Sunday, February 22, 2009

Minding My P's and Q's

At twenty, when I imagined my teaching career, I pictured myself darkening the classroom and reading Poe’s “The Raven” in a hushed, slightly theatrical voice from a stool in the center of the room. Students would sit casually, chins cupped in their hands, while their eyes shone bright with understanding and anticipation. Well. I can’t say I never have teaching moments like that, but those moments don’t make up the bulk of my day.

I didn’t realize way back then that the bulk of my teaching day would be populated not with “moments of being” during which I electrified my students with literature but with bookkeeping. Yup. Bookkeeping. Keeping attendance, identifying missing work, and tracking missing students make up a disheartening proportion of my daily tasks. Why disheartening? Well, these tasks are like the pot scrubbing parts of teaching. I cannot whip up a fabulous rapport and exciting lessons with students unless I have these elements under control just like a great meal requires a clean, well-stocked kitchen. I am committed to these tasks because being organized on attendance, missing work, and students’ status ultimately makes me more effective. I just wish doing it properly didn’t take so dang long…

If, for example, I skip my weekly habit of running a “missing assignments” report and notifying those students about the missing work or if I record a student as absent three times in a row without looking into where that student may be, I feel anxious. Making up work at the end of the grading period is one of my least favorite pursuits with students. I like to address the problem while the assignments will be fully relevant to what we’re doing in class. It also stinks to realize once a student finally resurfaces that a well-placed phone call might have brought him or her back sooner. After years at this gig, I’ve decided the trouble of staying on top of my bookkeeping pays off in the end.

Like washing a dried egg pan, however, these tasks sap the spirit. They smack of redundancy and fastidiousness. At certain points in the semester, I devote significant portions of time to them, so it helps to ensure I read a poem aloud every now and then to keep the true teaching juices flowing.

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

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Maybe If I Beg for Mercy

"Please stop writing in second person voice, " I sobbed. "I beg of you. Please."

Okay, maybe that's too dramatic, but I'm currently waist deep in essay grading, and that's what I feel like saying to my students. Why is writing in second person voice such a pervasive habit for students? It's like writing kudzu...If I see a little in the introduction and start pulling, I'll find the instances of "you" have branched out and grabbed hold of the entire essay.

I give a mini-lesson on pronouns. I share with them the school of thought that second person voice is too bossy for academic writing, that it can irritate a reader like a wagging finger that begs to be slapped away. I openly confess that I will be using second person when I direct them on how to improve their writing, trying to clarify that giving directions is its rightful place in language.

Students nod. Students earn 100% on the quiz. Students continue to write with second person in their argumentative essays. "You really need to read this website." "You shouldn't let your pets on people's lawns." And my personal favorite, a sentence that uses third person voice merely as an address to set up the second person voice: "Parents, you shouldn't let your kids watch too much television." After grading a dozen or so directives, my head buzzes with regressed adolescent thoughts of rebellion.

I realize writing in second person voice might not be the writing error of greatest concern. I, too, am grateful for paragraphs without fragments. As I sit here in the trenches this weekend, however, the essays that reproach me for habits I may or may not have make me grit my teeth. I'll circle the instances of "you" and ask students to rewrite. They will do so, almost always successfully once it has been pointed out. How to prevent the problem in the first place, however, remains a teaching challenge for me.

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

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