A Single Dispatch from Writer’s Camp on the 40th Anniversary of the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College

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The Warren Wilson College Campus 

First of all, I was sick with a cold when at 10:30 pm I boarded the plane for a red-eye from Portland to Atlanta, a nearly five hour flight through most of which I would be sneezing and blowing and stuffing kleenex into my own private trash bag that I kept discreetly stuffed into the storage pocket underneath my tray table, trying desperately not to annoy my seat mate strangers, sitting, as they do these days on planes, practically in my lap. Luckily, it was just a cold at the pinnacle of its heinousness, but even though I had no fever and I was not coughing, I was miserable, unable to sleep, jumping out of my skin, feeling my eardrums likely to burst, miraculously managing through the entire flight to remain in my seat. What was so important that I must suffer so on this cross-continental flight that would eventually land me in Asheville, North Carolina?

I was traveling to Writer’s Camp, the alumni conference of the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers, held this year on the campus of Warren Wilson College in celebration of the program’s 40th year. Some details about these 6 days are forthcoming, but for now, let me first skip ahead to the inauspicious ending of my journey.

As I had left my phone in the dorm while I was out on the last night of the conference reveling with friends, it began with urgent missed text messages from my lovely wife at 3 am eastern time. She’s wondering where I am and if I’ve missed my flight and why I’m not responding to her texts. And she leaves a voice message that says that she’s called the police to report a possible missing person. I’m puzzled and riled and certain that she has come to the airport one day early.  What I failed to think about, though, in this moment, is why for the love of monkeys would she find on the flight status monitors the correct flight number and arrival time, the ones I had given her earlier that day. Because she did.  So when I arrived this morning at the airport for check-in, the attendant could not find my flight reservations. I was not scheduled to fly!  It was then, nearly a month late, when I took a closer look at the itinerary sent to me by my travel agent. Sure enough, my flight was, in fact, yesterday, and I did, in fact, miss it.

A strange soup of emotions hit me when I realized my mistake. There was a momentary panic as I imagined the expense of a room for the night and a new flight home. And I experienced a deep, forlorn feeling, the kind I felt perhaps as a child realizing I was lost or otherwise in trouble, and kind of a profound sadness, a slight breaking in the heart. There was also a sense of shame, shame that I missed the mistake I should have found the moment the itinerary arrived in the mail, but also shame that I assumed at 3 o’clock in the morning that the mistake was my wife’s and I was angry when I should have been sorry, sorry for her inconvenience and sorry for her and my son’s fearful, somewhat traumatized response to the possibility that something had gone horribly wrong with my return journey. All these things made seismic impressions in my sleepy brain, but they moved through me more quickly than it took you to read this paragraph. Wonder of wonders, I did not get angry, I did not beat myself up. I simply called the helpline for Delta Air and within minutes I had a new flight plan for tomorrow and NO additional charges!

I was curious about why I did not lose my shit. I am prone, somewhat, to losing my shit when I make significant mistakes or am seriously inconvenienced or put out. Uncharacteristic cursing generally ensues. I did none of that. I wondered why. Could it be that I had just spent six days with some of the most talented, interesting, gifted, generous and kind people I have ever known? Yes. Could it be that, even though I was sad that many of my closest friends could not be there, others of my closest friends were there, and new people were there, people who I have never met who nevertheless, in one quick week, became fast friends, equally beloved. Yes. Could it be that over the last week I had felt nearly pummeled by blessings bestowed upon me by this singular alumni conference and the program that birthed it? Yes. Could it be that, even though the dorms were shitty, even though the pillows were made from some plastic composite, even though the scrambled eggs were runny, and even though the coffee was essentially just brown water, the classes were stimulating and thoughtful, the readings were magnificent, the conversations were serious and hilarious, the workshops rigorous and respectful? Yes. Could it be that over the last week I have been free, completely free, and inspired to write, and that I came pretty close to a complete draft of my new novella? Yes. Could it be that on six consecutive mornings, I meditated outside at 7 in the morning with a group of my writer friends? Yes.  Could it be that I have danced like a madman, that I have been to Snake Lake and looked up in silence at brilliant stars, that I have met the students currently enrolled and arriving for their residency and found them beautiful and funny and smart and kind, that I have seen and spoken to some dear teachers that I have not seen in 20 years, that I have seen pigs sleeping in their pens, snoring like pigs, and that I have missed my flight and gained several more hours to write? Yes, I said, yes, it is yes.

