California English Journal
"What I know that's of use to you is that you know. Sweeping aside the intervening clutter, recall yourself as a young learner, then review those learners in front of you. You know. But you must assume the power to do what you know." - James Moffett "Coming on Center" p. 9
I drew my bow back, marking the arrow's head at 12 o'clock high above the face of the 80-yard target, as Jim said, "With all this testing of skills in the name of accountability, we'll likely produce an education that's of no account."
Bursting with laughter, I released the arrow that angled right into the top of a eucalyptus sixty yards away. The day was one of those harbingers of a Bay Area summer, cloudless with aromas and Yankee clover and budding Scotch Broom in the maze of the Oakland Skyline archery range. That was in the early 1970's. Three days before he passed away in December 1996, we talked about the no account though accountable education.
I was leaving for Europe where my wife and I planned to follow up Jim and Jan's trip to Chartres some years before. In November Jim introduced us to Malcolm Miller's work, whom he knew and about the labyrinth in the Cathedral nave, a subject that interested Jim over the years. On our train ride south from Paris, I thought back to the thirty-five years of our wonderful friendship. Jim's thought paved my career at many turns, but I want to share three stations that relate to how teachers today need to keep in mind lasting lessons from Jim Moffett.
The first event resulted in my quitting administration to return to teaching. In 1969 I was consultant for English and reading in the central office of the Mt. Diablo Unified School District in Concord, California, a large sprawling network of 18 secondary and 33 elementary schools, from which came Mary Ann Smith and Jo Fyfe, the co-directors of the California Writing Project, and where Miles Myers briefly taught in my English Department at Concord High School--all of us using Jim's ideas and having him as a guest speaker often for district teachers.
One June morning I picked up mail at the district office and scanned the minutes of the California State Board of Education. I was surprised to see that "James Moffett" was scheduled to speak opposite a certain Dale Scott, representing Peat, Marwick, and Mitchell, the San Francisco accounting firm. The State Board of Education had hired Peat to propose an accounting system to make California schools accountable. Yes, Dorothy, the cliche "accountability" has been around that long with little results other than securing the political party out of office with a means for getting back in.
Lyndon Johnson implemented "Systems 70," a policy/accounting strategy that linked expenditures to measurable objectives. As Vice President, Johnson was impressed with how Robert McNamara adopted Program Planning Budget Systems ("PPBS"), enabling President Kennedy to put a lock on exponential growth of defense spending. Coming from the private sector to head Kennedy's Department of Defense, McNamara limited expenditures to realizable objectives. Then, as now, Defense spending was a scandal. The quota on leather (principally for saddles) held into the Korean War, established during the Spanish American war, seemed anachronistic. The Navy spent millions for battle ships to exist senile admirals, naming ships after aged warhorses as severance pay. McNamara introduced what, at the time, appeared to make sense to Defense: money spent should result in greater number killed. In retrospect, this PPBS led to "body count" in Viet Nam that McNamara now repudiates.
Jim was among the first in education to see how Johnson's "Systems 70's," a program to extend PPBS to every executive department could lead to great miseducation. Invited to participate in the 1969 tri-university Project to produce "A Catalog of Representative Behavioral Objectives in English, Grades 9-12, funded by the U.S. Office of Education, Jim walked out, submitting a paper "Misbehavioral English: a Position Paper." Jim saw how a teacher's performance could be measured by criterion like 80% of her class would correctly circle 75% of similes and underline 75% metaphor in Browning's "My Last Duchess."
I called Jim about the State Board agenda. Yes, he had asked to speak but wondered if anyone in education was as anxious as we were. As incoming President of the Central California Council of Teachers of English, I told him that this CATE affiliate board would probably agree to fund our plane flight to Los Angeles. It did, and with Ken Lane, we attended. Jim spoke eloquently and with such power that the Board delayed adoption for six months for further study. In spite of its investment of $650,000 to the Peat, Marwick, & Mitchell pilot study, the State Board disapproved the PPBS proposal after CATE engendered great community and professional involvement. At Mt. Diablo I realized I had to choose to teach or administer, for my job determined how I was to deal with issues like changing fashions stitched by legislators.
California teachers should know that Jim Moffett stopped behavioral objectives being imposed on them during the 70's, and they should get active again during these dark days to protect both teaching and student learning from social engineers.
