Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Writing To Learn and Inquire Through Difficult Texts. Inspired by a Philosophy Educator at a Community College

On Monday, I visited Housatonic Community College to show teaching support for Ed Fians, a philosophy educator who participated in the 2016 Invitational Leadership Institute of the Connecticut Writing Project. Ed has one of those minds we all wish we had and his creativity, innovation, thirst for truth, and inquisitiveness for ideas leaves most he interacts with inspired.

He participated with CWP-Fairfield because he wanted to tune the writing instruction he offers his non-traditional students, especially in a tough course on ethics. During the summer, he worked on a Woulda/Shoulda scenario, where he wanted to design a prompt that would get his students interacting with difficult texts as they apply decision making to scenarios of choosing right or wrong.

After the 1.5 hour observation, I said, "I'm totally stealing this for my graduate course on teaching writing." Why? I couldn't believe the engagement of his students: youth fresh out of a wide variety of high schools, mothers returning to school, career men trying to advance their intellectual knowing, English language learners improving their English, and workers wanting to find the next step for their life. If it is in the world, it was in his class.

And Ed Fians was teaching Foucault - Panopticism, of all things, where the students read about the plague and the history of prison systems. He had the students write in, "Would you rather live a life under total surveillance 24 hours a day for safety, or live free for ten years, no surveillance, but knowing you would only live ten years?" His students, like my graduate students, were divided about 60/40 on what they would choose. The debate was a precursor to the reading.

In my observation, I acknowledged that he had 100% engagement the entire time and I asked him why this was. He said, "It's the writing. I changed that this year. The students expect it, they get personal with it, and it helps them to connect to the texts we're exploring."

I decided I would do an experiment with my graduate students by offering the same prompt and giving them a selection to read (this is a Developmental Reading course for pre-service teachers). Gallagher notes that writing to learn means we have youth think through the difficult texts we assign. He speculates that a first reading will offer limited comprehension, but a second will bring a little more. He acknowledged that writing about the learning, however, emphasizes even more comprehension. This worked for 11 of my 12 students. They write their way into understanding the text.

I asked my graduate students what writing has to do with inquiry and knowing. They speculated a number of ideas, and then a French teacher said, "Writing is everything for knowing." Everything was my answer, too. From there we brainstormed projects for the course and tuned the questions we wanted to ask to guide students towards written outcomes that were pertinent to their writing objectives for students.

I owe a round of applause to Ed Fians for bringing summer learning to life and implication to the classroom - National Writing Project implication. When his students left they said, "Professor, why aren't we writing our way out of the room today?" He's created a culture of effective practices. He ran out of time, but they expected it.

"Writing," said Ed. "Writing is the secret. The engagement comes from the prompts. It takes more time away from my direct instruction, but the benefits far surpass any other way of doing this work."

In the classroom, K-12 students are expected to push difficult reading onto kids and to scaffold ways for them to interact with such text. Most simply assign. For Ed's students, and for my graduate students, however, a text isn't a text with new ideas until there's opportunity to write about and with the them.

And there it is. I'm kicking off my Wednesday with a bit of an Ed Fian-inspired jig. I want everyone to have the opportunity to take his class.

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