Sunday, July 19, 2009

LWP Academic Piece (w/ syllabus for Clouds 101)

Writing for Week 2: Academic and Anthology
ON CLOUDS, by Helen Brandenburg

Twenty-three years and . . .

I have never felt comfortable grading writing of any kind . . . unless I am checking narrow and trivial things, such as the inclusion of an appropriate and clear context clue in a sentence on a vocabulary quiz. In such cases, I take that stack of papers, tamp them into a neat pile, and have at it. No moral dilemmas—no doubts about my ability to judge the worth of the work. Also, students have no trouble either. The grade is clear and indisputable. Right as rain. Fair as fair. What I see is what they get.

Any real expression of thought is an entirely different matter. Even when I have armed them and me with an air-tight rubric, I still dread putting a grade (and, in my school, that is a number) on someone else’s brain-child. The only easy paper to grade is the “no brainer”—quite literally, one produced without the use of student brains . . . the paper that ignores the prompt or the one that goes nowhere quickly.

Imagine grading a history exam essay as a graduate assistant. You are told to look for five specific points in the essay. If these points are there--early American flags, stars and stripes, Betsy Ross, Philadelphia, George Washington—then the student earns five points: check, check, check, check, check. Maybe one point off for Filadelfia.

Confession: I have never graded this way in 23 years. I agonize. I hate the process. Sure, I struggle to be fair and helpful but I still find the whole process daunting. My temperament is best suited to holistic grading (excellent, good, fair, weak, what-in-the-world-were-you-thinking). I add what I think will be helpful comments. I require revision of targeted features of each paper. However, last year, because of what I perceived to be administrative nudges, I locked myself and my students into teacher-made rubrics. Trying to support my students, I sentenced myself to prison . . . they did time in the next block.

In the best of all possible student worlds, no writing should be graded. Writing should be read. This I know. This I gut feel. A real paper would be read, commented on, and then returned . . . just the way my fellow poets do for each other.

Last week, I shared an Institute prose piece with my friend MFA Carol, who put little checks where things were working, short questions where things were dubious, a few punctuation / grammar alerts, but, best of all, one short observation that cut to the heart of the draft. She said that, in it, I promised passion but only delivered lyric remembrance. Now, that’s not the way to treat an audience. So what had I left out? The heart of the matter, of course.

And, of course, I could not immediately “fix” the paper. Why? Because writing, unlike elementary punctuation, is not simple. So why do we expect our students to rush revisions?

My method is to live with drafts, a long time if possible. . . to carry them in my head, to sleep on them (sometimes literally), and, if I’m lucky, to wake up to the solution of some nagging problem.

Driving down Interstate 526 on my way to town and the Institute has a way of clearing my mind, probably because I physically arc into space as I cross the Wando bridge in morning. The world is fresh and new; the view is long. My brain likes this. It does not like a computer lab.

Sometimes, I tell my students I want to teach Clouds 101. My room is roof top, high and flat and is furnished with trees, flowers, paths, and comfortable lawn chairs . . . here we practice the daydream. This is our lab. Its sister course is held at night, Star Gazing 201. Of course, there are also field trips in my ideal school (they are much like a Writers Marathon) . . . and a library, with high ceilings and leather chairs, where we can sit and read, with others near, but in silence. . . except for the plash of fountain. Also, cloisters for peripatetic seminars. A gymnasium, with pool and sauna. We could call this place Alexandria Prep. Looks like I need a time machine . . . and wax tablets.

All this because I hate to grade papers. I seriously doubt that Plato used red ink to write numbers on student work. What’s wrong with us anyway?

My friend Dan of AP History says our American system of education is a product of the Industrial Revolution—in particular, mass production. My daughter adds that our system is designed to teach citizens to sit in offices for eight hours. Students are units of product spit out by the Factory of Education, which totally ignores what I see as simple requirements for learning. Let me list a few:

1. Safety (a non-violent, non-threatening, yet challenging environment)
2. Real food (no sugar dispensed by machines)
3. Variety (of place, humor, mood, method, and activity)
4. Movement (are we the only culture that ignores a body’s need periodically to stretch and sleep . . . deprives children of sleep, all for the sake of what parents perceive as competition . . . that deadly combination of competitive sports and competitive academics)
5. Re-creation, in its various forms (naps, Sudoku, walks, and, yes, TV)
6. Humor (from fart to slight of mind)
7. Passion (for something, from collecting Hello Kitty pencils to fighting world hunger)
8. Some form of Love (such as friendship, compassion, camaraderie, as well as finding soul / body mates of an appropriate age)
9. Discovery (the delight of surprise)
10. Wonder without fear (the courage to follow curiosity, and the time to do so)

And, last, but not least, ungraded writing.

Bene nota: A syllabus for Clouds 101 is attached for your leisurely perusal.


England High School
Curriculum Guidelines

Department: English
Course Title: Clouds
Course Number: 101
Credit: 0.5
Course Overview
A semester course, Clouds 101 is open to all students and employees of Bishop England High School, not excluding maintenance staff or volunteer coaches. However, because its content encompasses much more than vaporish fluff, entry into this elective course of study is dependent upon the submission of an extensive application and successful completion of an interview process conducted by course instructors. Designed to hone observation, association, and discrimination skills as well as to develop the meta-cognitive capacities of its participants, this course will embolden its students to communicate—in writing, spoken word, and meditative modes, with Nature, God (i.e., higher powers of all genders, irrespective of race or creed), and all life forms (past, present, or future—large and small groups). Students will read, as their interests or moods direct them, from a long list of readings not specifically on the subject of clouds. A unit in research and library skills is also included, but no writing will be graded with letters or numbers. This course is pass, not fail.

Course Content
• classification of cloud forms by association of shapes to personal or cultural memories
• the naming of clouds, ignoring all scientific nomenclature
• determination of the beginnings and endings of distinguishable forms (natural or man-made)
• appreciation of edges and the transience of things
• close study of light and shade—denotations and connotations
• practice and mastery of the pathetic fallacy
• respectful parallel play with all others engaged in and with cloud study
• acceptance of the cloud interpretations of others
• sketching and photography of clouds
• completion of a cloud journal, using several techniques including but not limited to the double-entry journal, dialoguing with God, writing letters to the World, and penning whimsical limericks
• complete rejection of the 3-point, 5-paragraph essay format

Intended Outcomes
After successfully completing this course, the student will be able to do the following:
• Stop and smell the roses
• Work both with inner self and with others
• Use words to describe a number of amorphous, subtle, but significant forms
• Write well in several genres, using effective support for statements of fact or conjecture
• Honor the perception of all selves and those of others
• Demonstrate mastery of the basic rules of English grammar and the complete rejection of some
• Hold two opposing views at once without explosive violence or psychic disintegration
• Efficiently use the resources of libraries—real, virtual, and imaginary

A Guide to Clouds: Beyond the Event Horizon. Imagination, 2007.
McCloud, Ian. Methinks It Is like a Weasel: Cloud Interpretation. Fourth Course. Polonius Press, 1993.