Sunday, January 6, 2008

Traced, Chalked and Penciled Notations: Authorship and Ownership in the Primary Classroom

Immediately following the holiday break, many of the students made huge leaps in regards to writing. The youngest student, who only recently turned three, made a very deliberate t with the sand tray. A slightly older student who had only begun using the moveable alphabet two days earlier wrote cat on a small chalkboard. She continued to write map, bag and dog. Another child, one of the older five year olds in the classroom who's moveable alphabet writing I wrote about in an earlier post regarding decoding, wrote a lengthy story about his day.

Each of these students immediately expressed to me a knowledge of their individual acts of creating a symbol, a letter and even a story that could be both acknowledged and read by another. Also, they were very possessive of their work. When I went to photograph the five year old's story, he declared, "But I am not finished yet!" After more writing, he found the tape and secured a second sheet of paper to the first. He worked for most of the morning on his story. His only dilemma was that when he stopped writing for more than a moment or two, such as for snack and such, he couldn't always read what he had written (writing comes before reading) and called on an adult to guide him back "into" his text. He had not finished when I rang the bell and became greatly concerned because he wanted to leave his work out (his name tag placed on the table) until Monday, but was concerned that it would somehow become damaged or lost. He was also worried that someone would copy his story and wanted everyone to know that it was his story and that it was not to be disturbed.

Over the last two days, I have thought a lot about this writing activity. I referred less however to my Montessori theory and more to literary theory. I was hooked on Postmodern Theory and French Feminist Theory for most of a decade. I sat at my kitchen table yesterday and looked at that first letter t in the sand and thought of Lacan. The lengthy, difficult to read five year old's "manuscript" called to mind Barthe's "readerly" vs "writerly" text. This was definitely a "writerly" text.

Here is a brief definition of both taken from

Readerly Text: Both the "readerly" and "writerly" are ways of reading which Barthes implicitly interrogates throughout his texts; "S/Z", however, is perhaps the best and most explicit text in terms of watching how these definitions are fleshed out ("From Work to Text," an essay from "Image--Music--Text" (1977) also serves as a great analogous parallel look at the active and passive, postmodern and modern, ways of interacting with a text). As has already been implied, it is important to note that the "readerly" and "writerly" are more like positive or negative habits by which the modern reader brings with him or her to texts themselves. Regardless, there remains a spectrum of literature Barthes terms "Replete Literature," which are "any classic (readerly) texts that" work "like a cupboard where meanings are shelved, stacked, [and] safeguarded" (S/Z p.200). A readerly text, in other words, is one wherein the reader need not "write" or "produce" his or her own meanings but one where one can find, by passive means, meaning "ready-made". In another variation upon the "readerly," Barthes writes that these sorts of text are "controlled by the principle of non-contradiction" (156), that is, they do not disturb the "common sense," or "Doxa," of the surrounding culture. The "readerly texts," moreover, "are products [that] make up the enormous mass of our literature" (5).

Writerly Text: Unlike the required passivity before the readerly text, i.e. one which is "replete" with meanings already easily discernable, the goal of any "writerly text" for Barthes is the proper goal of literature and criticism: "...the goal is to make the reader no longer a consumer but a producer of the text" (4). "Writerly texts" and ways of reading are, in short, an active rather than passive way of interacting with a culture and its texts that Barthes implies should never be accepted in its given forms and traditions. As opposed to the "readerly texts" as "product," the "Writerly text is ourselves writing, before the infinite play of the world is traversed, intersected, stopped, plasticized by some singular system (Ideology, Genus, Criticism) which reduces the plurality of entrances, the opening of networks, the infinity of languages" (5). In the end, for Barthes reading "is not a parasitical act, the reactive complement of a writing," but rather a "form of work" (10).

Barthes, Roland. S/Z: An Essay. Trans. Richard Miller. New York: Hill and Wang, 1974.

And too, Mary Kelly's work in which she deciphered her child's earliest markings joined this literary chorus, as well as Ponge. Why consider linguists when examining a child's first constructed letter or his first completed page of a story? Because, as they said at the International Montessori Conference in Paris, we are all called upon to be scholars. It is too easy to simply nod our heads and give compliments without actually engaging in a child's work. The five year old's writing required me to read, to link one thought to another, to decipher his text. Am I being too serious about all of this? I don't think so. Before these children begin to mold their writing into some culturally and academically determined format, I want to see what the Beat Poets longed for - the uninterrupted flow of thought spilling out onto a page. If you could have seen this young child's intensity or even his posturing over his writing you would instantly understand. Words flowed out of him and he could not even catch up with them, losing his way briefly and then reconnecting so as to say "I'm not finished," for there is more. Poets and writers spend fortunes on workshops trying to turn on their creative faucets.

But, grammar and sentence structure awaits him. Soon, I will teach him to make a small space between one word and the next. I will present a lesson on lower case and upper case. And too, a lesson on the comma and the period will follow. I am thinking now of the Rosetta stone.

If others, and too the author, can not decipher the story is it a story? I hear the voice of those literary theorist again. Cixous now comes to mind and her book, "Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing," (1993), a favorite of mine.

Finally, however, let me just simply say that the most important element is that they are starting to write and I feel great excitement in that act alone.


Myra said...

How do you inspire or encourage such amazing writing work from the children? I have not had this in my environment. My students write only when told to. I know this is not good.
Myra Arnold, a Children's House guide in St Paul, Minnesota

Susan Dyer said...

Myra:One of the great lessons I learned my training was a work that I often did as an adult in creative writing workshops. That is using cut out images to promote writing. For the very young child, after he has done much work with the chalk board, metal insets, sound boxes, etc., I give him a picture of a cat, dog, hat etc. All phonetically spelled words which I glue on small piece of writing paper. He then writes the word belows. For older children use pictures from magazines like Smithsonian of what I see as poetic scenes or animals which peak the children's interest. These I place on a table - displayed carefully for viewing and selecting - near the entrance area to our classroom. These images have already gone through my mental sorting - What story does the picture tell? Where is it? What kind of animal is that? I select ones with wonderful color and details - like trees in the background or something else happening other than the main image. When a child selects a picture I ask him to answer these questions. So if he comes up to me with one line - ex. Boy with a bike. I ask him where he thinks the boy is going to ride his bike to. What color are the boys eyes. Does he think the boy has any brothers or sisters? How old is the boy. Then I tell the child "If your photograph fell off of your paper I wouldn't know these things. The author has to tell me these things in their writing so that I can see the picture in my mind without the photo. And then I send them back to their desks and off they go working on their stories. What they also LOVE!!!! is to read their stories during circle time to the other children. Sometimes a young child will sit in a chair at circle time and simply read: Butterfly. Older children will read an entire page or more. And then the other students are either are asked questions about the story by the writer or ask the writer questions themselves. This also promotes a more complete written story as children are harsh critics. I remember one student asked a writer student who had just read his story that he had written earlier that morning - "But where is he?" "You forgot to write that!" The writer said, "Oh, I forgot." The next day he wrote half a page about where he thought the person in the photo was.

Teacher Note: Cut lots of wonderful images over weekends and such and keep them in envelopes labeled - phonetic images, phonogram images, beginning story images and creative writing.

This is extremely popular work in my classroom.

Good Luck.
Sussn Dyer
The Moveable Alphabet