On Teaching Well

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This Thursday, I asked five educators to bring a sample of their writing to a professional development session so that we could do some writing exercises.  I gave them a handout on passive verbs and another on the 19 most common grammatical errors, and started by asking them to circle their passive verbs and change the sentences.  When I introduced this exercise, I was as careful and gentle as I am with students:  with students, I do not want to further injure their already low confidence.  With educators, I must guard their egos.   So I told people to take their time, to ask me for help, that whatever work they produced was perfect.  Several people, including a man who has challenged me frequently in the past, could not change their sentences.  We discussed it briefly, and then moved on to identifying subjects and verbs, and then identifying clauses.  Again, people struggled.  Again, I gently encouraged, made corrections, joked a bit.  But as people started to gather their papers to leave (probably with a good amount of relief), I said, imagine how our students feel.


Imagine how our students, who have been failed again and again by an educational system that sees them as numbers and teachers who fear to roll up their sleeves and interact with them, feel.  Teaching is not supposed to instill fear, shame, or humiliation.  Students are not supposed to learn alone, or never make mistakes, or fear that making a mistake will lead to humilation.  But too often, that is exactly what education means.  Too often, a well meaning teacher brings in a worksheet, passes it out, and tells students to follow the directions.  But often, there is never interplay, room for error, or freedom from fear.


When I teach someone something, I create an organized, structured, exercise.  I tell students what and why we are doing something:   Sometimes I use what others have done, sometimes I make it up.  I know if I want students to learn, I must immerse them in an experience.  I do not say, fix your passive verbs.  I discuss how changing passive verbs can enliven writing and eliminate error.  I do some examples from the students own work, showing them that I too fumble and need to think and scratch out words to do the exercise.  Then I ask them to try, and walk around, and help people when and where they are stuck.

To do all this, I need to ensure students feel safe–no safety, no learning.  This is done with my body language, the words I use, allowing mistakes without penalty, and assuming that my students are trying as hard as they can.  Students respond to safety.  Students respond to praise.  Students respond to someone saying, see, look what you did here!  That’s great!  Now apply what you did to that sentence to this sentence.   Students respond to questions:  so who or what is the actor?  If you are writing, hip hop artists are doomed, who or what is dooming them?  Oh, the desire for material wealth?  Ok, so try that:  the desire for material wealth dooms hip hop artists.  This exchange is gentle, kind, but passionate and engaged too–and students need and deserve our full engagement with them.


When I show patience, kindness, enthusiasm, encouragement and passion, students learn, and find learning relates to what they need to know.  The magic ingredient of teaching is not knowledge although knowledge is critical.  It is not organization although this too is critical.   It is to judge all students as deserving of respect and caring, and giving it to them, day by day, in my interactions with them.

Although I am gentle with students, I am not adverse to asking hard questions or pushing against resistance.  But if a student resists, I don’t force my way through it; I address that instead.  Why do you hate writing?  Who told you you could not write?  Just this week, a resisting student related she had been held back in 3rd grade because her 3rd grade teacher would not help her write well, and she has hated writing and resisted ever since.  So I suggested she write a letter to that teacher, expressing all the fury and rage and humiliation she felt, and then burn it.  Or show it to me.  So then, we could get on with the business of learning writing.

I think this strategy is similar to Japanese philosophy:  the rod breaks while the reed bends.  I try to be the reed, but to never, ever, be the teacher who simply surrenders on a student.

No one taught me to be this way.  Honestly, I do not know why I am this way.  But it is my best trait as a teacher, and I dearly wish all teachers had this.  It seems the great ones do.  My tutors, for example, in their very different styles, show this same level of engagement and caring–whether through joking, prodding, passion, fury on behalf of a student because of a knuckle-headed teacher, intensity, or force of personality, have created what some would deem miracles of learning.

But we know better:  we know it is the engagement with our students wherever they are that leads to trust, and trust leads to learning.  It is ineffable, this quality, and shows many faces:  but the results are always the same–smiling, encouraged students who have learned something today.


