Here is my first letter of the semester to the students I just met this week:
And so the new semester begins. Spring semesters are always more difficult than fall semesters—at least in my experience. Face it: it’s not spring. It is decidedly, undeniably winter. It’s dark in the mornings. Who wants to get up? It’s really cold out there. The cars cough and yawn right along with us. The streets are icy, and the snow makes them narrow. No wonder certain species hibernate. It makes perfect sense. But we humans plod along through these winter months, bundled up, shivering, shuffling on slick sidewalks.
I recently finished reading a final round of letters from my students. I read a few passages to Diane, and she said, “The next time you wonder if you make a difference in the world, pull those letters out and read them.”
She’s right. One student wrote,
Here’s a section from a recent student letter:
I know sometimes that our class can be tough in answering things, but I did just want to say that over this semester I really enjoyed this class. I feel like it as opened me up to writing that I haven’t actually experienced before. I know I may not be doing awesome, but I am trying my best and I’ve been really happy with the pieces that I’ve produced.
The student is referring to how much her classmates struggled to read and comprehend some recent textbook essays. I pushed them really hard, and that’s what the student means by having a hard time “answering things.”
Here is the text of my most recent letter to students:
We spend so much of our lives waiting: for trains, for doctors, for a phone call, a letter, a dream to come true. We wait in lines or in rooms made just for waiting, with chairs and magazines, even toys and TV and coffee.
I have mentioned that I write regular letters to my students, and they write individual letters back to me. I recently wrote to them about how hard it is to get started writing sometimes. Here are snippets of some of their thoughts:
I enjoyed your letter. It expresses how many people feel when writing a paper or assignment. If there is no desire to write something, then it is hard to find something to write about…I may have an idea for one paragraph or only a few sentences, but the more I sit there in front of my computer, the more words just come spilling out of my head.
Here is a portion of my most recent letter to students…
I’ve been having a hard time starting this letter. In fact, I wrote another letter and decided it was boring. I didn’t want to give it to you. I suppose that happens to you, yes?—writing something and not liking it—feeling the pressure of having something due and simply having no inspiration to do it?
A month has passed, and the semester is well under way. Students have handed in one set of letters; and today, they handed in their first paper assignment. In class, they read paragraphs from their imitation assignment. The assignment asks them to “channel” Langston Hughes’ essay “Salvation” and to exactly match at least five sentences. They all had to start the essay with some version of Hughes’ first one or two lines: “I was saved from sin when I was going on thirteen. But not really saved.” Here are some sample first lines from their papers:
“I was saved from myself when I was going on eighteen.”
“I was separated from love when I was going on six. But not really separated.”
“I was saved from a monster when I was sixteen. But not a real monster.”
“I was born from dirt when I entered this world. But not really born.”
Some good stuff, huh?
For homework, students read three narrative essays, two by published authors Dick Gregory and Steve Brody, and one by a student named Lisa Driver. I showed students how Brody’s piece was built on a story structure with crisis, complications, and climax. Then I asked them to analyze the structure of Gregory and Driver’s pieces, using the same language.
Next class, I hope to continue the discussion with essays that are less story-like, showing students that crisis, complications, obstacles, climax, resolution are useful devices for any type of writing. We’ll see how that goes.