The second trial occurred in the early '80s when I was senior Fulbright lecturer in American Literature at the University of Aleppo, Syria. With little warning about my assignment, I found myself facing 373 students in a 19th century American literature course. The only texts were Huck Finn, Billy Budd, The Scarlet Letter, Emperor Jones, Streetcar Named Desire, and a poetry anthology printed in Lebanon violating international copyright. I remember thinking desperately, "How the hell am I going to do this? I can't stand forth like Lazar Ziff of the UCB English department, strutting and fretting my hour upon the stage before a population with less than 50% understanding English"
No, I couldn't. But Jim's brilliant discussion of Teaching the University of Discourse, especially chapters three and four, gave me the organizing principle to structure groups, in which students of varying mastery of English could collaborate over writing assignments dealing with issues central to each text. With cooperative writing preceding reading, each prompt anticipated the rhetorical stance of voices from Twain, Melville, Hawthorne, O'Neil, Williams, Frost, and others. I structured a sequence of activities from Moffett's theory and his Points of View. First I assigned dramatic monologue like cumming's "ygUDuh" and Williams' drama, then narratives like Hughes' "Ballad of a Landlord" and Huck Finn to exposition as in Auden's "The Unknown Citizen."
My Arab students learned much about how the groups limited in English assumed stances and acquired the gist of what Bakhtin called the linguistics of "utterances," in order to write sensory dialogue and monologue, then fictional autobiography, and finally generalization (prompts modified from Moffett's Active Voice, Boynton/Cook). Those student writers and the authors engaged in or paralleled a writing process, in addressing audience for whom they wrote (rhetorical relationships) and what they wrote about by casting their subjects in genres (referential relationships). The rhetorical and referential relationships determine how writers abstract information as writers address What is Happening or What Happened or What Happens. In other words, the students reading the literature - -after group composing - realized how the professional writer dealt with the composing tasks they themselves had just fulfilled. Moffett's curriculum saved me that year and can help any California teacher with a class size of less than 373. And it demonstrated to me how universal Jim's ideas are to writing for ESL and EFL students.
Later in the 80's after my brother's death, I experienced great depression. I do not know if my state of mind caused noodles to develop on my vocal cords, but for an academic year I was mute. I remember beginning classes at Humboldt State wondering how I could get through the fall, which turned out to be only the first of the three semesters I had to endure without a voice. But again, I went back to Jim's wisdom and practices, especial Coming on Center. I found how I could leave center stage and facilitate learning while writing along with my students. As one involved with the Writing Project since its beginning, I'd advocated writing with students and sometimes wrote, but I hadn't realized how writing entailed survival and redefinition of self.
California teachers are again assaulted by legislators jockeying for office or maintaining tenure who mislead the public into believing that children and students are not learning. Should we return to preindustrial skills of the agrarian economy, unsuitable for the information society of on-line literacy? Better to follow Ken Cantor's suggestion ten years ago to return to the source, Jim Moffett, "that quiet Revolutionary," to find our students' way through the maze of the future.
The title of this reflection, gignomai, comes from the middle voice of the Greek verb "to know." Middle voice in Greek is unlike active or passive voice. Unlike "Jim shot the arrow" or "the arrow was shot by Jim," the middle voice conveys "Jim becomes the arrow" or "Jim happens as the arrow."gignomai, the middle voice and Moffett reminds me of how Rosenblatt explains her concept of aesthetic response by quoting Keats' definition of reading. In his ode "On Sitting Down to Read King Lear Once Again," Keats' speaker describes reading as burning though:
Adieu! For, once again, the fierce dispute
He didn't read the book or the book wasn't read by him, but subject and verb became one, consubstantially, ". . . Burning through the book."
Recently, I visited Jim to help him get on-line. With a graduate student, Ryan Mount, we set up our gear in his office, a single five-sided room atop a Mariposa promontory overlooking the San Joaquin Valley. Jim outfitted the office with photo voltaic panels with golf bag batteries. At one point as we Net Phoned someone in Finland, after downloading voice mail from Humboldt State, and scanning a graph that we uploaded to my GagePage on the Internet, Jim sat back with a droll smile, exclaiming:
"You know, we are running all this off the Sun."
It Takes a Vision
When I think back on life with Jim Moffett, my father, I see a rugged adventurer in jeans kicking dust on a Sierra trail, or a tall figure skating backwards down a frozen river, or pale blue eyes twinkling down at me from a hand-built trapeze high in an ebony tree. I see strong, weathered hands sawing and hammering together toys and furniture, even his own solar-powered "Pentagon West" home office. I don't envision him at a desk or podium. The study where he worked almost daily through my growing-up years wasn't his preferred family haunt, and his speeches took place far from home.
