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Archive for June, 2007

In my last post I described a common situation–students feeling as though creativity either wasn’t welcome at some point in the K-12 curriculum or outright disallowed (without even touching on the idea that writing must be done in five paragraphs, huzzah!), this post is a continuation of that idea–or where I think new media fits into all of this.

┬áStudents are, we keep telling each other, online a lot. They are creating things online–graphics, icons, websites, communities, fanfiction, whatever–in ways we wish they would in our classrooms. An obvious “fix” is simply to let them do these things in our classrooms and go multimodal, and by now you’re probably saying “Duh, yeah, everybody knows that.” And a lot of people do it too.

I’m more curious about what it is about online that allows for these creations that school doesn’t allow. It’s not just that teachers aren’t watching, it’s that people who approve ARE watching. It’s not just that students are anonymous, it’s the kind of anonymity offered (pseudonyms, mostly). Most of all, internet communities are places where some people are never told that they are wrong, or if they are, where those opinions can be discounted as “idiots” or “newbs” fairly easily. The opinion of a teacher or a schoolboard representative is not so easy to get rid of, especially if that school representative is directly limiting the creative ability of the student (you shouldn’t write stories, you shouldn’t draw in class, singing isn’t as important in our curriculum as physical activity during recess).

The internet (and new media) allow students to break past those oppressors, mostly. K-12 institutions are increasingly trying to control how students use the internet outside of school by disallowing myspace and facebook accounts. To me, this feels like the same old argument–“Not in our curriculum. We’re all serious college prep here!” Give me a break.

It’s hard for me to convince students of two things:

1. Being creative is okay.
2. Using the internet in class in the same ways you use it outside of class is also okay (except for porn, obviously)

These two concepts aren’t difficult to grasp, really, but freshmen don’t get it. They’ve spent too long and aren’t far enough removed from a system that, quite honestly, sucks, to get that I’m not part of that system. I’m not sure how to break free from it either, entirely, because I still have to grade these assignments and they can’t be created in anonymity.

In closing, for now, I think that K-12 institutions need some drastic change (here, at least). We’re very worried about kids getting enough phys-ed. We should be just as worried that we’re labeling kids who are artistic and are creative in their own time as freaks (or fat as well, because you can’t possibly know how to draw well without being an obesity risk from all that sitting, again… I’m only mostly kidding). With our current push in society for more more more physical activity I see that writing and drawing and so on will be left even further behind in the curriculum while more structured, testable, activities will become even more important.

And when these kids grow up, they will have spent most of their creative energies on computers–for lack of much else better to do. I think that energy is harnessable (though god knows why) and that new media in composition is just one of many changes that are here to stay. That’s not a very drastic argument to make (I’ll admit that much) but it’s one that I think is intimately tied to what happens before I ever see a student. These people don’t grow up in a vaccuum, they grow up in school systems that want to prepare them for college but often fail miserably. There’s no preparation for college like honesty. Your ability to follow directions will be tested–sure–but the A paper is often the one that goes above and beyond what I *want* into foreign territory–what the student needs mixed adequately with what I want to make a better assignment than I had planned.

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I’ve been reading an awful lot about Writing Center/Comp 1 theory lately in hopes of this all becoming pertinent this fall in a potential writing center co-director position. All this is serving to do, best I can tell, other than reviewing some decent theories, is reminding me of how all these ideas of dealing with student problems never really acknowledge where the problems are coming from to begin with, and where I think most of my own problems with writing came from.

I think that correcting student writing is a difficult venture for a lot of reasons, not the least of them that students’ creativity is often killed very very early. New media “stuff” might help (more on this later, because I have a theory about that too) but it doesn’t completely circumvent earlier instances in a student’s life and it can’t even stop them from feeling that if new media “stuff” is made to be part of the curriculum that it doesn’t just start falling under the same old rules.

So because I’m speaking in generalities, and I hate that, let’s speak in specifics:

In second grade I learned to love to read and write. My teacher, who was the goddess of awesome, encouraged me to write a story a day. She encouraged me to write illustrated novels, with chapters and everything. She didn’t care what I wrote about, and because I had a pet bird at the time I chose to anthropomorphize him into a whole bunch of adventures. Nothing wrong there, right?

Well, wrong. In third grade, I had a different teacher. Now this guy had “issues” all his own, but I have no idea if they affected his behavior in this case so they won’t be recorded for all to see. It took him only a few weeks of the school year to get very angry, annoyed, and off-put about me constantly scribbling down stories in my free time. Furthermore, he felt the need to read everything I wrote just to make sure I wasn’t writing notes to friends because, you know, that’s all a young girl could possibly be doing with her time and a pencil.

After about a week of that, he called my mom and me in for a conference and handed me a stack of cards. I can’t remember everything that was said, but I remember him telling her and me that my behavior was somehow flawed and wrong and that I had to learn how to write about something else other than the same characters over and over and over again. This stack of cards was a list of age appropriate topics that he had bought at the store just for me and that if I was going to be writing in HIS classroom I would be punished if I wasn’t writing about one of the cards.

