Learning to Speak, Learning to Listen

October 22, 2015
Students in English Instructor Todd Hearon’s class sitting around a Harkness table at Exeter

Students in Todd Hearon’s English class debate the merits of Rilke’s writing advice in Letters to a Young Poet.

How Exeter’s writing program helps students engage with the world

By Genny Beckman Moriarty

On Wednesday mornings in Phillips Church, as sunlight filters through the stained-glassed windows, a certain stillness spreads over the rows of students and adults.

In that hush — right before the first few notes of the opening music and the speaker’s approach to the podium — lies a sense of expectancy. Each week, in the midst of our hectic schedules, members of the Academy community choose to come together in a collective exhale, to listen to an extended personal essay known as meditation. The 30-minute respite nourishes many of us, allowing us to forget about looming tests and deadlines and the pressures of everyday life for a few peaceful moments.

Beyond the chance to slow down, meditation offers a sense of belonging and highlights the ability of language and stories to unite and sustain us. Each week during fall and winter terms, adults from the community find the courage to share their hopes and fears openly and vulnerably in front of a receptive audience.

In the spring, selected seniors follow suit. The feeling of connection — one might even call it communion — that ensues can be powerful.

That power is not lost on Exeter’s English Department, for which ”the belief in stories and storytelling” is at the heart of a distinctive vision, says Mercy Carbonell ’96 (Hon.), longtime instructor in English. It’s a belief, she argues, that is ”essential to what we do.”

English Department Chair Ellen Wolff agrees. ”Our distinctiveness begins with the personal narrative. Other schools teach it or touch upon it, but there isn’t usually the same emphasis or duration of attention,” she says. From the moment they arrive as preps, students are expected to cull their memories, using experiences from their lives as material for writing assignments. Writing about what they know limits the variables for young writers and frees them to focus on essential writing skills such as clarity of expression, voice, focus and tone that will serve them well no matter what they write.

Through discussions and assignments of increasing complexity, English classes at Exeter encourage a slow building of skills that arise out of the discovery of a student’s voice — both on paper and at the table — and the crucial capacity to listen closely and respectfully to the voices of others. But while the skills are important and tend to carry over to other genres, teachers have another goal as well.

”We’re helping them develop the habit of seeing their lives as stories,” says Wolff, who hopes that kind of ”narrative mindset” will help students make sense of their lives. ”In so doing,” she asserts, ”they’re more likely to be effective agents in the world.”

Like Wolff, English Instructor and Director of Studies Brooks Moriarty ’87 sees a dual purpose behind the department’s ”deep commitment to personal narrative.” He explains, ”We see our writing curriculum as both a skill-building enterprise and a moral endeavor. By building the skills they need, we are preparing [students] for the kinds of writing they’ll be doing in college and beyond. But we are also preparing them for the ’business of living.’ We see writing as a way of engaging with both the self and the world.”

With this focus on the exchange of voices through the close reading of literature and the writing of personal narratives, the department’s curriculum and pedagogy lend themselves well to the ideals set forth in the Academy’s founding deed of gift — and reiterated many times since — that goodness and knowledge ought to go hand in hand and that the ”great and real business of living” that Moriarty references is usefulness to mankind.

These higher-reaching ideals can appear at times to be in tension with the pressures of standardized testing and college admissions, and with a utilitarian approach to education that sees STEM courses as the path to securing a good job. Such pressures can lead to anxiety about the relevance of the humanities and have prompted calls from some education reformers to assign more nonfiction texts in English classes and to privilege argument- and research-driven writing over other modes of expression.

Michael Brosnan, editor of Independent School magazine, who has taught part-time at Exeter and writes widely about education and the issues facing independent schools, says that while such pressures are real and independent schools are not immune from the need to respond to them, they can have the unfortunate effect of ”tamp[ing] down on some of the desires and the mission” of even the most progressive schools. Brosnan, who is heartened to see schools such as Exeter respond to those pressures in unique and creative ways, bemoans the fact that administrators tend to rely too heavily on data to determine what is worthwhile in the classroom.

”There’s this idea that you’ve got to weigh and measure,” he says. ”And if we can’t measure it, how do we know it’s valuable? You know, there are more and more sophisticated ways to measure, and those may get around to including the value of the humanities, but still, there’s a high level of intuition here.”

An Emerging Sense of Self
There is, in fact, increasing evidence from research revealing the benefits of a liberal arts education — including increased social and emotional intelligence, improved cognitive functioning and decision-making, and greater empathy. In September, author and researcher Mary Helen Immordino-Yang spoke to Exeter’s faculty regarding the scientific evidence linking emotions, empathy and learning.

