Creating a collaborative website with students has been really fun. Students now have their own homepages from which they link their assignments. Their first papers/first drafts have been posted, and I have visited each one, making comments as I go. Students seem intrigued by this system.
I also did the first assignment along with my students, posting my first draft for them to see. Many commented that my draft inspired them or helped them to write their own.
Rita is still in intensive care, but there are indications that she is on the upswing. Thank you, readers, for thinking of her. I miss her very much.
My students and I are experimenting with building a collaborative class website through pbwiki. It’s fun. I created a main page that introduces the course theme: imagination. That page also includes links to assignments and to students. Branching out from that main page, students are building their own “homes” from which they can link their individual work. On each page, there is a comment function, so that students and I can go in and converse.
They want to learn—I can tell. And I am trying to hold onto that feeling I had this summer as a student in a drawing class. I struggled. I just couldn’t get it. It took me a really long time to draw anything while the students to my left and right seemed to do it effortlessly.
Writing comes easily to me (well—relatively speaking), but it does not to most of my students. They struggle.
I heard the tail end of an interview about the 100th anniversary of Anne of Green Gables. I had never read the book, so I found it at the library, and I am reading it now. The young orphan Anne cares a great deal about the “scope of imagination”—as she relates in this early scene:
Isn’t it splendid to think of all the things there are to find out about? It just makes me feel glad to be alive—it’s such an interesting world. It wouldn’t be half so interesting if we knew all about everyting, would it? There’d be no scope for imagination then, would there?
The bleeding hearts that I mentioned in the previous post will be memories soon. I have not come to terms with the passage of time nor do I pretend to understand how these blooms will reappear a year from now as if they never left.
I said goodbye to my students last week. Come fall, I will welcome a new set.
Okay, I have been teaching first year writing classes for over 20 years. I thought I had a handle on it. But recently, and especially during the last week of grading papers, I have found myself questioning, “Just what does it mean to teach writing—not to those who want to be writers—but to those who have been told over and over again that they cannot write—to those who have become accustomed to circled words and indecipherable scrawls in their margins What is it they really need?”
Today, I asked students to rewrite paragraphs. I handed out a wonderful example of a student paragraph in rough draft form. Next, I showed them how, with transitions and recurring images/thoughts/metaphors—with careful editing and attention to detail—they could transform a choppy, confusing paragraph into one that flowed and connected.
My cold and windy Provincetown retreat, as it turns out, was productive. I made discoveries about my writing. I have 23 chapters of a new and improved novel; and on the cutting room floor, I have stories worth keeping.
Sometimes, as I preach to my students, learning only happens through struggle; and while I try to make learning fun for my students, I know that sometimes, it just cannot be.
Today students came to class having read an essay called “The Box Man” by Barbara Lazear Ascher. Ascher explores concepts of loneliness and solitude through anecdotes about a homeless man who sets up boxes like furniture and two women whose habits reveal a certain emptiness. Ascher theorizes that the homeless man has a better handle on the human condition than the two women, who have homes.
I asked students to do three fast freewrites exploring definitions of loneliness, solitude, and homelessness. Then I asked students to take some time finding passages in the essay that revealed Ascher’s particular slant on these concepts.
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,
I have recently gone paperless—meaning, I am now collecting and reading student papers on line. I am finding the experience somewhat freeing. The process makes me curious about how others who grade and evaluate papers are organizing themselves online. For simplicity, students are submitting their papers to me as attachments; and as I get them, I am immediately saving them into preset folders: “Paper 4 Section 8,” etc. I would welcome suggestions and comments about best (safest?) ways to collect and file on line.
The other day, I said to Diane, “There’s an epidemic of slow drivers.” Every time I drive somewhere, I inevitably end up behind someone driving at least ten miles-an-hour less than I believe we should be going. In my more frustrated states, I shake my head and lift my hands in helpless gestures, hoping that the drivers look in their rearview mirrors and recognize just how much they are inconveniencing me. In my more philosophical states, I think—it’s good for me to slow down. And so I back off and see what I see out the windows.
And today, forced to drive slow, I thought about pace—how that driver ahead of me has some pace that works for him. And simply, his pace is not mine. That got me thinking about pace in general and how one person’s seldom matches another’s.
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.”
Students in my classes have been writing summary paragraphs. They describe the experience as “tedious,” “frustrating,” and “boring.”
Yesterday, I gave them the task of unraveling the main idea of an essay by David McCullough: “Why History?” I said, “Think of this exercise as a problem to solve—an equation. It should be hard. it should be frustrating.”
I have assigned my students a series of four summary paragraphs. Each paragraph must introduce the author and title of the essay, identify the main idea of the essay, and then go on to detail supporting evidence.
Yesterday, students brought draft paragraphs and read them aloud to a partner. The partner then read the same paragraph back to the writer. After that, the pair chose one sentence from the paragraph to rewrite. Once each of them had rewritten a sentence, they shared their results.
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?
As I move toward the mid-term of my teaching semester, I see how my students struggle with the complexities of writing. And maybe more to the point, I see how I struggle. The process itself, getting an idea, figuring out how to structure it, how to express it, how to communicate it. And even then, asking myself—students asking themselves: what makes it matter to anyone but me?
When I was a kid, I used to hear my father typing on his electric typewriter. I loved the sound the keys made, clicking and clacking in some perfectly imperfect rhythm. I remember sitting in his chair, one day when he wasn’t there, setting my fingers on the keys, determined to make that sound.
In searching through some books for “teaching of writing” ideas, I came across this quotation from Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story:
“From the first I thought that to teach writing was to teach my students how to keep on reading until we all saw as clearly as we could what was driving the writer. What, we would ask of the manuscript, was the larger preoccupation here? the true experience? the real subject? Not that such questions could be answered, only that it seemed vital to me that they be asked. To approach the work in hand as any ordinary reader might was to learn not how to write but—more important by far— why one was writing. In these classes both I and my students discovered repeatedly that this was more than half the battle.”
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?
When we ask students to write, we ask students to construct thought. And I have been trying to think about that in simple and obvious ways. I fall back on the narrative because its first person construction of conflict, climax, and resolution creates a comfortable place to go. Students are drawn to reading and writing narratives because they are familiar, and their formula is somewhat ingrained. (I realize my ideas come from a western point of view). So, I think, if we can break down the narrative into its parts and then find those parts scattered in other rhetorical modes, maybe that familiarity will create some new comfort. That’s where I’m at after my first two weeks of a new semester.
I read over the student responses to the questions posed in my 15 August post. Here is my summation of their thoughts:
-Even though writing is not speech, it requires voice.
-The writing process is highly individual. Different techniques work for different people.
-Writers owe their audience a way in.
-Writing and reading can empower us.
-Writing and reading can be exercise for the mind.
-Writing can establish a connection between writer and reader.
-Grammar and writing are not inseparable because grammar helps to structure thoughts.
-Writing is a way of self-expression, knowledge, and documentation.
-Each paper should have a writer’s personality.
-All writing is creative because it displays one’s own style and thought process.
-Writing helps organize your thoughts. First you have to form a structure and build ideas.
-Reading helps you learn to write better
Using the ideas I wrote about in posts from August 15 and 17, I conducted my first days of class. I have two sections of the same first year class. And as usual, each section is completely unique. Even though I will presumably talk the same talk in each section, each group personality is decidedly different.
Still, the questions I pose in my August 15 post went over very well with both groups. On the second day of class, I paired students and had them use the questions as discussion points. I gave them approximately 20 minutes to discuss and come up with three thoughts/ideas/observations/questions that grew out of their conversations. I then collected these. I plan to use their responses as my opening into our next class meeting.