No Topic Assigned

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I’ve taught writing courses–freshmen composition, argumentative writing, teaching writing, business writing, technical writing, narrative writing, writing about literature, to every shape and size of college student for nearly twenty years:   ESL students who had been in the US less than a year college freshmen ready to quit, seniors ready to graduate, graduate students in biophysics, kinesology students, law students, social workers, even students on the U of M football team.  I’ve assigned rhetorical forms: a classical argument, a narrative, a business proposal, a story, a lab report, a legal rebuttal, a social services report.  I’ve never assigned topics.

If my students learned nothing else in my courses, I wanted them to learn that writing belonged to them, that the power and magic of writing is most deeply enmeshed with the ability to express thoughts about the topics about which people feel the most passion.  I wanted my students to see that writing is a form of expression that belonged to them, that they could possess so that they could go through their lives with this incredible craft at their disposal.  I would ask my students, “How many times have you written about topics that professors assigned?”  They would respond with groans and rolled eyes.  “How did you feel while you were writing those essays?”


Well, I would tell them, “if you are bored writing in this class, I will be bored reading it.  So let’s not be bored.  Write about topics you care about!  Write about topics that infuriate you, or engage you, or fill you with joy, or stimulate you, but do not write about topics that bore you.”  Writing is one of the seven great arts; can you imagine a musician in a composition course being told to create a composition about Mozart?  An art student told to paint an interpretation of one of Kant’s theories?  A journalist told to write a story on yesterday’s news?  All of these types of artists are told to create according to the structure or form of the art itself.  So part of my reasoning is I wanted to teach in the way of all the great arts.

But more importantly, I wanted my students to create.  Creation is mysterious–we do not understand it.  I myself do not understand the process of how I am creating this essay right now.  All I know is that when I write, at a certain point, I am taken away from myself.  I am part of a greater consciousness than just the me that is separated from others by the barrier of my skin.  I am tapped into a great force, a great welling of creativity.  And all artists experience this, and scientists and mathematicians do too–read Einstein when he discusses the process by which he created his theories and formulas.  He did not understand it.  This is awesome.

I wanted my students to experience even a second of the awesome experience of creating, where the words flew faster than they could type, where they knew exactly what they were saying but could not believe they had written something that grand when they read it.  I wanted them to experience creation; I wanted them to be creators.  I wanted them to be artists.  I wanted them to experience the awesomeness of this process we do not understand, and I wanted them to feel reverence for it, and I wanted them to know that this creativity could be reached at any time they chose to sit down and let the muse take them away from the boundaries that keep us separate.

That is why I became a writing instructor.  I wanted my students to fall in love with writing just like I had.  I wanted  writing to save their lives, just as it had saved mine.  I wanted them to feel the urgency to create in whatever field they went in.  Assigning topics destroys that possibility.  Quite frankly, often assigned topics  interest only the instructor, or instructors chose topics so the student can exhibit knowledge.  But writing is not  meant to merely exhibit knowledge.  It is meant to engage us in the great creative process that has existed since before the beginning of time.  Creation–whether of an essay, an invention, a mathematical formula, a painting, a musical composition–creation is the finest activity in which we humans engage.  It is the closest we get to experiencing what it must be like to be the grand creator of the universe.

The Process

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When I first started teaching writing I would tell all my students that writing was easy. You just put pen/pencil to paper and let it flow. What a great and terrible lie! Writing is not easy. I don’t know if I’d go as far to qualify it as hard, but it’s certainly difficult. The reason for this is because every writer has a different process for plying their trade.

I’ve seen Gage sit down in front of his mac and bang out posts in a half an hour. That makes me jealous; I could never do that. But I’ve also seen him agonize over sentence structure. I’m lucky because that is something I rarely do. Yet, we both have little to no trouble generating ideas for posts. It’s just the way writing is.

