Amoja Sumler

The Art of Teaching Writing

by Amoja Sumler

If we think about the act of creation as a collaboration between two dissimilar but not inherently competing energies, it allows us the arts in education specialist to more succinctly examine what works and what does not work. In my experience there must be a mix between dedicated pedagogical application, but also room for creative reimagination. The pedagogy allows for solid ground of the specifics of the craft (i.e. the formatting expectation of particular styles) there are after all many forms of sonnets, but only so much room to bend that definition before we are working on something new. The room for creative reinterpretation allows us to play within existing rulesets to create new things within the framework of expectation (think Terrance Hayes and his American Sonnet).

Let this work on craft then discuss first the technical stuff. As an artist and a scholar, my approach to education leans heavily on a mixture of creativity and Facilitate Listen Exchange (FLE) education model methodologies to find the key to unlocking the hidden masterpiece of every student. Each class works to center the needs of the student while amplifying the value of their worth as a thinkers and potential luminaries. Students are not blank slates, they are burgeoning scholars. They are Michelangelo’s David trapped in a slate of marble. As an educator I chisel and shape the already existing piece of art that is a young scholar, until the piece reveals itself in all of its glory.

From variations in language to cultural priorities or with consideration for the vast spectrum of neuro-divergency, there should be no de-facto expectation that the instructor is the best or even final arbiter of any artifact offered at the completion of term. I argue strongly that while the assessment of products created be taken into consideration, said assessment of artifacts should not the overriding point of writing instruction. Guidance to the path of student self-awareness and sufficiency outweighs any relevance that can be derived from assessment in the pursuit of grade assignment.

Those that endeavor to teach must never cease to create. Those that give education must continue to seek education. It is my hope as an instructor of writing to maintain fidelity to the rigors of my craft, to pursue and achieve distinction in such a way that I enable and inspire the continuation of the art of fine writing as a tradition, for this, the established author must mentor burgeoning authors.

Writing is a process. The body of work produced by this process is a product. Though the collective body of the produced work can be easily assessed as an artifact, my goal is more often aligned with creating a process suitable to creating authors who can forge their own path to product.

Refining and sharpening the native tools the prospective author can bring to bear to inspire their own best work and continued engagement with products of their choice (tailored to their individual mandates) becomes then the task of my instruction.

A common question is, “Why prioritize process over product?” Writers throughout history have tackled this with far more grace than is available to me in this space, Walt Whitman once famously quipped, “Writing is never finished, only abandoned.” Seeing “writing” as a noun as opposed to a verb is the strongest delineation I have seen that codifies the difference between writing as a product as opposed to a process. Ken Hyland’s adage “Texts as objects means understanding writing as the application of rules” creates an implicit understanding that if there is deviation, then the writing artifact may lack relevance. This can have profoundly negative effects as it relates to the authenticity of a writer’s voice or innate technique. Style de-emphasized for the elevation of dogmatic adherence to grammatical syntax and convention suffocates creative fire. As a result, instructor guided writing can become more a practice of imitation than a demonstration of what is unique and innovative about the individual author’s approach to the work. I think for beginning and advanced writers Hyland’s approach will have a stifling effect. Writing as a product in this way plays to the middle, creating the undesired effect of producing middling writers.

Within all genres of text offered, diversity and inclusion must be favored from inception. Work created from within different time periods, socio-economic stations, a variety of gender expressions, and cultural and ethno-linguistic backgrounds must be presented without any such group presented as the de-facto expectation. Every demographic subsection offers its own lessons, its own experiences, indeed its own lens as to what constitutes the exceptional. In academic literature circles the so called “alternative canon” or “alt canon” has already presented a great deal of scholarship on how other cultural guides to writing can de-prioritize the mainstream expectation to the great good of those seeking to continue their educations.
Starting with text as discourse, and then later imposing “writing as a product” ideals upon burgeoning authors brings us into the third concept of writing as a reading experience. Text, as discourse, can become a bridge to provide early scaffolding for later student successes. Early emphasis on comprehension and attention to writing as a genre aims to invoke the “cognitive engagement”, “analysis,” and “critical engagement” aspects of Bloom’s Taxonomy.

This in turn can lead to a more sustained writing process; with refinement over time, this shifts focus to “writing as a product” as the course of education progresses. The original artifact’s content in the end has been shaped, reworked, and formed into something more along the lines of expected writing products. Yet this happens organically, under the tutelage of an instructor, with feedback from the author’s individual cohort, and is consistently manicured under the careful gaze of the content creator.

It is for this reason I privilege the Facilitate Listen Exchange (FLE) model of instruction. This presents an opportunity for deeper understanding of any subject being discussed in the discourse community. I present a curated experience that best identifies the concept of the writing goal I wish for the author to experience. The students share their experiential knowledge as it relates to the concept offered with me and the other members of their cohort. In this way the instructor approximates a more level exchange of power in the hopes of stimulating a genuine safe space that allows for idea transfer and promotes comfort for as many students as possible.

