Thursday, May 5, 2011

In Which Mr. N Realizes That, Much Like He Does, His Students Like Talking About Themselves

If you're a writing teacher, go buy your kids journals.  Don't waste any more time.

As I've mentioned in the past, I'm a reluctant writing teacher.  Biology is my forte, and while I enjoy writing, I haven't received any formal training past one required writing class in college.  Becoming a remedial writing teacher has been rough; in my third week of school, my assistant principal had to come co-teach the class with me until I got the students' behavior under control.  While I haven't had any riots lately (especially not since I became the advanced 9th grade writing teacher at the beginning of this semester), Writing Lab often feels like a distraction from what I really enjoy teaching.

My original conception for Advanced Writing Lab was a project-based class, in which students would propose a project (based on a teacher-given theme) every two weeks, execute it, and defend it against their proposal.  About half the class stunned me with their creativity and drive; for the "Mental Disorders" project, for example, students turned in projects ranging from a 10-minute film about a guilt-ridden soldier, a 9-page semi-fictional account of a man who leaves his fiancee during their Paris honeymoon to pursue the Eiffel Tower, and a comic book about an ADHD-afflicted superhero.  The other half of the class stunned me with their desire to slam their rolling chairs into one another at high speeds when I sat down to work with a student.

Suffice it to say that, while students initially reveled in the freedom of being able to follow their literary pursuits, not all students demonstrated the confidence, ability, or willingness to stay seated in order to pull it off.  Even among the upper-level writing students there is a huge range of abilities; many students struggled with basic grammar skills (which I am piss-poor at teaching) and couldn't comprehend my feedback about "tone" and "word choice," or my lessons about how to distinguish a reputable from a disreputable Internet source.  I don't know what to do with students who think that "mines" is a pronoun, or that the word "had" must precede every past-tense verb; this is to say, I may be a passable editor, but I am not a good English teacher.

So, this past weekend, I went to Staples and bought 26 spiral-bound notebooks, handed them to my students on Monday, and said "Write about what's on your mind.  At the end of the period, if you want me to read it, put it in this pile; if you don't want me to read it, put it in that pile."

And the words poured out, dear reader, like saliva from the mouth of a Labrador.  Suddenly students with whom I had exchanged the minimum number of words required for basic communication were telling me everything -- their relationship troubles, their Caufield-esque angst, their thoughts on what exactly should be done with haters (often, don't listen to them, or f*** them -- non-literally, I assume).

When I proposed this project to my administration (slightly after I actually started it -- shh), my assistant principal said he thought it was a fantastic idea, and asked what I hoped it would accomplish.  I answered that I hoped that it would trick them into taking pleasure from writing.

The brightest students at my school still struggle with subject-verb agreement.  This isn't because our English teachers aren't good enough; it's because they don't read.*  My students can get the right answers on a worksheet, but spectacularly wrong in an essay (a sign of their difficulty with generalizing knowledge, which is, I believe, an indicator that our standardized curricula are failing to teach kid to think; see here).  Writing can be workshopped; it can be developed; it can't, beyond the basic mechanics, be taught.

If I can trick my students into having fun in writing class, maybe I can trick them into visiting the library and bringing home a book.  And in the meantime, I have to get back to reading essays about haters (who still, after all these years, be hatin').

More on this, as it develops...

*It's also because housing segregation means that my students aren't even exposed to that much English on a daily basis outside of school.


  1. Teaching writing begins when the teacher provides students with the opportunity and venue to write.

    If you want to talk writing, you know where I live.


  2. though it's very little like academic writing, i'd say that writing a blog somehow helps me write my essays.

    finished what you've written so far and it's great. i'm thinking about joining TFA in the years to come, and this is a great inside perspective.


  3. "...the word "had" must precede every past-tense verb..."

    This does not include went. Please, please, please don't say, "had went."

    Recovering Grammar Addict

  4. Ah... isn't this like Freedom Writers? I feel like saying "pics or it didn't happen."

  5. I'm not sure exactly what you mean, ariel. You are calling into question that I gave my remedial writing class journals and asked them to write about themselves, and they actually did it? I'm not claiming that I radically changed these people's lives or that I got everyone into college or anything. But I was able to develop close relationships with a few students (2 in particular) who opened up to me through writing. This isn't an especially uncommon phenomenon in English classes, so I find your expression of skepticism a bit odd.