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Week 4 - Why I Write - Discipline Digging

If language arts is your primary area of expertise, then this week, I implore you to dig into someone else's world.  I'm listening to _Albert Einstein_ by Walter Isaacson right now, and trying to think about writing like a scientist.  (And Dr. Einstein was a writer, man.  He wrote and wrote and wrote letters to all sorts of folks.  And speeches.  And papers.  And all sorts of other stuff.)

But perhaps you don't have time right now to be listening to a 24 hour long biography.  The NWP can help.

As a piece of their work for the National Day on Writing, the NWP put together an exceptional collection of essays from scientists and musicians and teachers and mathematicians and, well, plenty of other folks, all talking about how, and why, they write.  I'd encourage you to dig in.  

Also on this page is a link to a YouTube channel of curated pieces on writers writing as well as some other goodies.

Explore.  Wander around.  Discover what there is to see.  

And report back here - what do you notice about writing in the disciplines?  What are the gems in this collection of resources?What are writers doing in places other than English class?  How can we make sure writing happens in those other classes, too?


Task Discussion

  • KevinHodgson   Nov. 1, 2011, 2:37 p.m.

    I'm looking at this first sentence by Jill Nash (Corporate Writing): "There's very little in the world that's as beautiful as a well-written sentence."

    Even in the world of short bursts of information, of (although she doesn't say this) turning a message to your advantage (I sort of wish she wrote more about the rhetorical approach taken by PR firms on behalf of business clients), and more, Nash notes that writing and communication is the key for much of the business world's efforts to get the word out.

    Even though the Common Core (for now?) focuses on literacy in the science and social science disciplines as its Literacy Across the Curriculum, there is no need for us to view writing as even that limited, right? (Which comes to another point: why isn 't literacy tied to math in these standards, since both Math and ELA were the main focus?)


  • Susan   Oct. 31, 2011, 1:43 p.m.

    I've been reading these for a couple of weeks, now. Each one draws me in; I read and wait, wanting their answers to be my answers. That's because I haven't been able to answer the question for myself, at least not satisfactorily. That said, each one has me nodding along.

    Catherine Mohr: Writing down my half-finished ideas gives me a way of discussing these ideas with my future self.

    Lucy Snow: I write to gain perspective.

    Sharon Washington: I write so I can create poems that only I read and songs for a chorus of one.

    All of this and more. But one essay gives me pause--I wanted to read the essay by mathematician Freeman Dyson, mostly to understand why someone who thinks with numbers would write. (Most of the math teachers I know hate to write.) Actually, I am always looking for ammunition, benefits of writing for when I talk to math teachers. But this line jumped out at me:

    Hardy replied, "Young men should prove theorems; old men should write books."

    He divides his life into two parts, the younger man who thinks with numbers and the older man who now writes because he can no longer compute/calculate well.

    But when I grew older, I could no longer compete with the bright young people doing mathematics, and I remembered Hardy's advice. At the age of forty, it was time to practice my other skill as a writer.

    I think I understand what he is trying to say, but I am bothered by my first take on this--that writing takes a less critical mind, that writing is what one does when the brain goes. I don't think he believes this, but there is a slight arrogance to his position. Am I being too harsh?

    On the other hand, Marsha Ratzel, who happens to be one of my PLP colleagues, does a great job of explaining why science teachers should write. She is currently in the process of writing a book about teaching sciene, and I love reading her regular blog posts about what's happening in her class.

    Once you incorporate writing for reflection and collaborating with other teachers into your routine, millions of possibilities begin to open. Ideas take shape and come into focus much more clearly, and I think writing gives you clarity that other mediums cannot do. Writing empowers me to be more effective in what I do with students and in my classroom.

  • Paul Oh   Oct. 31, 2011, 4:09 p.m.
    In Reply To:   Susan   Oct. 31, 2011, 1:43 p.m.

    That's an interesting observation, Susan, re: Freeman Dyson. I read his comment as being more about the way in which theoretical mathematicians operate within their discipline, and that is, that very few astounding mathematical theories are discovered by mathematicians after a certain age. At that point, I believe he's saying, it's important to focus on teaching and disseminating - and therefore writing. But, yes, the paragraph you quote makes it seem like he believes writing is a lesser pursuit.

    I would also say that Freeman Dyson in this essay does not take into account all the writing that mathematicians engage in at all stages in their career, from research papers to presentations to grant-writing. I would also argue (and I'm borrowing freely from Elizabeth Birr Moje and her stance regarding disciplinary literacy) that mathematicians write in ways specific to their discipline, and not simply as a means to understand or create subject-oriented texts. The formulation of theorems and equations, in other words, is one way that mathematicians engage in disciplinary writing.

  • Susan   Oct. 31, 2011, 4:17 p.m.
    In Reply To:   Paul Oh   Oct. 31, 2011, 4:09 p.m.

    Yes, Paul. I was thinking the same thing--how could mathematicians not consider the ways in which writing is essential to their specific discipline. And perhaps I was reading too much into those few sentences. I spend much time talking to K-12 teachers, and getting math teachers to think about writing is such a challenge for me. I'll read up on Moje-thanks.