It is to be noted I prefer the language of “instructor” or the even less authoritative “guide” as my nomenclature of choice. The language of “professor” is deeply tied to the idea of unidirectional information exchange: the professor professes, the student absorbs. The very nature of this relationship stands in opposition to many non-Western cultural expectations. It presumes the ones “professed to” exist only as ready soil with but one task: consume. With writing, there is no one such authoritative source, no singular “in” that can reach all that instructors are tasked and entrusted with reaching. Pedagogical methodology is teachable, built and optimized with metrics of assessment, but must always be one of many approaches to instruction. The road to writing is not always pre-paved with an assured method universally applicable to all students. The contemporary classroom is composed of learners with different aptitudes for the capacity for instruction, from a vast array of cultures, with differing levels of language proficiency, and personal philosophies of writing far before they ever come into contact with our attempts at instruction. We are all then “learners.” As an instructor, I am tasked with creating a relationship that best allows for engagement in process that may or may not yield products.

It is my goal then that prospective authors: learn to trust their internal pathway to process, to demonstrate what guides them, to create synthesis between that truth and feedback from their cohort, (and my guidance), and finally to model work that feels like artifact. It is the whole of this behavior that allows me the best chance to assess the author’s ability as a creator of content and otherwise. As she never finished (to her satisfaction) a book in her lifetime, Emily Dickinson would have offered us no such artifact of her own choosing, though her process netted many artifact-like objects of such great value that we have chosen to enshrine them.
Another temptation to be avoided at all costs is the desire to equate expertise with competence. One can be highly expert in the theories of instruction and not be competent in their application. Likewise competency can be achieved without being an expert in all things writing. That said, as a professional, I possess a strong desire for familiarity with as much writing, as many writers, and as many eras and movements of writing as is possible, and of course the underlying theories involved in the process of stimulating new texts or other applicable artifacts. What is acceptable and standards of excellence are malleable and always changing. I too then as an instructor must always change, working to increase my personal creation of artifacts, my expertise and my competency. Even assuming the sum of the knowledge I have is the most comprehensive does not still predispose me to having the newest or most relevant knowledge.

My responsibility is to those seeking instruction, not to the validation of my expertise. If educators forego the assumption that the instructor resides in the place of ultimate authority, there is less motivation for the ego to manifest in ways that can poison a learning experience. That is assessed upon employment, and verified through other means. My charge is to grow my art through personal exploration, through curation of the existing artifacts, and through my ability to guide those that seek my instruction into a process that is capable of producing new understandings and manifestations of the art of writing.

This brings us to the second part of teaching pedagogy: finding the fun. When I teach creative writing, I never teach alone. I always bring in a team that can challenge the expectations of my client. These teams, which consist of two to four poets, are selected for a variety of reasons: not excluding the personal distinction of the writers involved, the political activism of the author, the ways in which the artists manifest identities that flavor their work, and finally personality type. Different youth react to differing personalities. Some instructors will find ways to make a personal connection with youth through shared identity. Some will be drawn to the unique energies of alternating instructors. A critically underrated first step is creating rapport with the youth. Once a personal connection has been established we begin to manifest the ability develop the trust needed that will allow youth to safely explore elements of their story that may or may not be replete with triggers that can be impediments to creativity. By moving away from singular authority model, the stakes of instruction are greatly diminished. When this practice is properly applied, the youth feel less like hostages in a classroom and are more likely to engage. Teaching creative pedagogy is dissimilar from teaching mathematics or hard science. Creative pedagogy is not interested in providing an answer or an absolute theorem. Creative pedagogy is not a reinforced door in a house. Creative pedagogy represents the windows, all letting in elements of the light. The task of the educator is to provide scaffolding that lays forward a path to inspiration.

In this vein, there must also be a focused effort in what is taught and when. English and literature classes are obsessed with teaching the canon, often uncritically. The elements of poetry that are focused on are often secondary considerations such as scansion because scansion is a metric that exists in absolutes increasing the capacity for testing. Imagine trying to explain what a tree looks like merely through studying the vascular system. It is not without merit, but often misses the mark by relegating the totality of poetry to application of formula. Scansion is a tool with which to examine the form of a verse but offers no insight into the greater mysteries of the artform.

If the canon is to be taught it is important to frame it non hierarchically with other offerings so that the youth do not have the weight of perceived relevance. For example, a poem I teach with a good regularity is Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “England in 1819.” The poem exists as a traditional Elizabethan sonnet, yet this is rarely the primary focus of how I teach the poem. Though the form has merit and is addressed with whatever intensity the instructed are open too, often I am more engaged with pairing it with contemporary work. For example, as a political poem how does this piece resonate compared to Talaam Acey’s “True Lies?” It is in the ensuing conversations I am able to engage the youth about their own personal interpretation of what is craft and allows insight into how I can bring out their muse. Too often canonical work is presented without commentary and platformed, and now if the work doesn’t land the youth are still expected to contribute to discussion and come to think of the art as something no longer alive: no longer vibrant and see no path to inclusion. They think poetry is the province only of masters long since dead. Poetry instruction in specific must always platform the practitioner over simply venerating the work of those who can no longer contribute to the art.


Amoja Sumler’s book of poetry, Fables Foibles & Other ‘Merican Sins: A Gothic Noir

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