The quote in the title of this post struck me as light and humorous, but simultaneously truthful, effective, and important. I clicked on the article containing this quote only because of the picture with it - a deep red heart made up of equality symbols - the same symbol that seems to have overtaken my Facebook news feed in the last two days.
The author of the article has many important things to say, about bullying in schools, about kids acting as mirrors of the adults around them, about parents and how they should react to the news that their child is gay, about Christians and how they interpret the Bible - but it all really boils down to this quote. This simple, beautiful quote.
"Traffic jams are to be tolerated. People are to be celebrated."
As a teacher, especially one at community colleges in both urban and suburban environments, I interact with a wide variety of people on a regular basis. My students and colleagues are comprised of nearly every ethnic and cultural background I can think of. They are a seemingly equal mixture of male and female, gay and straight. Some are wealthy. Some very poor. Most somewhere in between. They are young and old. Some have children. Not all are married. Some are brilliant, exceptional students. Others struggle and show a quieter promise. Some may never succeed academically, despite my best efforts to guide them. I enjoy working with most of my students. Some are challenging. They can be standoffish, or abrasive, or just reserved and difficult to read. I can't lie - when the semester ends, there are always a few students who I am relieved to say goodbye to. In 16 week increments, I learn about these people. You can only know so much about a person after 16 weeks, especially in a classroom environment. But I see enough to know that each person, even those I find most challenging as students, are complex, remarkable, wonderful people. They are representative of the whole of our culture. They are people to be celebrated. Every one.
For a number of reasons (the largest of which are cost and ease), I have reconstructed my website using a new platform. I thought it might be a good time to reinvent my blog as well.
I have said time and again that I fall off the blogging wagon because either I don't know what to write or I don't feel like anyone is reading. (Let this be a reminder - if you are reading, comment once in awhile so I don't forget that!) My reinvention allows me to refocus. What I have discovered is this: much of what I have to say about the world around me, whether that be related to family, my dog, social issues, my job, poetry, dancing, or something else, it all comes back to education. I teach writing and literature. Mostly composition, but creative writing as well. And especially at the college level, writing is thinking. Writing is a way of processing ideas, communicating ideas, and prompting ideas. This is what I teach my students, and this is what I can practice here. My space to think. Lately it seems everything I think informs my teaching. If my students have this opportunity to think through writing, to learn more about the world around them and to participate in it, then that means I have to do the same so I can prompt them along.
Maybe this all just means that on this blog I'll write about whatever seems important to me at the moment. Maybe this isn't as terribly focused as I'd like to think it is. Regardless, here it is. My attempt to think about things that really matter through writing. I hope they make you think, too.
To wrap up the semester, I usually ask my students to write in response to a handful of self-reflective questions and then share aloud. Today, I asked my Composition I students to respond instead in essay form to this question:
What is the value of writing and how do you feel better prepared as a writer because of this course?
Their responses are invigorating, insightful, and literally bring tears to my eyes and give me hope for the future:
Near the end of every semester, I deal with feelings of apprehension. I collect papers from students that do not demonstrate they are ready to move on to the next level. Whether I am teaching developmental writing, composition, or upper level writing, I have a responsibility as a professor not just to grade fairly, but to ensure my passing students are truly prepared for what they are going to encounter in the next course. It does no good to continue pushing students through and rounding up their grades because when they get to their last composition course, or even once they finish composition, they will find themselves struggling and will no longer have a professor teaching them how to write a good paper. They will simply be expected to know.
So I always wonder whether I have done something wrong, or failed to explain something clearly. I hate to give students who have been attending class regularly and turning in work a grade that means they will need to retake the course. Especially at community colleges, the attrition rate is high. Students get discouraged, or lose eligibility for financial aid, or become overwhelmed trying to balance school with work, family, and personal life. They drop out. They give up. And they are capable of so much more. I don't want to be part of what discourages them, but I have to keep reminding myself that it does them no real favor to take pity on them either. When their essay grades continue to be D's and C's beyond the halfway point of the semester, they need to realize that they aren't getting it. They need to take initiative. They need to seek extra help.
