“One must be an inventor to read well.” – Emerson
For far too long reading and writing have been viewed pedagogically as separate. That one could mysteriously somehow wield an intriguing command of simply absorbing the thoughts and feelings of others without penning them oneself.
Thankfully, at the Carlisle school in Carlisle, Massachusetts, this is simply not the case. I have toured numerous classes, and have especially focused on Marcella Pixley’s eighth-grade Language Arts class. In Marcella’s class, and in all of these classes, Emerson’s maxim is upheld on a daily basis, and the results speak for themselves.
The students at the Carlisle school have met the highest state-wide benchmarks in education, but not by any prep-school trick of teaching to the test. They have met them, and continue to meet them, because they simply love to read and write.
Most recently, on January eighth, I visited the Carlisle school for the day, where I was immediately informed that a group of eighth graders wanted to meet with me.
“We’ll have to be holding some out at the door,” Marcella warned me. “There are so many.”
Curious, I eagerly agreed to attend the meeting, not knowing what to expect. When I went into the classroom during lunch time, twenty-five eighth grade students were arrayed in a circle, with one empty seat amongst them: mine. They shuffled as I came in, looked excitedly at me, and waited for me to begin.
But begin what? I had no plan. I was here to observe. And here they were, observing me. This, to me, is the best of anthropology. It is reflexive, and it is the stuff of generative community building. We are not here to extract information, operating under the old journalistic covenant of informing an electorate, but to participate, and to offer a listening sounding board for deep reflection and conversation, which finds its way into the pieces that we create. So, suffice it to say, I had to start somewhere. Here’s how I did.
“So, what’s everyone reading?” I asked.
A lot of hands in the room went up. In a flurry. I laughed, and shrugged, and looked at Marcella.
“Call on someone,” she said.
I called on a student directly opposite from me.
“How about you?” I said.
“Well, we just finished 1984. Which has a tough ending. Oh, we were all so disappointed by the ending! But the rest of the book, the slow build of tension, was fabulous.”
“Who’s on the mark with that?” I asked the room. Just about every hand went up. I was soon realizing I’d be asking the room a lot of questions. “Let’s try something,” I said. “Let’s just start speaking up. Don’t worry if you initially interrupt someone. I imagine everyone will get their say.”
Another student said, “well, we didn’t feel that ending was necessary.”
“Interesting. Say more.”
“Well, we felt it was forced. Like Orwell was just trying to make a point. Like his plot did not require it.”
“This is the third part of the book, yes?”
“Right,” the student continued. “It worked as its own separate part, but not as a part of the larger book.”
“I agree. Could it have ended with the end of part two?”
“No. I don’t think so. Because his capture sets up part three. No, I think we all agree we would not have had him captured. That we would have had him continue to learn about becoming a human being, in the land, with his love.”
“I like that very much. Perhaps they could have organized a rebellion, à la Star Wars?”
“Perhaps,” the student said, and gave into a laugh.
Another hand flew up.
“I’ve been playing around with this in some of my writing,” another student said. “This idea of what’s required. It reminds me of the quote of a great playwright. He said, ‘the difference between a good play and a mediocre one is the difference between the inevitable and the arbitrary.’”
“I think that’s Arthur Miller,” I said. “But I’m not sure, either.”
“Possibly. I just can’t recall. Well, anyways, I want to get that into my fiction.”
“How’s it coming?”
“It’s hard! I have to keep suspending myself and really listening to the characters. What are their desires? What is keeping them from getting there? What is their exact struggle?” she paused. “I have to separate that from my own struggle.”
“Anyone else struggling with this?” I asked the room.
About half the hands went up.
“I think we’re all, in our reading,” one student said, “beginning to notice places where the author makes a mistake, and makes him or herself too obvious. Take Lord of the Flies, which we also just read. None of us thought that those kids were wholly convincing ten-year olds.”
“Because they never break down. There’s never a scene where they miss their families, or suddenly realize their state of affairs. It’s too much of an experiment, in which they immediately get to work.”
“It’s a bit robotic, isn’t it? In a cold, callous way?”
“Yes. And we’re trying to get that into our own writing. Noticing when things become artificial.”
I looked around the room, stunned with a sudden question.
“Do any of you not like books? Or writing?”
After a moment, one intrepid hand drew slowly up.
“Yes?” I asked.
“It’s not that I don’t like them,” the student said, “but it’s not my favorite. I like to draw.”
I looked at Marcella and she nodded, smiling.
“You should visit his art class later this afternoon,” Marcella said. “It’s taught by Courtney Longaker, and her poetry and art project is actually a collaborative effort between the two of us to allow the students to experiment with different media of expression. They get to use both poetry and art to express their ideas.”