The blinking cursor on a new word document scares me. An art teacher in high school told me that the most terrifying thing for him was a blank canvas. He explained that blank canvas held too many possibilities. I never understood that until I started to write to get paid. There is something unwieldy about the openness of a blank screen that makes it hard to start.

Every idea I have has millions of sub-ideas and diverse paths of thought. Often, in my drafting stage, I start writing about one topic and finish writing about another in the same piece. With so many ideas floating around, it’s important that I focus on one or two linked ideas and follow them through to their conclusions. Otherwise, I’ll get lost in my own head.

Most of my ideas are usually half-formed. This is what happens when you’re constantly “on.” It’s like having an open window over a busy street. From time to time you can make out individual sounds, but mostly it’s just background noise. When I concentrate I get better results. Ideas, like Greek Goddesses, spring fully-formed from my head. From there it’s just a matter of getting them on paper before I forget them.

The most important part of my process is proofreading and the second set of eyes. I really focus on this when I talk to my students. I always read my piece out loud because when I do that, I invariably catch simple grammatical mistakes or see where I’m being too wordy. Then I have someone else read my piece. I’m all about comprehension. I know what I’m trying to say, if someone one else can figure it out, then I’ve created a clear message.

We all know it takes guts to share one’s writing, but it also takes trust. I’m not going to let someone I don’t respect give me critiques on my writing. it may sound silly, but if you think about any time you’ve let someone else read your stuff, and they haven’t been an authority figure, it’s been someone you trust enough to listen to if they have suggestions.

I like to think that this process produces amazing written pieces all the time. It doesn’t. Sometimes you’re in the zone and creating solid gold. Other times you’re just completing the work. But I’ve realized that consistency is the key.

I remember reading about a poet who used to write one poem every day. As I recall, his poetry wasn’t great which is probably why I don’t remember his name. But the fact that he got up everyday and wrote at least one poem stuck with me. I like the idea of writing everyday even if what is produced isn’t great. At least you’re practicing your craft.

Follow the List… Or not!

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Probably one of the biggest lies I tell myself and others as a journalist looking for work is that “I’ll go wherever the jobs are.” I tell someone this and all of a sudden I sound like a hungry up-and-coming new writer who is prepared to forge out into the job market and make something of himself no matter where he ends up. Pretty good, right? Plus it beats the more complex truth which is “I’ll go wherever the jobs are in a city I like.” This is where sites like Forbes.com step in with their lists of the top cities with the “best job growth.”  I’m not sure how helpful these articles are…

Their most recent compilation comes from 2007, but it is a good overall look at job growth trends. I have to be honest, I don’t really want to move to Raleigh, North Carolina. Phoenix also looks less appealing now that they are trying to crack down on illegal immigrants. I’m pretty sure I don’t look like I’ve taken up residence illegally, but I don’t want to embarrass an Arizona police officer just trying to do his job.  In fact, out of the top ten cities, Honolulu is the most appealing. But is that for job growth or, well, because it’s Hawaii?

Moreover, Forbes neglects to mention what industries in these cities are hiring. The newspaper industry doesn’t appear to be hiring in any city, I can tell you that from personal experience. So what’s the next step? Throw a dart at a map and hope for the best?

As someone who is chest-deep in the application and hiring process it all seems like an arbitrary thing to me. I’ve decided to focus on a city and move there. I’m looking at the Dallas-Fort Worth area (#49 and #47 respectively). I’ve explained, before, how well it’s going. Be that as it may, I’m not discouraged. I’m going to make it to Dallas and when I get there, I’ll be happy because it will be a minor accomplishment along my career path.

In the end, these lists are just that, numbers and information compiled to give people a sense of direction. There is no promise of a job waiting in these cities, you still have to make that happen. I try to keep that in mind when I look at these articles, otherwise, I’d be off to Phoenix, AZ.

Go where you’ll be happiest. The rest will work itself out.