My first encounter at Bard/IWT was with Alfie Guy at the Gatsby workshop. I remember texting my colleagues who were sitting in Superintendent’s Day meetings and saying, “ha ha, I’m talking about Gatsby with a guy who works at Yale.”
From the very first writing activity, I was entranced/hooked/stupefied/excited. I didn’t think it was possible to experience literature and writing in a completely new way, but alas, there I was writing about Gatsby in ways that had never occurred to me before. With each activity, I kept thinking about how I was going to use these new techniques with my students…immediately!
First day back from Gatsby, my students started talking to the text. The experience was magical. We began our conversation by examining snippets of George Orwell’s 1984 and Azir Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran. Using the IWT techniques, thirteen and fourteen year olds could suddenly access these difficult and distant texts.
The technique adapted from Alfie’s session: [I put a block of text from 1984 in the middle of a giant piece of paper, then guided students through various interactions with the text. (1. Read together 2. Male read 3. Female read 4. Mark words or phrases that speak to you 5. Number your top three words or phrases 6. Write about your number one, ending with a question 7. Exchange papers randomly 8. Comment on another student’s writing, ending with a question 9. Exchange 10. Exchange. 11. What did you learn?)]
The IWT techniques changed my thinking and my teaching. I had been trained to use study guide questions and quizzes to teach and assess students. Creative investigation and deep thought tended to be accidental and/or occasional occurrences. IWT changed that. IWT taught me how to open up texts to all of my students. In the 10 months since I attended my first IWT session with Alfie, I have used these methods with Advanced Placement students, with honors students, with co-taught students, with my colleagues and with graduate students. The techniques work everywhere.
Whether I’ve taught it before or not, I now approach each text with anticipation. I’m excited because I can’t wait to see what my students will discover by using the IWT techniques. Earlier this year, I was using the same technique that I mentioned above with Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. One of my students wrote:”The word, ‘wrought’ looks painful to me. I don’t know what it means, but it seems heavy and rough. It looks like it could hurt me. Why is Hawthorne’s diction so dark?”
The techniques that I have learned at Bard IWT are powerful and simple. I don’t need an annotated teacher’s guide; I don’ need CD ROMs and test banks; I don’t need study guides. I just need the texts, pens, notebooks, students who feel confident about engaging difficult texts and the methods that I learned from BARD IWT.