Religion Instructor and Vira I. Heinz Professor Kathy Brownback P’08 reports that Immordino-Yang has found that emotions play a significant role in the development of rational thought. So, Brownback explains, ”rather than escaping the emotions to think more clearly, it is essential for students to be able to feel, understand and clarify their emotional lives. This kind of self-understanding is also an essential underpinning of a moral community.”

Like Brownback, Wolff was struck by the relevance of Immordino-Yang’s research, which demonstrates the importance of taking breaks from the focused, task-oriented frame of mind that shapes students’ daily lives at school, to enter into the resting or ”default” state of social-emotional intelligence — the platform for high-level, integral thinking. ”In asking students to write about their own lives,” Wolff posits, ”we may be inviting them to enter that resting state that allows them to integrate their experiences into an emerging sense of self.” Far from being the self-indulgent exercise some critics deem it, the writing of personal narratives ”may actually help students organize their minds in a way that both feels good and does good,” Wolff says. She admits the thought might be idealistic but adds, ”I think the connection is there.”

Teaching the Human Experience
Whether based on intuition or science, Exeter’s English teachers have long agreed that education must go beyond the mere acquisition of skills or content to confront the questions of what it means to be human, to be a good citizen. ”We believe in the teaching of the human experience through stories, through narrative and through dialogue — which, even when thoughtfully done, can be messy and muddy and slow as it edges toward lucidity and sharpened clarity,” says English Instructor Todd Hearon, who is the 2015 Dartmouth Poet in Residence at the Frost Place. Echoing his colleagues’ sentiments, he adds, ”We are trying to create fuller, better-rounded human beings whose value can’t be measured adequately by a bubble-test system, by the college into which such beings matriculate (or don’t), or by a purely pragmatic approach” to education.

Of course, no one from the English Department would argue that students don’t need to learn how to analyze a text or write a cogent argument. As Wolff points out, ”We are a high school English department. We do need to teach students the nuts and bolts of writing logical sentences.” Wolff insists the department’s methods are designed to do just that. ”We are preparing them to read, write and think in a variety of modes,” she says, ”but it is developmentally appropriate to begin with the self and gradually open up.”

Wolff traces a teaching arc in which students progress from writing paragraphs to vignettes to stories, anchored in their own experiences and memories, and gradually broaden their focus to include the experiences of family and the local community. Eventually, they expand outward again to grapple with literary criticism, the cornerstone of many high schools’ writing programs.

Reflecting on the merits of Exeter’s teaching arc, English Instructor Alex Myers ’96, author of the novel Revolutionary, which was a finalist for a Lambda Literary Award, says, ”Adolescence is a perfect time to start asking people to write, revise and understand their own stories. Later, these can feed into the larger story of self in relation to other, whether that is through analytical papers, research or fiction writing.”

Although they don’t begin to craft formal analytical essays until their upper years, students regularly draft short reading responses, often using them to contribute to classroom discussions. In those conversations with peers, students learn to articulate their thoughts with nuance and to defend their positions with evidence from the text — all skills that will help them as writers, too. Mercy Carbonell points to students’ Harkness discussions as ”their initial and developing journey into acts of collaborative interpretation and skills.” She adds, ”As students get older, they begin using those acts of interpretation in differing analytical forms.”

The interplay between the spoken and written word — or between language expressed and language received — is an important component of the department’s vision. Becky Moore, former department chair and current Woodbridge Odlin Professor in English, explains, ”To develop a confident voice at the table, you must feel the authority that writing your own stories gives you.” And if confidence and the ability to listen and respond to others’ ideas are critical to good readers, they are critical to good writers as well. Being attentive to the audience’s needs provides an authentic, internal incentive for young writers to master those same skills and develop their singular voices. At the same time, as students listen and respond to their classmates’ feedback, they learn to value other voices and points of view.

The beauty of Harkness, says former Bennett Fellow and current English Instructor Erica Plouffe-Lazure, is that it ”gives students a direct stake in the outcome of their education. It makes them accountable to themselves and to their peers, and provides them with the tools … to engage in discussion and collaboration and to turn ideas into actions.”

Reflecting on his first term at Exeter, Chris Vazan ’16 confirmed the merits of the department’s approach, writing, ”Perhaps the most important thing I have begun to learn is to live, think and observe empathetically and attentively. I have begun to be able to really think about myself and about others, and perhaps the greatest way to practice this is through the analytical reading and personal writing we did in class.”