Dance

This is where we danced.

Write

This is where I wrote fiction.

Nap

This is where I took naps.

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A view from where I was writing and napping in the library.

Meditate

This is where we meditated.

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My friends Dale, Catherine, and Jeff at Snake Lake!

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This is where we read and attended classes. This is my new friend Ross teaching his class on “Strangeness.” This is the guy who showed me the stars at Snake Lake and the pigs in the piggery. He also helped Peter coordinate and run the conference.

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This is the building where, 19 years ago, René and I stayed on campus during my last residency so that she could attend my reading and my graduation.

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#226: Orlando, Florida

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A large crowd gathers for a vigil in honor of the victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting at the Dr. Phillips Performing Arts Center in Orlando, Fla., on Monday, June 13, 2016. (Charles King/Orlando Sentinel/TNS via Getty Images)

In my classroom,
alone, my senior students
out already and a small,
manageable list of things to do
to wrap up the school year,
I’ve got more time than
I’m used to having
and I find myself often
thinking of you, Orlando,
and looking at photos
in an article, “Thousands
Attend Vigil to Prove
That Love Wins.”
Keeping busy might be
an antidote to thinking
and feeling, but I’m not
quite busy enough, so
today I think and feel.
Each photo I look at
chokes me up and I have
to look away to prevent
myself from sobbing.
I don’t know why I feel
it necessary to prevent
myself from sobbing
because if anything warrants it,
this does, and if anyone
walked into my room and saw me
the sobbing would be explicable.
A thought occurs:
through all of these horrific
tragedies, even after
Sandy Hook, I don’t remember
or am not aware of any
of my colleagues losing it
on the job. It’s almost a
kind of unwritten contract
that we agree to take care
of the children in our care
and are last in line in our own need–
or, again too busy to think or feel,
preparing 87 minutes of wall to wall
activity for 3 different classes and
having sometimes 200 kids
to somehow assess, we can’t afford
to slow down for grief or anything
like that. And no one would take
a bereavement day for strangers
on the other side of the continent.
I apologize for this, Orlando,
because in a perfect world,
or even one slightly more perfect
than the one we have, we would
all take bereavement days to grieve
for strangers, or, we would keep working,
finding some way to grieve together
because that would be the most
important work we could do:
grieve, stumbling somehow into hope
and compassion and love, and then
figuring out together how to prevent
and stop madmen from acquiring
automatic weapons in order to
murder more Americans.
It seems to me that this is
the kind of schooling, the kind
of education we need now–
and it’s not like we need to
learn how to do it, because
we already know. We have the
knowledge and we have the power;
we simply need the will. That is all we
need, Orlando, Florida, people
of the United States of America:
we need the collective will
and it is done.

 

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#225: On Writing Poetry in a Sports Bar


It’s the Lou Rawls
they’re playing,
which at first I mistake
for Barry White,
Lou Rawls and the rain, perhaps,
that entices me to stay inside,
ignoring the 47 inch screens
lining every wall,
muted today for Lou Rawls,
the pinball machines,
sports of all sorts,
tennis of all sorts,
grooving to “you’re gonna
miss my loving,”
pulling out my notebook and,
while I’m waiting
for my boy’s Akido class
to end, in spite of the tennis,
I write this tiny poem
and dink a beer.

