So Here it is. . .After Math: The Outcome of the Creative Writing God Class Experiment

Winnie the Pooh

Winnie the Pooh (Photo credit: Berto Garcia)

In my last post, I explained how I had recently given a very simple in-class creative writing assignment, one in which students were instructed to write the word “God” at the top of the page and afterwards just let the words fall underneath it; two plus one is one  according to Stevens: no boundaries, no judgements.  Just words.

And after I published that story, I received a response from a fellow blogger  asking for a follow-up article, so here it is after math, the outcome of the creative writing god class experiment.

Intially, the “God” experiment had been a crescendoing success I believed.  First we spent some time looking at  works examining the realm of spirituality, works from Blake and Whitman to Ginsberg and spoken word, at the same time allowing students to come up front and google things they liked as well. .. and I left class that day feeling as if an enormous shake-weight had been lifted off my shoulders.  First came a sigh of relief, which was deep and gratifying.

Hieronymus Bosch study 200706

Hieronymus Bosch study 200706 (Photo credit: DUCKMARX)

And then came the fear, self-loathing and sur-reality.

English: Painting by Hieronymous Bosch of Hell.

Image via Wikipedia

But then came the time to reconvene and read them.

Thursday, 2 pm:

It was unexplored territory to say the least. I mean, the topic HAD come up before in class, many times, and in these days with their debates and almost no separation of church and state, it’s unrealistic to think we can just be mum about it.  And as you read this, know there is a big pink elephant in the middle of the webpage as well.  It is letting go a lot of flatulence and somebody has got to address it before we all pass out from holding our breath. (And if it seems like I try too hard to avoid any kind of conflict in the classroom whatsoever, even in an academic setting, wherein the default was and always has been science and empirical evidence,  then I guess I should point out that I am also untenured faculty.  I CAN’T just point to factual information and tell them to change the subject. In these straits, I am not at liberty to make anyone unhappy in that classroom!  Because such acts of real or imagined exclusion can lead to the hugeness of mutinies, mutinies to registered complaints, then bad evaluations.

Winnie the Pooh (film)

Image via Wikipedia

And without the protection of tenure, under such circumstances wherein an anonymous citizen’s arrest has just been registered, you stand alone before the higher ups.  And the truth is,  there is no defense.  For the most part, you just don’t get called back the next semester. This has been a double-edged sword I have learned to swallow with both hands. On the one hand, it’s incredibly painful to be aware of such intense scrutiny from my students, but on the other, I am thankful for that accountablity.  It makes me stop and think before  I say a word to anyone, and even though I do get it wrong a lot, I like that I am trying harder too.  🙂 )

Hieronymus Bosch

Hieronymus Bosch (Photo credit: rocor)

Sometimes it would be smooth sailing and others just like Scylla and Charybdis, and in having had no prior training in peace-keeping and mediation in these matters, I flailed around in trying all kinds of awkward methods to diffuse the difficulties around it,  everything from banning any kind of cross talk to inviting everyone to share to the point of free-for-all. . .the latter ironically though more painful and more trouble with evaluations and complaints, at the same time MUCH more gratifying than the former I must say,

And as I coached on how to proceed this time, I felt myself needing to pay very close attention to my own advice. Truth be told, I can’t remember what I said exactly, but I do know this is how I had hoped to come across and that is:

“OK, so here’s what let’s do.  Let’s try to keep in mind that this is just exploration.  We’ve all just had some time to be free with our thoughts and just express whatever wells up inside as we write.  So let’s try to keep the non-judgemental frame around this.  Because everybody has their own journey.  And this is just about sharing what has happened along the way.  There’s no right way or wrong way to behave about any of this.  There is only putting one foot in front of the other and taking notes as we go.  So here we go. Let’s do that, shall we?”

At first the room was quiet, but that did not last very long.

And honestly, at this point I really must confess to having been so discombulated from focusing on getting this right that as I try to recall what happened, I don’t even remember who went first.

What I do remember most at the beginning was pausing to offer some encouragement.

To someone who seemed both anxious to get a chance to unburden his thoughts but also rather reticent at the prospect of being judged in doing so.

And in his reticence, it just made everyone else all the more curious. ..curiousity that led to a bit of prodding, followed by a show of support and reassurance.

And so he read.  Head bent down a bit at first and voice trembling, but as the room grew quiet and the other students leaned forward to listen, the words grew louder and clearer.

And then it happened, beginning with him. ..until all those freewrites just spilled into the room like light breaking on still waters.

