The Heart of the Matter: Writing to Learn Lou Spaventa

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The Heart of the Matter: Writing to Learn

Lou Spaventa
Lou Spaventa teaches and trains in California, the USA. He is a regular contributor to HLT - The Heart of the Matter series.
The process of writing has something infinite about it.  Even though it is interrupted each night, it is one single notation.”  Elias Canetti

It is my thesis that writing is an act commensurate with learning; that the psychic reward of writing is to find out what we know about a topic. In standard teaching practice, writing is often ignored or minimally treated at the lower levels of language study. Certainly, it is usually not tested at those levels. However, if in fact, writing is an heuristic tool, then it not only should its instruction be encouraged at lower levels of language study, but it should be assessed as well.

When my oldest daughter was a preschool child of three and four, she used to write out the alphabet along with pictures that she drew. I contended then, as I do now, that her writing grew out of a creative impulse to express herself by showing what she knew both about the outside world and about the world she occupied mentally. Among her letters scripted in many colors were pictures of every day objects: people, houses, the sun – mixed together with beginning attempts at spelling words: chrnchla (tarantula) comes to mind as I write this.
Piaget thought of the symbolic impulse represented by a child’s primitive art as coming from the same epistemological channel as language. For me, it was easy to see in the mixture of writing and drawing that my daughter did as centrally connected to the communicative function of language. Every drawing that my young daughter accomplished was eagerly assessed by my wife and I to see what we could discover about her intellectual growth. It was a position of inquiry that we took, not judgment. We simply were curious to know what was going on in her developing mind, and her writing/drawing gave us clues to that. Perhaps then at lower levels of language instruction, it would be worth the teacher’s time to have students write/draw, assessing their work in the same manner as I did with my young daughter. Certainly, this has been done in at least one progressive school in the northeastern United States. Pat Carini has eloquently described staff meetings where children’s art work was discussed in terms of developmental learning at the Prospect School.
As a college writing instructor, I am interested in creating writing challenges for my students which ask them to learn through writing essays. For example, in two pre-college level writing classes of young adults, I assigned students to compare and contrast two species of animals, stipulating that there must be a reason strong enough to write the essay such that a general reader would want to find out the writer’s position. In other words, it would be of little interest to compare two species of retrievers, but might be interesting to compare, as one student chose to do, pigs and dogs as pet animals.
I begin with an example of comparing humans and primates, using a video series entitled “Inside the Animal Mind,” and articles from magazines such as National Geographic. The reference librarian at our college set up a quick reference page for research on the topic. Students attended a library orientation lecture to learn how to use online and catalogued resources. Our college also has the benefit of forward-thinking librarians who want to be helpful to students, so they have set up an instant-messaging center which links a student on a computer to a reference librarian to get a question answered quickly. Using these resources, students go through the process methodology of pre-write, draft, peer feedback, draft, teacher feedback, draft.
Students doing the assignment learn about the two animals they have chosen to compare and contrast, and they also learn that different academic fields place stress on different aspects of such comparisons and contrasts. For example, my first worksheet which I hand out to students as they watch a video on animal emotions has three columns: the left-hand column lists academic disciplines: biology, sociology, anthropology, communication, and the two right hand columns are blank save for headings at the top “humans,” and “primates.” I then ask students to make notes about humans and primates in the empty rows across from each academic discipline. In this assignment I hope that students learn three things: how to use research tools, how the academy divides up study, and last, but not trivially, what the two animals they have chosen are like as living creatures.
Whatever success obtains in this assignment is due to student enthusiasm for learning. Without that, none of my planning would matter. I tell students that writing is how we find out what we think. When we get things down on paper, we often surprise ourselves. In our minds, thoughts may be fleeting or repeated, but they are rarely subject to the scrutiny of a reader save on the analyst’s couch. We live much of our lives monitoring interior monologues that only we can hear. When we write, we take part in a social act. We join the community of men and women who learn through writing things down.
One characteristic of modernity is the rapid pace at which change takes place. Knowledge increases exponentially. Doctors are challenged to keep abreast of their fields. Medical students have so much to learn that Harvard University at one point decided to focus the study of anatomy on only one part of a human body. In a world such as this, writing provides an anchor for our thoughts. It also documents how our thinking may change. Pick up something you wrote twenty years ago and ask yourself if you could have written it today in just the same way. Writing is for learning, and without learning, in its broadest sense, there is little to recommend life.
The Creative Writing course can be viewed here.

The Creative Methodology for the Classroom course can be viewed here.
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