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#224: Early Summer Loss

Saturday night’s carnage


On this hot June evening,
my son and I listen to new music
in the cool basement, staying up late,
having a pretty darn good time.
Before bed, though, one more chore:
fold and put away the laundry
in a pile on the bed upstairs.
O horrors, as I’m folding I see
these little curled up pieces of paper
scattered in the laundry
and soon reach an explanation:
the stack of 12 highly prized Pokémon
cards he’d taken to the restaurant
the night before have ended up in the wash.
I know that, no matter what I do
from this point on, withhold or reveal,
this will not go well, and it does not.
I choose to reveal, and I hold them
in my hands, a pathetic offering, for him to see.
You’d think someone had run over his dog
and then backed up to do it again.
He’s weeping and flailing around
on the floor and saying over and over,
“this is not happening.” At one point,
he leaves the room for a moment
and comes back in the door thinking
he’ll be awake and the crumpled-
up cards, the fanciest ones in his
collection, will be whole again.
I put on my best fathering hat.
I talk him down. I try to help him
see that of all the terrible things
that could befall a boy of ten,
this, actually, is not the worst of them.
A little lesson in privilege and good fortune
but not too far over the top, except the one
reminder that his mother is now cancer free.
There are hugs. A resignation.
Some encouragement that there may be
other Pokémon cards in the future
that may rival these lost ones.
My son encloses his now worthless
cards in a makeshift plastic coffin,
writes an epitaph, and completes
his ritualistic two claps and a bow.
Laundry put away, emotions shifting,
settling back into our cool basement
listening parlor for more new music,
he comes over to my chair for one more
hug and tells me he loves me.

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R.I.P. Pokécards

 

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Final Exam: The Visitor

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Let’s say, you’re beginning class for your seniors in Creative Writing on the very last day of the school year, their final exam. Let’s say you have asked them to do this relatively simple but quite risky thing, to read a piece of their fiction out loud to the class. Okay. And let’s say that today, despite chronic absences all through the semester for this group of students, you have a full house. Are you with me so far?

Let’s say that at the beginning of the period, there is a student sitting at a desk that is not enrolled in this class, but rather, a recent graduate, apparently visiting. At first, you think how nice it is to see this particular kid, a kid you liked, a kid you had in class two years earlier, a kid who, despite his intelligence and capability, struggled nevertheless in his last years of high school, but for whom you have not a single negative or judgmental thought.

Let’s say that it appears that this former student wants to stay. He even says for all to hear that he is excited about experiencing your teaching today, again.  You say, because of the nature of this particular day’s plan, that if he does stay, he’ll be taught not by you, but by the students who will be reading their fiction. He seems perfectly happy about that as well. If this were a final in which kids were “testing” in the traditional sense, you probably would have simply said how glad you were to see this young man, and sent him on his merry way, but instead, you think, what’s the harm? If he wants to hear these kids read their fiction, he is most welcome. You even ask the students, your first mistake, does anyone object to a guest audience member? No one objects.

So as the class begins and the first readers volunteer to read, he sits there and listens. But quite early in the process, he starts commenting, raising his hand for questions, complimenting various readers, in short, becoming an active participant in the proceedings, which irks you, makes you uncomfortable, causes you at one point to say out loud that this student is not the student you remember, to which he replies in agreement, but ads that both students, this one and the one you remember, are equally present. You remember now asking him at this point to be quiet during the readings. Your second mistake is that you have not yet asked him to leave the room.

Strangely, you remember looking up at various points during the next few readings and noticing his absence and feeling some relief about that. Minutes later, however, he’s back in that seat. And now he’s commenting again, directly to students, as they finish their readings, about what he liked and appreciated and it’s getting kind of hard to tell whether he is being sincere or if he is mocking or something else. At this point, you remember saying out loud what everyone in the room is feeling, that you are a bit weirded out and becoming increasingly uncomfortable. Your third mistake: you still have not asked him to leave.

Another student volunteers to read. You have this thought: how nice it is that you haven’t had to call on anyone; they just keep volunteering. But then during this particular reading, the recent graduate, the visiting student starts to do some truly strange things. He gets up out of his seat. He starts to move about the room randomly picking up things like tape dispensers, staplers, and post-it pads, trinkets in front of students, and he’s rearranging them around the room and placing them in front of some students on the desks in front of them and making these strange little gestures with his hands as if he is casting spells while the student still reading finishes. And now this boy has a pair of scissors and you are scared. You remember saying (but at this point things get fuzzy in your brain because your adrenaline is pumping)–you say to him, you need to leave now. You are distracting us and you must leave. He is immediately and profoundly apologetic for “hurting you.” Those are his words, and he begs an opportunity to explain himself. You say, no. You need to go. And then you make your fourth mistake: You ask him before he leaves to put things back where they belong. Your students sit in absolute stunned silence while the boy franticly tries to return everything he moved to its rightful place or its rightful owner. And then he leaves.

