I feel like I’ve been engaged in a pedagogical ancestry project recently — mapping my teaching forebears through generations.
In floods of professional books, blogs, Tweets, and chats, these ideals into which I have become so deeply entrenched sometimes lose their original source. Like a game of
educational Telephone, the message gets translated and retranslated, filtered through multiple voices and perspectives. I need the original message. I need to get back to the roots of this family tree.
I like to imagine Henry Louis Gates passing me books across my desk. “You got mentor texts from Katie Wood Ray,” he’d say, passing me Study Driven. “You got flash drafting from Lucy Calkins.” And then he’d pass me Learning by Teaching and A Writer Teaches Writing: “But your teaching bloodline begins here — Donald Murray.”
As I dive deep into Murray, as I get back to the roots, I am learning so much that I didn’t know I was missing.
Among the many, many aha moments I have had in my Murray-centered travels is the necessity of dedicating time for students to nurture ideas and gather information before any writing takes place. He writes, “Few teachers have ever allowed adequate time for prewriting, that essential stage in the writing process which precedes a completed first draft…Writing teachers, however, should give careful attention to what happens between the moment the writer receives an idea or an assignment and the moment the first completed draft is begun” (“Write Before Writing”, Learning by Teaching, 32).
So, with my students, I’ve been trying to linger here — to linger in the prewriting, the idea gathering, the information finding. I’ve been working to help students find the stuff of your writing to the point that, as Virginia Woolf said, the writing is “impending in me: grown heavy in my mind like a ripe pear; pendant, gravid, asking to be cut or it will fall” (“One Writer’s Canon – 1982”, Learning by Teaching, 50).
Today, I share just one foray into writing-before-writing. Information-gathering is a process, not a single activity. But this is one my students love and ask for again and again. While I call it a “silent seminar”, my seniors call it “writer’s telephone”.