1- Developing Philosophy
Virginia Woolf writes that “Every secret of a writer’s soul, every experience of [their] life, every quality of [their] mind, is written large in [their] works.” Our syntax, diction, the placement of a comma, the structural elevation of one idea over another: all of this shows the experience we carry, the qualities of our mind that are nourished or unconsidered. Our passions and dreams, the arguments that we have in our minds and with our loved ones—and the argumentative strategies that prove effective in those encounters: all of this shines through in the way that we write, not simply in what we write.
Writing is a process, then, that takes extreme vulnerability, courage, truthfulness, and intention. To write, we must be willing to expose our truest voices—cluttered with complexity and the essential uncertainty that comes with figuring things out; we must be courageous enough to consider, declare, revise, and perhaps reconsider; we must be truthful enough to wade through our truths and then, while listening, hold to them in the face of every counter-argument; we must be intentional in every step of our process as writers—in other words, we must chart our course with goals, reflection, and patience, for, last, and truest in all of these endeavors, we know, too, that writing is work. It is hard work that requires both our best selves and our most complete, truest selves, and these two forces do not always run congruously.
We in Dublin’s English Department believe in intentionality and process. The process of teaching writing began with our own meetings as teachers who took our own souls, experiences, and qualities of mind and synthesized these into a philosophy. In order to practice the craft of writing and the craft of teaching writing, we must assert what we ourselves believe. As reflective practitioners, too, we must return to, revise, and remember the guideposts of what we believe.
In the simplest terms, we believe that our English Department’s mission is to guide developing writers in their process. It is not to manufacture writers, nor is it simply to polish writers in a stylized system of hitting five-paragraph-essay formulae. It is to experiment with formulae, learn new approaches, neglect formulae entirely, experiment with unknowing. It is to get messy. It is to learn not how to write alone—but how to develop philosophical, reading, listening, thinking, writing, reflecting, and community-building skills that will bolster a student’s ability to be a human in process, a citizen, and a courageous, vulnerable, truthful, intentional thinker who is willing to do hard work.
2 - Developing Readers
A student—a citizen—gains true power when they develop the ability to be discerning, the ability to be critical. We can only be critical if we recognize that we are part of a conversation. When we learn how to read, we develop a reciting voice, and we develop a conversational voice (Tovani). Sometimes, we learn the moves of reciting fluently, but we aren’t yet ready to undertake meaning. We can read a paragraph aloud in class and not understand the subtext. We can read a whole chapter and, when asked to recall what happened, grasp at a few murky images.
We work to empower our students to know that they are having a conversation with every text they read. We work to develop active readers rather than passive readers. We work to encourage our students to react, question, scrutinize, connect, wonder, predict. The more our students are rooted in an active conversation with a text, the more they will comprehend—and, too, the more critical conversations they will enter.
As students read, they annotate actively. This practice bolsters the developing conversation voice.
Strategies for Active Annotation:
- Underline key passages (passive) and then ...
- Look up new words.
- Write connections:
- Text to self
- Text to world
- Text to text (another novel, lyrics, stories)
- Write specific questions or reactions: “I do not understand this philosophy.” “I do not understand why he is doing this.” “I do not understand the jump from A to B. What happened to provoke that change?”
- Draw question marks when you are confused.
- Make lists in the margins.
- Write end-of-chapter summaries.
- Write end-of-chapter predictions (& make predictions throughout).
- Write personal reactions in your own voice: “Why would they DO that?” “Never saw that coming” “Noooooo!” “YIKES!” etc.
- ASK QUESTIONS about content, theme, character.
- Give each chapter a (new) title.
- Write the MAIN IDEA at the top of each page.
- Implement literary hashtags and @ conversations.
In nourishing the conversational voice in our readers, we are working on developing how we read; in addition to the how, the what matters, too. What we read gives us an opportunity to develop the kinds of conversations we have. We pride ourselves in developing curricula that exposes students to complex, diverse voices—both canonical and non-canonical alike.