It was a fun-loving, adventurous Jim I was most acquainted with. He was a dinner-time storyteller, an affectionate dad with a jaunty grin and teasing banter. Unlike many who work compulsively long hours, he also emphasized enjoyment and exploration. Activities in his curriculum are inventive, playful, or even directly game-based because he understood that learning takes off when people are so relaxed and content they're scarcely aware it's happening. He invented ways for himself to learn while participating in family fun, and to be entertained at his work. Either way, it had to be an adventure. Adventure was his modus operandi--his personal learning model--and he never abandoned that experimental bent, despite the inevitable disappointments and failures. He never ceased to feel the sting of criticisms and rejection letters, yet that didn't stop him from fighting for his beliefs. Ann doing so, he took enormous risks.
Twice when I was small, my father rescued me from drowning and was nearly swept away himself. Yet he also allowed me to frolic in waves well above my head. He knew I was a strong swimmer. But more than that, he trusted me to be my own best guardian from early on just as he'd forged his own path with little help. A life without risks was an unexamined life--a unspoken credo of Jim's, I think, both at and away from his desk. He wasn't reckless, yet he ventured into swift currents all his life in search of fresh knowledge. Anyone who wished to accompany him on the journey was welcome, but you had to be equally intrepid. He went all the way into deep water with his theories, both inspiring and alarming other educators. First and foremost, he got teachers to question old procedures and put students first. And for most of his life, that was about all I knew of James Moffett the educator.
Jim was proud in a way, yet he could be modest to a fault. He tried never to foist his thinking on the young. So he never pressed his curriculum on me, not even when I returned to graduate school in my late 20s after grappling with other dreams and announced that I was, after all, hoping to become an English teacher. People are best off making their own decisions whenever possible, Jim believed, and his own children were no exception. Though I'd devoured Points of View at age 9, tested various Interaction materials in my pre-teens, and read Teaching the Universe of Discourse and other theoretical texts, oddly, I had no clear perspective on my father's professional identity or contributions to the field of English language arts until this decade.
This was due in part to bad timing: I'd read his work before I ever dreamed of teaching--a time when I was too ignorant of the teacher's perspective to evaluate or appreciate his approach. Strangely, even after I began teaching junior college composition, I didn't re-read the books or I would've seen that the"K-12" curriculum was adaptable to the briefer class sessions and more staid minds of my adult students. I assumed the expansive, daily hours of a grade school class were necessary to accommodate the time- and labor- intensity of his approach. So in graduate school, I enrolled in methods courses reputed to be student-centered, and known to be helpful for obtaining work, assuming the strategies I learned wouldn't be far from his. Still, my father didn't set me straight. If I wanted help or feedback, I'd ask. It was up to me.
This attitude was sometimes a stumbling block for me. Since childhood, I'd been aware that my father was unusually driven, propelled by self-motivating forces that to my shame, I utterly lacked. I wasn't always sure I wanted full responsibility for myself. My father constantly buzzed with activity, while I dreamed and plodded. He rarely reproached me but I was sure I must be disappointing. I couldn't discipline myself to work at projects straight through the day, and was inept at making decisions, always backing up and changing direction. I knew enough of his curriculum to understand that "student-centered" meant leaving choices to the student's discretion. I worried then (as I know others have) that most students lacked the initiative or self-awareness to make those choices, since I doubted I could myself. Many peers were glaringly clueless, I knew, for as a "high potential" kid I was often called upon to tutor others. How would these kids have any idea what excited them, much less explore it? Could they begin to put a name to the inchoate chatter of their minds?
My high school classrooms were raucous arenas of social competition, defying concentration. How could individualized writing activities thrive within such pandemonium? As a teenage cynic fearing that my father was naive to the harsh facts, I attacked his idealogy, then gently tried to advise him of the "realities." He listened and nodded understandingly. In my infinite teenage wisdom, I'd forgotten that he conferred with teachers at tough inner-city schools across the country almost daily and was perfectly aware of my classroom"realities." He knew the odds. He heard similar remarks from teachers and administrators all the time. Still, he refused to compromise on what he felt was a pivotal issue in any educational setting. Self-motivation and decision-making ability were key to all aspects of learning in his scheme. If a kid didn't understand her own power to make positive, interesting things happen with choices and deeds, the rest would likely be rote, superficial learning.
