‘As Freshly as a Child with an Adult’s Mind’: Booklife in the Classroom

This week, Jeremy L. C. Jones will be guest blogging on teaching writing and using Booklife in the classroom.  Jeremy is a freelance writer and editor living in South Carolina.  He conceived and co-developed the Living Words Program (a creative writing program for adults diagnosed with dementia) and Shared Worlds (a writing and world-building summer program for teenagers.)  He currently teaches part time at Wofford College and Limestone College.

Most of my students don’t want to be professional writers.  Some do not want to write at all.  These days, just about every class I teach is required by a college’s general education handbook.  For my students, the value of Booklife begins with the “Introduction” and then jumps ahead to “Booklife Gut-Check” and “Private Booklife”.

However, I didn’t have to use so many pages of Booklife to see positive and immediate results in the classroom.  Below, I discuss an exercise I used in a Freshman Composition night course for working adults. 

But first, by way of introduction, a little bit more about me…

I’ve been teaching in one venue or another since I graduated from college in 1993.  17 years is not all that long a time and is by no means a full career, but it is long enough for patterns to arise. 

Working with Jeff VanderMeer, recently, has helped me pull a lot of threads together and, I hope, helped me be a more effective teacher.

Jeff VanderMeer and I have been developing Shared Worlds, a teen creative writing and world-building camp, since the spring of 2007.  While I have collaborated on curricula with other teachers, Shared Worlds is the first time I’ve gotten to work with a creative writer in this way.  I’ve borrowed a lot from Jeff and from Jeff’s writing. 

When Jeff and Tachyon made the Advance Reader’s Copy of Booklife available for early adoption, I built a freshman humanities course around it and I have drawn heavily on it in other classes.

Booklife in general and “Pillars of Your Private Booklife” in particular reinforced my not yet vocalized pillars of teaching: Curiosity, Receptivity, Passion, and Imagination.  It also reminded me of my clay feet: Discipline and Endurance.

Since my first teaching job out of college (as a special education teaching assistant in an elementary school), I have focused on helping students deal with their anxieties about writing.  As a result, much of the instruction I give has to do with getting around, breaking through, or overcoming.

From the start, my approach has been to remove jeopardy—to require multiple drafts, to delay grades until later drafts, to deemphasize mechanics in early drafts—as a way of encouraging students to be receptive, curious, and passionate.  In short, I encourage them to take risks in a safe environment.  Once the hang-ups are taken care of and the imagination is enjoying the wings of heightened freedom, we can move on to greater things.

But anxiety runs deep when it comes to writing.

Many of my students, especially in high school and college courses, have a sense (conscious or otherwise) that a “bad” grade on a paper will lead to the loss of their parent’s love, expulsion from school, and ultimately destitution.  That’s a lot of weight to put on a 1000 words.  Sure, it’s irrational.  It’s illogical.  But it is real, too.  Such is the nature of fear and anxiety!

When we write, we put ourselves out there and we are, in some ways, at the mercy of our audience.  The classroom, I strongly believe, should be a safe place to express ourselves, a practice ground with consequences, certainly, but also one with compassion.

A couple weeks ago I kicked off a Freshman Composition class by handing out photocopies of “The Pillars of Your Private Booklife” (165-167).  The class has seven students, all of whom are over the age of thirty.  The oldest student is in her mid-fifties.  We meet at three nights a week for three and a half hours a session. 

Each of the students had been dreading the class since they made the decision to go to college.  For many, many folks, Freshman Comp is the equivalent of having a root canal without anesthesia.

Yet, Comp is a very important class.  It sets the tone for all the writing a student will do while in college.  If you have a horrible experience in Comp, chances are that you will dread writing throughout your college career.  If you have a positive experience, you very well may smile your way through college.  Okay, so maybe I am over-stating this, but I do believe that Comp is crucial and, certainly, not just because it introduces you to the writing process and rhetorical situations.

As I mentioned above, I passed out copies of “Pillars” and asked students to read through it.  When they were done, I asked them what popped out for them.  (I borrowed this from my brother, a photographer.  He often shows me images and asks, “What pops?”  By looking at what draws your eye, you can examine the image and yourself with a rapidly achieved intimacy.) 

Here is what popped for my Comp students upon reading “Pillars”:

  • “Curiosity reflects a willingness to be disappointed and an urge to understand the world.”
  • “The truly curious reject received ideas and try to see everything as freshly as a child with an adult’s mind.”
  • “If you are not passionate about what you write, no amount of effort can revive your work.”
  • “Without discipline, the imagination would float off, untethered, into the sky.”

These four sentences have become the pillars of our class.  The simile, “as freshly as a child with an adult’s mind,” resonated with every member of the class.  It popped the brightest and it has become a sort of mantra for the class, in part because it explicitly gives students permission to enjoy themselves.  Furthermore, it encourages them to combine the wisdom gained through life experience with the receptivity and joyfulness that was, perhaps, left behind in childhood.

And they thought class was going to be painful and boring!

Throughout the week, I will be blogging about more ways that I have used Booklife in class.  If you have thoughts on the topic or if you have used Booklife in the classroom as either a teacher or a student, I’d love to hear from you.

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