I’d been struggling for weeks with the last section of my teaching memoir. Problem-based learning [PBL] transformed my teaching even for the more traditional curricula, and trying to capture that felt too huge. It kept eluding me. Finally I dug out some of my notebooks – now I wish I’d saved even more – and used them to organize and complete my prewriting. The research took time, and it surprised me with a discovery. Memories of my problem-solving class built on PBL had obliterated memories of the journey that preceded it.
I slipped back into professional writing mode, organizing a rough outline and fleshing it out with details. I drafted a piece that described that early journey thoroughly, too thoroughly… The more I reread the draft, the less satisfied I was, but I couldn’t figure out quite why or what to do about it. So I polished the piece and sent it out to my writing group for feedback.
They knew immediately what was wrong: I’d written an article destined for a journal instead of telling the story that mattered. I’ve written such articles before and had them published, but I want my memoir to be quite different. It contains a series of stories about what I learned from my students and colleagues, and I’d forgotten to be a storyteller.
When I complained that I couldn’t remember specifics, they urged me to fill in and approximate, to create dialogue that represented what happened. When I talked about the disastrous micro-coaching experience, they wanted details I’d repressed so thoroughly that I couldn’t recapture them. They told me to at least acknowledge that directly. They reminded me that the story didn’t need every detail about the PBL process, just enough to make the story clear. They reminded me that my intended audience was looking for narratives, not professional development! I’d gone all Joe Friday, the protagonist on the 1950s television show Dragnet famous for saying, “The facts, ma’am, just the facts.” Too many facts, and not enough storytelling.
I’m starting over. This time I’m focusing on the narrative, focusing on feelings instead of teaching my readers about PBL. The writing is coming more easily. It’s more fun to create the piece and I’m sure it will be more fun to read. I’m targeting the audience I want, and that’s not a group of teachers studying PBL. I want this story to be meaningful for non-teachers, for anyone interested in education and what teaching and learning are like. And I owe my writing group for that reminder.
Which of course made me think about my own teaching of writing. I started out the sole audience for my students, the know-it-all audience for my students. Early in my career I was lucky enough to study a different approach to writing through the Illinois Writing Project. Each session that I took moved me further away from the teacher-as-audience approach. After the second round I arranged my English I Honors class as a writing workshop, and students regularly did peer reading and response. By the third IWP session, peer reading permeated all my writing classes. Having a broader audience helped my students re-vision their writing. Getting feedback from more than one source raised possibilities I might never have raised. And just as reading the work from other writers in my group has given me new insights into possibilities for writing, they gained as readers, too.
I am reminded once again of the need to tailor writing to fit the intended audience. And that requires being clear on who the intended audience is in the first place! And an audience of peer readers can help confirm that. I’m lucky to have a group that reminds me of that.