Reflections in English 612

Exploring Improvisation in Teaching Writing

Stephanie Kiewel Gai 

Dr. David Stacey 

 MA Teaching Writing 

Humboldt State Univ

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Inevitable Failures, Recognizable Successes
Fear v. James Peck
Wednesday Forum
Mixed Tapes and NiceNet
New Beginnings

Stephanie's NC Grad Conference Digital Handout

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Mixed Tapes

Wednesday Forum


James Peck

English 600 Reflection

Fellow English 612ers

Chris Hall
Erin Kirwan
Jimmy Astacio
Karol Wilcox
Kendra Ross
Martin Chan
Mike Mannix
Ryan Forsythe
Sarah Spears


This site, and all of its special linking powers, was made possible with a little help from Dave's HTML Code website. I have linked the above phrase to the first of ten chapters. Have fun!


    When the semester first began, I must admit I was confused by the theme of improvisation. I am not a musician, and I do not possess even the most basic musical knowledge such as definitions of a key, a note, a tune: are they the same thing or are they different? I don’t know. Since I took a class with Dr. David Stacey the previous semester, Fall 2007, I leaped a giant leap of faith and boldly forged on into the realm of jazz and improvisation.
    Throughout the course, I continually asked myself, “What is the purpose of improvisation, and how can I apply this knowledge to teaching writing?” Unable to decide whether improvisation applies more to the teaching of writing or more to the art and practice of writing, I resolved to think of both teaching and writing as potentially improvisational acts. This resolution carried me through the semester, but when I drafted an answer to the Voicethread final assignment question, “What did you learn about teaching writing?” I finally made sense of improvisation in the writing classroom:

Good teachers leave space for students to guide their own learning adventure, which inevitably requires improvisation; I, too, must begin honing my improvisational skills to provide learning and growing space for my students.


    When David first presented the option of blogging weekly instead of writing a midterm paper, I liked the idea, but I felt overwhelmed and quickly suggested that our blogging should cease at mid-semester just as a midterm paper would be finished at mid-semester. I am aware of the fact that I engage more with texts and ideas when my mind has time to absorb and process the new information, so I knew that writing a weekly blog would be better for me than cramming to write a paper at the midterm.
    Initially, I had no idea how to approach blogging. Is it formal writing or informal conversation? How much should I write? After days of indecision, I decided to treat the blog as a semi-informal journal of my thoughts and reflections from the week’s readings. Eventually, I came to appreciate my weekly engagements, and when David allowed us to stop blogging after spring break, I missed the blog-o-sphere I had created.
When I revisit my blog-o-sphere, I can see where I was still trying to test the length and tone of the blog genre, and I am reminded of composition students who struggle to define and imitate the genre they are asked to write. I did not study the genre of an academic blog in order to determine the appropriate level of formality, tone, or length, so it took a few posts to decide on appropriate characteristics. The first two or three posts still seem a bit formal, but the length begins to decrease after the first blog.
    My favorite blog post, “Mystory: Nae He Spit,” is one day’s delectable distraction. Gregory Ulmer on page 88 in Michael Jarrett’s Drifting on a Read inspired me to research, or I-search, my name and identity. Because both my maiden name and my married name are rare and obscure, I have always been interested in learning about my names, so Jarrett’s “assignment” provided a fun form of on-topic procrastination mid-semester.
    I enjoy blogging and blogs as a form of academic journal; the online format is never lost, wrinkled, stolen, or eaten, and it allows the blogger freedom in privacy or publicity. The entire class can be involved in the discourse through commenting functions or during class in a “smart” classroom. And, of course, the blog is in the realm of the web, the internet, the searchable linkable network that is quickly becoming a necessary part of our twenty-first century lives. The I-search, while somewhat out of fashion, may be a valuable assignment for first-year composition students. (As you can see, I am starting a collection of possible writing prompts for a first-year composition class.) The benefit of the assignment would be to give students an opportunity to play with their name and their identity; however, I imagine I would need to supply at least a few samples in order to give the students an adequate example of the depth they would be expected to accomplish. Something to think about. 

Inevitable Failures, Recognizable Successes

    Thomas Newkirk’s, “Looking Back to Look Forward,” the introduction to Teaching the Neglected R, is the single most important piece I read this semester. As a heavily self-criticizing person, I tend to beat myself up over everything, so I will be working on self-forgiveness perhaps as much as I will be developing my class plans. Marvin Minsky as quoted by Newkirk on page seven:

Thinking is a process, and if your thinking does something you don’t want it to, you should be able to say something microscopic and analytic about it, and not something enveloping and evaluating about yourself as a learner.

I might as well engrave this quote on a plaque and hang it above my head for quick and easy referencing. Newkirk emphasizes the analytical questioning and problem-solving that can detract from the debilitating “self-accusatory thinking—doubting your ability to teach” (7). Generally, I assess my performances, social, professional, and academic, with such analytical problem-solving, so I think I am on a healthy “right” track, but I do need to remember that next fall will be a learning experience for me as a first-time teacher; I must not engage in debilitating doubt. Instead, I need to remember to cherish my victories, even victories that seem too small.

