June 02, 2003

Running, writing, teaching and the self

An aboriginal runner in Australia started me down a whole train of thought and exchanges with Dom that get at a theme I feel is important, but can't quite pull together in my mind, but I'm going to try.

It started when Dom wrote:

Cathy Freeman is larger than life in Australia. She is the only aboriginal to win individual Olympic gold: 400 metres, Sydney Olympics. Before that she had won silver in the same race at Atlanta. I admire her beyond her athletic achievements... I admire her for remaining a charming, unspoilt person in spite of gold and glory. Her teeth are still uncapped, her manners country girl, and her speech broad Australian.

After a long letup, she's back in training. This morning's news says:

Freeman admitted that it was only recently that she got back "that feeling" about the track. "I actually feel electricity at the tips of my toes," she said. "And I feel like I'm flying -- with wings, sailing down the track. It's like I'm being carried."

Strangely, I thought of you when I read this. Your writing, at times, has the quality that you were flying, with wings, sailing down the keyboard. Your words are uncomposed... something is writing them for you.

Yes, when they're good, something is writing them for me and I don't know what - when they rattle around like marbles in a can causing an irritating noise, then it's me doing the writing. At such times I'm usually tripping over my ego which has a tendency to jump in front of me and grab the pen from my hand ;-) Anyway, Dom went on to ask me if I had considered writing a book about writing. I responded in part that I really did not know how I wrote, but . . .:

Oh I know a lot of the conventional wisdom. I used to teach writing to the students on the college newspaper. But while I was doing it I never considered it so much teaching, as coaching. Writing is a very holistic activity. It involves - and quickly reveals - your whole self. Maybe that scares some people, subconsciously, so they choke and don't write the way they could. A lot of people don't want to be known.

But because it involves the whole self it's very difficult to teach. I'm sure no one taught Cathy Freeman to run. But they saw the natural material that was there and they worked with it, coaching her to bring out the best of what she was capable of doing. That's what I tried to do with students.

Which inspired Dom into a wonderful description of how his wife, Daphne, teaches.

The significant part of your email (writing can be coached, not taught) qualifies it for inclusion in my file. I had never thought of writing from that perspective.

If I remember correctly, the word "education" comes from the Latin "educare" = "to bring out from within." And that's exactly what the coach does.

But teaching English has bogged down in form and restraint. In my file I have a book by Tom Romano, an English teacher, who says: "... some teachers, no doubt, do want such lifeless writing. In fact, they actively solicit it. Instead of celebrating each student's unique personality, particular way of seeing, and personal brand of English, these teachers neglect them in favor of stressing artificial writing forms..."

A great coach is sitting at a nearby computer. Daphne is a living example of your definition. Over many years I have observed her coaching students. After establishing a good rapport with the student, she begins from what the student knows. She encourages the student to type (or write) whatever he or she knows, and the expression is not hampered by form or spelling or grammar or sequence. Once the knowledge is recorded, student and coach discuss it. Do you think that idea belongs up there, and not down here? That's a great idea: could you say it in shorter words? Let's discuss this important sentence; I'm sure you know more about it. This process goes on through several passes. (A computer essay really helps; the changes can be done instantly). In the very last pass spelling and grammar are edited. The student is usually amazed at the end result. He/she still has ownership of the essay. It is genuinely his/her work. The coach has written nothing that is not the student's work. Coach and student have together adjusted, rearranged and edited.

First, that last paragraph is a great example of good writing, for in all the concrete specifics Dom brings the abstract coaching concept to life. But Dom is a warm, thoughtful observer, as revealed here, and that too makes him a good writer. And what is it that makes Daphne a great teacher? Something that can be learned in teaching classes at college - or something deeper, something involving her whole self, something that makes her genuinely care about the student?

I can remember, long ago, watching a wonderful first grade teacher at work. I was an education writer at the time and this teacher violated every rule of what was passing then as the leading edge of educational technique - yet one thing was clear. She loved the students and they loved her and her class was small enough so she could treat each student as an individual. Right then I abandoned my fixation on "modern" education techniques and decided that the core truth was class size was the most important factor in determining quality education, not technique - and that, only if the teacher had a certain, indefinable something that made him or her genuinely care about their students.

Teaching and writing are holistic activities - they involve and reveal, for better or worse, our entire selves. Too often I've seen that "self" - in both teacher and writer - being one that is insecure and more interested in looking good - looking bright - in front of their student or readers, than they are in communicating anything that will really help the student grow.

(Hmmmm... I wonder if this is why so many student athletes seem to remember a good coach long after memories of most teachers have faded? Coaches know they can not teach certain capabilities - that like a good sculptor, they see what is in the block of stone and they free it. )

Running, writing, teaching . . . they all tap into some inner resources that are not always there when we want them and are hard to objectify and articulate, let alone transfer to another. Sometimes you get it right, though, and then, it's like Cathy Freeman says:

"I actually feel electricity at the tips of my toes," she said. "And I feel like I'm flying -- with wings, sailing down the track. It's like I'm being carried."
Posted by Greg Stone at 08:14 AM | Comments (0)