Tag Archives: free writing

Peter Elbow Visits

San Jose Area Writing Project teacher leaders who participated in the 2016 Advanced Institute [AI] with Dr. Jonathan Lovell at SJSU last summer enjoyed a reunion this Saturday with author, Peter Elbow.  The AI teachers had responded to two of Peter’s books, Writing Without Teachers and Vernacular Eloquence. (roll over photos for captions)

We met at Jonathan and Ellen’s lovely home in the Villages for an afternoon of lively, intense discussion.  In true writing project style, the reunion opened with the “Name Game,” an alliterative, maddening memory game, followed by introductions with realia.

In preparation for Peter’s first point, some of us practiced “getting it wrong,” since we are after all, the Advanced Institute.  Lots of laughter, appreciated by Laura who also loves light.  She is the documentarian.  (Insert disclaimer here for being able only to bring back the memory of such a rich event, but not prepared to transcribe all the insights shared.)

Jonathan Lovell, professor of English at San Jose State and director San Jose Area Writing Project

Jonathan, who really dislikes jerks who gerrymander, introduced himself with a model sailboat, sharing the inscription to the effect, “We can’t direct the wind, but we can adjust the sails.”  He added that by god, this year he is going to change the wind.


Peter Elbow, Professor of English Emeritus University of Massachusetts Amherst (whose realia was a wedge pillow because it took eight years to  write Vernacular Eloquence)

We took the time to be present, to connect with our writing community, and to appreciate each other with deep listening.

Teachers talked about the chapter from Writing Without Teachers that they constructed an “Elbowesque” free response to in the summer.  Some elaborated on how the book and IA influenced their classroom work.  And, each was given a chance to ask Peter Elbow a question.

John started discussion with Chapter One, Free writing Exercises

Reporting his classroom was made safer for exploration, John said free writing helps students find their voice.  This was especially helpful since teaching voice is a mystery.


Peter affirmed the risk-taking necessary to writing and we all joined the conversation on the theme of re-directing students from ‘is this good?’ to asking them to articulate what they see in their draft. And yes, teachers, look for the good.  We learn from positive reinforcement.

Marty dove in with teacher fears and limitation.  What about those excellent ideas that just don’t work? He shared his obsessive search for natural coherence in his students’ writing by using questioning to become more aware of audience. Ryan shared a creative approach in which he has his students write a piece in essay format, then rewrite it as a PowerPoint, then perhaps make a video of it, all of which make demands on the writer to clarify the message and unable to avoid audience.

And true to the quote Marty chose from the summer, Chp. 2 p. 34, “You often have your best ideas about Y when you are thinking about X,”our conversation and ideas went many directions.  We raised questions.  We objected.  We shared ideas.

Peter talked about students doing dialogue.  Being in conversation with themselves and the teacher. Kate spoke to the issue of practice writing and preparing students to take exams.  At the mention of writing assessment, words fly on the school convention of The Five-Paragraph Essay.

Jeff interjected with the big picture questions, “What do you want?  What are your goals for those graduating students?” He used the example of the study in which two groups of people in a study were trained in tossing a bean bag into a target 3 feet away.  One group practiced daily with a target 3 feet away.  The second group had two targets, the first was 2 feet away and the other 4 feet away.  When the groups were assessed, which did better?  Why?

The first group did not do as well as the group who had a varied target.  That group had to learn to gauge distance while the first only learned one way.

Grading kills it.

Which led to Peter’s talk on why write.  His goal is for students to “write something a human being would enjoy.” He explained he wants student to write when they’re out of school, by choice. And how do we teach?

“First I want students to write a lot, more than I can read.”  I will collect it, but I tell them I won’t read it all.  Volume. This call to write a lot was punctuated with how to get away from the “tyranny of evaluation.”  And Peter capped the debate around using formula to teach organization by saying, “The best way to teach organization is for students to use their mouth and ear.  They need to hear their writing.

Jen shared that her college students turn in their compositions as audio recordings and she responds verbally.

As Peter explained a bit about how he gives students credit in a writing class, Kate shared Peter’s article on contract grading: http://scholarworks.umass.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1002&context=eng_faculty_pubs

Kate during actual IA 16.  My photos of the three couch people on my right all came out blurry due to their animated conversation and levity.

Somewhere in there, we took a break.

Much discussion percolated through the chapters on writing process – Growing, and Cooking and Chapter 5 concluded with how Peter came to his approach, which was a natural segue into the Appendix.  Peter alerted us to a new essay version he wrote.

Laurie and Katie segue into the Believing and the Doubting Game

Laurie referred to why the Doubting Game is held to be THE game in education because it seems that playing the doubting game is being rigorous.  “Almost anyone in the academic or intellectual world, it seems as though when he plays the doubting game he is being rigorous, disciplined, rational, and tough-minded. p. 151  The doubting game seeks truth “by indirection– by seeking error.”

Katie explained that as a teacher she plays the Believing Game because it “yields the truth.”