Fear v. James Peck

James was the perfect addition to the course. His master class introduced a completely and surprisingly relevant set of activities. Not only did we get to play tag, but we also learned that fear is the ultimate killer of fun, fun in living, playing, learning, and teaching, and I can see how I allow my fears stifle me in many ways.                                                       When I think about the source of my fear, I know much of it comes from a desire to be accepted and liked by my peers; this desire is complicated by the fact that I have an overwhelming need to be perfect in whatever I do. Together, those two needs cause me to stifle things, things that I’m sure could be good, fun energy, which may stifle my teaching performance and/or effectiveness.
    I would like to take this realization and scale back on, if not eliminate, my fears of unacceptance and imperfection. My goal over the next year is to branch out, brave my social fears, and make learning fun.

Wednesday Forum

    The Wednesday Forum was not a big part of our class, and I think there are a few reasons behind that fact: First and foremost (for me, anyway), it was officially assigned only one time; second, the forum seems like a more formal version of the blog; and third, I was horribly ill the week it was assigned. Aside from health matters, I think I would have responded positively to the forum if we had to write a blog (instead of a Moodle post) recapping our discussion.
    Now that I feel comfortable blogging, I enjoy and appreciate the freedom I have in that space. Granted, the freedom is slightly restricted in an academic blog, but it is easier to write and reflect in a blog space.
    While other classes in the MATW program have revealed the detriment of the top-down teaching approach, English 612 is the first class in which I can begin to imagine what a student-centered classroom might look like and how a new teacher might situate their teaching within such a classroom. As a new educator, I am still looking for practical applications in the classroom, but I am sure my summer reading will offer practical advice.

Mixed Tapes and NiceNet

    David used MediaMaster to play his "Mixed Tapes," specially selected tunes, which complement his theme of improvisation. Musicians such as Myra Melford, Charlie “Bird” Parker, Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong, Kurt Ellig, and Nicholas Payton played vivid new compositions and old standards with a fresh twist.
    Since, as I mentioned above, I am not a musician, I felt inadequate when writing about the music. I know very little about music, and I know less about its jargon. Here is an example of my online response on NiceNet:

Armstrong "My Heart"
The horn, the piano, and the crackling give this piece an old-timey sound; something I might listen to at my great grandmother's house.
Armstrong "Yes! I'm in the Barrel"
What does that mean? There is a sense of plodding along in the beginning. The quick stops of the piano playing make this feel old like "My Heart."
These pieces are very different from last week's selection; they seem at the beginning of the jazz movement.
Gonsalves "Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue"
I like the walking of the bass (or cello, I can never tell the difference by sound); it makes me want to move whether my mind wants to get up and dance or not. The rhythm swings and the symbols are used more and create a distinct feeling. Plus, the audience adds to the experience. I find I get much more excited if the audience is passionate about the performance. Even though the music builds at the end, there is a cohesive feeling and sound that was less apparent in Trio M's selection.
Parker "Now's the Time" "Scrapple in the Apple"
This song swings and then the horn steps up; the first solo maintains the character of the song. There is no free jazz, and I'm glad. The piano seems to carry a nice melody -- not as plodding as the Armstrong song, but not quite smooth either.
Even though musically I like this week's selection better then last week's, I feel that Trio M is a better example of the perverse reading and rereading that Jarrett talks about. They play in a musically counterintuitive way that challenges and creates new boundaries, which seems like a more overt example of what Jarrett writes.

I relied on my emotions to interpret the music, which is probably how people initially began talking about and studying music. I also relied on the readings to make sense of why musicians might stray from melody and harmony. While I still do not fully understand the desire to play dissonantly, I appreciate other people's attempts to study and understand the cognitive side of jazz.


    The Voicethread is an ingenious piece of new technology that was introduced late in the semester. While the site is relatively easy to use, we needed more time to creatively compose as a group before setting out to creatively compose on our own. As it was, we used the question “What did you learn about teaching writing?” as our writing/speaking prompt.
For my piece of Voicethread, I used Windows Media Player to record my answer, but when I uploaded the file to Voicethread, it did not play. I typed out my answer instead. I wanted to have a more unique piece, but that was all the time I could devote to technology at that moment.
    In the end, the Voicethread turned out okay, but I think it would have been more successful if we had more time to collaborate. By the time we came together as a class to discuss the who, what, when, how of Voicethread, many of us were feeling the pressures of the end of the term, and instead of energetically engaging in and producing a creative and thought-provoking design, we succumbed to the end-of-term pressures and designed a basic Voicethread. This project was fun, but I think it could be even better with more time.

New Beginnings

    While other classes in the MATW program have revealed the detriment of the top-down teaching approach, English 612 is the first class in which I can begin to imagine what a student-centered classroom might look like and how a new teacher might situate their teaching within such a classroom. As a new educator, I am still collecting practical applications in the classroom, but with a little creativity, a little improvisation, and a few practical strategies I am sure I will teach effectively.