Abdicate and Learn?

This term, my grade seven students will be reading and writing poetry in an online community of writers where they will be given electronic portfolios and encouraged to share their own poetry and participate in poetry discussions. As writers, they will receive tremendous support from an experienced and accomplished Canadian poet, Douglas Burnet Smith. He will be our Electronic Writer in Residence this year and will work one on one with each of my grade seven students by responding in detail to their creative work and answering their questions about poetry, creative writing, and the writing process in general. In short, from his office in Antigonish, Nova Scotia he will cultivate a community of poets. I am confident that his presence, although virtual, will be of immense benefit to the students and will have a strong impact on the development of their writing skills. But there is another thing that, I hope, will have a positive effect on my grade seven students. Some of my former students that I mentioned in my previous entry have agreed to participate in this creative writing community as grade nine mentors. They are no longer at my school but have expressed interest in working online with my grade seven students and helping them become stronger writers. Much like Mark Ahlness who has made it possible for his former students to return to their old community as "alumni," I, too, decided to use the energy, the enthusiasm, and the talent of my former students in the new community where they will be able to work with the Writer in Residence and over forty grade seven students.

The reason I've decided to bring in both an accomplished Canadian poet and my former students who have studied poetry with me and have demonstrated excellent writing skills is to create a climate where literacy can flourish. I know that they will enter this community as writers because that is exactly who they are. While Douglas Smith will be both an inspiring and intimidating presence, I hope that gradually, my grade seven students will see that, as a writer, he faces the same blocks and the same frustrations as they do. I am hoping that this will challenge them to function inside their zone of proximal development, which "defines those functions that have not yet matured but are in the process of maturation, functions that will mature tomorrow but are currently in an embryonic state" (Vygotsky, 1978). I am hoping that the words of Douglas Smith and of my former students can create a climate that "awakens and rouses to life those functions which are in a stage of maturing" (Vygotsky, 1978). I am hoping that the students will be motivated to write with a poet and a handful of high school students who understand what it means to nurture one's own creative, expressive, and exploratory voice.

So, the question is, How do we do it?

The answer is, quite simply, that I'm not exactly sure how this can be done. However, I am convinced of one thing - I believe that all of the above can be accomplished only if the Writer in Residence and the five grade nine students are not viewed as experts. I don't want them to enter this community and say to the sevens "I've done this before, and now I'm here to tell you everything I know." Instead, I hope that both the nines and Douglas Smith can create an environment that will help the students embrace writing not as something that is done at school but as something that is deeply personal, expressive, and human. In a community of writers, we need writers and not experts. We need inquiring voices and not voices that preach. So, I believe that both Douglas Smith and my grade nine students need their own portfolios in this community. They need their own virtual places. They need to write. The last thing I want to do is ask them to only read and critique. I believe that each participant, regardless of how old or how experienced, can contribute more by writing and engaging in conversations about writing than by merely critiquing. I want all of the participants in this creative writing community to come together through texts. I want every participant to be a writer and a reader. I hope that motivation, knowledge, and literacy will emerge through interaction with and about texts. I hope to see "cognitive apprenticeship" where students are not mere recipients of instruction but developing members whose every text helps them find their own voices (Collins, Brown, and Newman, 1989).

In other words, I want to create an environment where creative, expressive writing can flourish and where texts combine into episodes of interaction and intertextuality. At the same time, I'm trying to find a role and a place for myself. Where do I fit in? What is the role of the teacher in such an environment? What impact will it have on my presence in the classroom? Should I enter the online community of writers as one of its voices, or should I stay away? Should I try writing poetry and engaging with my students and our guests in conversations about texts?

I'm tempted to stay away from the online community and see what happens when the students interact with writers and not teachers.