“They have a project whereby they write a poem and then also make a drawing that re-expresses the same emotion, so the students can experiment with how different media inflect one’s productions.”
“Do any of you also like to draw?” I asked the group.
A few hands went up.
“I like it very much,” one student said, “but I prefer writing. Do you know we have organized our own book clubs out of school? And that we offer each other writing advice using google documents?”
“That’s fantastic. Yay for new media well used.”
“Yeah, it’s great for us. That way we can continue to improve, even after hours.”
I looked at Marcella, and again, she smiled and nodded, but this time I noticed there was a shred of tiredness in her smile. It did not come fully upward-turned but hung a bit at the corners of the mouth.
We all spoke for another ten minutes or so and the kids continued to tell me about their favorite books and the types of writing pieces they were assembling. When it came to a close, I spoke with Marcella.
“You looked a little…fagged…when that student brought up the book clubs. Isn’t that a great thing?”
“It is, but, we are starting to have a little trouble with the kids shutting off. They go and go and go, and some of their parents can’t even get them to bed.”
“Well, that’s the right problem to have,” I said.
Later that afternoon, Marcella and I convened the teachers for a conference, and we discussed this.
“It’s true,” one teacher said. “They are a little…in need of balance, if you will.”
“As I told Marcella,” I said, “I think this is a good problem to have. It’s much harder the other way around. I can tell you this first-hand, having just taught an introductory journalism class at a state university, wherein half of my students did not care at all.”
“But what do we do?” the same teacher asked.
Here was an interesting chance for a generative community member to not only listen and record, but to contribute to the development of the community, so I took a stab.
“Well, look where you are,” I said. “You’re in beautiful Carlisle, Massachusetts. A small town, with ample wilderness around it. You have the legacy of Concord next door. Why not get the kids sauntering about in some of their hours, in the sense that Thoreau used the term, deriving from the Holy Landers’ search of saint-terre. The kids learn to walk, and immerse themselves in the greater goings-on of the land, observing, to be sure, and conversing, but not always working.”
“They have a stigma against that kind of thing,” one teacher said. “They think it’s hippy stuff.”
“That’s cute, and it can go that way. But it can also be a great, sharp experience, because it shows them that they need to receive as well as give. Giving all the time churns itself into the ground. Perhaps a club can be formed—they seem to be really good at forming clubs—whereby they simply go out and play and observe. Marcella, you had said they do some close seeing exercises to assist with their poetry. Perhaps this could be adopted, so it is not too big of a jump.”
The teachers liked this idea.
“You make it clear they still have to do their ordinary work,” I continued, “but that this is a time for them to do this kind of work as well. You can even phrase it as ‘work,’ for the time being, so it doesn’t throw them off.”
Again, some murmurs of agreement from the teachers.
“Also,” I went on, “you can tell them, as I know even as eighth graders they are already beginning to think about college, that Emerson, Thoreau, and Robert Frost all left Harvard and Cambridge to move into the land. Emerson and Thoreau went to Concord, and Frost went to New Hampshire. They only traveled to Cambridge when they needed to. And the reason for that owed to something like this.”
“They respect those authors,” one teacher said. “That might help.”
“And otherwise just keep on doing what you’re doing,” I said. “They seem to love it.”
“Oh, they do,” one teacher said. “They leave reviews of all the books they read so we can modulate our supply accordingly. Thanks to ample funds from the parents, who really care about the learning that goes on here, we can continue to stock what they want and recycle what they don’t back into the larger community. They really love keeping up with their favorite works, and sometimes I think they are showing off to their parents.”
“I’m sure they are. But a little of that is normal. They are paving their own roads.”
“I’d like to do more of this,” one teacher suddenly said. “Have you come in, and have us convene like this. This is helping me. An outside perspective jars things up a bit, and leads to some new insights. Like this one concerning sauntering. We can make it a part of our teacher meetings from time to time.”
“Sounds like a good idea to me,” I said. “I love being here. And I want to talk to more students.”
“As you can tell,” Marcella said. “They’re always ready to talk.”
Thus can one see the prodigious (and yet ordinary within a healthy literary community) literary prowess these students represent—offering fresh critiques of so-called canonical works with ease and verbal dexterity. It is the natural by-product of a Language Arts program as advanced as Carlisle’s. Advanced in the simplicity of its wisdom—writing and reading merged into one. Quite simply, these teachers reinforce the old author’s maxim: to read, you must write and to write, you must read.
And there’s more. The stories of Carlisle show much more than a curricular point about how to effectively teach reading and writing. They show that when students, teachers, and parents alike are immersed in a vibrant literary environment what emerges is real joy.