I still believe that Jim was so driven himself, he had difficulty imagining how it was for others who aren't stirred into action from within--students who'd honestly rather wait for the teacher's instructions ("What do you want me to do now?" they say), than cook up something interesting of their own to do. Yet intellectually, I know he understood the problem well, for we discussed it. A lifelong fighter of censorship, he understood that people fear what they might find out ("agnosis"). No one can act on motivations they don't feel or have self-censored. But he didn't think these were good reasons to stop trying to get students to take an active role in their own learning processes. Educators needed to be creative people themselves. They had to keep tossing the ball into the student's court, making recommendations, coming in at different angles until something clicked. (His later books reaffirm the teacher's role as counselor and guide). However tough or frustrating the job might be, the alternatives were bleaker: children resigned to boredom, minds shut down because the lessons presented them were irrelevant to their individual needs and bound to be forgotten after the test. Though I really haven't taught for very long, I've witnessed this phenomenon often enough from both sides of the teacher's desk to appreciate the value of attempting what can seem like an insurmountable task--the awakening of learners' self-motivations and inspirations.
It's become cliche to say that education isn't filling a pail, but lighting a fire. In practice, I still see plenty of pail-filling. Theories I studied in graduate school methods courses reminded me of my father's approach, (but in a once-removed sort of way, since Moffett and his contemporaries wrote the UR-texts). The methods, however, lit no fires. My first year of teaching was humbling. So I was thrown back on my own resources (and thankfully, Jim's books). Perhaps I needed to develop my own self-motivation before I could understand that trying to light fires is worth the risks. Even falling short of an ideal goal, we still, in some useful measure, improve matters for our students in trying. Or as Jim said, "Assume the power to do what you know."
In the 90s, the "realities" are as acute as ever. Perhaps there is too much to know these days. People feel inadequate. We're bombarded with information, much of it questionable. As exciting as the Internet is, for instance, many of its offerings must be taken with a dash of salt. We're so busy reacting, screening out what we can't deal with or comprehend, that we scarcely have to time to "tune in" to the voice inside, the origin of purpose. One goes along, responding to one stimulus after another, forgetting that when external forces prompt our course of action, it isn't necessarily in our best interests. All this makes it difficult to speak or write authoritatively about anything beyond one's own direct experience. We've all seen that when subject matter for compositions veers outside the writer's own experiential realm, the secure sense of authority a student feels when discussing personal history fails him and panic ensues.
Stream of consciousness writing, note-taking, discussion, role-playing and other thought-gathering techniques can ameliorate the strain of attacking expository topics. But I've found some students incapable of accessing and verbalizing thought even through freewritings. When asked to record streams of consciousness, even guided ones, they freeze at their desks. Their impulses evade words. Experience remains amorphous, physical, emotive. They have to back up a step. The basis for free-flowing language isn't in place, inner world is disconnected from outer. It's as if our inner voices have been suppressed by the sheer force of the external stimuli around us. Before prewriting, students must first train themselves to listen until they can hear the inner voice. In this era, the inner voice must be stronger than ever before to balance external input and create an equal and opposite reaction.
Perhaps the first step is to recognize, record, and track inner speech extensively from an early age--what Allen Ginsberg called "catching yourself thinking." Jim emphasized this concept of "tapping inner speech" by establishing the primacy of a discourse mode he called "Drama: What is Happening." Drama, in the sense of ongoing external action, is an accessible starting point. This stage of raw data production may not immediately yield fascinating writing. But I find it a wonderful tool for relating the outer, parallel flow of experience to the inner voice--to forge inner vision and thereby, a purpose for writing. Role-playing and dramatization are further steps in the progression. Incorporating external dialogue into one's own voice is another. Practicing a variety of authentic discourse types is yet another. To be writers and thinkers, we must create bonds between observable action and inner reaction. We need opportunities to "catch ourselves thinking" in an array of circumstances. Otherwise our experience of the world never links to language and the representative world of the text can't come alive.
"Vision," said Jonathan Swift, "is the art of seeing things invisible." My father was a visionary, one who made invisible possibilities manifest to others. This is progress, whatever drawbacks exist. Jim had other visions: to harness technology and make customized curriculum more feasible. Just months before his death, he sent an email containing an excerpt from Dylan Thomas's poem: Do not go gentle into that good night. And my father did not. Nor should we accept any wrongs done in the name of education. Rage, rage, against the dying of the light.