As our departmental philosophy elaborates, “We draw on a wide variety of perspectives, genres, and styles of expression, including print, digital, audio, and visual sources. By engaging with texts that expand their sense of the language, students are equipped to enter conversations in multiple forms—literary, analytical, argumentative, experimental—and are challenged to do so.”
The underclassmen share a common reading experience, as, while secondary texts may vary, all freshmen and sophomores engage with the same central texts. Freshmen read texts from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet to Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye to Gail Tsukiyama’s The Samurai's Garden. Sophomores read Yukio Mashima’s The Sound of Waves, Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Tonto and the Lone Ranger Fist Fight in Heaven by Sherman Alexie, White Teeth by Zadie Smith, and more.
In the junior year, students’ central texts diverge based on course selection. English 11 students read work by Tim O'Brien, Sherman Alexie, Kurt Vonnegut, Toni Morrison, Ralph Waldo Emerson, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Junot Diaz, and Claudia Rankine, among others. AP English Language and Composition students read diverse voices that include but are not limited to: Katherine Boo, Truman Capote, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Maxine Hong Kingston. AP English Literature and Composition students read Shakespeare, James Baldwin, Barbara Kingsolver, Donna Tartt, and Michael Cunningham, among others. English 12 students read works by Chekhov, bell hooks, Jeanette Winterson, Alison Bechdel, and more.
Students leave Dublin having conversed deeply with thinkers and writers who challenge them to open themselves to complex thinking, persuasive argument, diverse voice and style, and, in all ways, new understandings of how to practice empathy.
The diversity of the curriculum is not enough. In our multicultural world, diversity is a given.
We need to examine diversity with the goal of developing inclusive citizens.
Irshad Manji, at the 2016 AISNE Diversity Conference keynote, stated that “that diversity becomes inclusion when we engage rather than assume; to engage with dignity, we must avoid making statements—we must ask questions, instead; and our students must learn to develop their moral courage for the sake of cross-cultural conversations.”
No matter what we read, no matter how familiar or foreign a concept or perspective, as English Teacher Alexander Scalfano describes, “we are ourselves revealed in literature, which is how it retains its relevance to our understanding of the objective world we live in.”
Learning how to be inclusive, means, in part, looking inward and recognizing shared humanity; simultaneously, it means looking outward and learning how to ask questions, have conversations, and explore our capacities for empathic action.
Jessica Lahey writes, in The New York Times’ “Teaching Children Empathy,” that “in order to be truly empathetic, children need to learn more than simple perspective-taking; they need to know how to value, respect and understand another person’s views, even when they don’t agree with them.”
The effects of reading, reflecting, and working to understand extend beyond the classroom. A student who is not in English 11 may still be a part of the critical conversation in which English 11 students find themselves; for example, a group of students reading Ta-Nehisi Coates started watching The Wire in the Wing and Hollow dormitory last year, and the academic conversations became residential life conversations. Students in the Self, Sexuality, and Society seminar share TED Talks and documentaries with friends, share parts of our collaborative “Found Poems,” and bring some of the questions we have about love, lust, and partnership to their own friend groups. Classroom conversations—which nourish reading as a both a critical labor and a source of joy and discovery—extend beyond. Reading becomes a critical labor and source of joy, too, when a student reads non-assigned work, when a group of students are critically examining advertisements or song lyrics, when a student explores the news in search of clarity, answers, and, always, more questions.
Mr. Scalfano says, “Because our department focuses so heavily on engaging with literature not just for content, but also as training in empathic perception, our students recognize that there is no straight path to mastery in the Humanities. Reading is itself a process that requires multiple forms of access and types of intelligence.”
3 - Developing Listeners
In The Empathy Exams, which Dublin’s AP English Language and Composition students read, Leslie Jamison writes, “Empathy isn’t just listening, it’s asking the questions whose answers need to be listened to. Empathy requires inquiry as much as imagination. Empathy requires knowing you know nothing. Empathy means acknowledging a horizon of context that extends perpetually beyond what you can see.”
Many English classrooms practice not just active listening but asking questions whose answers need to be listened to. Around harkness tables, students generate questions—either in advance of class or during discussions—and ask each other to examine the work we study with inquiry and imagination.
