Volume V- 2000

Evolving Texts: My Students and My Writings
by César Valmaña Iribarren

         César Valmaña Iribarren teaches listening, writing and Computer Assisted Writing to second-year students of English at the School of Foreign Languages in the University of Havana. He resides at Conuco 87, e/e D'strampes y Goicuria, Sevillano, Vibora, La Habana, 10500, Cuba.

After having read Smith's Myths of Writing (1981), I subscribed to one of his statements--that students learn to enjoy writing in the presence of teachers who themselves write and enjoy writing. According to him, writing--as students are expected to learn it in the classroom--is a highly unnatural activity that reflects myths about the nature of writing, the manner in which it is acquired and practiced, and who is able to teach it. I felt encouraged to experiment with exposing my students to my personal writing (see Appendix 1), which they would use as starting points in their own writing experience. What began as a minor activity intended to add a little variety to my class ended up in my making fundamental discoveries about the teaching of writing--which I will share with you at the end of this short article.

Sharing Vulnerability

In using my personal writing in the classroom, I would be placing myself in the vulnerable position that students are asked to take every time they do an assignment. Because of this, I reasoned, several things would happen. First, rapport would be strengthened: the student would feel more like a participant in a larger, dynamic process than a subject proving that he could perform without making too many errors. Second, the writing process would be better illustrated as a result of my knowing exactly what the writer being studied--me--had in mind. Third, we teachers are quite ready to serve as a model of spoken English: why not of the written language as well? Fourth, I am a human being and knew that I would be understandably quite interested in comments on my own writing.

For the warm-up activity, I selected some short excerpts from my prose. I printed several of them as anonymous pieces that I submitted randomly to a group of my second-year undergraduates in English Language and Literature at the University of Havana. I asked them to write their impressions. Reactions to one of these, "Last Meeting in Prague," can be found in the Appendix 2 to this article. All did it enthusiastically; but some refused to share their work in public. I collected the papers and then taught my class according to the lesson plan on uses of the comma.

At home, I read the students' papers, enjoyed their attitudes, and wrote a few notes and questions about content and language. Likewise, I rewrote the pieces of my writing in poem form this time (see Appendix 1). As part of the overall experiment, I was interested in the students' response to different genres. Also, student responses had indicated that the excerpts had seemed out of context. Poems would be more autonomous. Poetry would also appeal to students' sensitivity and have more chance of opening their emotions in the written word. For the next class, I printed several copies of my new output and made the necessary changes in my lesson plans.

Asking Students To Be Editors

I asked the students to assume that they were editors who had been given room for including two pieces in the next month's issue of the literary journal they worked for. They had the task of recommending which pieces to choose and of writing a two-paragraph evaluation report to an imaginary editorial board. I also gave them copies of a real evaluation report from a publication I was familiar with. After discussing that report briefly, I assigned them to work in pairs and be ready to read their reports out loud at the end of the class. Examples of the writing they produced in about sixty minutes can be found in
Appendix 3.

All of the teams did very well. My exclamations flattered them. I remarked, however, that no report had a formal opening, and that, with one exception, none had made clear distinction about which piece of writing they were referring to. Finally, I told them to revise their papers and hand them in. That evening, I read the work carefully and found that the writing teams had managed to be critical, selective and capable of supporting their choices. Nevertheless, most of the teams had jotted down, almost verbatim, what they would have spoken out, and language mistakes seemed relatively few. I did not grade the papers.

At the next class, I returned the drafts and held writing conferences with the authors. As part of the conferencing, I first had each team read its paper out loud to me. Then I remarked how much I liked this or that part, and wondered about expanding, eliminating or replacing sections in order to clarify the authors intentions, improve their judgments, or simply make better choices as writers. Later, I made oral comments on the major errors and asked the teams to write a new version. As the class ended, I collected the papers. Although these second versions (see Appendix 4) still lacked the formalities of an evaluation report, they proved auspicious. I enjoyed reading them again. Sentence form had been revised and improved, mainly emphasis and variety. Many mistakes in grammar, mechanics and punctuation had been eliminated--and of course new ones had been made.

