Friday, May 14, 2010

Examining Writing

So, Friday I had a good class. A really good class. One of those classes after which I remember why I'm a teacher, the kind of class that makes me thank my students for their awesomeness. On Friday, I spent 70 minutes talking about Plato's Apology with 13 sophomores. I had a student (a senior, who is "TAing" with me this term) come up with a few questions. He led the discussion, while I sat in as a participant, instead of the person at the front of the room. I mostly listened. A student who doesn't often speak up or get engaged in the conversation came up to me and said, "This is what English class is supposed to be. It's supposed to be talking about the books and relating them to our lives."

Indeed. "The unexamined life is not worth living," after all, and an English class is a good place for such examinations. The mirror, the prism of the text gives us a new way of seeing. A friend of mine likes to joke that English classes are really just group therapy. On Friday, that class did some deep examining, and engaged in some deep therapy. What I love about teaching is the moments like Friday's class—my students read and engage fully with a text that I love, a text that many have loved, and that text, even for just one moment, changes their lives. The thrill for me is being present at that moment of change.

But there's a catch: those moments are fleeting, even with the best combination of students and in the best of classes. The day-to-day work of teaching often beats back those bright moments into the shadows. The reading: not a problem. I like books. The planning: time-consuming, but I'm a planning kind of girl. When I'm not plotting and scheming about what and how to teach, I'm plotting and scheming about my garden, or my house, or what to cook all week. Even the faculty and committee meetings, when they're productive, aren't so bad.

No, I'm talking about the grading. Here's the question that drives most of my questioning and thinking about teaching as a career (examining, if you will): How can I make this job sustainable? How can I have time to live a fulfilled, examined life while still getting papers back to students in the amount of time that my department says is reasonable? There's no easy answer to these questions. In this post, I tried to get at some possible options for making the grading better while at the same time providing the kind of feedback that my students want and need. I've also been reading a bit about one possible way to make my giving of comments more efficient. Instead of dwelling on grading techniques right now, I'd like to spend more time looking at the very nature of the assignments we give.

I'm hardly the first person to say that the way we teach writing needs to be rethought. In fact, high school English as a discipline is a hodgepodge: we teach writing, we teach grammar, we teach critical thinking, we practice multicultural exploration through texts, and so much more. And we're therapists. But what's the purpose of all the stuff we teach? For me, it can't just be about getting my students into good colleges so that they can live productive, possibly happy (but perhaps unexamined) lives. It has to be bigger than that. Even explaining comma splices must be in service of a greater meaning and purpose. Allow me to quote myself:
I want them to show themselves to be insightful readers and speakers, and writers who write authentically, from the heart.
How do we get there from comments like this?
i personally think that it is useless to talk about grammar. when we are taking about themes/ideas that have to do with us, or things that we can choose to do/learn about that is when it becomes interesting for me.
(student response to my "How Do You Know? survey)
I'll posit some thoughts in my next post. Right now, it's time to examine my garden.


DM said...

Your post makes me wish you'd been my English teacher in high school.

Larissa said...