“We talk about messy discussions,” says English Department Chair Rachael Jennings. “We talk about not knowing answers. We talk about listening actively and leaning into our unknowing or ignorance. In learning to ask questions that engage with the truest murky spaces—whether close reading a poem, discussing ethical decision-making, or asking questions of human action whose answers may be difficult to unpack or even hear—we are engaging with our ability to empathize, our ability to listen and learn with moral courage.”
This practice in the discussion circle, ideally and for students willing to do the hard work of engaging, translates into written work, as well.
As Mr. Scalfano describes, “Great writers courageously observe and document the real and the imagined. They privilege connection, analysis, originality, and risk in their writing over form, tradition, and familiarity. Great writers prove impossible arguments, juggle volatile elements, and walk boldly into darkness.”
Great writers, then, are courageous empathizers. Great writers are great explorers.
Great writers—and, indeed, great thinkers—throw themselves into the unknown and uncomfortable.
Moira Kelly, President and Executive Director of EXPLO, uses inclusive debates in order to bolster not just students’ ability to create and sustain arguments, but to bolster their empathetic skills. In her work, she references Daniel Goleman’s scholarship on empathy. There are three kinds of empathy: cognitive Empathy, or, knowing how the other person feels and what they may be thinking; emotional empathy, or, feeling physically along with the other person as though the emotions are contagious; and compassionate empathy, or understanding a person's predicament and feeling those emotions but also being moved to help, if needed. Kelly's work with classroom debate strives to reach that highest level, compassionate empathy, ideally, while intentionally centering goals around the first. We at Dublin follow her principles. In any class discussion, we must operate with two principles:
- We start from the underlying premise that human beings are inherently worth respecting.
- We want to say, "Help me understand you" instead of "I don't understand" or "I disagree."
If, in a small class, everyone participates, respectful disagreement is expected, and everyone feels shared responsibility for the quality of the discussion, the quality of the discussion becomes richer. At this level, students learn to disagree, to hear, to truly think, and, ideally, to empathize.
Jamison writes, too, that “Empathy isn't just something that happens to us—a meteor shower of synapses firing across the brain—it's also a choice we make: to pay attention, to extend ourselves. It's made of exertion, that dowdier cousin of impulse. Sometimes we care for another because we know we should, or because it's asked for, but this doesn't make our caring hollow. This confession of effort chafes against the notion that empathy should always rise unbidden, that genuine means the same thing as unwilled, that intentionality is the enemy of love. But I believe in intention and I believe in work. I believe in waking up in the middle of the night and packing our bags and leaving our worst selves for our better ones.”
We at Dublin believe in intention and work.
We believe in the choice of empathy.
We believe in packing our bags and leaving our worst selves in the knowledge that to get to our best selves, we have to listen, make choices, and think about how we are perpetually revising.
4 - Developing Thinkers
Part of developing real thinking is developing comfort in failure-rich environments.
“In my creative writing poetry class, ‘failure’ is a constant,” notes Mr. Scalfano. “The transition from academic writing to creative writing is a challenging one and many students struggle vigorously with the endless amount of approaches to writing a ‘good’ poem. This fall term alone there have been several poetry submissions, which ultimately ‘failed’ to achieve what they intended to achieve because of a variety of factors such as: lack of imagistic clarity, emotional vagueness, an overcommitment to abstractions, etc. The thing about failure in poetry, and indeed all art, is that it is necessary and often times more revealing than ‘success.’ Poems often don't land in their first drafts. That's why we revise. Every time a student puts everything they have into a poem, breaking every stylistic and physical ‘rule’ they have encountered in poetry, that is a successful poem, even if poem ultimately fails to achieve its intention.”
Mr. Scalfano’s observations extend beyond the poetic realm. Thoughts often don’t land in their first drafts, too, and to be courageously developing thinkers, we must fail.
Failure, in its way, brings us closer to success and closer to empathy.
“We must be willing to take academic risks in order to reach new levels of authentic discovery, playfulness, and precision,” says Ms. Jennings. “What we risk in our questions, we gain in fulfillment. The same is true for how we question each other and ourselves, and, with that risk, failure is always an option. But so is discovery. So is joy.”
