“Dead Skunks in the Middle of the Road.”
"That’s the focus. Look, if you feel you have nothing to write, then try to write about ‘Dead Skunks in the Middle of the Road’. Write for 5 minutes, just don’t stop, and try to focus on ‘Dead Skunks in the Middle of the Road’.”
And so I wrote.
As best as I can remember, the above is the exchange between Mark R. , my eleventh-grade American Lit. teacher, and his class on the day he introduced us to freewriting. The moment changed my life. I had always enjoyed writing, and over the course of my school career I had gotten rather good at it, this game of writing for the approval of my teachers and others. But Mark had done something entirely different here. I wasn’t writing for someone else. I was writing for myself, writing to see what I thought. The freedom was intoxicating.
When I graduated a year later, Mark gave me a copy of Peter Elbow’s Writing with Power. It changed my life and, by extension, the lives of thousands of my students.
In my first year of teaching seventh grade English, absent any undergraduate experience in teaching, my natural fall back was to have my student freewrite… a lot. From the time I had left high school I had steeped myself in the work of Peter Elbow and others in the freewriting camp, and my goals for my students were high: write everyday, two process pieces a marking period, conferencing, reading, peer editing… I was exhausted after the first semester. After the first year I was convinced I must have done something wrong because I was working way too hard at reading, revising, cajoling, conferencing. The thing was, the results were nothing less than phenomenal. So I had to find a balance.
And then, one day in September of 1994 (my second year of teaching), I came upon a flier from Bard College and the Institute for Writing and Thinking. Even at that early point in my career I had grown dismissive of most of the solicitations and fliers that came through my mailbox, but this flier was different. First was the name. How could a teacher throw away anything that purported to help us study and promote “Writing and Thinking”? However, it wasn’t until I looked at the section on the institute's history and spied Peter Elbow’s name mentioned that I knew I would be travelling some 350 miles round trip to see what this Institute had to offer. Now, almost two decades after I was first exposed to “Dead Skunks in the Middle of the Road”, after some eight IWT workshops, conferences, and classes wherein I’ve produced hundreds of pages of freewriting, dialectical notebooks, and loop writing…I can honestly say, I’ve never looked back. Even though I spend the majority of my days second-guessing and revising my lessons and strategies, there’s one thing I’ve never changed, and that is my belief in freewriting.
The strategies I’ve learned at Bard help my students discover what they know and how they know it--valuable information for anyone who wants to learn more. Additionally, because many of the strategies provide a record of students’ prior knowledge, I can tailor my lessons appropriately, differentiating learning when need be. But there is an even more valuable lesson that comes from the use of loop writing, dialectical notebooks, and the numerous forms of informal writing to learn strategies that fill our classroom. Through this type of writing, students come to understand the unbreakable connection between thinking and writing, and they learn, as one of my students put it, “…not just what to think, but how to think.”
Indeed, I hadn’t realized it until I finished reading the institute’s publication, Writing Based Teaching: Essential Practices and Enduring Questions, but my students and I are practicing an institute mantra: “All there is to thinking is seeing something noticeable which makes you see something you weren't noticing which makes you see something that isn't even visible” (Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It). In a middle school humanities class where observing, thinking about, and reacting to visual, musical, and other artistic texts takes center stage, the skills I’ve learned through the institute help us to see the invisible every day, and to think at a level that surprises us even more frequently.
And while the joy of such surprises is probably reason enough for me to continue attending the IWT, there is an even more important reason I return year after year—because no other professional development opportunity I’ve encountered in my two decades as an educator teaches me as much and provides me with the same kind of joy in discovery I seek for my students. A single example here will provide more than enough support.
Several years ago I was a student in a Writing to Read workshop called “The Sense and Science of Relativity.” The class utilized texts by Alan Lightman and Steven Hawking to explore the Einstein’s world changing discoveries and how knowledge of the science behind Relativity would help us better navigate the hugely important intersection between science and art. The class had cost me just over $100, six hours round-trip travel time, and approximately $75.00 in gas. By the end of the morning, after participating in freewrites and sharing them in a community of inquiry, I finally understood the importance of Einstein’s discovery. Sure, I had known what everyone knew (E=MC2 unlocked the power of he atom), but that morning I understood how he got there, and why it mattered. I repeated my thinking back to the class to make sure I truly did understand it and Alfie Guy, our leader, confirmed I was correct. Immediately I looked at those in the room, smiled, and said, “God, I’d spend another $100 just to have that feeling again.”
I’ve spent so much more than that over the years, but what I’ve received in return is, of course, priceless.