Preface: This article appeared in the Language Arts Journal; Dyson is working on a book that will incorporate it. I thought she might have already written that tome, and so I went to images for Pine Cone Wars to see if I could import the cover. I discovered a book image: Where Wizards Stay Up Late. I believe Professor Dyson would appreciate that.
What a gift to the University of Illinois Anne Dyson is. Just in her talk over lunch she made a world for us teachers to give us a glimpse of her application of children’s world-making play to their creative writing process.
In all three of the articles I read (and I plan to purchase a couple of Dyson’s books–stay tuned), Dyson explores the unofficial community of children and how it differs from the official world their teachers (and the academic hierarchy) inhabit. We recognize the differences shaped by socioeconomic status, ethnicity, religion and location. But we often fail to take into account that when combined with age and the perspective of emerging comprehension and manipulation, children live in another world in creative terms that include their tastes, preferences and sense of humor.
Dyson recognized that she is throwing down a gauntlet (wizard worlds are full of gauntlets) to those who would dictate the direction of public education in the U.S. There are many challenges involved if one accepts communicative play as a necessary (and wonderful) step to true literacy. Only one is that such a process of discovery must find its own pace, requiring a degree of individualization and imprecision that flies in the face of standardized-test wisdom. However, concludes Dyson, “…at least potentially, … unofficial practices may inform and even transform official possibilities.”
In “The Pine Cone Wars” Dyson quotes Rosemary Zumwalt, a folklorist of childhood who writes that, “The fluid world of the child eludes the static state of the printed word. In the same way, the rapidly evolving creative writing process of the child defies standardized testing.
In the Pine Cone Wars she follows, Dyson discovers and elucidates children’s use of networking, their incorporation of societal and even global information (informed also by television, fiction, movies and imagination) and their combination of images and print. “Finally,” writes Dyson, “when writing time became situated in children’s worlds, it became all wound up with issues… like getting to play the role of gender, the nature of power, and even the suitability of “war” as a source of fun.” This last was very difficult for a very well-meaning classroom teacher to accept. Not accepting the profound differences between “fake” (the children’s word) and real war “rendered invisible” the “children’s symbolic astuteness.” Such a basic misunderstanding is especially applicable to the curricula envisioned for children “at risk.”
“Educators,” Dyson concludes (and cautions) “are not in sole control of children’s learning; as agents children act on their own interpretations of what is… Their actions are always situated in multiple worlds. A mutually influential relationship–a dialogue–between the official and unofficial world would seem critical.”
So it would seem.
The readings I have done for the Writing Project share some common themes, especially those I selected (Readercide and Inviting Parents into the Classroom). All emphasize the need for community. All emphasize the need for children–including those in high school–to rediscover reading and writing as a joy, a pleasure and to develop the communicative power to control their future as part of a wider community. We teachers KNOW this. It has been the bass line beneath every demonstration, the background of every discussion.
We, as teachers of literacy need to build our own community in order to hold an effective dialogue with those who observe our experience only from the outside. However well-intentioned they are, most administrators and college professors of education and politicians do not have classroom experience: listening experience. We need to find the incredible power that is our united voice.