As the lead teacher for Creative Writing at the Cooperative Arts and Humanities Magnet High School (Co-op) in New Haven, CT., one of my primary objectives is to prove to my students that to be a good writer you have to do at least two things well and consistently: read and write. No one can consider him/herself a writer if s/he doesn't write. On this they usually agree with me. But the idea of reading to be a writer is something of an anathema. Introducing Walt Whitman might get groaning responses in the way of, "Why do I gotta' read this dead-old-white-guy to be a writer?" "This junk is corny!" "Did he really write all this?" What they are saying is: what could this possibly have to do with me?
Remarkably, once my students actually begin to read, analyze, and synthesize (Bloom) a writer like Whitman, they are often quite taken with him. When they read, "I celebrate myself, and sing myself, and what I assume you shall assume, for every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you," (Whitman lines 1-3) they can hear Whitman's voice and they recognize that it is different from any voice they are used to hearing or producing. The problem is that they cannot say why. They can tell me it is good, they can tell me the lines and words they like, they can ably discuss and argue meaning and their connection to it, but they don't have the experience and/or vocabulary to tell me why and how Whitman does what he does. And they certainly don't have any idea how to use Whitman as a role model to help them create their own authentic voices.
In his book "Classroom Instruction That Works," Robert Marzano postulates that for a student to learn something new, the student must link the new information to his/her prior knowledge. It is only by forming those links that a student can acquire and retain new knowledge. The majority of Co-op students are low and middle-income urban youth who have been in the public school system their entire academic careers. Few of them have ever left the City of New Haven, and like most teenagers they are aggressively homogeneous and highly provincial. They believe that their neighborhood and city are the world. They often generalize about the larger world based on what they see around them. The problem is that they stop there. They simply do not even know what they do not know. The magnitude of their inexperience of the broader world is one of the major impediments to their growth as learners and people. In most cases their prior knowledge base is very limited.
One of the essential questions I ask myself as a teacher is, what can I teach my students now that will stay with them and help them even five years from now? I can teach them that there is a world beyond their current imagining and that they have a place in it. That there is a past, present, and future available to them through reading and writing that connects to who they are now, what they currently know, who they will be, and what they will know in the future. That it is absolutely possible, and perhaps even easier than they imagine, to learn how to learn and how to communicate. And that it is a worthwhile endeavor to do so.
This unit proposes to show students how reading helps you become a better writer and vice versa, especially as each relate to the idea of authentic voice. The underlying idea is to give students a broader base of prior knowledge by exposing them to some great American writers they most certainly would not read on their own and by giving them the vocabulary they need to undersrtand, analyze, and synthesize the voices of those writers. I want them to begin to ask and answer what is arguably one of the primary essential questions of literature: What is this writer doing and what effect is it having on me? The students will also begin to learn how to use literary vocabulary to discuss and revise their own creative writing. By using a master text as a map, they will begin to learn how someone else's writing can help them reach their own authentic voice. I will be calling this the Master/Apprentice method and I will describe, more fully, how it works later in the unit. Suffice it to say at this point that by working with some of the great American writers, I hope that students will begin to see what T.S. Eliot knew when he wrote in his essay "Tradition and the Individual Talent": "Some one said: the dead writers are remote from us because we know so much more than they did. 'Precisely, and they are that which we know." (2)