The students are flabbergasted. You are embarrassed and ashamed. And the first thing you do, the second correct thing you do after the first correct thing of asking him to get out, is to apologize to your students for allowing that weirdness to go on and on and on.  Somehow, with 20 minutes left in the period, you manage to hear the remaining students read from their fiction. As soon as the bell has rung, you have called student management and asked them to find and remove this visitor from the building.

He comes back into the room almost immediately after that phone call. Apologizes again. Begs an opportunity to explain. Tries. Fails. Something about objects directed toward the students who were reading which created an optimum focus for attention, a reverential respect. He begins to cry. Asks you for a hug, which you give to him. The school’s plain clothes security guy is there to escort him away. The boy asks for still another hug, which you give to him. These hugs, perhaps, the third and fourth correct things you’ve done this morning. You say to him as he leaves, please, take care of yourself.

And as you sit here remembering these events of the morning, you allow yourself for the first time today to really feel something. If you had allowed it inside earlier, you would have lost yourself and you would not have been able to work through the day. But now you are safe to feel something, and mostly, it is not fear you feel for the safety of your students, because you know in your heart that they were never in physical danger. It is not disappointment that the security measures in the building did not prevent this unauthorized visitor from entering the school. That feeling did occur to you today, but it is not what you feel now. It is not anger toward this visitor who robbed attention that was due to your students in this final, potentially profound experience of reading their words out loud to their classmates. You felt that today as well but it is not what you feel now. It is not guilt you feel that you did not protect your students sooner from the vulnerability, the emotional danger of reading their work in the presence of an individual who was not operating at full faculty and was not part of their community. You felt that, too, today, but that is not what you feel now. No, what you feel now is sorrow for this boy, this graduate, this former student of yours, this visitor who is now a kind of lost soul who may very well be in serious trouble and needs more than anything else our compassion and our help. If you were a praying man, you would pray that he gets what he needs to live healthy and fulfilled. Instead, you weep for him now, and hope for him now, and you write this down so that you never forget, which is a kind of prayer after all, offered up to the universe for this boy and all others like him who are needful of something that our schools could not provide.

 

 

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The Great Student Growth Goal Debacle

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Here’s a meaningless graph.

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Here’s another meaningless graph.

Two years in a row now I have suffered through what I like to call The Great Student Growth Goal Debacle and I finally have to say something about it publicly. Cuz it’s driving me absolutely ass-bat crazy.

Good teachers set goals for themselves, but all teachers have always set goals for their bosses, the principals and vice principals who are charged with evaluating the effectiveness of the teachers working in their schools. These goals, traditionally, have been personal and loosely organized around broad categories like curriculum, student learning, student success, and professional development. I’ve had goals in the past as broad as the successful implementation of new curriculum, or the piloting of a new kind of assessment, or ways in which I would like to facilitate staff development or collaborate with my colleagues, or ways in which I would like to reinvigorate my practice. Sometimes these goals would include my participation in some kind of coursework or workshop which would have negligible or minimal influence on my daily practice, but every once in a while, like with my discovery of The Courage to Teach work inspired by Parker Palmer, a developmental experience would totally transform my work and my life. Such has been the tradition of teachers setting goals for the school year—an imperfect, hit-or-miss system, mostly fallible because (someone concluded) the evidence for growth could often be vague, sketchy, too personal, or worse: the goals often had no measurable impact on the kids under the teacher’s charge. How, specifically, did the teacher’s goal result in improved student learning or achievement? It’s an important question; no argument from me about that. But somewhere along the line, the Powers That Be decided that the nebulousness of teacher goal setting and the absolute dearth of quantifiable data on student learning as a result was a huge problem.

