Learning to Love Learning

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The Tables Turned[1]
-William Wordsworth
Up! up! my Friend, and quit your books;
Or surely you’ll grow double:
Up! up! my Friend, and clear your looks;
Why all this toil and trouble?
The sun above the mountain’s head,
A freshening lustre mellow
Through all the long green fields has spread,
His first sweet evening yellow.
Books! ’tis a dull and endless strife:
Come, hear the woodland linnet,
How sweet his music! on my life,
There’s more of wisdom in it.
And hark! how blithe the throstle sings!
He, too, is no mean preacher:
Come forth into the light of things,
Let Nature be your teacher.
She has a world of ready wealth,
Our minds and hearts to bless—
Spontaneous wisdom breathed by health,
Truth breathed by cheerfulness.
One impulse from a vernal wood
May teach you more of man,
Of moral evil and of good,
Than all the sages can.
Sweet is the lore which Nature brings;
Our meddling intellect
Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things:—
We murder to dissect.
Enough of Science and of Art;
Close up those barren leaves;
Come forth, and bring with you a heart
That watches and receives.

In “The Tables Turned,” William Wordsworth urges us to get out into Nature and discover her lessons firsthand, rather than through books.  Both in and out of the classroom, the kind of learning that inspires—that changes us for the better and stays with us—is learning through direct or active experience infused with encouragement, enthusiasm, and joy.

I remember what a Pueblo community looks like because I drew one in fourth grade, not because one was described to me.  Dinosaurs thrilled me because I learned how they acted and made drawings and clay models.  I didn’t just memorize their names and vital statistics.  Lessons on the Solar System stuck with me because each of us third-graders took the part of one of the planets—I was Mercury and announced, “Mercury is 36 million miles from the Sun!”  In college, I absorbed medieval history because Dr. C. told us about the lives of the church figures; he talked about them as real people.  The dates of European wars and reigns didn’t stay in my mind past the end of the course in which they had to be mastered.

I was blessed to attend concerts, plays, and ballets from an early age, but a love of the arts can be awakened at any time of life.  I think, for instance, of the adult college student I sat next to at the Kennedy Center for a performance of Grieg’s Piano Concerto.  The young man was there because attending a concert was an assignment for my course, but he was thrilled by the cascading music and the prowess of the pianist, and whether or not he has ever attended another concert, that night in the Kennedy Center remains a part of his life.  If I had simply played the piece for him in class, the lasting impact would probably have been negligible.

I stopped my own music lessons when I was in high school.  The problem was that the lessons were delivered as if I were planning to be a concert pianist or flutist, and the scales, exercises, and exacting standards overwhelmed the pleasures of simply playing.  Greater emphasis on sight reading and on expressing my interpretation of each piece could have changed my outlook so that music lessons and practice became a delight rather than a chore prompting stress and the fear of making a mistake.  The elements of technique can be gradually introduced as a means of making the music even more satisfying and beautiful.  Children who clearly are motivated to become professionals can progressively have more intensive training in technique—as they are ready and as the training avoids killing the joy, love of music, and self-expression.

I love writing for several reasons: my parents loved writing; my tenth-grade English teacher showed me how to organize my ideas and had the class compose poems and essays on topics that interested us; reading books inspired me to want to express my own ideas; my master’s-degree program included developing my own responses to literature; I have opinions and observations I want to share; I have had some satisfying outlets for sharing my writing, and I have a level of confidence about my skills.  The confidence has been generated by the fact that instruction and correction have not fully overwhelmed opportunities to experiment with and practice creative writing, receive positive feedback, and find satisfaction from my efforts.

Even so, I hear the swarming critics and their opinions in my head and have to write in spite of them.  Someone with less of a drive to write could have been squelched completely.  The discouraging voices included many of my teachers and some workshops and writers’ groups.  While the voices did not tell me I couldn’t write, they gave forceful and conflicting opinions about what my writing should be like.  My choice was either to become further paralyzed by the critics or to reject them and make my own decisions about what I want to say and how I want to say it.  I’ve finally done the second—with occasional lapses in confidence.

By the time I led a poetry group in the mid-1990s, I understood that the way to develop strong writers is to give comments such as this: “I especially like your ________; could you tell me more about that?”  As a teacher, I did not help students when I covered their papers in corrections.  I hope that the honest positive comments I also added helped overcome the excessive corrections, but I certainly discouraged some people in my classes.  I think I encouraged some, too, but I worry about those I let down and hope they have found someone since who has erased any discouragement they felt from me.  Of course, student writers need to learn the tools for effective writing; these can be introduced sequentially, as the student is ready, rather than as a heap of problem areas to be overcome en masse.  For example, for one week’s assigned paper, the emphasis could be on making sure that all sentences are complete, or that pronouns are used correctly.

I would like to teach an online writing course for adults.  I want the ten-week course to encourage and motivate, rather than discourage, overwhelm, and intimidate.  Here are my plans:

  1. From the Internet, I will select interesting, rich, yet accessible poems by a variety of poets. We will discuss (in an online forum) the ideas in some of the poems and look at the poets’ use of language to convey meaning vividly.
  2. Every other week, students will be asked to select one of the poems and write their own free-verse poem on the same topic, a poem that fully expresses their own ideas, experiences, and perspectives.
  3. Students will share their poems (online) with the class.
  4. The class will provide feedback of the “I especially like _______” and “I’d like to hear more about ________” type.
  5. Each student will then be asked to turn his or her poem into an essay for the following week.
  6. In addition to focusing on conveying ideas clearly, every essay assignment will focus on one or two stylistic issues, such as the correct use of punctuation or effective content organization.
  7. During the course, each student will study enough about one element of style to develop a short written guide for the rest of the class.
  8. When I evaluate the essays, I will address the students’ success with the elements under current focus. I may also indicate one or two other areas needing particular attention in the future.  The bulk of the evaluations, however, will point out the most successful aspects of the essays, particularly in communicating the theme.
  9. The students will share their essays (online) with the rest of the class.  Classmates will point out the strengths to carry through to the next essay.
  10. I will occasionally share a professional essay or other piece of writing with the class to illustrate interesting approaches and effective writing strategies.
  11. At the end of the course, I will give every student suggestions about how she or he might expand and continue the writing completed over the past weeks. For example, for some, the poems and essays could become the basis of a memoir, or perhaps a blog.  Students will also share their own insights and suggestions for future writing.

If such a course interests you, please let me know!

[1] https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/45557/the-tables-turned.

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