These cards were all about people, first of all, and second of all they were all about very stupid plots that had been overdone by just about every tv show at that point–including things like “group of friends wants to be in the book of world records.”

He also was going to set me up to have to work on learning to type in my free time to try to curtail the writing as well. Oh, and if I spent less time writing maybe I wouldn’t have gotten a 90 on my math test. Maybe I would have gotten a 100.

And he was going to ask the students sitting around me to watch my activity and make sure I wasn’t breaking the rules.

*sigh*

Now this is the part where I wish I could say “just kidding.” But I’m not. I also wish I could say my parents didn’t give in to this asshole’s demands, but they did. My mom said that he was probably right if I ever wanted to get published, and helped me pick out a card to get started on just to prove to him that I could do it.

Of course, I hated it. I just didn’t write stories in his class any more. I think I tried at first, but having my classmates tattle on me endlessly for it wasn’t worth it. I wasn’t the only one that learned that THAT particular activity was strange that year.

The next year I had a teacher that was far more forgiving, but had his own quirks that didn’t help. Now, my own classmates already had me pegged as “different” from the year before, so they started in with harassing the living heck out of me in earnest, and were still trying to tell on me for writing–should I ever do it. This teacher encouraged me, so I did quite a bit I think. He also, unfortunately, constantly gave us lectures on how everyone was different and we had to embrace each other’s differences and recognize them as beautiful and…

This might work with adults. It didn’t work with kids in the fourth grade. Some of the boys rounded up all the smart people and tried to stone them to death (their words, not mine) after we read about this being done to witches in our reader. (And there, I learned you had to be really careful what you write AND what you assign… sheesh.) Eventually the harassment got so bad that if I picked my head up from my desk one of the girls sitting next to me would smack me. The teacher’s lectures had left him so out of control that he actually asked me, several days, to not pick my head up anymore and if I had any questions he’d help me after class. I somehow managed to write a 60 page play that year ANYWAY, mostly at home. The teacher asked to read it, and somebody else stole it. After that, I pretty much gave up.

That was the year that we had a school choir as well, however, before the school year ended we were asked to stop by the school board despite the fact we were giving up our lunch recess for it. I still don’t understand that at all. What I did learn those two years though was that the school board really cared about math and science, and so did my teachers. Anything (like writing) that might be “holding you back” was to be eliminated. I’m still angry when I hear my grad director say that having a job or doing art activities might “hold somebody back” from degree completion. Haven’t gotten an incomplete yet, helped plan a national academic conference, and I’m somehow still taking dance classes. How could that possibly be?

Fifth grade is worth mentioning for a different reason. This instructor wanted us to learn to draw, and also to use a really primitive animation program on the computer. He would put up a drawing on the overhead each morning and ask us to reproduce it. I thought that was really cool. Art, music, and phys ed had been removed from our curriculum years earlier, and I slowly but surely started being able to draw more accurately. However, some parents became angry because this “wasn’t supposed to be part of the curriculum” and he was asked to stop before the end of the year by the school board.

And that was, quite honestly, pretty much that. One girl, whose name was Cathy, had landed classes that allowed her to continue to draw and write. We were told she was better than all of us. Everybody us should just give up because she was going to be famous.

Yeah, she’s still not famous.

High school was really just more of the same. Grammar was more important than anything, and essays and paragraphs were more important to write than stories. Poetry was meant to be read–not written.

Now that I’m teaching college in the same basic area I grew up in, I see a lot of these things mirrored in my students and even my colleagues. My colleagues sometimes make fun of fans for “liking things too much.” My students are terrified to like things too much. They value business and math, nobody wants an english degree because they’ll have to flip burgers (never worked in retail in my life, thanks!).

I know my students didn’t have these experiences, but they had experiences of their own that taught them everything they think they ever need to know about writing, writing classes, who writes, and how writers are valued. They come to college with these preconceptions and ideas and if they haven’t had teachers already who validated these things then they’re going to be extremely reticent to being allowed to be creative, and write things NOW.

Since this is getting ridiculously long, and I have to drive to campus, I’ll leave off for now. For what it’s worth, I still try to write but I keep it to myself mostly. The few times I’ve shown people what I do have been disastrous and then I just never write for a very long time. I’m trying to break out of that (school essays don’t count, in my head), but having a great deal of trouble. The most recent incident was about 4 years ago when I let somebody I had been dating read my stuff. It was part of a novel, a decent part, and he said he thought it was great and that maybe I could publish it on this original fiction site that he loved to read.

Yeah, not really the response I wanted but I went and checked it out. It was science fiction stories (alright, that matches) but in about 80% of them people traveled to a parallel dimension where they could have incest and it was okay. Yeah, I have no idea how to get over being told that my writing was really only as good as incest porn, especially since there was no incest porn in it.

I’ll leave you with this for now, although hopefully I’ll be able to update soon with where I think new media falls into all of this….

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