Enter the Student Growth Goal. Over the last two or three years we have moved to a system in which teachers write three big goals, two “student growth goals,” and one goal that focuses on professional development. For the student growth goals, one must generate some baseline data, a starting point after which some teaching will occur, followed by an ending point during which another assessment takes place that supposedly measures the same skill after the teaching. The baseline data is compared to the final assessment data and, voila! We now know how student learning has improved. Right? It makes a great deal of sense, but unfortunately, in the actual implementation and tracking and interpreting of the data that results in these kinds of student growth goals, a clear picture of student growth does NOT occur. Mostly what does occur is the gnashing of teeth and the pulling out of hair and the loss of sleep and the extreme exasperation one might feel about the complete waste of otherwise perfectly sound and bountiful teacher energy. Normally, this would be true for me and I would be now, like I was last year at this time, totally aggravated and stressed. I would not have time to be writing this essay. This year I have seniors, four groups of which will be taking their finals a full two weeks before the underclassmen. So I have time this year, not only to complete my damn student growth goals on time, but to reflect on the experience for my own and perhaps for other’s edification. And truth be told, it’s stressful this year anyway–not because I worry I won’t get them done, but because of how absolutely frustrated I am with the process and with the results.

I have concluded that I do not like student growth goals. There are several reasons why the practice of writing student growth goals, at least the way it is practiced now, is a bad one for teachers and a seriously flawed way to evaluate teacher effectiveness.

Student growth goals often measure a minute snapshot from a whole plethora of things a student might be learning or skills a student might be developing. Let’s take a look at the goal I wrote for my College Writing students: Elaboration of Evidence—the way a student is able, in an expository essay, to string together a logical chain of proofs for their claims. Granted, it’s an important part of being able to write effectively about any subject, but it is one particular aspect of a task that is infinitely more complex than this one trait, and certainly more nuanced and interesting. Why did I choose Evaluation of Evidence? Because it’s relatively easy to quantify—and that leads to the next problem with the process of writing student growth goals:

It rewards teachers, or at least encourages teachers, to write goals for which it would be virtually impossible NOT to show student growth. On the first day of class I asked my students to write an on-demand essay about how to write a good essay, making sure that their claims were clear and that they provided an elaboration of evidence for those claims. I cannot take credit for this assignment—the course was assigned to me in the eleventh hour and I was taking a helpful cue from a colleague. At any rate—it was the first day of class in September, I gave them a totally hum-drum writing prompt with vague or minimal instructions, I applied high standards to evaluating the work, which took forever by the way, and again, voila! They did terribly. It would be a walk in the park to show how much they had improved over the course of the entire semester. Not that it’s a bad goal. It’s a fairly admirable goal to show how students have improved in this particular writing skill. But it’s disingenuous to say the least to use this kind of baseline data as a starting point. It would be like the math teacher testing students on the Pythagorean Theory before she had even introduced the concept. Had I not had student growth goals hanging over my head, I wouldn’t have given that particular assignment, and I certainly wouldn’t have spent the kind of time on it that I did, diligently working my tail off to collect assessment data that would impact their grades only minimally (being a formative assessment) unless they outright just didn’t do it. So there’s this:

Student growth goal management and documentation is unwieldy and time consuming for such a tiny snap shot of a student’s “learning.” Scoring this formative assessment, I had to take a sick day in order to carefully work my way through a single class of 35 students writing terribly about how to write a good essay, only looking at this one evaluation trait.

Because teachers are not trained research technicians, a lot of this unwieldiness and wasted time is spent gathering and reporting bad data. The final data I collected at the end of first semester, four months ago, data that I am just now trying to make sense of, was fatally flawed: the expectations were different, the final paper included research and documentation, was turned in at the very end of the semester giving me a ridiculously inadequate time frame for grading, forcing me to award students a holistic score negotiated through self-evaluation and teacher moderation. Comparing the skill of Evaluation of Evidence from the first sample and this massive number in the grade book for the research paper was clearly an apples and oranges kind of deal. So today, I made some shit up by turning both the pre-assessment and the final assessment into grades, not to be recorded in the gradebook, mind you, but to be written down in side-by-side columns for easy quantification. Big, dumb, quantifiable grades. Letters and percentages. As a measure of student learning? Meaningless.

