Toward a Radical Writing Pedagogy, or, How a Bunch of Armadillos and a Pair of Scissors Reminded Me of the Important Stuff in Writing Instruction

Sarah DeBacher | April 26, 2013

“Revision—re-seeing, is how the writer sees the world and understands its meaning.” –Donald Murray

I spent last weekend blowing bubbles with armadillos and getting in touch with my student-heart.

Allow me to explain.

Last weekend, GNOWP wrapped a year-long series of workshops at Carolyn Park Middle School. Saturday’s goal: revising and reflecting. To launch, we closed our eyes and imagined our yards covered in armadillos. Yes, armadillos.

When we opened our eyes, we listed five things we’d do with the armadillos. Next, we listed five more. And then five more again.

Our first lists had us shooting, shooing, cooking, and otherwise ridding the yard of armadillos. By the third go-around, we were doing yoga with the armadillos, conducting food-preference experiments, calling in a team of consultants to conduct a thorough armadillo-analysis. It was good, giggly fun, this armadillo exercise. And through it, we saw how the first thought may not always be the most imaginative one. In debriefing, we agreed that our students would love the activity. They, like us, love the fun stuff, if not armadillos.

Soon, however, things got decidedly dark. I asked the teachers to get out a piece of writing they’d been working on over the past several weeks and months. I handed out scissors. The teachers knew what was coming next, and they didn’t like it. Not one bit.

Picture 032Heather wanted to know what she’d be doing with the pieces before she would dare take scissors to her draft. Margeonna’s piece didn’t have paragraphs yet, so how on earth could she be expected to cut the dern thing apart? Treva—dear Treva who up until this moment had thrown herself into every activity, every writing strategy we’d shared—resisted. Why did she have to cut it up, she wanted to know.

“Part of the reason for cutting up your essays is to divorce yourself from the first thought,” I said, “from that initial draft whose writing can seem so heroic, but which, let’s be honest, may have some issues.” In cutting the dern things apart, we can look at them differently. We won’t just be shooting the armadillos. We’ll form armadillo support groups. We’ll take the armadillos on a road-trip with opossums to Lollapalooza.

We cut. We lay the parts out before us and moved them around. We amputated whole paragraphs. My essay lost an anecdote about my mother which had hurt her feelings when she’d read it. I’d felt the piece needed the story then, but now that I’d isolated it, I realized the remaining parts were more focused, not to mention kinder, more true to my heart.

In sharing that fact after we’d finished, I cried. And then it was Treva’s turn, and she was crying. “You know,” she said. “This activity put me in touch with what it’s like to be a student.” How many times have we asked our students to do things they don’t want to do in service of some purpose we either neglect or fail to explain? “I have a tendency to say, ‘Because I said so,’ but all year you all have taken our resistance seriously, and I’ve realized that I need to do that for my kids. So thank you.”

Then, of course, many of us were crying. And when Faith played a video her students had produced—a series of six-word memoirs that just punch you in the gut with truth and emotion and This Is Who I Am, Me—we all shed tears of joy and admiration. It. Was. Awesome.

I’ve been thinking about this experience all week. I’ve had trouble writing about it. I’m two days past deadline. I cut all but a few sentences of my first draft. And I’m finding it hard to say what I want to say without bringing in the Big Guns via scholarly writing. Because the truth is, in the face of so much formalized, standardized, skill-drill-kill writing instruction, I fear my claims that something fricking awesome happened last Saturday will be dismissed as flowery or woo-woo, as little more than armadillo psychotherapy.

Robert P. Yagelski argues that writing is “an ontological act”: “When we write, we enact a sense of ourselves as beings in the world.” In getting silly and later taking scissors to our work, we became our students. And in doing so, we recognized a truth that’s at the heart of GNOWP’s work: if we believe that writing has the power to transform, then we need to focus on students-as-writers as much as (or perhaps more than) we do on our students’ writing.