Friday, February 6, 2009

The Sweet Spot

Sometimes when I fry a grilled cheese sandwich, I rush it. I toss in the sandwich even though the pan isn’t quite hot enough; I try to flip it before the cheese has started to melt, and the sandwich falls askew. But sometimes, sometimes, I flip it at exactly the right moment, and a perfectly caramelized gorgeous brown sandwich winks at me, a touch of cheddar peeking out between the slices of bread.

Sometimes when I teach writing, I struggle to help students revise. I proclaim a thesis statement too broad or supporting details too thin without the student really understanding my point; I try to explain what needs to happen with a student’s essay, but I end up frustrated with my own words. But sometimes, sometimes, I say exactly the right things, and an original, specific, viable argument dawns over students as they wave me away to the next person, jotting down their ideas to make them real.

Ah, the sweet spot. Today, I hit the sweet spot with helping my students write. I fell into a zone where I talked to students about their thesis statements, and they heard me. I don’t mean obedience; I get obedience. My students like me, and I like them. If I say, “Rewrite it,” they rewrite it. They just don’t always improve it. The fault often rests with me. I say things like: “That’s too broad. Be more specific. It needs to be more complex. Or subtle. Or sophisticated.” These are the ways I talk to myself about my own writing, and when my students’ writing needs help with content, with breadth of idea, I often lapse into this private language which fails to communicate to my students. They sense my sincerity and trust my desire to help them. They nod. They agree. And then they write pretty much the same stuff with the modifiers switched around.

Sometimes, though, I find the sweet spot. For years, I’ve used the NPR “This I Believe” essay for a class assignment. To begin, I send students to the website, ask them to find the directions and summarize them in their own words. Then they search through the hundreds of sample essays, find a favorite, and identify its topic, thesis and supporting details. I then play them some of my favorites, like “I Believe There is No Such Thing as Too Much Barbeque” and “I Believe in Being Cool to the Pizza Dude.” Then they write their own thesis statements. Inevitably, some students come in with things like “I believe in unconditional love” or “I believe in friendship” or “I believe in being proud of my heritage.” While these are all fine sentiments, nascent writers can struggle to develop such huge concepts well.

I walked around class, checking in book work and reading thesis statements as students worked on a grammar exercise. When I hit a thesis statement in need of revision, my sweet spot led me through variations of the following discussion:

“Have you always been proud of your heritage or is this something you’ve grown into?”

“Oh, I’ve always felt this way.”

“Do you know other people who share your heritage who aren’t as proud as you are?”

“Yes, I do.”

“Okay, so what happened in your life that made you proud of your heritage? Did someone do or say something that gave you what other people didn’t get?”

“I guess my aunts did.”

“Really? What kind of stuff would your aunts do?”

“Get together and talk, mostly.”

“Really? What did they talk about?”

“I don’t know. Nothing really. Being proud, maybe…”

“Oh, great! What would they say about being proud?”

“Gosh. I know they said stuff, but now I can’t think of anything. I don’t know.”

When I am not in the sweet spot, I literally start to sweat at this point. When I’m talking with students about their writing and they get nervous and uncomfortable instead of bubbly with ideas, I fight the desire to scream at my own inadequacies as a writing instructor. In my first years of teaching (or now if I’m really off my game), I would (gulp), suggest/dictate a thesis at this point. (Low success rate with that technique, by the way.) However, because this day I found the magical sweet spot, I did not lose faith, and I asked another question:

“Did your aunts do, or say, or give you anything that made you proud?” (In the interest of full disclosure, I will confess that I fished here for something like, “They gave me a good example of __________. I did not anticipate what the student’s answer would actually be.)

“You know, they gave me an African-American doll. I have friends who only ever had Caucasian dolls. I mean, white dolls are fine, I had those, too, but…”

“So you think it was good you had a doll that looked like you?”

“Yes! I really do…I think I believe every girl should have a doll that looks like her…”

So we turned “I believe in being proud of my heritage” into “I believe every girl should have a doll that looks like she does” in about two minutes. I’m not saying that thesis statement will change the world, but it sure as heck will lead to a more personal and specific essay from this young writer. Also, she got so excited! She felt full of ideas at this point, which was fun to see. I rushed home to record this formula: When did you start feeling this belief? + What incident happened to you that made you realize you felt this way? + No, really, what happened? + Come on, I’m sure something happened! = a more specific thesis. It may work again, or it may have just been the sweet spot. Time will tell.

I don’t always find this sweet spot. It can be elusive. It might be influenced by my brain chemistry or the lunar cycle. I love it when I find it though, so I celebrated with a grilled cheese sandwich, and I hit the sweet spot there, too. May every teacher have a sweet spot day every now and then.

co-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Teacher


Anonymous said...

I always wonder how teaching writing actually happens. I'd like to think that writing just happens; keep writing and then some. With each new line comes awareness which can be put to use another time. Same as the grilled cheese sandwich analogy. It's never a sure thing. I guess that's what makes a writing class interesting - the spontaneity and the trial and error can lead the writer anywhere.

Lorraine Caplan said...

I really enjoyed reading this, and it reminded me of what my favorite professor always says, that inquiry drives everything in learning. If we ask the right questions, we do not elicit "right" answers, but we do elicit great answers.

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