A recent BHS graduate, Keith LaFountaine just self-published his first novel on Lulu.com. It’s called The Danger of the Flame. You can buy it here and should do so because it sounds awesome. Just as cool, perhaps, is that the novel was started while Keith was still a senior at Burlington High School and undertaking the challenge of National Novel Writing Month (nanowrimo.org), an opportunity afforded him by his 12th grade Creative Writing class, taught by Eve Berinati. When the opportunity arose, Berinati didn’t hesitate to carve out a large chunk of class time to allow students to dig into writing a novel, mostly because of how excited the students seemed by the challenge. By how much they wanted to work. Some students wrote entire 50,000 word novels during the month, others wrote a bit less, but all pursued their own narrative threads at their own pace and in a supportive environment designed to foster their comfort, personality, and creativity, all while working rigorously.
When I heard the good news about Keith not only finishing a novel, but taking the plunge to self-publish it, he directly credited his classroom experience, going so far as to say, “had it not been for Creative Writing I would never have been able to accomplish this feat!”
This was too cool. A great new novel greets the world, and his high school writing class helped. I had to learn more.
So I asked Eve and Keith if I could interview them about Student-Centered learning and non-traditional classroom structures built to foster independence and personal passions. They were thrilled to share their thoughts and reflections. The questions I asked them were a bit scattershot and meant to touch on a number of inter-related topics. Mostly, I was quite moved by Keith’s declaration that his class had been so instrumental to his success and I wanted to ask questions that might push toward the heart of why. These are the stories we need to hear! Happy reading. Then, go buy Keith’s book!
How did the structure of Creative Writing allow for students to stretch out and pursue learning?
Keith: As a student it was a place where I could just write. I know that sounds strange, but I’d never really been in a class like that. Usually teachers are more about the fundamentals, which are important, but having a class where I could just write and get feedback was far more helpful than learning about how to use a semicolon. I’ve always learned better when I just dive into something and learn it as I’m going along, and though I wasn’t new to writing going into the class I still learned a lot that helped me both in and out of the class.
Eve: As a teacher, I’d add that this was a diverse group of learners. Some came in raring to write (as did Keith) and others were more reluctant, even fearful, and had taken this class on as a challenge. Allowing time in class to write and get feedback seemed to meet everyone where they were and push them to grow individually. Our daily routines, such as a recap of the last class, written and read aloud by a student (rotating task), and a daily writing prompt and sharing time helped to build the community that supported the individual learning.
What was the approach to time in the class, especially as it might contrast with how time is divided and or managed in other, perhaps more traditional, courses?
Eve: It was a process oriented class, so I tried to plan class time accordingly. We adapted to the pace of the process, taking the whole month of November, for example, to write novels and share our experiences, when some students presented the (wild and wonderful) notion of trying to write a whole novel in a month. It was all an experiment for me and I looked at the results of each activity and then planned based on them. When students asked for the class to be extended to a whole year (something I had been hearing from a few semester long sections before this group) it opened up more possibilities, like the opportunity for the students to publish an anthology of their work. I tried to always take into account how the students wanted to spend the time. I trusted them.
What does your ideal learning environment look and feel like?
Keith: It all depends on what I’m learning. Being taught math and filmmaking are two completely different things and have two totally different approaches. However, I’ve always learned better when I’ve been able to just dive into the subject matter and learn from trial and error. So therefore, I don’t have an ‘ideal learning environment’. I guess you could say I adapt to my surroundings.
What made you want to publish your own book? How was that desire buoyed by your time in Ms. Berinati’s class?
Keith: I’ve always wanted to publish a novel, but I’d never really had the desire to actually finish the story. Endings have never been my strong suit, even with short stories. And even in writing this novel I took a 5 month hiatus between July and December just because I was struggling with how to end the story. But something the class taught me was that the conception of a good story is just as important as finishing and presenting the material.
Eve: I think getting the practice in class also helped students teach themselves, in a collaborative process, how to use the publishing website. It became an option for the future based on what was learned as a group.
Based on your experience, what ideas would you offer to other teachers and school staff?
Keith: Fundamentals are important, no doubt. Learning the basics, no matter what the subject is, is vital. But learning the basics are not as important as utilizing them. And I think that’s where the curriculum of schools are often a double-edged sword, because (at least how I understand it) teachers have an agenda to get through, and it’s not easy to incorporate things that are not in that agenda.
Eve: Keith got to the heart of the matter here. The challenge is figuring out how to deliver the curriculum in a way that responds to student needs and desires. Allowing students to practice and demonstrate learning (even when the skills are predetermined) in a form that feels authentic to students leads to greater buy in. It’s also more interesting to assess! Having more time to collaborate, teachers and students together, would help, I think.
Why is it important to provide opportunities for learning that his highly relevant to students and naturally honors their different passions and abilities? Does school do enough of this?
Eve: I feel like students put in more effort when the learning sparks their interest and is more self-directed. This results in greater learning and application. The response I get from students in senior year is that they don’t feel they’ve had as much freedom as they would like in previous years.
What is different (innovative/forward thinking) about Ms. Berinati’s approach to teaching and learning?
Keith: More power was given to us. We went over basics to refresh our memories, but then we actually went and utilized what we had learned. We wrote stories, and then we presented them, got feedback, reworked our stories, and continued like such as the year progressed. I only wrote maybe 7 pieces in the class, but they were damn good pieces. And that’s what was innovative; she didn’t spend a crazy amount of time on teaching us things we already knew, and that allowed for things like NaNoWriMo and other opportunities to open up. That never happened in any of the other English classes I was in.
I think more schools should incorporate a Creative Writing style course that allows for less focus on lecturing and teaching things already taught and more focus on students learning together. One thing that was amazing about Ms. Berinati’s class was how close we all were to each other, therefore allowing us to be more open with presenting our writing in class. This, in my opinion, is a more effective way to learn than just getting a paper with a grade. We had small group discussions where we would workshop our writing, and in those small groups I learned far more about myself as a writer than I ever could have through writing a paper for a teacher.
Also, we had a “no censorship” way of thinking, which helps me a lot, because my writing tends to be rather dark, somewhat Stephen Kingesque. Not many teachers I know employ that mindset, but that also helped me personally, knowing I wouldn’t be penalized for anything I wrote.
What are some of the challenges teachers and students face in making learning more student-centered and personalized?
Eve: I think our schedule really works against us. The idea of a set number of hours of “seat time,” (and large groupings of students) all meeting at once often doesn’t allow for the individualized attention or freedom to take the learning into varied settings and groups. The challenge for teachers and students is to find a common purpose and work together towards a goal.