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  • How Writers Can Help Us Teach:A Look at Teachers and Writers Collaborative and Their Books
  • Marcia Silver (bio)

When I agreed to write this article the only thing I knew about Teachers and Writers Collaborative was its publications catalogue, which routinely showed up in my department mailbox. As I read and thought about the Collaborative I stumbled on an interesting coincidence: this organization, the first to send poets and novelists into the schools on a regular basis, began in a series of meetings in 1966-67 —the very year I left my job teaching English at a public high school in New York City. I stopped teaching because I was ready to have a baby, but not before I earned a Masters' Degree in English/Education, a regular license, and a permanent teaching assignment. I was tired after five years of facing 150 students each day, breaking up fights in the lunchroom, having my time and energy siphoned off by clerical busy work. But the truth is I suspected my teaching wasn't much good. I had reluctantly assumed the role of disciplinarian because, without a philosophy of teaching that connected me to my students or to a curriculum that made sense to them or me, I could find no other way to maintain order. And the school in which I worked did not offer to help me become a better teacher. So, in the end, it wasn't punching the time clock or writing passes to the bathroom or performing "lessons" for the unannounced visits of chairperson or principal that kept me from returning when my maternity leave was over. It was despair over my teaching.

That teaching was a challenge was clear to me as a young teacher, but I saw it as an intimidating and grim challenge, rather than as an intriguing one: 40-minute periods, attendance reports, lesson plans and Regents tests, the necessity for order and quiet. And I wrestled with these constraints essentially alone. Certainly teachers complained to one another, but most of us did not think of cooperating —except in unions for better pay and improved working conditions —to change what went on in our classrooms: to shape curriculum, to invent [End Page 130] pedagogy that involved students in meaningful ways in their own education.

It is not surprising, then, that the impulse and energy for change should have come from outside the schools. Teachers and Writers Collaborative began, and has continued, as an alliance of writers and teachers dismayed by a "skills"-oriented language arts curriculum that was neither responsive to nor respectful of student learners. They began with an understanding of the creative process and moved toward redesigning the teaching of writing so that both students and teachers were given the freedom to experiment. Here is Phillip Lopate's description of the idea behind T&W:

to place writers and other artists in situations without telling them what to do, but letting them find their own own way, in the same manner that they would proceed into their own art. The assumption has been that artists are more at home with initial open-ended uncertainty, and with setting up problems and tasks for themselves, out of the freedom to do almost anything.

(Journal of a Living Experiment 9)

The efforts of Teachers and Writers Collaborative can be read as a "record of pedagogic adventures" or measured by the wonderful inventory of ideas compiled for teachers who wish to work in more creative ways, but something more important than either of these contributions is being offered to us. We are invited to think of both teaching and learning in what is probably a significantly different way for most of us —as work that is freely chosen, work that one is fully committed to:

What is being presented here is a special mode of work and a patient, experimental attitude toward work, which when successful, can be deeply freeing and educational. It is this idea of good, freely-chosen work (however vague that sounds for the moment) which lies at the heart of the Collaborative's search, and which unifies its members in a consistent belief-structure.

(JLE 9)

The Collaborative's...


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