By Michael Van Wambeke, NVWP TC, Robinson Secondary School
Ed. Note: This year, as we continue to celebrate our most recent Invitational Summer Institute and begin to look forward to the next, we want to pick up and continue a tradition of the Journal of the Virginia Writing Project. So, throughout October, we will be publishing Voices from the Invitational Summer Institute—position papers from the newest NVWP Teacher Consultants. Position papers are a consistent feature of the ISI. The fellows write one before the Institute begins, and then they write back to themselves as the Institute ends. It is our hope that the position papers we highlight for you will represent the spirit of the 2012 class as a whole. The editorial note for this feature in Volume 27 number 4 reads, “It has become a yearly tradition for The Journal to publish position papers written by Teacher Consultants fresh out of their Summer Institutes. The voices in these papers represent the future of the Virginia Writing Project, but for many veteran TCs they may also resonate with familiar echoes from the past.” May these voices of inspired educators inspire you.
In addressing this prompt again four weeks after its initial posing, there are some new observations worth noting that serve to augment my initial position, but not supplant it entirely. While I still stand by my statement that writing should serve as a means of self-reflection and concept development, I had not explored, in any real detail, writing as a source of pleasure and enjoyment. So much of my work over the past 15 years has been academic in nature, and in addition to having a certain proficiency for the form (as measured by good grades on papers), I find the format to be comforting, familiar, and logical. But experimenting with creative writing, stream of consciousness, and poetry over the course of the Institute has opened up new genres that I am not entirely comfortable with, but that I plan to explore more extensively in the future (both personally and with my classes), even if I keep the personal explorations to myself.
I have done more writing over these past five weeks than is present within my final portfolio, playing both with elements of fiction and stream of consciousness rather than my traditional argumentative format. There is some comfort in knowing that the stories don’t have to go anywhere, or mean anything; on the occasions when a narrative has emerged that I am proud of, it has been included in this portfolio. And while I never enjoyed any one book I read and reviewed for the program in its entirety, each one still contained some valuable information that can be used and utilized within my classes.
As a teacher of writing in history, it will be difficult to weave these other formats into the classroom setting on top of the other demands within the curriculum. We already serve two “masters” (the VA SOL and the IB exam), and the balancing act of placing new forms on the students may be a difficult one to implement. For me, it most likely means exploring these formats through supplemental projects and the warmup exercises I utilize regularly; instead of content-based questions, I can drive my students to engage in more critical inquiry and speculative discussion as a way to approach the content. Similarly, having students reflect on their experience after a major assessment may be a useful tool to get them more critically engaged with their own work (and how they think about it) in the future.
Writing has powerful applications beyond its use as an assessment tool. While in some ways it seems that teachers of creative forms have had some difficulty in assessing it (which was noted anecdotally in some presentations, and discussed to some degree in the literature), it does not discount the fact that it is useful in the classroom. For students struggling with forming identity, writing can be a place to establish that more fully. And for a teacher looking to build engagement, an exploration of genre can be a good way to get students more involved in the learning process. Ultimately, there is more to writing than the argumentative essay, and I look forward to teaching writing in some new ways this year when I return to the classroom in the fall.