CCCC 2006 in Review
Let me begin by saying how difficult it is to do justice to a session devoted to "difficulty." Part high theory and part National Writing Project workshop, the four presenters focused on how difficulty itself can become a critical moment of possibility in education. Rather than viewing difficulties as impediments to learning, this session invited us to consider difficulty itself as a potential pathway to knowledge.
Mariolina Salvatori argued that it is precisely those places in a text where students stop, pause, and say it's "too difficult" that we need to look at more closely. Salvatori suggested that teachers consider student difficulties not as insufficiencies but as moments of possibilities. It's important to consider how we name and think about student difficulties and to reconceptualize them as important. "Difficulties are difficult," Salvatori said, "but named and categorized they are manageable." How is it that readers become aware of difficulties? What makes this awareness possible? How can we teach in a way that enables students to identify difficulties as a way towards understanding rather then as an impediment to it? According to Salvatori, we do this by helping students learn to "trust their difficulties."
Donahue demonstrated two writing assignments that enact Salvatori's theoretical framework. Rather than avoiding difficulty, Donahue spoke of the "pleasures of difficulty." Specifically, she spoke of 1) The Difficulty Paper and 2) The Triple Entry notebook. The Difficulty Paper uses students' recognition of difficulty as an entry point by making difficultly first visible, and then operative (see their book for more details on this assignment). The Triple Entry notebook extends Berthoff's double-entry notebook to include:
Drawing on the metaphor of conversation, this assignment provides students with access to how and what they know, as well as engaging their "not-knowing" in productive ways.
To the delight of everyone in the packed room, Sheridan Blau burst forth from behind the table to put us through the paces of difficulty ourselves. And when Blau burst forth, he really bursts forth. Modeled on his NWP workshop approach, his presentation focused on the genre of the commentary. Blau handed out a passage from Paradise Lost and asked us to read it and write about difficult lines or concepts. Do you know what a room full of English teachers reading Milton sounds like? Totally tense silence, except for the sound of sweat dripping onto the squishy carpet. In this condensed version of a workshop, participants then talked about all sorts of difficulties-from the pressures of quick reading, to how our fore-knowledge can actually foreclose our readings. It's here that my own notes come to an abrupt end as I became completely absorbed with Blau's approach to using difficulty as a way of engaging difficult texts. Difficulty, as Blau demonstrated, is productive and necessary. To conclude his presentation, Blau shared student examples from his class (for more information go to http://moodle.id.ucsb.edu/ and select English 162 Milton (Fall 2005). Log in as a guest. Use the password: paradise lost.)
I didn't envy Dale Bauer's difficult position as the final respondent, but in "Responding to Difficulty" she reminded us all of the "crucial acts of will" it takes to teach difficulty as possibility. Placing teaching within the larger context of academic environments and the public sphere, Bauer raised questions about how to value the "seemingly outdated community of the classroom."
A person entering the room for the next session said to me, "Wow. This room is really buzzing." And they were right. We left the session thinking in new ways about those moments in texts, in student papers, and in our classrooms that most challenge us. This panel not only reminded us of the value of difficulty, but also provided us with the theory and practice necessary to work with it in productive and reflective ways. Sessions like this one remind me why I love going to the 4Cs every year. I always leave feeling reinvigorated as a teacher, scholar, reader, and writer.
— Megan Fulwiler
For more information on the CCCC 2006 conference,
visit the NCTE Web site at http://www.ncte.org/profdev/conv/cccc/.