We want students to be emboldened to take those healthy, inquiry-driven risks: as writers, as empathetic citizens.
The Dublin thinker is in process; the Dublin thinker is empathetic; the Dublin thinker is becoming better through failure, through stretching, through the messy journey of finding and re-finding, reaching, falling, reaching again.
“The words bonanza, mutton, blandishment, enamel, mojito, and the fish known as the blenny all derive from a common ancestor,” says Mr. Walters. “Somewhere, far off, a hand moves toward an apple just a bit higher in the branches. The good writer need not know; but his mouth waters; he reaches; he falls.”
5 - Developing Writers
English teacher Sophia Rabb describes Dublin writers are “curious, cheeky, and bold.”
English teacher Jon Phinney calls them “serious, focused, and determined.”
Ms. Jennings calls Dublin writers “at their best, brimming with authentically articulated questions, revolutionary in the force and structural necessity of their feeling, and bold in their arguments.”
Mr. Scalfano says, “The Dublin writer is most concerned with depth of thought and feeling.”
Of course, a Dublin writer is many things. A Dublin writer, at their best and most engaged, is all of these things. But what we care about most deeply is that a Dublin writer is engaged in their process.
As writer-in-residence and English teacher Henry Walters notes, “The quickest way to leg it around the baseball diamond is not in right angles. At their best, [Dublin] students find themselves taking wide turns in their writing: working out an argument from the point of view of its opponent, say, or expanding a personal memoir into something more than merely personal.”
At best, a Dublin writer is taking wide turns in their thinking, listening, reading, writing, and reflecting. A Dublin writer is “working out” an argument rather than simply having it, simply knowing what must be argued.
A Dublin writer is in process.
Mr. Scalfano elaborates, in saying, “We break up the essays we assign into multiple drafts and focus on different aspects of the writing process in each draft. We also diversify the type of writing we do, sometimes focusing on analytical writing and other times on expressive reflection. Students share in this experience with one another during discussion and peer review and show each other the diverse number of ways to find real success as a writer.”
Writing assignments vary in the many ways that they urge students to stretch.
- After reading To Kill a Mockingbird, freshmen write about modern-day Mockingbirds.
- Sophomores conduct research papers on post-colonial theory.
- Juniors write “How To” manuals inspired by O’Brien’s “How to Tell a True War Story.”
- AP English Language and Composition students write synthesis essays on race, racism, and critical race theory.
- AP English Literature and Composition students write sonnets; write critical essays on Hamlet using feminist theory, queer theory, and psychoanalytic theory; write proofs of their own existence.
- New Play Lab students adapt myths and stories to new forms as they write their own play, which will be performed in the spring term.
Assignments are difficult and time-consuming.
Mr. Walters gives variations on one writing assignment that, in his words, “pains and delivers”: “defend one of the following outrages: that King Lear is a happy play; that The Seagull is, as Chekhov himself proposed, a comedy; that The Trial makes for hilarious out-loud reading. Contrariety and paradox, rude instruments, estrange us from our own scruples. Warming to the task, we find the art of our necessities is strange; our curses, praise; the bitter, sweet.”
With the presented challenge, students are tasked with diving in and engaging with the unknown. They are tasked with, as Mr. Walters says, “warming to the task.”
Take the sophomore research paper on postcolonial theory, for instance.
“This assignment is very challenging because the concept of postcolonialism is such a high level academic concept with a tremendous amount of research available for students to sift through,” says Mr. Scalfano. “Students find success and understanding in this assignment when they do the work to break down the academic language into their own vernacular and distill the concepts down to the truly important base understandings. Often times, students struggle with this because they expect what they are asked to read to be designed for them when in fact most non-literary writing they will engage with after college is written with a very particular academic audience in mind. The act of translation has a steep learning curve, but students always rise to the challenge and are so excited about the moment when this difficult and supremely important concept is illuminated for them.”
