Posts Tagged ‘teaching’

I’ve been teaching college writing courses off and on since 1985 or thereabouts. I’d doing it again this spring–I’m teaching two courses of basic writing, and one course of college writing. And just about the time we headed into this term it dawned on me that the one thing I’m not teaching is writing. My students already have the marks-on-paper stuff down cold.

It took a student bringing in a paper he had “written” by speaking to his computer for me to realize this. Since then, I’ve been thinking a lot about what I’m teaching. Is it grammar? No–there are grammar checkers. Is it spelling? No–spelling’s a visual memory; memorizing word lists isn’t going to make anyone a better speller. Is it modes of writing? Not really. What’s the point in being able to spout a particular format of essay on command?

It seems to me that what I am doing is teaching students not how to write, but how to think. I teach them how to find,  gather, and evaluate information, and document where they got it. I teach them how to go beyond the obvious to the hidden messages buried in imagery and context. I teach them how to weigh conflicting opinions. I teach them how to reason a problem through, make judgment calls, lay out their findings in simple, persuasive terms.

If I do my job right, I prepare my students for every other class they will take in college–and for every day they will live afterwards. I am teaching them how to learn about and understand the world.

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We’re nearing the end of the term here at the remote, isolated outpost of higher education where I teach basic writing courses. The thing about teaching writing courses is that they work best when there’s a certain level of trust and intimacy between writers and audience. Many of the assignments require students to explore some facet of their own experience. The upshot of this is that I have a window into the lives of the students who sit in my class that many other teachers don’t have. In any given term, I have a good idea who is struggling with personal issues, who is single, who is married, who has lost–or gained–a loved one, who is having a positive–or negative–experience at school.

I’ve been teaching writing for a long time, and I have rather come to take that window into my students’ lives for granted. But this term has been out of the ordinary. A huge percentage of my students are single parents. Many are attending school as a path out of a long family history of poverty. I have students who have recently returned from Iraq and Afghanistan, and are going to school on the GI bill. Some students have had unexpected deaths in their families.

We are a small, comparatively poor town, and half of my class reports in by television from even smaller, poorer towns. I teach night school, so many of my students come to class after having already worked a full day, in some cases at grinding physcial labor. And still they come to class, and they sit there, and listen, and write their papers, and revise, and rewrite. And I can see how very tired they get.

And while I wish I could just let them have the time to relax, to unwind, and to catch their breath, I don’t. In fact, I work them all the harder, because that’s my gift to them–the benefit of every bit of wisdom , encouragement, and support I can cram into those hours we share. And they learn. As far as I know, I am the only writing teacher who encourages students to rewrite their papers, over and over and over again. And I grade them over and over again, because the best way to teach writing is to give people the opportunity to write, and to see how they might express themselves more clearly.

Teaching this way is hard work. Sometimes it gets confusing. But we keep doing it because I am teaching more than making marks on paper–I am challenging the people who come to my class to look at their lives in new ways, to explore ideas, to look beyond the simple, trite, common knowledge that “everybody knows” to the deeper wisdom behind it. And I’m doing this not because of who I am, but because of who the people who sit in my classes are. They are people who, in spite of living in small, backwoods, rural communities, have dared to dream of moving beyond the world into which they were born–or in which by happenstance they find themselves.

I read their papers, and sometimes my heart breaks for them, but mostly I am awed, humbled, and grateful that my life offers me the opportunity touch so many lives, to offer hope to people for whom hope may be a rare commodity, to offer support and courage to people whose lives may hold a lot of challenges and pain, but also a seed of a dream. Every week, I get to meet with around twenty-five people who, in a world of uncertainty and diminishing resources, have dared to envision a life that holds more.

In the past, I taught writing. These days, I find I’m spending a lot of time fostering creativity, urging my students to think outside the box, to consider avenues to success that don’t depend on traditional nine-to-five jobs, to explore non-traditional housing options, to dream big, because in times like these our dreams are our treasure. As long as we can dream, we can never be beaten.

And that is the gift of teaching–the deep wisdom that lies behind the obvious pattern of teacher talking and students listening. If the teacher takes the time to listen, her students can teach her the power of dreaming, and of working to make those dreams come true.

My students don’t read this blog–most of them don’t even know it exists. But today I wish they did. I wish they knew what they mean to me, and what they teach me simply by showing up to class, with their tired eyes, and their dreams, and their willingness to write, to think, to rewrite, revise, rethink, and rewrite again. I wish they knew how I hope that something they hear, something they learn, will spark an idea that will carry them beyond where they are now, to a place beyond where they have ever dreamed of being.

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For some reason, a lot of the people in my life seem to be having Bad Days. Some are having Really Bad Days. I had one yesterday–fought a migraine all day yesterday, and then had to go teach five hours of writing courses to a class of students who, because of My Bad Day, all had brilliant haloes. Largely because I was looped on meds, I couldn’t get  the video system to work (my class is broadcast to two other locations), and once it was broadcasting I suspect we all wished we hadn’t made that happen. So–bad day for me. Bad day for my students (though watching your loopy teacher fumble around with remotes and make bizarre and random comments probably has some entertainment value). Today has been much better–largely because I have been applying a whole host of Bad Day remedies. Here are a few. See if they work for you.

1. Flip a fat cat onto its back and rub its belly.

2. Sneak up behind someone and blurt, “Hey!” over and over and over…

3. Watch Moskau by Ghenghis Khan and admire the shiny makeup and costumes. Also the squat thrusts.

4. Look up the dubbed versions and go around the house singing things like, “Please respect the caviar,” and “People, hey! hey! Look at this ladle!”

5. Write a story about a bad person coming to a terrible end.

6. Sit in a warm car and watch “Psych” on a Kindle while rain falls on the roof and runs down the windshield.

7. Talk to a four-year-old about Disneyland, and why Daisy appears so seldom.

8. Eat pizza.

9. Play Castleville.

10. Shave. Wherever you need to.

11. Make cookies from boughten dough.

12. Rise up in righteous indignation.

13. Send an ill-advised, smart-mouthed email.

14. Curse at a bill collector.

15. Hug your kid.

16. Take a nap.

17. Burn a nutbread-scented candle.

18. Read the Tarot.

19. iChat.

20. Doodle professionally.

21. Blog.

PS. I’m thinking the meds haven’t quite cleared my system yet…

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Big changes around here. After an absence of going on twenty years, I find myself back in the classroom teaching writing courses. It’s been several weeks now, and I’m remembering what I loved about teaching. I have the opportunity to meet with a diverse, fascinating group of people each week and talk about thinking logically and persuasively–and then putting those thoughts down in concrete form. Each time I start a class, I find myself awed by the effort people put into showing up for night school each week–and I remember again how important it is to make each class worth their time and money. I do love teaching.

The other thing I love about it is the boost it gives to my own writing. The first assignment students usually get in a class like this is a descriptive essay. My classes are no different. I asked them to write about “Home,” and what it meant to them. I had meant it to be a fairly straightforward, simple exercise. It turned into a fabulous “getting acquainted” experience. Suddenly people all over the room were thinking of what “home” was to them–and what it wasn’t.

It got me thinking about my own “home,” and what it means–and how my concept of what a “home” is has shaped my decision to stay in a house that isn’t my dream house, in a town that isn’t my dream town, simply because to my son, it’s home. He has roots here. And when he’s grown up with kids of his own, I want him to be able to bring them ‘home.’ He can’t do that if I keep searching for the house I’ve always longed for. For me, the time to find the dream house in which to make my home seems to have passed. Too much living has happened here. Too much laughter, too much tears. Home has happened while I wasn’t looking.

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