Writing and Revision – to Re-see

Thanks to Clay Burell for asking me to consider finishing this entry.

As part of our Community Connections work this year we published an anthology of student writing. The anthology included the writing of every member (but one) of the junior class, and each student was asked to revise a piece of writing until their teacher/facilitators (or I) thought that was ready to publish. We did not have any standards in place for what was publishable besides these:

  • Each narrative was in three parts.
  • Each part reflected a different perspective of an experience that they had in their work on a social justice problem or initiative.
  • The narrative was to be free of spelling, punctuation, and grammar errors

For background, the Community Connections assignments and reflections are here.

There were some interesting things that this assignment showed me.

Working with colleagues: while the assignment was based on the style of Dos Passos or Steinbeck (we all read Grapes of Wrath), we had different ideas about what exemplifies the intercalary voice. I think that asking students to write in “the style” of Steinbeck is fine, but as to criticize them because they are not “Steinbecky” enough leaves me puzzled. In addition, we are deeply divided about whether or not grades are a motivating factor for student writing. I argue that students want to look good in the eyes of their peers and that publication is a public enough forum to raise the bar on student performance. In addition, the conversations that I had with students (using Google docs) about their writing was intense in many cases. I made the conscious choice not to ask students to “rewrite” but to “look again” at their writing. (Thanks to my colleague George Drury for the linguistic connection of rehearsal – to re-hear something and revision – to re-see it.)

Some of the group leaders were not satisfied with the narratives until the students did exactly what they asked for in a revision. “You still haven’t done what I asked,” or “You didn’t make the changes that I want,” were comments that I saw on more than on occasion. I think that this was less than helpful to student writers trying to find their voice.

As the only member of the team that read all of the submissions, I can say that part of the problem with the “Steinbecky” nature of the assignment is that some students were/are not developmentally ready to see the Big Picture. They can not extrapolate from their experience to understand how it is an example of a larger issue. Some of them could not understand why they had to be outside on a cold day. Others are ready and able to empathize and make larger connections to the city and the world beyond the school borders.

A couple of examples of those that have reached beyond concrete-operational in their development.

Regarding women in the world: “The women’s battle in the 21st century therefore is not one against the government, rather against a way of thinking. For example, in the case of Democrat Hillary Clinton, a woman that has gotten involved in what has formerly been a male dominated race. Though the fact that a women running for president is a wonderful idea as it shows the remarkable progress America has made, the ridiculous criticisms she receives regarding her actions as a woman are what truly show America’s inability to rise to the occasion of having a woman as president. An ice queen or an emotional wreck, Clinton is continually ridiculed. If Americans could only think of women in a brighter light, as an integral part of our society that adds depth, strength, intelligence and so much more to our American character, then maybe the women’s fight for equality would no longer be a fight but instead a reality.”

Regarding class and the drug war : From his spot on the other side of the glass, the zookeeper watched the lion pace about the cage. Its steps were regal and grave, its golden mane brilliantly catching the light as it surveyed its territory with a haughty air…. Gradually their eyes were drawn together, their gaze made mutually contemptuous by familiarity. Both blamed one another for the glass wall, believing the other to be the causer of its existence while wanting nothing more than to smash it into a thousand shimmering flakes.

The lion averted its honey-flecked eyes and stared at the translucent wall, as did the zookeeper. Both hated the thing. It was an illusion to create a sense of nearness when they knew all it did was divide, its transparency the only difference between it and the fences and chains. The lion hated the wall for its denial freedom. The zookeeper hated the wall for its perceived necessity. Both hated it as a surrender to the belief that they could not live peaceably together.

Hatred is an affair of the heart; contempt that of the mind. And so the lion paced and the zookeeper watched, both hungering for the day when the fury of their hearts could join to shatter the barrier and undo the divisions of their minds.

A couple of writers who are not there yet:

On meeting with the city about homelessness: We walked off the train and were met with gale force winds. While the walk was only five minutes or less, it felt like an eternity. When we finally arrived, a man who seemed like an assistant of some sort welcomed us. It was a sort of surprising atmosphere, not quite what I would expect from a city of Chicago politician. She had some people in her office before us, and we filed into the narrow hallway outside her office. Why was everywhere we went so small? Not long after we arrived, we were told to enter. Her office was similar to the conference room we were in all morning; there was a table with chairs surrounding it. There weren’t enough chairs, so we gave them to those who intended on talking, while the rest of us hugged the walls.

On learning about AIDS and GLBTQ issues: After we had gotten the conventional questions out of the way, he talked on tangents about anything and everything for the two hours or so we were there. This is quite literal, from designated drivers to how it’s possible to catch an STD in your bum. But I digress. Eventually we had to leave and grab some lunch, but on the way out at least he explained the mural even if I can’t remember it now as I write this.
We stopped for Mexican food (which would come up to my dismay later on), but at the moment it was just what everyone needed. In the background of the restaurant there a TV that played incredibly strange programming, Spanish soap operas, and incredibly weird music videos, none of which I had the slightest comprehension of. For the first time in my life I had authentic horchata, and it was possibly one of the most delicious drinks which helped when it took us so long to find the guacamole, and all the chips I ate were topped with hot sauce. Lesson learned from the day however is, don’t be negative if your original plans go astray, and never eat burritos and rice milk if you have to spend the rest of the day with other people.

So we asked a lot of them, and for the most part they gave us their best work. Some students were only able to write about their experiences in the concrete – what I did/ate/saw – and others were able to look at how what they did connects to what we all do. It was impressive to read all of their narratives. We published the anthology as a paperback using the amazing folks at WordPro in Ithaca, NY. I called it Common Air, taken from Song of Myself by Walt Whitman:

These are really the thoughts of all men in all ages and lands, they
are not original with me,
If they are not yours as much as mine they are nothing, or next to
If they are not the riddle and the untying of the riddle they are
If they are not just as close as they are distant they are nothing.

This is the grass that grows wherever the land is and the water is,
This the common air that bathes the globe.

And you know what? Each student got a copy, and I didn’t find ONE in the trash.

3 Comments Add yours

  1. cburell says:


    What a tasty closing shot of Uncle Walt. Nice way to start the morning.

    I love both of the first two pieces you shared, seriously; those two seem to have a writer in them, don’t they? And the inclusion of the “concrete-operational” ones for contrast has the seeds of a discussion on writing right there.

    I feel your pain re: the squelching some colleagues mistake for teaching, but like your modeling of the mentoring role. When we play constructive audience with our students instead of bosses, we give them room to grow instead of obey.

    Hope you’re well.

  2. Kate Tabor says:

    Good morning, Clay –
    I lean on Uncle Walt regularly to keep me in mind of my place in the universe.
    The first two pieces are by students with a real writer in them. The piece about the lion was preceeded by an excoriating narrative about priviledge that made me both laugh and cringe.

    Here’s the interesting thing about the last piece. It was written by a student with enormous native talent; he is, however, not making the analytic connections here that come with abstract thinking – ALTHOUGH I see that abstract thinking in class and whenever the assignment requires symbolic or graphic analysis.

    The challenge comes when we try to “grade” all four sudents. Using what yardstick? and why?

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