Monday, November 30, 2015

Ballpoint Pen Dancing

By Nicholas Hayes

In Twilight of the Idols, Nietzsche extols the virtue of dancing in education: "being able to dance with the feet, with concepts, with words: do I still have to say that one has to be able to dance with the pen – that writing has to be learned?" (77). The beauty of his metaphor should not remove it from its physical implications. It is easy to reduce writing to a cerebral activity. But writing is also a physical endeavor whether we take a cursive waltz over a page with a ballpoint pen or whether we slam dance our way across a word processing document with our keyboards. The physicality of writing suggests some ways we could think about approaching it in our classrooms.

In her article "On Yoga and Teaching Writing", Megan Fulwiler describes attending a Yoga class and watching her instructor with a novice. She admires how the instructor "made only a few strategic adjustments and let him continue his practice." The novice's form was far from perfect, but Fulwiler suspects that if the instructor had tried to correct all of the problems the novice would feel discouraged not only by the class but by Yoga itself. She understands that Yoga is a lifelong process in which these corrections can happen over time as the novice actively pursues his journey. She encourages us to think of writing in the same way.  Fulwiler ultimately argues that writing and yoga: "Both require a commitment to practice rather than perfection; reward risk-taking rather than hesitation; flourish with timely but limited suggestions that encourage rather than frustrate; are active all-at-once activities that are learned by doing; and remain difficult no matter how long you’ve been doing them."

Although we, like Fulwiler's colleagues, might worry about the state of student writing, we should avoid turning our classrooms into operating theaters in which we try to correct every perceived orthopedic problem. What if instead we imagined our classrooms as studios for vigorous, rigorous work? As in the past, we invite students to look at the forms we model and ask them to try these forms for themselves, adjusting them when only absolutely necessary. In my class, I do try to model. I use the projector and screen to let students see me compose and edit in the same way that Yoga or Tai-Chi instructors might use a mirror to let students see their movements.

When talking about the process of invention, I will brainstorm while typing at the lectern. The projector revealing my thoughts (and the invariable typos) that come from generating ideas will be there for everyone to see. When it is time to revise again using the projector, we will move, break, rebuild and delete passages. We discuss the movements and why they are being made. Students are encouraged to make suggestions. Once the movements have been modeled, students are then encouraged to do their own work.

My friend and writing partner Terri Griffith has told me that she thinks of her classrooms as a path. Everyone in the room is on this path, instructors are just a little further ahead. And to not entirely lose the dance metaphor, Terri has returned to ballet after decades of not practicing. I think of her happiness in relearning and remembering skills she was once fluent with, and I hope we can perhaps kindle or re-kindle a lifelong engagement with writing as I watch my students' fingers slam dance across a keyboard or waltz with a ball point pen.

Works Cited

Fulwiler, Megan. "On Yoga and Teaching Writing." The Chronicle of Higher Education. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 6 Oct. 2014. Web. 27 Nov. 2015.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Twilight of the Idols/ The Anti-Christ. 1968. Trans. R. J. Hollingdale. Penguin, 1990. Print.

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