“Tenacity, perseverance, a full engagement with the difficulty of a given assignment” are qualities that Mr. Phinney says make a successful writer at Dublin. “Most writing assignments can be done to meet minimum expectations, but those students who push themselves to say something unique, that is true to their experience of a text, or life, or an imagined space, are the ones who really grow; they develop a capacity to reflect on a deeper, more resonant level.”
No one essay prompt reflects this. No one piece of writing can reflect this as a whole.
It is those students who push themselves through every process who find more resonance, reflection, and, in the end but not as an endpoint, success.
“All of the greatest writers in the English language seek clarity above all else. Joy and discovery are the only byproducts they expect from the alchemy of writing,” says Mr. Scalfano.
If a student is willing to push their capacity for empathy, their struggle to reach clarity, and their tenacious willingness to engage with complexity, that student will find joyful discovery. More, that student will find that joyful discovery in writing is an unfolding gift, where one discovery unfurls into another—or, better yet—where one discovery unfurls into a new problem or complexity to question, explore, and work to understand.
6 - Developing Reflective Practitioners
“I tell my students that in order to become better readers, writers, thinkers, and, in essence, citizens, they must be reflective practitioners,” says Rachael Jennings, English Department Chair. “Some of the language we use in our classrooms centers around ‘noticing your trends,’ ‘finding what works for you, then finding what works better,’ and ‘recognizing your role in the process.’ It’s truly all about process.”
Some of the guideposts that Ms. Jennings uses for students who are receiving feedback, revising their work, and actively developing their craft include:
Be critical while empowered to learn and grow.
Recognize your potential: you are a developing thinker, writer, reviser, and editor. You can make changes. You know yourself best, but be open to the possibility that you can surprise yourself.
Be patient, intentional, authentic, and playful.
What does this look like in classrooms at Dublin? What does it look like to be an active practitioner? For one, it means that students become self-aware and empowered to work with their own improvement points. We cultivate a culture where students can recognize, prioritize, and pursue the feedback they have received from their teachers; but more, we cultivate a culture where students can, in their own drafting processes, recognize their greatest strengths and make them sing and recognize their improvement points and zoom in on those, too.
When students receive their essays, they often engage in a post-writing reflection process. The process has three crucial steps: first, students read their own essays—sans comments—and write a brief reflection on what they see: their strengths, their improvement points, the progress they have made with previous feedback; second, the class synthesizes some of the major issues they see in their own writing and, together, develops a document with major trends and corresponding fix-it strategies—for instance, for the trend “awkward phrasing,” we might write, “read your work aloud to a friend;” and third, the class receives teacher feedback, reads through all of the comments, and adds to a document with notes from each previous assignment that details strengths, improvement points, and next action steps.
“Our students chart their own improvement points, write cover letters to their peer reviewers about trends that would like to strengthen, take each others' writing seriously, and focus on the growth mindset in writing,” elaborates Ms. Jennings. “We work hard to celebrate their voices and progress, but we are also candid with them about the process that writing is—that though a final product may be polished and linear, the work of getting to that place is rarely neat and tidy and rarely linear.”
When students reflect on their practice, just as they would for learning a new instrument or working to beat a personal record in a sport, they know what to isolate, what to work harder, when and how to work differently. Writing is a non-linear process: there is no easy solution, there is no formula; however, when a student engages with their strengths and improvement points, they become thoughtful workers who can use both to ameliorate their current strategies and products to the next step. There is always a next step.
7 - Developing Community
It is not uncommon to observe students cozied up by the Lehmann fireplace, multicolored pens and printed essay pages scattered under compassionately scrutinizing eyes. Nor is it uncommon to see students in the dorm room asking each other for help listening through a paragraph from a college essay draft or conclusion of a research paper on post-colonial literature. Students claim spaces around campus: on the lunch table by the theatre, in the hallway of the FAB, in the cozy chairs in the Periodical Room. But, when it comes time for major assignments, drafts and revised drafts become the center, and, surrounded by peers who are generous, critical, and kind with their feedback, any room becomes a study.
In addition to the informal, impromptu spaces that students create, we have a Writing Center with tutors who are eager, invested, and interested in helping their peers. Our twelve tutors volunteer 45 or 90 minutes a week to designating Writing Center sessions, where students may elect to drop in or are nominated to work on specific projects by advisors, teachers, or Learning Specialists.
