Tuesday, January 30, 2007

My Start in the Pedagogical West

In the first chapter of Mina P. Shaughnessy's Errors & Expectations, she discusses her time pioneering the SEEKS program during the early years of open admissions at the City University of New York in 1970. However, the things she said kept reminding me of my own experiences as a beginning teacher of writing in a small* rural high school in the Midwest. When I began teaching in 2002, I was the high school English Department. I taught six different classes, including a college preparatory course that was to focus heavily on composition. Our superintendent was new as well and at the end of my first full week of teaching, his secretary came around and collected my curriculum guide for “revision.” It never came back. So there I was working alone and without a framework. If that wasn’t bad enough my students were little better than those Shaughnessy describes. I, too, after the first week thought to myself: "Nothing...short of a miracle [is] going to turn such students into writers...everyone [is] probably going to fail" (3). And the truth is that many of them did fail and a lot of it was owing to my attitude about basic writing. It pangs my conscious considerably to know that there were students in that first year who I could have approached with compassion and patience, who I instead alienated by defacing their papers with bright red academic graffiti. I had always had a natural talent for stringing words together on paper, so I didn't understand to what degree "the BW student both resents and resists his vulnerability as a writer" (7). The idea of leaving a trail of error never really occurred to me then—but how I would have hated the idea! In fact, I think sometimes I thought of unmarked errors in their writing as mistakes I didn’t catch. So what did I do? I marked them all. I was the Mussolini of English grammar. My overzealous proofreading took hours and hours. It sickens me to think that I could have put all that effort toward actually teaching them how to write if only I’d had a little guidance. My intentions were good, but in so many ways I was too insecure and too inexperienced to focus on the big picture. My classes may have been filled with students at the basic level as writers, but I was at the basic level as a writing teacher. It was a difficult time, but my students and I learned and grew together, though perhaps not as efficiently as we could have with a little more guidance.

*I know some people say "small" and they mean “just a few hundred students,” but I'm talking about graduating classes generally in the teens. Small and rural tends to imply so much, but I'm going to have to leave the rest to your imagination as I don't think further description of the students or the district would be prudent at this time.

Shaughnessy, Mina P. Errors & Expectations. Oxford University Press: New York, 1977.

"[Grammar] is a religion."**
-Benito Mussolini

**It may be of interest to some historical scholars that the original quote actually reads "Fascism is a religion." However, that sort of spoils the joke, doesn't it? FYI, the photo of Mussolini was taken right after he finished his first reading of Strunk's Elements of Style. Look how smug and self-satisfied he is with all that grammatical Knowledge! I'll bet he's just dying to omit some needless words.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Akeelah and the Bee (2006) ****-

I recently watched the film Akeelah and the Bee (2006) in which an 11 year old girl from the inner city is coerced into participating in a spelling bee. The situation in the movie is a little different than what Rose is talking about, but not entirely. (She does poorly at school in general, but hardly begins as what one would call a struggling or "basic" speller.) The movie says a lot about recognizing potential in unlikely students, the failure of public school systems to cultivate natural precociousness, and the need for students to feel entitled to their place in the classroom. At one point her spelling coach requires her to read the following quote aloud: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.” (This is an excerpt from "A Return To Love: Reflections on the Principles of a Course in Miracles" by Marianne Williamson). Basic writers need to understand that just because they have to work a little harder to get their ideas onto paper, the fact that they struggle does not give them the right to give up, and that moreover, what they have to say is worth the time to put on paper.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Basic Writing

Basic Writing means different things to different people, but for those who have been labeled “basic writers” it can be a self-perpetuating stigma. Not only do they often end up on vocational or remedial tracks, too often they begin to think of themselves as incapable—not as lacking instruction or practice, but simply “too stupid” to ever learn. Educator Mike Rose explains in an episode of A World of Ideas with Bill Moyers entitled "Invitation to Education with Mike Rose” that being labeled a basic writer can be an undue source of frustration for many individuals who already struggle with the skills involved. He describes some of the many ways in which this frustration can manifest itself: withdrawing, acting out, getting "stoned," skipping class. However, he suggests that the most fundamental problem revolving around basic writers is not their lack of actual writing skill, but their sense of deserved disenfranchisement. Whether working with inner city youth or illiterate Vietnam veterans, Rose finds that a major obstacle is getting them to understand that they are entitled to be a part of the conversation—that they have something valid and valuable to add to the discussion. Rose tells Moyers, “Any kid that has been written off...has potential that we just don’t see.” For those for whom writing has been a “distant, foreign, frightening experience,” learning to write is about more than learning grammar and punctuation. It’s about learning to relate one’s own ideas, emotions, and experiences to others—and that requires not only writing skills but self-confidence. Therefore, he looks at his work with basic writers not so much in terms of remediation, but as extending an invitation to enter the conversation of our society.