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Focusing and Creative Process: Using Felt Sense in the Writing Classroom

By Sondra Perl, Ph.D.

Sondra Perl is a Guggenheim Fellow and a co-founder and former director of the New York City Writing Project. She currently teaches at Lehman College, CUNY, and in both the English and Urban Education doctoral programs at the CUNY Graduate Center.

I teach writing at the City University of New York. Ever since I learned Focusing, my work in the classroom hasn't been the same. The felt sense was ‘a missing link' in the teaching of writing. After all, where did writers go when they were searching for words? How did they know that certain words were the ones they were looking for and others did not fit? What happened as they paused and reflected on what was already on the page or on what was missing? To me, the answers were obvious -- and important. I began to teach my students, undergraduates at CUNY, then teachers I worked with in high schools and colleges across the country, and then later on doctoral students, how to locate a felt sense and how to use it when they were writing.

Excited about what I saw happening, I knew I had discovered an important aspect of composing. I began to wonder if teachers could guide students through their composing processes in much the same way focusers guide each other through focusing. The purpose would be to create notes or the beginning of a draft. I adapted the focusing questions for use in classrooms. For years I have led students through the Guidelines and found that the process helps them discover what they want to write about.

Recently some of my graduate students discussed their use of the Guidelines in an online conversation. Maureen wrote, "When Sondra asked, ‘What is the crux of this topic?' I realized in that moment that although I had written down two seemingly disparate topics in fact the two were intertwined -- that the reason I have desired to write about my Irish grandmother is in part because of my concerns with the first topic, racism. ...It was not until I was allowed to muse on a deep level that I realized their essential connectedness in my mind and heart and memory."

Bob explained, "To write is to really think and feel, and let it all-- let the felt sense -- wash over us. In writing now at home, I feel a different sense of freedom. I get up. I pace. I clap my hands... I am so thankful we did the felt sense writing on Thursday, because it really has opened me up. I took a lot home with me that day, and little of it was on paper."

And a third commented, "This week has been amazing in its energizing qualities toward my writing. Something tangential to what I wrote in class has begun forming in my draft. I'm not sure I like it or if it's any good, but I feel myself relaxing as I write, as the thing inside, the felt sense begins to articulate itself, even partially."

Over the past 20 years, I've also taught the Guidelines to teachers who have then adapted them for use in their middle, high school, and college writing classrooms. Recently I asked my colleagues in the New York City Writing Project, one of the most successful faculty development projects in the country, how they have been using the Guidelines. One teacher wrote, "Guidelines for Composing are alive and well! In District 8, two colleagues and I have been working with the principals of the elementary and middle schools. We felt that we should lead the principals in some kind of writing activity and we decided to use Guidelines. We were nervous, but it was well received. One principal, who often gives us hard time, admitted to me later that he enjoyed the session and wanted me to listen to the piece he wrote right away."

Another commented, "I, and most of my colleagues, have used them in our courses with teachers, and have helped many of them use them in their classrooms. A Health Careers teacher and I used the guidelines to help the students write from their "felt sense" about experiences with nursing and death. A few summers ago, a colleague and I adapted the guidelines for an Exploration and Essay course to help the participants sift through material and find what they wanted to write about. We also adapted them to help a group of middle school social studies teachers write about research projects they were doing with their classes. So the guidelines are "out" there in many shapes and forms."

Finally, a colleague working in Canada sent me this description a student gave to her. "I had so many things going around inside my head I didn't know where to start. There were papers to start thinking of, ideas to flesh out; I was trying to come up with a conference proposal and also trying to sort out a position statement I was drafting. There was so much noise inside my head, I couldn't think straight. So I got out Perl's guidelines. I focused on my proposal ideas--and the effect was amazing. Not only did I feel better knowing that I had actually dumped some ideas into my computer, but I had also clarified where my thinking was going. These guidelines are a tool I'll use a lot...The "felt sense" is what I've called my writing nag! When I need to say something, or when what I'm writing is going sour, I get this irritation in the pit of my stomach. If I keep going down the path that's going nowhere, the irritation gets bigger. It doesn't go away until I backtrack and take off in a different direction. It took me a long time to learn to listen to this gnawing, but I'm realizing now that I need to distinguish between the nagging feeling that I need to fix what I'm saying and the one that tells me I should be saying something else. There's a creating nag and an editing nag--I didn't realize until now that they're two different things."

Showing teachers and students how to work with the felt sense may be one of the most powerful things we can do to make schools places where real teaching and learning happen.

For more material on Sondra's program, click here.


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