Revising the Revisions

In the following class, I provided another example of a real evaluation from a real publication. I then assigned them to revise the second versions, focusing on punctuation and on unity and coherence at sentence and paragraph levels. It is true that not all the students saw their writing as an evolving process: some even complained about the endlessness of the task. At the end of class, however, I did receive a new draft from each writing team. These third versions showed that many students were deeply involved in the process of expressing their evaluations, and that their writing was allowing them to discover more precisely how they felt about what they had read in the poems. We discussed this and pointed out that reading can be intricately involved with act of composing.

After having reread the papers, I had mixed impressions. I felt rewarded by the students' reactions to my written pieces, by their motivation and commitment, and by the appreciation and creativity shown in their papers. On the other hand, I felt appalled at the distance between this writing and the point at which their evaluations would be fully competent. Yet we went forward, and I asked for a fourth version (see Appendix 5). I noticed that most papers had been improved to such an extent that they might be taken as final drafts. Others, however, had just undergone minor changes for the better--or worse. Still I wondered which draft would be considered the final one, and who would make that decision. In the next class, no sooner had conferencing begun than my doubts dissipated. Most students had made the decisions themselves and gave their reasons. Then, they wrote their final copy and handed it in. We had culminated our processes of writing in a generous spirit of mutual reinforcement rather than in a spirit of restrictive combat.

Thanks to Vivian Zamel

Throughout these processes, I had been involved in a another and much deeper matter. As a result of perusing the available literature on the teaching of writing, I slowly and painfully came to a fresh, critical reflection on my own teaching. Vivian Zamel's "Responding to Student Writing" (1985) enlightened me. I remembered that I used to write what my language teachers wanted me to say. My written pieces were viewed as fixed when I first handed them in. Like my teachers themselves when they were students, I used to be concerned with accuracy and correctness of surface-level features of writing. I was deeply involved in the practice of searching for and calling attention to error. My teachers and I had overused correction and created an emphasis on weakness, error and inability. We had also neglected one of Andrea Nash's points in her discussion of redefining learning and teaching: "... make learners conscious of their own strategies for determining correctness" (1992, 68).

Discovering the Process of Discoveries

I had always assumed that learning to write depended upon the application and mastery of rules and prescriptions. Never had I dared to tell myself and my teachers what poor models we were, and how imprecise and vague we had been when attempting to communicate with students. I had suspected what Zamel observed (1985). First, that texts evolve. Second, that revision should be taken literally as a process of re-seeing text. Third, that such a process is an integral aspect of writing. Fourth, that we teachers should react as genuine and interested readers of authors, rather than as cold judges and evaluators of student writing.

In the end, the shower of challenging thoughts soaked in and led me to appreciate the process of discovering the process of discoveries, and to realize that it had been personal, even confidential as well. The students had exposed an almost intimate side of themselves, and their writing had improved as a result. That realization was well worth the time I had spent on reading and rereading my students' writings as well as the works of the scholars and educators who have deeply influenced me. It is to both these students and scholars that I owe a debt of gratitude.

Appendix 1:
Writings by C.V. Iribarren

A-1. Prose: "Last Meeting in Prague"

Our last meeting in Prague, before my returning home. It was late spring or early summer, with Vivaldi or Myslivechek easily flowing from the wireless. On the table, my last sip of milk with slices of stage black bread in the sun's rays. And me, on my back, taking stock of my recently past times--all messed up, twisting and spinning round crazily together with my rumbling bowels. Languid, I neither answered nor got up when the muggy air was pierced by a tapping on the door.

The unseen, unexpected, delicate hand on the other side knocked... and again, then cautiously turned the door handle and pushed. The door curiously moved open and produced a figure scrupulously stepping in. As though a second sunrise, her warming, charming, slender person appeared and brightened up the place, her blond hair and blue eyes sparkling, feeding up the light. I uttered her name in surprise, delight--despair perhaps. The strings and the flute swallowed up the continuo. Her smile overflowed in allegro.

