Context collapse

The biggest spider I've ever seen, early morning, The Crossings, near Austin, TX

Spider at dawn

Just reading the piece on the NWP website by Robert Yagelski about writing itself as a process, without regard to producing a usable text at the end of the process. The writer concludes

“…writing is a potentially powerful vehicle for transformation, for it opens up possibilities for awareness, reflection, and inquiry that writing as an act of textual production does not necessarily do. Writing in the moment, I have come to realize, has the capacity to change us.”

This passage in particular sparked the urge to formulate my thoughts on the importance of silence. My real take-away from the Resource Development Retreat at the Crossings in Austin has been how important silence is to the writing process, and how school remains one of the few contexts in which children ever get to experience and (hopefully) learn to value silence.

The Crossings is about 15 miles outside of Austin, and not in a major flight path; it was very hot, and while I’m sure there is some wildlife in the surrounding countryside, it was not noisy nor obvious (I saw a lizard and had a dramatic encounter with the largest spider I’ve ever seen; both encounters were unexpected). So when I was not with other people, it was very quiet there.

On returning to Watsonville, after a five day retreat with such quiet, I was struck by the level of noise with which I had been living, and not noticing. We live on a slough, with many frogs, ducks, grebes, egrets, coots, and other noisy critters. Then, of course, there are many dogs in our neighborhood…

Main Street is a block away, and the freeway less than a mile; I can almost always hear the traffic. Late at night, or in the early morning, I’ve heard the ocean surf. It took a period of silence to renew my appreciation for the sounds around my home, and to reflect on the unnoticed interruptions to the flow of a chain of thoughts which noises make.

Which brings me to “context collapse.” This was a phrase used by a student in a blog post that was referred to in a presentation by one of my colleagues at the Resource Development Retreat, and it struck me immediately. It’s such an evocative image for the disturbing part of adopting a different perspective which “Paradigm Shift” has never captured. There’s something unsettling about learning–it often takes rearranging old ideas, at least into some new order, sometimes into a different pattern, and it’s difficult to pinpoint what makes the change worthy of being called a new idea, and at what point there really is a transition from an old view to a new understanding.

That’s what teachers live for — the look in the eye of a student which conveys that something has been understood. Sometimes it’s a dramatic “Ah HA!” kind of moment, but often it’s just a quick look. How we create the conditions where those transformations happen for our students remains part of the art of teaching, and of its theatrics. It can be described and rehearsed, but it’s hard actually to teach. One key part of creating those conditions in a classroom is the opportunity for silence, for reflection, to create space and time for inner dialogue in preparation for and as part of the process of writing.

There’s an awkwardness about silence for many Americans. It’s appalling to me that so many people have a television going in the background almost all the time, and I’ve had many social encounters where I was content to wait for something worth saying before I could speak, and so had to listen to someone speak who hadn’t thought of anything worth saying either. I prefer silence.


Fred is a Teaching Artist, an arts integration advocate & a social justice activist. He is near completing a two-month Residency as String Game Performance Teacher at Calabasas Elementary School in Watsonville, CA, and performed at the 2015 Santa Cruz Storytelling Festival. He also serves as Teacher Consultant for Professional Development with UCSC's Central California Writing Project and as their Technology Liaison to the National Writing Project. He is a Connected Learning Facilitator and coordinates Face To Face Drop Ins on Connected Learning biweekly at Arts Council Santa Cruz County. He teaches self-directed & connected learning via real-world projects & string games through his Original Digital Project, an Associate of the Arts Council.

Posted in digital storytelling, Fred's, NWP
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