Which led to Peter talking about student in math and science writing to “share the story of your thinking.”  Tracking the steps showed that those who got the correct answer to difficult calculus problems often went on surprising, random journeys.   He referred us to a college math teacher who used the Believing Game and published an article in APL Journal of Mathematics.  Free writing isn’t the only kind of composing – but it is a kind of writing that has been undervalued.

Peter also cited a norming session where a large group of teachers had to discuss sample essay papers and establish a B, a passing grade.  Feeling ran high and much talk ensued, but teachers didn’t come closer to a consensus until they played the Doubting and Believing Game.  Group 1 who thought the paper was passing has to take the opposite view and scrutinize the paper in order to see the paper as failing.  Those who argued it wasn’t a passing paper played the Believing Game to find why it was good enough, or a B or better.  After that exercise, the group came to “tons more agreement.”

Teacher leaders who attended, my post just touches on a few of the deep things we left to think about.  Comments are moderated, and it would be wonderful to know what thoughts you are entertaining and what ideas stayed with you as a result of the day with Peter Elbow.


It was an honor and a joy to converse with everyone in the group.  And we are especially grateful to Jonathan Lovell for leading the AI and arranging Peter’s visit.

An IA tradition, a fine meal at The Caspian
Thanks, ther cap’n!!!

One Little Word (OLW) for 2015

My first thought when I awoke was my word for the year.  I thought, “resistance,” but quickly realized, without the aid of my pot of tea or setting feet on the chilly floor, that word implies polarity and defiance.  So I thought more.

Building up resistance to a disease, then, a word would be immunity.  After I posted yesterday about countering a lack of vision with art, I read on Nova right afterwards that attitudes, happiness, and even body weight can be “caught” like a virus. That the condition of people around a person will increase the likelihood of a condition occurring.  This is fascinating in itself, and provided an intuitive confirmation that I’m on the right track to inject gratitude for parents into our family literacy work, not so much because the parents need it.  They deserve it yes, but the staff needs to do it.  We need it.  And this metaphor of there being a contagious disease I don’t wish to contract works with the OLW.

So, with my tea and nan, here I am at my writing desk checking out Dictionary.com:

In Science:  The protection of the body from a disease caused by an infectious agent, such as a bacterium or virus. Immunity may be natural (that is, inherited) or acquired. See also acquired immunity.

Word Origin and History for immunity n.  late 14c., "exempt from service or obligation," from Old French immunité and directly from Latin immunitatem (nominative immunitas) "exemption from performing public service or charge," from immunis "exempt, free," from assimilated form of in- "not, opposite of" (see in- (1)) + munis "performing services" (cf. municipal ), from PIE *moi-n-es-, suffixed form of root *mei- "to change" (see mutable ). Medical sense "protection from disease" is 1879, from French or German.
2. freedom from obligation or duty, esp exemption from tax, duty, legal liability, etc
3. any special privilege granting immunity


Well, the taste of freedom from unhappiness in my current job position has happened on and off as I have studied and meditated daily.  The injection or antibody for immunity is to SIGN OFF.

Yep, just sign off.  I can unplug my own discontent with my workplace.  I know that discontent narrows my attention.  I know that my happiness is not truly dependent on anyone or anything outside of me.  Cultivating contentment with the way things are, and the way other people are, will strengthen my immunity.
It almost begins to sound like a spiritual New Year’s resolution.  I’d say it is a direction, an intent.

In November I sat down in the morning service at CSE and wrote in my journal, “Still working on patterns of caring so defensively what others think of me.  Dirty looks from a peer at work still affect me with hurt, a feeling….”

And then the lesson started.  I took notes and drew lines from my statement of problem to the solutions being offered by Ellen O’brien.

Caring too much [about what others think] is comparison.  You are not working from your own true self.  (I know this is a bit of a “Duh” for some, but I didn’t realize that my sense of belonging to a staff was bundled up in this mess.)

Self-discipline is really doing “what pleases my soul” — it is not denial, not punishment, not forcing myself to be good.  My authenticity crisis…I don’t need to be good.  I need to be authentic.

Well, when I first got this — really took it on board — there was such a wave of relief and gratitude.  Like I’d been healed of cancer without the chemo.

I have had the privilege of working, creating, contributing.  I work among people who know my faults and weaknesses.  They have seen me fail and succeed.

I am grateful to serve kids and my peers.  I wrote as if I were giving my retirement speech, because I have believed for several months that I need to go somewhere else.  The environment really is toxic.

I really do need the vaccination.

So, in the New Year, what I’m doing first, daily, is signing off from discontentment, even if I work on the same campus until retirement.  I want to enjoy life, care for my aging mother, work in more creative ways, and continue to inspire teachers/students with my love of writing.  Perhaps even, some other position may appear if I don’t go into remission.

Ha, ha, I really like the third definition: any special privilege granting immunity

Keeping my connection to my true self, 
being the artist I am, can keep me healthy 
even in an environment polluted with unhappiness.

That’s my word.  Acquired immunity.

Happy New Year, to everyone, and especially to my teacher friends who write together.