Thursday, February 21, 2013

Helping Students Inhabit Textual Houses

(This is something I wrote for writing teachers.)
Some years ago I spent a great deal of time looking at houses with a real estate agent. After awhile I noticed that each house visit tended to follow its own particular ritual. On this particular day the agent pulled up to the house and headed toward the front door, muttering: “The lock box should be around here somewhere…”
            The lock box was usually attached to the electric meter. She found it, unlocked the box, and removed the house key. The first door was a glass storm door. She pulled it open and used the key to open the front door. It was dark inside.
            “Let’s see,” she said, reaching around to the right. “There should be a light switch right here.”
            Sure enough there was. As a house-savvy agent, she knew that for safety reasons building codes require easy access to light switches upon entering a house. She flipped on several lights until we can see enough to get our bearings. I glanced at the living room on the right, the den on the left, and a stairway straight ahead of me.
            “I figure the kitchen should be right through there,” she said.
            “Do you think that door leads to the basement?” I asked, pointing.
            “Probably,” she replied.
            The first few times I felt awkward and alien entering a stranger’s house.  But after going through the same ritual, over and over, I soon knew what to expect. Soon I found that I could anticipate the features of each house I entered. Occasionally I’d find a surprise—the fireplace in the kitchen, the lavish hot tub in the middle of the living room—but most houses followed a predictable structure determined by cost, efficiency, building codes, and common sense.
            Our students live in word houses. Many of them would choose to live in video houses, or houses of sound, but in school we expect them to spend hundreds and hundreds of hours dwelling in texts. By “texts” I don’t mean spoken language. I mean reading and writing. 
Are our students comfortable living in the textual world? Some may be but surely many students are not. They stumble blindly into word houses (whether in reading or writing), unsure of themselves, feeling their way through the darkness.  They bang their shins against stairs, crashing against railings, tripping on risers that are invisible in the dark. They feel disoriented, anxious, perhaps even a little bit panicked. Look at the body language exhibited by these students during the act of writing:
*She slinks low in her desk.
*He awkwardly encompasses the sheet of paper with his whole right arm, covering it so that nobody can read what he has written.
*He writes, bites his pencil, erases a word, writes, erases until there is a hole in the paper. Then he gets up, sighing loudly, crumples his paper, and stuffs it into the trash.
Many students don’t look comfortable reading, either. My stepson, Adam, devoured fantasy novels, the longer the better. But he discovered that school was full of required readings. He had very little choice about which textual world he inhabited, and how he could occupy that space. 
I remember one day when I helped him decipher a difficult poem by Conrad Aiken. I thought of his bedroom. He would never allow me to barge in and tell him where to put a poster, where to position his stereo in that personal space. Yet he looked passive, dispirited, as we tried to climb into this poem. Finally he sighed in exasperation and cried: “Just tell it what it means!”
            Most students look ill-at-ease as they slink through the textual houses we provide for them. If they aren’t comfortable inhabiting these dwellings, how can they learn?
            The word comfortable has a suspiciously laid-back feel to it, one that feels out of step with today’s educational climate where rigor is the operative word. Comfortable makes me picture overstuffed pillows, thick rugs, beanbag chairs. But I believe that being comfortable is more than window-dressing. I believe it’s a crucial condition for all language learners. How can we make the classroom a place where students can become comfortable as they think their way into the new, challenging textual worlds we provide for them?
            For me being comfortable starts with wearing the right clothing. In my closet there are certain shirts, loose slacks, and cotton sweaters I think of as “writing clothes”. They feel good against my skin. I have found that I when I am physically comfortable I can be myself. Being myself is an essential reference point if I am going to write well. And it is crucial if I hope to write with any kind of voice.
            To feel comfortable I require a familiar place: my office, or certain airy and well-lighted public places. Now I am almost ready to begin.  Like most writers I have developed a particular routine, a personal writing ritual (mine involves great quantities of coffee) that allows me to smoothly enter the textual world and stay there.
            Helping students live comfortably in the textual world begins with creating true community in the classroom. (Many other educators have explored this topic. I particularly like Life In A Crowded Place by Ralph Peterson.) Here’s an eclectic list of some ways you can help your students feel more comfortable as readers and writers.
*Create a more beautiful place. Norman Mailer once wrote an essay in which he argued that the very architecture of urban housing projects represents a kind of violence to the people who live there. No wonder, he said, these structures so often get vandalized and defaced by graffiti. In a similar way, many teachers are recognizing the need to transform the unattractive rooms in which children read and write and breathe. 
A truly comfortable place recognizes that each student is different and will use the space in his or her own particular way. Some kids like to work at their desks. Other kids need more space and choose to write/read at a big wooden table. Still others want to lie on their stomachs with a clipboard, or sit in a rocking chair, or on a couch.
*Build on familiar texts.  Many teachers fall back on the familiar novels, tried-and-true writing assignments. Over the years we become so comfortable dwelling in these texts they begin to feel like old friends. These texts may be comfortable to us, though not necessarily to students. It’s easy to forget that our students, who are entering these textual worlds for the first time, may not feel nearly so comfortable.
Nancie Atwell says she often begins the school year by asking her 7th and 8th graders to return to a book they have read before. This is like visiting an old friend or relative. Students who have already inhabited a particular book can bring a wealth of prior knowledge to the new reading. They will feel more comfortable rereading it than they would walking into a brand new textual house.
*Encourage kids to keep a writer’s notebook.  My colleague Artie Voigt says that the notebook is a “low-risk, high-comfort place in which to write.” The writer’s notebook is a place where students can write in a safe place. This is a personal place where you can loosen your tie, stretch out, and take off your shoes. This is a place where we can write without any danger of ridicule, judgment, or grades—the great killers of comfort. 
“I think writing notebooks are important because kids are very comfortable writing in them,” says Franki Sibberson, a teacher in Ohio and author of Day to Day Assessment in Reading Workshop (Scholastic). “And because they are comfortable, they produce good writing. And then, when they go to craft a piece, they have lots of writing to start with. Once they have a notebook, they never stare at a blank page again. They can always find somewhere to start by looking at past entries.”
*Think about language. In her book Going Public (Heinemann), Shelley Harwayne says that the way to transform a school is to look at the language we use to talk to students. She asks her teachers to talk to each student as if the teacher’s words are being broadcast over the loudspeaker to the entire community.


  1. Dear Mr. Fletcher,
    I often tell my students to "write" to an author who has inspired you! While truth be told, you have inspired me for MANY, MANY years, this morning, as I read this blog post, I really felt you were talking to me and inspiring me on a mission to create more comfortable, student centered writing workhops! Like the great mentor of writing you are, you inspired my own thinking and writing this morning.

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