A-2. Transformation into Poetry of "Last Meeting in Prague"

Last meeting in Prague-- late spring or early summer, Vivaldi easily flowing from the wireless.

On the table, in the sun's rays, my last sip of milk and slice of stale black bread.

On my back, taking stock of my recent past --twisting and spinning round crazily together with my rumbling bowels-- I lay languid, when the muggy air was pierced by a tapping on the door.

On the other side, the unseen, unexpected, delicate hand knocked and cautiously turned the door handle and pushed. The door moved open and produced a figure scrupulously stepping in.

Her warming, charming, slender person appeared, and brightened up the place, her blond hair and blue eyes sparkling, feeding up the light. I uttered her name in surprise, delight--despair perhaps.

The strings and the flute swallowed up the continuo. Her smile overflowed in allegro.

B-1. Prose: "Summer Morning in the Caribbean"

In the Caribbean and the early hours of a summer morning, a balmy breeze waltzes sideways and soothingly the sea laps on the wooden hull of a boat adrift. Lines and sun rays pour in the blue, deep, over which statuesque clouds glide heading for the mountains far ahead.

In the boat, around their captor's bare feet, fish lie still, open-mouthed in their last cry, unheard cry for breath. Ceremoniously, at the rhythm of his favorite song that he hums ceaselessly, the fisherman eats his meal--sea biscuits and coffee--as his eyes scrutinize the distant shore and his mind muses upon his beloved, their past and future.

B-2. Transformation into Poetry of "Summer Morning in the Caribbean"

The Caribbean in the early hours of a summer morning soothingly the sea laps on the hull of a boat adrift. Lines and sun rays pour in the blue, deep.

A balmy breeze rises, waltzes sideways, and clouds glide above, ashore-- heading for the mountains far ahead.

In the boat, around their captor's bare feet, fish lie still, openmouthed in their last, unheard cry for breath.

Ceremoniously, humming tirelessly his favorite song, the fisherman has his sea biscuits and coffee, as his eyes scrutinize the distant shore and his mind muses upon his beloved, their past and future.

C-1. Prose: "Skin Diving"

Writing is like skin diving. You dive into a mass--or a mess?--of silence, odorlessness, invisible streams, increasing darkness, of drastic, unexpected changes of temperature, of things looking larger and closer.

You strive to reach the bottom, and you reach it. Then you have little time left. You need fresh air. You must get back so you could come back later, back to that glistening piece you don't know yet what it is, to touch it, or simply to behold it longer.

C-2. Transformation into Poetry of "Skin Diving"

Writing's like skin diving.

You dive into a mass--
or a mess of silence,
odorlessness, invisible streams,
increasing darkness,
of drastic, unexpected changes of temperature,
of things looking closer, larger.

You push to reach the bottom, and you reach it.

Then you have little time left-- you need fresh air.

You take it and are back to that glistening thing -you don't know yet what it is, you want to hold, or, simply, behold longer.

Appendix 2:
Samples of Students' Comments on Prose "Last Meeting in Prague"

In fact, I did not understand the excerpt very well but I think it was the last meeting between them, and he was caught by her spell forever. It is full of adjectives, what I don't like, but the author has used them very well so that the lecture does not seem that boring.
-Azaria

The excerpt gives the the impression the author is telling his best friend about the last time he saw the woman he loves. I think it was an impossible love and that's why he was that surprised when he saw her in his room.
-Lizzi

When I started reading this melancholic excerpt I felt like passing through the author's feelings. He is describing one or perhaps the most marvelous moment of his life and he has got into reader's mind and emotions. For him this last meeting meant life, light, everything. I really liked it.
-Isabel

Even though there are many words I couldn't get, it's a pretty excerpt that shows how loneliness helps hearts to remember actions that happened and I think remembrances are necessary for human beings as a kind of feed-back and it makes minds grow stronger.
-Ivelises

Appendix 3:
Samples of Students Writing as Editors: First Versions

Within the five given articles we selected the last one to be published because it describes writing as a confused mixture of feelings and thoughts that suddenly come to your mind, as an unknown darkness that you have to explore; like a part of you that is claiming for freedom but you need to hold for surviving. We think the other articles are not good enough for being included in our publication because they are too boring for catching the reader's attention. Besides, the language is very complicated for the readers to understand.
-Azaria and Lizzi

Out of the five choices, the description of a summer day in the Caribbean--expressed in two paragraphs--shows that the form doesn't matter when you want to talk about a simple fishing day in a poetic way. It is a continuous description full of adjectives that launches the reader to go deeper into the reading. It is a very precise piece where the author just uses a few, proper words.

