Rereading Moffett – Month Two

For me, James Moffett is a bit of a lost key.

His notions about abstraction, in particular, were an eye opening journey of discovering and clarifying my own notions on the subject. I arrived at a point as a teacher where I began chasing the idea of abstraction and how important it was to guide my students toward greater depth and sophistication in their thinking, graduating from the more concrete towards the abstract.

In a possible oversimplification, I think for Moffett abstraction was about getting outside of the self, a continuum of moving from what seems real to what might be framed as ideal, and a growing awareness of a much larger, unknowable audience to be reached.

It is aspirational and about reaching higher, farther.

A colleague in the group mentioned Moffett reveals “rabbit holes of curiosity,” a lovely phrase.

Teaching high school students presents the opportunity to explore the continuum between concrete and abstract at possibly the most dynamic and emergent moment in a student’s cognitive development. Most arrive in the ninth grade with only the most nascent ability and leave ready for a renascence that university and broader life experience can provide.

The same colleague noted how often students gravitate and select the first idea that comes to them based on their limited experience. Moffett maps how we might connect to a much larger context. As Moffett repeatedly points out, listening, speaking, reading, and writing are all elements of the symbol system of language. In The Universe of Discourse he shows our job as teachers is to help students use language with a fullness “to play freely the whole symbolic scale.” It is in the sequencing the student’s experiences where increasing awareness and facility with abstraction can become organic and most likely to develop.

Another colleague commented, “Abstraction is the power and liberation from inner speech, which can be a trap.”

Still, the personal is an essential place to start since the first audience is always the self. Yet Moffett’s genius is mapping the continuum of increasingly  remote audiences and subject matter, which subsequently fosters a student’s ability to exercise greater behavior control.

I can think of few better clarion calls than that.

Photo: James Moffett

Rereading Moffett

While I haven’t posted in my long off-again-on-again blog in some time, this seemed good inspiration for chronicling a journey.

Photo: James MoffettLast week, I entered a reading group focused on the work of the late English teaching giant James Moffett with a bunch of National Writing Project colleagues. When I first heard the group was being created I immediately jumped in and couldn’t wait to get started.

Moffett is one of those foundational figures of the early Writing Project. It took me years to glean just how significant his contributions have been to the field of K-12 English teaching. At first, he was just a name that wasn’t mentioned on the mouths of experienced NWP folks. As often is the case, my interest piqued, I started to dig and read a little.

Over time I came to realize just how much of my own thinking about teaching English and his overlapped. It has always felt like the more I read his work the more I nod and think to myself, “Why don’t more people I know and work with realize some of this stuff?” Although to be fair, that is, in part, what has always drawn me back to the writing project. It is always the people. Even opening the virtual session to see the number of familiar faces was an emphatic affirmation.

A few years ago, I started a deeper dive into Moffett while working on a fellowship I was doing in writing instruction. However, a fair amount of his work has fallen out of print and combined with the time it took to secure some of the books and the pressures of deadlines ultimately stalled the depth of the dive. I certainly was able to make use of some of it, but I finished the project feeling slightly unsatisfied with my exploration of Moffett.

In the interim, I picked up some of those hard to find volumes but haven’t had the time to dedicate to them as I would like. Despite my desire to know more, I sometimes need a push to restart the kind of in-depth study that I had hoped. This group looks like just the motivation I needed to reopen the exploration. Already it has been an invitation to that deeper dive I started but went unfinished a few years ago.

Even before the first meeting, I began pouring over the selection of articles for the second session. My curiosity and desire reignited almost instantly.

Best of all, this opportunity already feels even better. Reading and discussing the work in a community of like-minded individuals with an array of deeper knowledge and experience with Moffett and his works is a boon that can only eclipse any individual passion project of my own. There are even members of the group who knew the man personally and worked with him some capacity while he was alive, which is all the more exciting.