Bread Loaf Influence

Bread Loaf

In the mountains, there you feel free.
I read, much of the night, and go south in the winter.

T.S. Eliot

“In the beginning was Bread Loaf,” Nancie Atwell begins In the Middle. Bread Loaf was my beginning as a teacher; nineteen years after graduating it informs almost everything I do in my classroom: from the bad jokes modeled and stolen from John Fleming, my Chaucer and Dante professor, to the way I view the essay gleaned from the classes of Courtney Cazden and Shirley Brice-Heath. But as a first year teacher in Beeville Texas in 1988, I hadn’t a clue what I was to gain by teaching in deep south Texas: Beeville is a long way from the Green Mountains of Vermont.

After the first day of teacher in-service, the National Public Radio station out of Corpus Christi announced that Beeville was the hottest city in the United States at 107 degrees. Beeville was a wasteland: a very small city surrounded by miles of extremely flat pasture dotted with hundreds of sgraggly mesquite trees. I was miserable. Not only had I moved from my beloved Austin, but I had almost no clue what to do in my first class or how to manage a class. I had taken the Hill Country Writing Project at UT, where I had been exposed to various ideas, which not having ever been in a real classroom meant little to me except in the abstract. I knew that the students needed to write if they were to become better writers, so I had them write: journals, essays, short stories and poems. The TEAMS test was just beginning and the district wanted the students to do well on the writing test so they encouraged the English teachers to have the students write. It was the only thing I knew to do so that is what my students did.

In January a small blurb appeared in the English Journal about a rural teacher scholarship to some little school I had never heard of in Vermont: The Bread Loaf School of English. What a goofy name I thought, but somehow appropriate considering my two years as a baker. I figured you can’t get much more rural than Beeville, Texas. I thought what do I have to lose; a summer reading and writing in the northeast sounded like heaven. I sent off for information; a few weeks later a small application packet arrived. I filled it out without much effort or thought, and immediately forgot about it. In March an acceptance letter and a course catalog arrived. Used to the mind-numbing course number list of classes offered in UT’s course schedules, I was impressed by the lengthy descriptions of the various classes. But the double page aerial picture of the campus at the center of the catalog stunned me: several muddy yellow buildings almost swallowed by the luxuriant green of the Green Mountain National Forest. It looked like a summer camp one sees advertised in the back of the New York Times Magazine.

“Camp English teacher,” John Fleming, the teacher of the first class I walked into that summer called it. Bread Loaf was a gathering of 250 mostly English teachers who had travelled from around the country and several foreign countries to isolate themselves from everything else to study in an obsessive manner what the rest of the world considered, as a fellow student and Catholic monk from St. Louis described as, “pretty silly stuff:” writing and literature. That first summer I took John Fleming’s class on Chaucer and Courtney Cazden’s writing class, “Forms of Thinking, Talking, and Writing.” Over the course of the six week summer session, we read Boethius’ The Conslation of Philosophy, several minor poems of Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales and Troilus and Cressida in Fleming’s class. Courtney Cazden introduced us to Vygotsgy and research on the writing process as well as had us write, read and perform countless essays. In addition to the classes, the conversations of the students and teachers at breakfast, lunch and dinner continued the discussions generated in the classrooms. The theory and practice introduced in the different classrooms, fed and cross pollinated each other over meals. The Bread Loaf campus was ten miles from the closest town, many of students had no transportation, so there was little else to do but talk to each other, and since the only thing we all had in common was our jobs and our classes our conversation tended to concentrate on teaching, writing, and literature. Even at the early evening volleyball games, where students and teachers would play loosely organized matches literary allussions would fly in the light jibes and teasing from the opposing sides.

At Bread Loaf, I was immersed in a language rich environment. I try to recreate this evironment in my classroom. Through the set up of my class, the way my class runs, the method of delivery, the assignments I make, my own constant stream of babble , and my expectations of my students, I try to create an atmosphere where the “pretty silly stuff” of language, writing, and literature can breathe and thrive. Bread Loaf was my beginning, and still informs everything I do as a teacher. I imagine it always will, as T.S. Eliot writes in East Coker, “In my beginning is my end.”