Where We Come From
For a long time the Upper School English department focused mainly on teaching literature, and students wrote papers. It’s fair to say that most graduates gave credit to the history department for teaching them expository writing, especially Dave Corkran and John Wiser. The emphasis of the English department before the 1990s was mostly on workshopping, where you pointed out emblematic or egregious details of a couple of papers, thoroughly examining only one paper. The process hit almost no one and missed nearly everyone. It made it hard to keep some students interested.
A major difference came about in the push for student involvement in student writing, led by English teacher Bob Ashe in the mid-1980s. During this time educators such as writing theorist Peter Elbow spurred a revolution in the teaching of writing. So this movement at Catlin Gabel was a result of academic innovation and inspiration, a new way of thinking about writing.
A systematic and serious approach to teaching writing has developed mostly in the years since Art Leo’s arrival in 1995. He brought with him philosophical underpinnings from his graduate work on Aristotelian rhetoric. Over the course of his first six years here, we defined that better and worked with all teachers in the department so that they would understand and accept the process.
It was a period of getting the process under control, of changing the idea that another generation of kids would graduate and say they learned to write in history classes rather than in English classes. I was determined to make that change. Then teachers started working with the system in all four grade levels and even in the Middle School. It works, and the department continues to refine its approach.
It’s also important to note that for a long time the school supported a term or yearlong course in creative writing, focused mostly on poetry, which allowed wonderful teachers like Jane Glazer and Laura Conklin to inspire student writers. Other good recent writing projects include the Agents of Change project that Art Leo began some years ago, where students had to write persuasively to the person in charge of what they wanted to change and improve about Catlin Gabel. This year Art Leo started a “gratitude” project, teaching 9th graders to write successful thank-you letters, as he had started an earlier letter-writing project for 10th graders. In all cases, the important goal we try to teach is learning to take the audience into account. These projects allow students to think about a different audience, and to understand how varied writing can be.
Big news: Clint Darling has announced his retirement! More about that will appear in the next Caller. Clint came to Catlin Gabel in 1967 and has served many roles, including that of interim head of school.
In my recollection, the English department taught writing well, especially Gene Jenkins, Jane Glazer, and Pru Twohy. They stressed creative writing and writing as a mode of selfexpression, with less emphasis on expository writing.
I laid great emphasis on expository writing. I thought that a Catlin Gabel education should develop powers of the mind, and processing ideas through the act of writing was the most effective way to help people learn to think about difficult and complicated issues.
I developed my own way of doing that, which came out of an effort to develop evaluation criteria for student work. In about 1970 we were going to do away with grades, so we needed written comments and had to figure out what they could address. Kim MacColl, Ed Hartzell, Sam Crawley, and I worked together on developing a list of criteria that we would teach to. We had to develop words and phrases that would identify what was required so that students could understand the criteria. For writing these included focus, accuracy of fact, reasoning from facts to conclusion, relevance of generalizations, and accuracy of conclusions. Students received a criteria sheet, so they knew what was expected and what they were supposed to know. There was a big gap at first between expectation and performance, but then we narrowed it.
I gave my students one to three weeks to write a paper on a difficult and sophisticated question. After they handed the paper in, I’d spend the next week reading them from A to Z, for all the criteria including grammar and spelling. I made comments in the margins, and wrote a summary of the paper’s strengths and weaknesses. I would hand papers back and require the students to come in for a conference. In the conference we would go over the paper and my comments and review the student’s questions and complaints. Together we would figure out what had to do done next time to do better. Then we’d start all over again in three weeks. Most students learned from this, although it usually it took a few papers before kids caught on.
The work to read 40 to 50 papers of 7 to 15 pages each was an enormous job. After 20 years of writing pretty much the same comments on papers, I had a set of rubber stamps made with the comments in red ink. All that red ink provoked a great deal of fear of those stamps, but kids seemed to learn more quickly as a result. In the mid 1980s the school hired learning specialists to help students with different learning styles who had trouble writing. Dixie McKay, Molly Kohnstamm, and Kathy Qualman came in and gave these kids new tools for learning. When that happened my teaching of writing improved because the kids showed me some techniques they got from the learning center.
Was my teaching successful? Alumni have said that what they learned was useful in college, so it was a limited success. The purpose of education is not to go to college but to develop powers of the mind. I’d say that if our graduates were just able to write college papers, then we failed, but if they became thinkers, we succeeded. In education there is never success. There is excitement in getting a new insight, the joy of mind rubbing against mind, and a sense of camaraderie in seeing how far students and teachers can get in their thinking. But we always might have gone farther.
Senior Karen Morse tells a story about writing her first paper for Art Leo: “He tore it apart and talked with me and told me what to do. I wrote another and the same thing happened. I wrote a third and he tore it apart and told me what to do. After five months I went back and read the first paper and could see that it was worthless.” In five months she had internalized the standard to where she could re-read her first paper and see what was specifically wrong with it. She had developed a sense of what was possible, what was good, and that you strive for good writing even if you don’t get there.
That’s what I aimed to do. If I was as successful as Art Leo with Karen Morse, I’d say I was successful and it worked. My whole teaching career was devoted to showing kids their writing and thinking might always be better, that there would always be someone better, and that their reach should exceed their grasp. I and they would never get where we aspired to be, and that was okay. But I had a hell of a good time trying to get there, and I hope they did, too.