Rereading Moffett – Month Four

For me, interaction, at least in the way I believe I align with James Moffett, is that space between teacher and student, between the learned and the learning. It is that invisible space that crackles with possibility, like static electricity. It is the strange alchemy that can occur when teaching and learning coalesce and something happens, often expected and sometimes sublimely unexpected. It is synonymous with possibility and hope.

Photo: James MoffettI wish James Moffett was still with us. While his work is profound and revealing. There are still so many questions I wish I could ask him.

The more I investigate his opus Interaction, the more fascinated I become. As far as I can tell, there is just so much genius that unraveled at a moment in time waiting to be revived, renewed, and revisited. While the response in Kanawha County, West Virginia, to what-can-only-be-described as a textbook system proved a harbinger of so many of the kinds of controversies resurfacing in education today, the content also manages to hold an spellbinding prescience. If nothing else, the sheer audacity of the breadth and depth of what was assembled warrants the kind of review it is currently receiving, especially at University of California at Santa Barbara. I am just happy to have a small window on it, via the reading group.

Yet to be able to ask him about more pointed questions about the reasoning behind choices made in that massive assembly of pedagogy and program would be a masterclass nonpareil.

One of the things that I take away from our most recent reading group meeting, which has already become one of my all-time favorite National Writing Project endeavors, is just how much we still need Moffett’s voice today. While there are advocates, of course, we need more people to take up the mantle he fashioned in the field of education at his best. Still, his work continues to provide a powerful antidote to so much of the ed-reformy nonsense that pollutes the landscape of schooling today.

As I continue to read and re-read his work, I cannot help believe that he understood just how much every student/learner is engaged in a unique experience and failing to recognize, honor, and lean into that understanding is simply foolish. Yet, even that core understanding is profoundly inefficient, messy, recursive, and extraordinarily hard to convert into hard data, in most part, because it is so profoundly human.

Above all, to me, James Moffett was a deeply, earnest, and unwavering humanist.

Therein may be why I cannot stop drinking in his ideas and writing.

Rereading Moffett – Month Three

Teaching the Universe of Discourse book cover

I have some ambivalence about Moffett’s statement on drama, “Drama is the most accessible form of literature for young and uneducated people.” As someone who has a BFA in theatre, I see a lot of merit in the statement. Still, I also wonder about music, especially the kinds of narrative singer-songwriter genres so common in folk music. Perhaps what we consider folk arts might be the revealing connection.

Where I feel Moffett is most onto something is in the folk quality of culture and creativity that emerges out of experience, but more on that later

An obvious synonym for drama is play and therein lies another profound insight. Drama harnesses a sense of play in contrived circumstances and are not nearly all writing occasions a kind of contrived circumstance?

Drama amplifies the visceral, immediate, impulse to communicate with our whole selves. It is ancient and primal, a natural drive.

Do I use it in my teaching, all the time, but rarely explicit or obvious. I almost always think I should use it more. Like the tide it informs nearly everything I do in some ways that are not always even conscious.

Where I am in complete communion with Moffett, I would say drama is essentially applied English.

These were my initial thoughts.

With more time to consider, I think the field of English and Language Arts so often  emphasizes reading. Yet, drama is built upon action. It certainly involves reading, but it is reading far beyond the limits of text on a page. All the skills and tools of literacy are required writ large. Again, it involves our whole selves, speaking, listening, reading, writing are all engaged in the most meta fashion.

It involves the application of the full spectrum of everything we value and endeavor to teach in the ELA. Perhaps the best expression of this is when Moffett writes in the Preface, “I see drama as the matrix of all language activities.” For someone who agrees with his one of his most elemental premises, the best way to learn English is to learn how to operate it, drama can be seen as a pedagogical Gesamtkunstwerk (Richard Wagner’s ‘ideal work of art’). I think for Moffett, it undoubtedly was.

However, I cannot help but return to the connection to folk culture. Moffett’s comment recognizing the accessibility of drama and my experience in it is where I drew an in instant connection. Drama is organic. While it may be elevated to a high culture, it rises up from the most humble and natural of beginnings. It is hard not to think the humble, folk aspects of his revolutionary notion contributed to a lack of traction. Nevertheless, nothing diminishes the genius of the idea, as far as I am concerned.

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