My second student growth goal fared no better. I spent a number of hours, maybe three or four, over the last week, gathering, accumulating, and interpreting equally bad, old, inconclusive data from assessments in IB English in order to fill out a form that will take another hour or more of my time so that I can report, for the student growth goals I wrote for my IB English students, that out of 40 kids, 16 improved, 10 stayed the same, 2 got worse, and 12 students, for whom I have no baseline data, ranged from inadequate to excellent on the trait of Appreciating the Writer’s Choices in a work of literature. First of all, this data is just stupid. It doesn’t take into account any of the answers to these common sense questions: Were students responding to the same piece of literature? No. Was there an effort to make sure that the piece they wrote about the second time was equal in difficulty or complexity to the first? No. Of the two students who did worse the second time, what did you do to make them worse at a skill they’d been practicing all semester? I don’t know. Why don’t you have baseline data for a full 12 of the 40 students in the sample? Because kids were absent, or they submitted the work late, or they didn’t follow instructions for submission into the google classroom, or because I’m not skilled at keeping 60 balls in the air at once. If this data were actually used to evaluate my teaching, I would need, in my 26th year as a high school English teacher, some remediation. Certainly, I am not a “distinguished” teacher. I may not even be, by this measure,“proficient!” And this feels about as bullshitty as it gets.

I know what they say, and I believe it, that good teaching makes a difference. But what’s good teaching, and what kind of difference does it make, and for how many kids, and can these differences ever really be measured objectively? Too many variables beyond the teacher’s control and beyond the impact of the teacher’s teaching can influence a student’s success on an assessment and in school generally. And that is primarily why, along with all the other issues I’ve raised above, that standardized test results, and student growth goals based on data (at least the kind that I’ve gathered) should never be used to evaluate a teacher’s effectiveness. Isn’t it better to have goals that are meaningful but not quantifiable than to have goals that are objectively measurable but meaningless because the data is often faulty or fabricated or both? I am of the opinion that the best work teachers do and the best learning students experience defies quantification. And I am so thankful, ever so thankful, that I work where I do, in this particular school building in this particular district, because as far as I know, no teacher has ever been disciplined or reprimanded in any way as a result of showing negligible positive, or clearly negative results from their student growth goals. But I know for a fact that my school and my district are not typical and that for other teachers, this process may not just be aggravating, but diminishing, demoralizing, fear inducing, and livelihood threatening.  That’s terrifying to me.

No one has trained teachers how to do this kind of thing well, and that’s another huge part of the problem, let alone whether or not it’s even possible to do this kind of thing well given a student load of 160 to 200 kids. It’s just a thing that’s landed in our laps after it’s landed in our administrator’s laps after it’s landed in the laps of our administrator’s bosses. And no one questions the damn thing. We just do it poorly and move on.

The hours that I have spent writing down numbers in columns say nothing about what I’ve taught, how I’ve taught it, what students have learned, what learning actually IS, how students feel in my room, or what they will remember about literature, about writing, about me and about my interactions with them after they go. I’d argue that these things, ultimately, are the things that determine the effectiveness of a teacher. After that, I’ll tell you what you can do with student growth goals.

 

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#223: A Course in Silence

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My sophomores and I are studying the poetry of William Stafford and, as is inevitable in a study of poetry, at least from my perspective,  we are also writing poems. An exercise slightly more open-ended than the corruption assignment, is to simply take inspiration from our man Stafford, either by attempting, as he did for 50 some years, to write a little bit every day, or by borrowing subject matter or certain moves and approaches. For example, after reading “A Ritual to Read to Each Other,” we might write our own ritual poem: “A Ritual to ________.” Or, from “Why I Am Happy,” we start with that title or fill in something more individually appropriate: Why I Am Sad, Angry, Hungry, Frustrated, Confused, or in Love. And, finding myself in a grading lull, I take full advantage of the opportunities I’m giving to my students to do some writing of my own. Here’s a thing inspired by Stafford’s “A Course in Creative Writing.” As I put up the prompt, “A Course in ________,” I couldn’t help but think about the kind of course I think children and young people, and adults, too, for that matter, need most.

A Course in Silence

How about a class
in which students
learn to be quiet,
in which they learn
how to sit and do
nothing, how to
breathe, how to be
without noise,
without screens,
without entertainment,
without distraction
of any kind?
The final exam:
sit here.
You can close
your eyes but
you don’t have to.
Be aware of the
spinning wheels
of your own mind
and try to slow
them down,
or not. It’s enough
to be aware of them
spinning.
Breathe in.
Breathe out.
Extra credit option:
do that again,
only better.

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