The last piece, about the process of writing, did really impress me. Have you ever gone through the deepest of your soul and emotions? That is what you will read. A travel through your internal darkness and mystery.
-Isabel and Eyre

Appendix 4:
"Samples of Students Writing as Editors: Second Versions

Out of the five given pieces of writing we selected the last one to be published because it describes writing as a confused mixture of feelings and thoughts that suddenly come to your mind, as an unknown darkness that you have to explore; like a part of you that is claiming for freedom but -you need to hold for surviving.

We think the other pieces are not good enough for being including in our publication because the language is very complicated for our readers to understand. Besides, they seem too boring for catching the readers' attention. Readers may get lost while reading.
-Azaria and Lizzi

I'd publish the last one, the poem about writing, because I think people can pay more attention to poetry than simple paragraphs. I also share the author's opinion when he says writing is like skin diving. You don't know exactly what people think about your writings until they read them. So, you seem to be in danger waiting for something you don't even know: their opinion.

In the paragraph about the Caribbean, everything is described with a fine touch. Summer mornings, the sun, the breeze, the sea and how this calm helps the fisherman to open up his mind to the distance in front of him and to make a stop in his life. My point is that this kind of writings, which make references to nature, relaxes stressed people. That's why this paragraph should be published.
-Ivelises

Appendix 5:
Samples of Students Writing as Editors: Fourth Versions

To Mr. Smith, Head of the Editorial Board of Cosmopolitan Magazine:

I would like you to publicate these two pieces--written by young people--to head your section, in Youth , for new talents. I think both of them should be known and enjoyed by all those many persons that read your articles.

I would like you to publicate these two pieces--written by young people--to head your section, in Youth , for new talents. I think both of them should be known and enjoyed by all those many persons that read your articles. The description of a summer day in the Caribbean--expressed in two paragraphs--shows that the form doesn't matter when you want to talk about a simple fishing day in a poetic way. It is a continuous description full of adjectives that launches the reader to go deeper into the reading. It is a very precise piece where the author just uses the proper words. The piece about the process of writing did really impress me. Many authors have given their impression of writing; but not many have written a so expressive poem like this one. Have you ever gone through the deepest of your soul and emotions? That is what you will experience. A travel through your inner darkness and mystery.
-Isabel and Eyre

To Mr. Williams, head of the editing staff of People Magazine:

Mr. Williams, we were given the task of choosing two out of these five pieces of writing. Our choices were the poem about the Caribbean and the poem about writing. The first is about the sea. In this poem the blue and lovely sea is attractively described. It gives us an image about the cozy and quiet environment which will make the readers relax and almost feel as if they were really there enjoying the soft breeze, the sun and the sight. Our second option was based on the way writing is approached, from that point people can infer that there is always something interesting to say about writing. It simply takes you, brings you back, makes you drift, it moves you. To make a long story short this poem perfectly characterizes what writing is all about.
-Yanela and Aynell

References

Nash, Andrea et al. 1992. Talking Shop: A Curriculum Sourcebook for Participatory Adult ESL. Washington, DC: National Clearinghouse for ESL, Center for Applied Linguistics.

Smith, Frank. 1981. Myths of Writing. Publisher unknown.

Zamel, Vivian. 1985. "Responding to Student Writing." TESOL Quarterly. 19 .1: 79-101.

---. 1992. "Writing One's Way into Reading." TESOL Quarterly. 26. 3: 463-481.

 

 

 

back to content page