The Write Education
Adjunct Lecturer Nancy Sommers knows a thing or two about writing. The director of Harvard College's Expository Writing Program from 1987 to 2008 and the author of four textbooks that have become classics in the field, she is the person to go to if you want to know when to use a nonrestrictive clause or what constitutes an absolute phrase. But more important are her ideas about why students should write. These days, she is putting those ideas into practice in her Writing Workshop, an Ed School course that gives master's and doctoral students a chance to dive into the art and craft of the personal essay.
"In my class, I ask students to write essays that are exploratory and meditative," Sommers says, "essays that focus on the interplay of the particular and the universal, on the flexibility and experimental nature of the essay genre, and on the development of a narrative voice to tell a compelling story."
This excursion into the personal might seem like a break from days spent discussing school leadership and education policy, but it often brings students back in touch with their academic disciplines in surprising ways.
Lybroan James, Ed.M.'13, says he initially enrolled in the seven-week module because he thought it was about "tools and techniques to help educators," things like how to compose a policy memo, or techniques for drafting an op-ed. Instead, James found himself writing — and revising and rewriting — a piece about the unexpected racism he had encountered after moving from Los Angeles to Boston. Not only did this exercise help him face his personal "dragons" (Sommers's term for a writer's most difficult "conflicts, tensions, and dilemmas"), it demystified the process of where good writing comes from.
"I thought people just wrote something and it was phenomenal," he says. "I thought, 'I can't do that' — not that the 10th or 15th draft is where things come together."
Now James plans to incorporate writing into every class of the Math Business and Arts Leadership Academy charter school he is founding in South Central Los Angeles. Sommers is serving on the board of advisors for the writing curriculum.
Andrew Frishman, an Ed.L.D. student, says Sommers' class reminded him of the importance of "helping students to tell their own stories." He uses those lessons daily in his work with Big Picture Learning, a Providence, R.I.-based nonprofit that advocates an individualized approach to education, including a "Who Am I" project that challenges students to write a 50-page autobiography. "I think it's just really invaluable," Frishman says of personal essay writing. "It can help students to express what are really difficult and challenging and gorgeous emotions, and helps capture who they are at a moment in time so that they can look back and reflect."
Of course, creating an environment where students feel comfortable sharing those "challenging and gorgeous" emotions is no small feat — especially in Sommers' Writing Workshop, which enrolls 50 students.
Annie Peirce, Ed.M.'13, was impressed by how Sommers used student–student and student– teacher feedback sessions to bring the experience of an intimate workshop to a larger group. "It was always fascinating to get somebody else's take on [my work]," Peirce says, "and then turn around and give that kind of advice to somebody else."
For Sommers, these student–student and student–teacher moments are the core of what is valuable about her class. She believes that students learn about their own writing from engaging deeply with the work of their peers and that they are more likely to create good work themselves when they know their fellow writers are eagerly awaiting their drafts. Through participation in this give and take, students are reminded of what Sommers believes is a fundamental truth for anyone working in education, whether they teach writing or not.
"Change," she says, "is not just about curriculum or policy, but about the enduring relationships created between students and teachers." In Sommers' Writing Workshop, that change begins at home.