The Promise of Writing
One early morning in March last year, the week before Spring Break, I was drinking coffee and unpacking my bag at my desk when my Academic Dean popped her head around the corner of my bookshelf and said, “Grab your things and go home, now!” “Ack,” I sputtered, “But why?” My eyes widened with confusion as I sensed some panic in her: “We have been notified of a positive COVID case in our school community. We have to close the school. Take everything and go. Classes will be online today.”
Driving home I was scared. I felt like I wanted to puke.
I had no idea that morning would be the last time I was on campus for six months, or that I would not teach in a classroom to students in-person for another seven. How could I? No one in the country understood COVID-19, let alone knew what fundamental changes it would bring to every aspect of our waking days, including our classrooms.
Every day, millions of educators are grappling with teaching during a pandemic as we continue adjusting our curriculums to meet this moment, and honestly, it has been a roller coaster, to say the least. I was already stressed out before COVID, both as an educator and a person living in the world, so pivoting to online teaching felt like a crisis. I had always bristled at online classes; they were the places that classroom community and relationships didn’t exist, so leading them meant stepping into a cold and isolated wilderness that was counterintuitive to my fundamental teaching philosophy. However, I knew that I was fortunate -- unlike many kids across the country, my students all have laptops and most have internet access at home, so it was time to get a grip.
Being in the classroom with my students and talking about writing and literature has always been my safe space -- the place in my life where I feel most at ease and most in control. To lose my ease and to lose control meant burning down my expectations and my perfectionism and starting to reimagine what was
“essential” in my curriculum and how it could be delivered online. My dynamic classroom space filled with the warm chatter and energy of high school girls was now reduced to a laptop screen, and my intuition began sounding the alarm that curriculum was hardly our biggest concern. How would we keep these students well and in a mental space that allowed them to continue learning during a social and physical quarantine? How would I stay well as an educator and in a positive mental space to project confidence rather than fear? Would being somewhat vulnerable with my students help them learn flexibility and resilience? Or would I appear clumsy and inept?
At some point in April or May, I had an epiphany.
A few years ago, our school moved beyond discussions of personalized learning to developing strategies to support student wellness. After listening to student feedback and parent concerns, our campus formed a student wellness committee and we began examining our homework policy, offering yoga and meditation classes, and focusing on ways our community could support a healthier school-life balance for our students. Around this time, in October 2017, I attended a professional development institute at a local boys’ school and one of the sessions was led by a teacher who attended the Institute for Writing and Thinking at Bard College. I was intrigued by what this colleague shared with us and knew I had to explore Bard’s model of writing-based teaching for myself. I purchased their text and began to rethink how I teach writing.
I initially focused on developing a daily free writing practice in my classroom to aid students in processing texts and build confidence and fluency in writing. After attending the Institute for Writing and Thinking at Bard in July 2019, I completely overhauled my writing curriculum with one guiding question -- How can I teach writing in a way that fosters a love of writing of all kinds – creative and academic? I proceeded with my belief that, if students developed a relationship with writing, they would become stronger and better writers. As an English teacher, I intuited there is an explicit connection between writing and wellness; focusing on the heart and the soul of the writing practice is building student wellness. During this global pandemic our students need their academic pursuits to have meaning and support their growth as people, not just students in various content-areas.
As our campus works towards developing competency-based teaching practices for reading, writing, and critical thinking, I have started creating wellness competencies that directly relate to writing and reading, in order to explore the questions -- Can you explicitly teach wellness in an English classroom? How do you take a nebulous and vague term like “wellness” and make it tangible and explicitly linked to instruction? How has Covid-19 reinforced the importance of resiliency, empathy, self-expression, and a growth mindset in the learning process?
Or, as one of my instructors at Bard asked of us: What is the promise of writing?
For more information about Bard College and The Institute of Writing and Learning, click here.
Kate Schenck is a collector of pigments and spices, dreamer, and builder of tables for lesser heard voices.