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Teaching Mentor Process in an ESL Classroom

by Melissa Bryan, Guest Contributor

In the summer of 2017, I attended an NEH program at Amherst College entitled Emily Dickinson: Person, Place, and Poetry. The core end-product of the program was a curricular unit to be used in the classroom which involved Emily Dickinson’s work. Our summer cohort studied Emily Dickinson’s poems and wrote - as she did - about the wall-paper or paintings or objects in her brother’s home, the Evergreens. We walked through Ms. Dickinson’s nearly perfectly preserved gardens to write about what we learned from nature. We took tours of Amherst, read and touched letters and objects written and used by Emily and her contemporaries (realia). We explored the vistas of the Pioneer Valley and mountain range which inspired Emily Dickinson’s poems, and we imagined her soundscape by considering the proximity of The Homestead to the railroad tracks, the main roads in Amherst, and the path on which many Union soldiers marched as they headed south to fight in the Civil War. In those indelible moments, I realized how powerful inhabiting Emily Dickinson’s world and process was to my creation of poetry. Poetry, not a natural genre for me, became comprehensible and producible not in just imitating Emily Dickinson’s product, but in intimidating her process.

The program helped me realize that every writer has his or her own process that can be useful to developing writers. Already leery that mentor texts coaxed poor imitators into merely mimicking structure and syntax and limited stronger writers by corralling them into narrower concepts or forms than they might produce on their own, I considered how sharing the writing processes of a whole host of writers with my students might, in effect, generate more complex, linguistically rich, and individually expressive writing.


Writer Processes

● John Williams took a sabbatical to live in and walk around Italy for three months while writing Augustus. This is the logic behind place-based writing.

● Louisa May Alcott had a “mood” pillow to let her family know when she should not be interrupted while writing. She was also an ambidextrous writer. She cultivated the habit of writing with both hands in case her dominant hand got tired, but her mind still had ideas.

● Charles Dickens walked miles every day, and he was particularly fond of walking the streets of London - the very subject of much of his fiction. There is a lot of research on the connectivity between walking and developing ideas. Consider, too, Thoreau’s essay, “Walking.”

● Anton Chekhov had a writing house on his property which was set away from his family. Seclusion spurred his writing.

● Ernest Hemingway reread almost all of his working manuscript before he started writing for the day, and he then wrote dutifully until lunch. In the afternoons, he freely read books and wrote letters knowing that those afternoon experiences were just as generative as his morning austerity-writing regiment. Ernest Hemingway, A Biography

● Walt Whitman was prone to taking a bath every day. At the time he was alive, daily bathing was an uncommon practice, but presumably it had a restorative and clarifying impact on his work.