Afterwards, and I guess in seeing that he was able to vent without getting struck down by Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, everyone else just seemed that much more eager to share their own stories.  And at times the room would fall silent too.  And there were some very awkward pauses followed by my own attempts to make bridges and find common ground.  Mostly I was groping though.  Just feeling around and watching faces to make sure I wasn’t leaving anyone out and alienated.

--Kathe Kollwitz

But for the most part I felt good about how we all found ways to  navigate those waters and keep afloat during such a challenging passage.  And also proud of how well we all had handled it as a learning community, their sweetness and sensibilites intact as we left together that day.  It was all good.

In retrospect and in all honesty, I still feel a little bit heart-broken about the ones in the back, the ones who seemed the shyest to speak.  I still feel the need to work on helping them to feel safe enough as to share all the facets of what they are feeling and I also believe that it will be amazing when they do, so that part is next on my agenda.

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Losing my Religion: On Finding the Divine on the Road to Learning

Yesterday in my creative writing class, I gave an assignment that asked students to write the wordGod” at the top of the page and freewrite on it.  No rules.  No boundaries.  Just an exploration of that word.

And when I ask something so big of them, I think it only fair that I ask myself to do it too.

(In the past I learned  the importance of participating in those  free-writing assignments from my department chair who cheerfully passes along a good many lesson plans and classroom strategies. And for this most insightful advice, I am truly grateful.)

As a result, I found this inclusive student/teacher exercise to be a most gratifying experience for a couple of reasons.

Number one first and foremost, freewriting is  fun-time  and I find  that if I model some kind of industrious task-oriented behavior during this period, then I’m more or less contradicting myself by setting a hypocritical example.  🙂

And that’s no way to get on with the business of sharing the joy of learning.

But lately, I have been a lot pre-occupied with thoughts that just take me to a place that I ought not go.

William Blake, from the notebooks

So I’ve been shirking my responsibilities a little as mentor.

And in this transgression from my duties as well forgetting that no matter what transpires between the two of us, the bottom line is that the student is internalizing this from experience, which, up to now, has always been the best teacher:

“Do as I do, not as I say.”

And when I think of my own learning experiences, that is how it always worked anyway.  I mean, I loved being taught.  Loved my teachers, all of them, even the ones still struggling with themselves to be patient and such, because they taught me other things I needed to know as well.  Things like being organized with numbers and keeping to a schedule.  I mean, these are respectable behaviors that must be tended to as well.

Sadly the point was often lost on me as I always picked up on some other kind of unhappiness in that exchange and it usually made me run from any kind of discomfort that might reinforce it in myself.  So the lesson got lost on me a lot.

I always knew they meant well though.  And I loved them just the same.

I don’t think there is any such thing as a bad teacher.  Just some in need of a bit more love and support themselves it would seem.  I mean, if you look past that sometimes inscrutable and unforgiving face, you can and will see a softer one.  It’s there if you’re willing to look.  The little girl at three years old, her hands having just been slapped for putting them in the light socket.

She knew that Mommy meant well in doing it, meant to save her from the ultimate separation between parent and child.  If anything ever happened to elicit such a misalignment of the stars, then Mommy would fight like a tiger to stop that.  Even if it meant seeing the tears of disappointment on on the face of someone so close, so innocent and vulnerable.  Those words we all wish to avoid at any given time in our tenure as parents.  “Mommy, why?”

Alas, there was a second lesson in that interaction, one that Mommy in her infinite longing to understand, might never have anticipated and that was “If you explore too much, then you will get punished.”

And so it begins, the cycle of learning and punishment.

Followed by rebelliousness and breaking away.

Which in turn leads to more of the same.

And where on earth could we have gone so terribly wrong as to keep that inefficient system alive for so long?

After all, we came into this world, every single one of us, with two very basic means of understanding and those were

A. To love and be loved.

And B: To learn and share what we have learned.

And so I offer up for you this other kind of scenario to ponder, one in which the child’s learning experience leads her to a pile of excrement in the back yard, the one wherein the dandelion is sprouting up so proudly beside it, and in her excitement to share, she just leans down and kneels to it.  A supplicant in awe of the innerworkings of this earth.  That for every pile of shit, there is a rebirth that follows and flowers after it.

It is the way of the world after all.  Birth, Death, Rebirth.

And without all three of these elements, there simply is no way to understand the divine.

So now I sit here before the laptop and freewrite and let the words fall where they may.  No beginning or end to speak of, just being.