Writing and Movement: Changing the Scene

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This past April, at the Council on Basic Writing’s Wednesday Workshop at 4C16, Houston’s Writers in the Schools teaching artist Deborah D.E.E.P. Mouton offered a session on writing and movement.  In the late afternoon of a very long day, Deborah had teachers of Basic Writing out of our seats and striking pose after pose. The purpose of this exercise was twofold. First, we learned how and why to use movement to break the frame of classrooms generally tethered to desks and often glued to screens and social media. Second, we learned to apply our learning to facilitating a more embodied and physically present writing situation for our students.

The directions for the exercise are simple, and that simplicity allows students to understand complexity from a kinesthetic perspective:

  1. Invite someone to strike a pose.
  2. Ask the audience to describe the pose.
  3. Have someone else interrupt and change the pose.
  4. Discuss with the audience what changed and why the change was significant.

I brought this activity back to class when we were working on analysis. The students asked for a bit more direction, so I invited them to strike a pose that has to do with the writing process. At the end of the semester, we were actively seeking motivation to regenerate writing for a strong finish.

One student took a water bottle and enacted an exaggerated scene of partying, pretending to imbibe the water as if it were a magical elixir.

—What does that have to do with the writing process? I inquired.

—It’s why we’re having trouble writing, someone suggested. Too many distractions.

—Okay, I said, someone change the scene. Make it productive.

Students shifted a bit in their chairs, while the student holding the water bottle tried to stay still in the pose. Finally someone stood up to transform the scene. The second student held the water bottle up to their eye, as though it were a telescope. The first student sat down. All of us applauded.

—But what does that have to do with writing? we wondered.

The conversation that followed focused on turning around stereotypes and expectations. In the ninety-degree heat of the desert in April, one might think that all students would prefer partying to studying. Yet the movement activity showed how easily someone could break the frame. The water bottle, first an instrument of leisure, became an illustration of extreme focus, a necessary part of the writing process.

—Does the scene also show resilience? I asked.

We had discussed resilience quite a lot in class, about finding the strength to carry on when dealing with the contradictions and frustrations of student life in 2016. How was it possible to create quality time for writing in the face of gatekeeping first-year classes and full-time jobs to pay high tuition and fees?

—Yes, the students answered, the scene shows resilience. It shows that it’s possible for us to stop partying and go back to studying when we need to.

Additionally, I used this scene to discuss the idea of rebuttal. Some people complain, I said, that all students want to do is party. However, as you have suggested, that assumption is incorrect. Students need balance in their lives. After taking time away from their studies, students are better able to focus. The two scenes illustrate these seemingly opposing views by showing how an instrument of distraction becomes an implement of deep concentration.

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By the next class period, I knew I wanted to write a blog post about this idea, and I asked the students to take photos as I reenacted their poses from the day before (above). Doing this work helped me to remember my own experiences as a teaching artist with Writers in the Schools, just after the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) was signed in 2002. Some of the second graders that I had taught during that time had already graduated or were about to graduate from college. I remembered the movement activities from our time together and how much those activities contributed to our focus on writing.

NCLB was repealed in 2015, and the world has changed a great deal in this last decade and a half as these children have grown to maturity. Perhaps we are more apt to argue for the importance of screen time and multimodalities to facilitate writing. But movement also is a modality, and we need to remember the significance of breaking the frame. For these reasons, I remain grateful for Writers in the Schools and Deborah Mouton’s work with the Council on Basic Writing. She reminded us of the potential of movement as an inseparable step in the deeply transformative process of writing.

About the Author
Susan Naomi Bernstein (she/they) writes, teaches, and quilts, in Queens, NY. She blogs for Bedford Bits, and her recent publications include “The Body Cannot Sustain an Insurrection” in the Journal of Multimodal Rhetorics and “After Basic Writing” in TETYC. Her book is Teaching Developmental Writing. Other publications include “Theory in Practice: Halloween Write-In,” with Ian James, William F. Martin, and Meghan Kelsey in Basic Writing eJournal 16.1, “An Unconventional Education: Letter to Basic Writing Practicum Students in Journal of Basic Writing 37.1, “Occupy Basic Writing: Pedagogy in the Wake of Austerity,” in Nancy Welch and Tony Scott’s collection Composition in the Age of Austerity. Susan also has published on Louisa May Alcott, and has exhibited her quilts in Phoenix, Arizona and Brooklyn, NY.