What keeps me going through this struggle are not the star students. Sure, every semester I have a few who consistently write A essays, think critically, and expand my view of the world. I am grateful for this breath of fresh air, but they are not nearly as rewarding as the students who improve. This semester, I worked with two students in particular who remind me why I love teaching. They began the semester writing D level essays that lacked clarity and depth. After spring break, something clicked, and the essay grades slowly began climbing. Even though both students finished the course with a C overall, the last essay the students submitted earned a B+ and an A- and when I handed the papers back during the final conference, the students were thrilled.
This is what we should be encouraging. What we should be rewarding. The final GPA should matter a whole lot less, and this kind of dramatic improvement as a result of hard work and focus should be abundantly praised. I am so glad these students were not disappointed with their final course grade, because I could not be prouder of what they accomplished.
Why don't students know how to cite research anymore? I would estimate that 75% of my students each semester do not know how to put together a bibliography or provide proper in-text citations. I don't just mean that they make small errors, but that they don't even produce anything close!
I get lists of sources at the end in no order whatsoever. I get students who include the entire entry right after the quote and don't put any bibliography at the end at all. Students use Google and Yahoo for research and have no concept of what a scholarly source is.
I expect a certain amount of mistakes, but don't they teach you to alphabetize your list of sources? Don't students at least know to include the author, title, publisher, and date? I know other professors (in history, psych, etc) don't teach research. That's my job as the composition instructor. But freshman comp is about strengthening skills of grammar, essay structure, and thesis statements. Most composition courses include research, but don't focus on it wholly. And why not? I feel like freshman comp should spend about half the semester on research, citations, bibliographies, etc. How else will the students be prepared when other professors expect they know how to do this?
What really blows my mind is that my students who seems to be struggling are not in freshman comp - they're all in the second level of English composition! So I wonder not only what high schools are teaching these kids, but what did their freshman comp professors teach them? And maybe part of the problem is the curriculum, not the teachers or professors themselves.
This is a very scatterbrained dumping of frustration. I just had to pause in my afternoon of essay grading to express a little confusion and frustration over the mistakes I seem to correcting on paper after paper after paper...
Kind, unsolicited words about my World Literature 2 class:
"I absolutely love your class. I love our readings and I love how you go into so much detail about each and every one of them without making it terribly boring, which is a very refreshing thing."
I’ve been meaning to post this for awhile now... but life (and laziness) gets the best of me.
This semester I’ve been teaching 2 sections of English 100 and one section of English 101. It makes me realize how much I enjoy 101. Not that my 100 kids are bad, it's just a different level of writing. It’s a real challenge to get them connect with the material and keep their attention through class. (And now that the semester is over and I’m reading their final exam essays, I’m seeing lots of small sentence structure issues we should have spent more time on. why didn't I notice this before?) But my 101 class this semester was overall more advanced than sections I’ve taught in the past. There were a few kids that lagged behind, but no one was a really awful writer. And they all grew. The students who struggled on the first essay stepped up leaps and bounds for the rest of the class.
One of the reasons I like teaching 101 is because I feel it's the most important class any college student will ever take. Learning to present yourself on paper in a clear, concise manner will lead to better grades in other classes, and more importantly, can help you get a job or succeed at your job later in life. If you can't write an essay, how can you possibly survive college? Get into graduate school? Get your resume noticed?
There was one student in particular whose first essay was... scatterbrained. I could tell she had a lot of passionate ideas about the world, but that was just it - all passion. No structure. No clarity. Her paragraphs were long and unfocused. Her syntax was trying too hard to sound smart. Her topics were much too broad for the length of the assignment. Heck, her essay was a few pages longer than I asked for!
So I told her to focus. To scale back. To try to explain one point as in depth as possible instead of skimming the surface on twenty points. Her second essay was worlds better. And when we started working on the third (research) I looked over her ideas and warned her against that old problem of too much information to present a clear, focused essay. When we met for a one-on-one meeting to discuss her draft, she listened thoughtfully and wanted to make sure she was staying on focus. And as she got up to leave, she thanked me and told me I was a good teacher. (Keep in mind, this is a student who sits in the back corner, is easily annoyed by chatty students in class, and who I might have thought was bored). She had just gotten back an essay from another class and received an A. she told me she applied what I’d been teaching her about focus to her other subjects.
This last week of class, she told me she'd received another A on an essay in yet a different subject.
This is what teaching English is all about.
BA in English