In the first six Writing Center sessions alone, over twenty students attended for individualized support from student writing tutors. Those students who have elected to attend have enjoyed the positive atmosphere that tutors foster; a number of those students who have been nominated by a faculty member have reported that they want to return, or even that they want the Writing Center to open more hours in its schedule.
In order to prepare for the Writing Center sessions, the twelve tutors engaged in a two-session evening training, wherein they brainstormed potential angles to approach a successfully supportive session, potential conflicts that might arise, and potential revision strategies for common writing errors.
One of our guiding principles for tutoring comes from Rutgers University in their publication called “The Task;” we, too, agree with the philosophy presented: “‘Making the student do all the work’ has become the mantra of what is called ‘minimalist tutoring,’ [...]. The idea of the minimalist model is that the writing tutor should not be a proofreader, fact-checker, editor, ghostwriter, collaborator, or human thesaurus. In the minimalist model, the writing tutor is a mentor, coach, or task master who guides students through the process of revision and helps keep them focused on the project at hand by breaking it down into smaller and more manageable tasks” (Goeller and Kalteissen).
Dublin’s adopted version of the tutoring principles outlined in “The Task” are as follows:
Expectations for Writing Tutors (with respect to “The Task”):
Be positive and encouraging.
Be friendly but do not socialize.
Cut the talking—get the student writing.
If a student is panicked—about a deadline, for instance—help guide the conversation toward the long-term. Remind the student that this is a process.
Keep tasks authentic—there is no formula. And use your resources: (if applicable) teacher feedback, the student’s self-assessment, and the writing sample.
Do not try to address everything at once. Break it down.
For example, working with ideas before form makes sense.
Consider what the writer sees as their/his/her own improvement points? Where does this person’s interest and motivation lead?
“Supplement and don’t supplant” the teacher. Support the teacher’s work with this student. If you have clarifying questions for the teacher, we can figure out a plan together.
Teach the writer, not the writing. We are not working to create the perfect paper—rather, we are here to empower better writers.
In the process of working together to develop better writers rather than better writing, everyone learns. Everyone benefits.
The process is about more than writing, too: it is about empowerment and energy.
Writing Tutor Devyn Itula notes that one of her most meaningful sessions with her co-tutor Mia involved helping another student brainstorm for an essay. She notes that the session “helped the student not only to finish his essay but also to feel confident in what he wrote.” In addition, “it provided [Devyn and Mia] with inspiration to write their own papers and really was a fun work session.”
Writing Tutor Robbie Bostrup sums it up well in saying, “Being able to help others with their writing not only makes them a better writer, but also makes me a better writer.” Tutor Mia Brady elaborates in noting that “working with others has inspired [her] on ways to relook [her] own writing, especially during the final revising and editing process.”
We are constantly revising: what we believe, what we think we know, what we want to understand; how we see ourselves, how we see our world; how we process, how we problem-solve, how we fight against failures of imagination as we press into the issues and conflicts that matter most to us; how we learn, unlearn, and relearn new ways to solve what demands solution; how we question, how we explore, how we discover.
Sometimes, the prompts and problems we face demand radical revision, radical re-imagination, radical re-visioning.
We in the Dublin English Department are invested in developing writers, yes.
But, more, we are interested in developing revisors who will pursue their questions with empathy, vulnerability, courage, truthfulness, and, along their journeys—in this, our shared conversation—know that they are empowered to listen and learn: to know that they have a place at the table, to know that the conversation, in an exciting and terrifying way, is always just beginning.
Goeller, Michael and Karen Kalteissen. The Task. Rutgers University Writing Program. New Brunswick, New Jersey: 2008.
Jamison, Leslie. The Empathy Exams: Essays. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Graywolf Press, 2014. Print.
Lahey, Jessica. “Teaching Children Empathy.” The New York Times. 4 September 2014. Web. 19 November 2016.
Tovani, Cris. I Read it But I Don’t Get It: Comprehension Strategies for Adolescent Readers. Portland, Me. Stenhouse Publishers, 2000.