I’ve been teaching writing for almost 35 years now. They say the teacher sometimes learns more than her students.
So what are some of the things have I learned over the past three plus decades about writing, college kids and life, in general?
Writing can be taught. There is a debate about this, but I can say for a fact that writing can be taught, and I’ve done it many times. Give the students the necessary tools, and they will write fabulous essays. What are the tools? Good, thorough discussions about thesis statements, paragraph development, specific details, transitions, grammar, organization, expression. Give them time to rewrite, to peer edit. Give them encouragement, and they will write. They will find their own way, along with your expert guidance.
“Write what you know” is a useful adage. This semester I had a student who was writing at a “C” level. But when the last paper came around, a research paper, he picked a subject that he knew inside and out — one concerning “Should college athletes be paid?” Using this topic, he produced an “A” paper. He told me after the fact that he felt passionate about this subject. He knew the details of his argument so well, that the paper virtually wrote itself.
Writing what we know can produce some of our most successful work. Incidentally, he picked the unpopular “side” of the argument; Will argued that collegiate athletes should not be paid. Wow, what an essay!
Sometimes a writer’s emotional life is too conflicted for her to write. The students in my classes who do well have relatively stable lives outside of the classroom. But sometimes a student’s home life, work life or personal life takes a turn for the worse. Case in point — Mary was doing perfectly fine in my class; she was on her way to getting a “B,” but then, her parents began divorce proceedings, and unfortunately, she couldn’t find it in herself to finish the last half of the course. She ended up dropping out.
Writing demands a clear head and when one’s life is in total turmoil, it’s hard to think clearly and create lucid work. Only the extremely practiced writer can produce fine work through life’s peaks and valleys.
Deadlines help some students. It was down to the wire for one student. He had to write a research paper by midnight. With my help, he produced an outline and then, went home and wrote a very average paper, but one that would allow him to receive a final grade of a “B-.” The lesson here is that some writers won’t write without the blood, sweat and tears that a tight deadline can give them. And college courses are all about deadlines.
A teacher has many students with many different maturity levels in one classroom. Yesterday, I came into the class to see Joey running around scribbling on the board like a second grader, while Barbara watched him like a 45-year-old, with mild amusement. Both kids were 18-years-old. When all of these personalities become engaged with one another in a discussion or debate, the mixture of views is often interesting and thought-provoking. I wouldn’t want all of my students to be in the same place intellectually or emotionally. That’s just not possible. But no matter where they are, they can all bring something to the proverbial table.
Some students are too smart for their own good. These are the types who go all semester without purchasing a textbook. They think they can go it alone, that they don’t need to read anything to pass the class. Or they don’t even show up to class. I’ve had dozens of students fail a paper or the entire class because they miss the point of an assignment due to the fact that they were not present for weeks at a time. For instance, they’ll write an informative paper when they should have written a persuasive one. That’s a huge mistake, one that could have been avoided simply by showing up.
Timing is everything. What I mean by this is that I’ve had brilliant writers, but it was the wrong time for them to flourish. I had one student a couple of years ago who dropped out of my class. His writing was poor and he showed no enthusiasm for the craft. He was sullen and was not involved in the academic process in the least. Three years later, he showed up in my class again, a different person. It was finally his time to learn and engage himself in college life. He wrote with interest in his subject matter, and at times, even with joy. He earned a solid “A” for the semester. In another instance, I had a female student who could write circles around me. But she was simply in a bad spot in life. It was not her time to excel. She remained in my class, but she earned a “C,” when she could have aced the class.
Everyone makes mistakes. This semester while critiquing a student’s paper, I made a whopper of a mistake. I told her that the title of her essay was “stupid.” This is not the kind of language a writing teacher should use when critiquing a student’s work. It’s belittling and really says nothing about how to improve the issue in question. What did I do? I used the moment as a teachable moment, telling the class that teachers aren’t perfect and that sometimes we make mistakes. Sometimes we’re tired or unfocused or just don’t want to be in class. We talked about professionalism and how that should supersede negative feelings on the teacher’s part, but sometimes it doesn’t. Long story short, the girl forgave me for calling her title “stupid,” and she ultimately found a much better one for her essay. What teaching has taught me most is that no one is perfect.
In conclusion, the bottom line for me as a writing teacher is being able to display both strength and vulnerability while I teach, and appreciate each student for her unique personality and contribution to the delicate process of learning how to write, not in the comfort of her own room, but in a communal setting, in fact, in a writing classroom.