issues. As time went on, the Ramp-up to Literacy curriculum became my go-to for daily lesson planning (and I was grateful for it as a new teacher!), but alongside of it was the constant redirection whenever needed to the communication that was being generated in the room and the impact it was having on senders and receivers. I knew of several other Teaching Fellows who had tried their own variation on the let’s-can-the-curriculum-we-need-to-talk approach and failed miserably; with the ones who had some success, and I include myself, too often becoming exactly the kind of authoritarian indoctrination agents of the state that makes sleeping at night difficult. My hypothesis: with more work and practice, implemented correctly from the start, the DCLPW will make a strong and humane addition to the variety of workshop models that are proliferating throughout the U.S. and abroad. My immediate plans include more research and professional development to expand this paper into a publishable manuscript; I am also hoping to establish more workshops in a variety of community-based organizations and perhaps find a home for them in a college setting after a few years of practice.
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