Fertile Grounds for Growth
Nowhere are the rewards of engagement with the self and participation in the larger community — through the careful use of language and the sharing of stories — more evident than in that quiet of Phillips Church during meditation.

The Rev. Bob Thompson ’72; ’71, ’89, ’95 (Hon.), Phelps minister for Phillips Church, oversees the weekly meditation service. He sees its evolution from a ”spiritual biography” assigned in advanced religion courses to a capstone writing project for the English Department (and something of a rite of passage for Exonians) as fitting, calling it the ”perfect vehicle” for culminating four years of writing instruction centered on personal narrative and an exploration of voice.

The power in meditation, he adds, rests in the intensely personal connection between individual speakers and their audiences, who are engaged in the simultaneous acts of giving and receiving. ”Sitting there in the audience,” says Thompson, ”you’re connected to the giver. It’s a moment of grace.” He argues that those ”moments of giving, of honesty, of risk, are fertile grounds for deeper religious growth.” But even for the nonreligious, the connection itself can feel sacred. ”It is inherently beautiful and beneficial. If nothing more happens than sharing, that is profound,” Thompson concludes.

During her own meditation, delivered in Phillips Church in the spring of her senior year, Carlin Zia ’13 reflected on the power of our shared spaces and stories to make us feel more deeply connected to one another: ”I realized that my truth is both ... the steady wooden rafters of this church and the words that rise below them. It is the … exposure of the reader and the emotional weight of bearing witness to [this] vulnerability that each listener carries and that together we share. It is the physical hug directly afterward and the small mental pat on the back I give each time I subsequently see that person on the path. It is in knowing just a little bit more about a fellow Exonian, a fellow human, and the broader community of this Island we share.

Creating the Space to Write
Among the many ways the English Department fosters a literate community — from the student publications Peal, PEAN and The Exonian to the Lamont Poetry Series and the Prize Papers awarded each spring — one of the most beloved traditions is that of the Bennett Fellowship, which each year brings a talented, emerging writer to campus. Read on to find out more about the inspiration behind the program’s founding:

In his new memoir, First Passages, Elias Kulukundis ’55 recalls ”navigating the straits between two cultures.” As the son of wealthy Greek parents, his upbringing was often at odds with his American education. While a senior at Exeter, Kulukundis studied creative writing with George Bennett ’23, whom he recalls as ”the perfect Harkness teacher.” Kulukundis says Bennett, who taught the class in his living room, inspired in him a love of literature and a commitment to becoming a writer. First Passages outlines his struggle as a young adult to balance his own desires with the need to please his parents — a struggle that eventually led to his creation of the Bennett Fellowship.

Kulukundis established the fellowship to give emerging writers the gifts of time and financial support that would allow them to devote themselves to their craft. He was adamant that fellows should not yet be firmly established in their writing careers and would have no duties while at Exeter other than to pursue their own literary projects and talk about writing with students. Kulukundis wanted those conversations to occur informally, to mirror the classes Bennett taught in his living room.

Since the first Bennett Fellow arrived on campus in 1968, Exeter has hosted 48 talented writers, many of whom have gone on to earn critical acclaim for their works.

An Intellectual Community of Writers and Scholars
Exeter’s writing program derives much of its strength and richness from the English Department’s faculty, who represent a diversity of interests and educational backgrounds. An overwhelming majority of Exeter’s more than 30 English teachers hold advanced degrees, and their specialties vary widely, from English literature and American studies to education, law, divinity and creative writing, to name a few.

Many of Exeter’s English teachers actively write and publish in scholarly journals, national and regional magazines, and literary journals such as Crab Creek Review, AGNI, Kenyon Review and American Poetry Review. There are journalists, literary critics and a number of nationally recognized and award-winning poets, playwrights and writers of fiction and literary nonfiction, several of whom have released works through a major publishing house or university press. Some English teachers are involved in cross-disciplinary work with other departments or have designed electives such as Lit and the Land or Law and Lit that allow them to share their particular interests with students.

English faculty share their expertise with peers from across the country by leading workshops at professional and literary conferences, including Exeter’s Humanities Institute, Rex A. McGuinn Shakespeare Conference, Writers’ Workshops and the Exeter Diversity Institute. With their colleagues from other departments, Exeter’s English teachers frequently take part in Harkness outreach efforts both stateside and abroad.

In their free time, teachers often elect to combine travel with research or professional development. This summer, English teachers flew to the heart of Dublin, Ireland, to participate in the Beckett and James Joyce summer schools; to Ohio for the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop for Teachers; and to Tennessee for the prestigious Sewanee Writers’ Conference.