Monthly Archives: December 2015

From “Oops!” to “Aha!”: A Story of Reflection and Reflexivity

NCTE15

I’ve said this before: We can write our way out of dark places. I know because I’ve done it. But how much of the writing that we assign in school nurtures that kind of ability? If we want to students to better understand their own reflective and reflexive abilities, it helps if we develop those capacities in ourselves. Which brings me to a story …

Once upon a time I was stuck. I wasn’t stuck in everything. Home life was great. My classes were great. My colleagues were great. But my professional development just sucked, and I was stuck within some unconsciously self-imposed boundaries.

I’m not going to dwell on what was wrong with the professional development I was experiencing at my school. I don’t really want to re-live that other than to set up what came after. I didn’t agree philosophically with the ideas and practices that were being mandated and imposed. I despised the role I was being asked to play in promoting those ideas and practices, and I was horrified at how quickly this ugly blob was expanding.

My dissatisfaction with this one area of my professional life wasn’t really affecting my classroom or personal and professional relationships, but it was affecting my self. As I drove to work or mowed the lawn or wrote in my journal, I found myself reflecting on what I disagreed with, but I found that I couldn’t do too much about it. I knew exactly what was wrong but felt relatively powerless to change it.

Have you seen that video of people stuck on an escalator? They are riding up an escalator in a mall or business center, and it suddenly stops. They go into full meltdown about how awful it is, and how they hope someone will fix it soon. In reality, all they have to do is take a few steps, and they will be off the escalator and on to wherever they were headed. Of course, there is no reason to be stuck on an escalator. Just get off the damn thing. But that was me. I was stuck on the escalator of ugly professional development for a while, too long.

This is where reflexivity comes in. As I processed all this in my journal, first I complained, then wondered, and then epiphany: Get off the escalator!

Even though I couldn’t change the problem, I could reflexively re-define how I engaged with it. So that’s what I did. I just stepped back and stopped investing in that part of my job. I still had to go to meetings and do stuff, but I did the minimum amount, and I tried not to dwell on it.

But professional development is important! As I reflected on this some more, I realized that I had a narrow understanding of what professional development opportunities were available to me.

Then some doors opened. At the NCTE convention in San Antonio, I was talking to Jodi, a teacher from suburban St. Louis. She said she thought I would like Jim Burke’s new social media site English Companion Ning.

I went home and jumped on that, and boy did I carpe that diem! I found even more incredible colleagues, including people who have become dear friends. I found a place to help other teachers, ask questions, write about my ideas and opinions, and actually collaborate with others to build online professional development opportunities for a larger community.

Those energizing connections have led me to all kinds of rewarding relationships and valuable professional experiences, including writing, publishing, and speaking opportunities; renewed energy for the classroom; and authentic collaboration.

So, exactly what realizations did I gain from all of that active reflection? Here are three:

1. I had two sets of colleagues, one on-site and one mostly online. I valued both of them, and it seemed strange to me that they didn’t know each other. To my great satisfaction, many of my online colleagues are now people I see with some regularity, and my on-site colleagues and online colleagues have even worked together on some projects.

2. I realized the difference between my job and my work. My job is where I report each day, practice my craft, try to help as many people as possible, and earn a paycheck. My work is deeper and goes beyond the school where I worked. This realization served me extremely well when I retired from that job in 2014. My job ended, but my work has not ended at all. My work continues in all kinds of interesting, rewarding ways. I’m the most un-retired retired teacher you can imagine.

3. Although my job dissatisfaction never affected my work in the classroom, it did affect my underlying attitudes. When those attitudes became more positive and when the new professional development resulted in actual learning, my teaching and professional life became even more energized.

To put a fine point on all of this, reflection helped me understand the problem. Reflexivity helped me solve it.
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At last month’s National Council of Teachers of English convention in Minneapolis, I was honored to be co-chair of a session entitled “From ‘Oops’ to ‘Aha!’: Reflection as a Creative Act.” This is a slightly different version of what I talked about in that presentation. Thanks to everyone who joined us on that Sunday morning and contributed to this powerful session at NCTE15, and thanks to everyone who read about it here.

I always welcome and appreciate your comments, especially if you have ideas on how to expand on this idea at next year’s NCTE convention.

Posted in General Tagged , , , ,

Good Morning and Goodbye

Good Morning and Goodbye
Bobby Bruce
Waking up to coffee aromas on any morning is my preferred way of waking up. Throw in his wonderful cooking, and it was perfect. Sometimes I could see the steam from his delicious cooking come through my floor vent from the kitchen underneath. In the morning, he always had our favorite radio talk show on, and we’d laugh the morning away.
I had to be up early that morning, I knew that getting adequate sleep was important, but I never liked getting up at seven on a Saturday. In fact, I hated it. Not to mention, how bad I was to get myself up, but he said he’d wake me up. The thing is, he didn’t wake me up that morning, there was no coffee brewing, no radio booming, and no steam rising from my vent.
Weird.
Maybe he overslept too…
My room started upstairs, in a loft. The stairs are a steep journey, but a journey well worth. At the bottom of the steps were two doors. One to the outside and the other for the bathroom. Our bathroom was never pretty; best to leave it undescribed. Our house was shared by guys, so you can guess it wasn’t always the cleanest. Our kitchen, cluttered with dishes, was pretty average. Sink, stove, fridge, but it did have the boombox, which we’d jam out with on nights where he wasn’t tired. Our kitchen, dining room and living room were all connected. From the dining room, you were like an all seeing eyeball. Yeah, our house was tiny, but with all of us together, it didn’t matter. We made the best of it every day. We had the most fun in our living room. We didn’t have cable or internet, so our TV time consisted of rentals and Friends marathons. My favorite thing was that he would always make the tastiest popcorn. Some could say, that this was my happy place. Not anymore.
That morning, last October, was eerily cold, heck, maybe he forgot to turn the heat on as well. October wasn’t as cold to him as it was to us, and the old fart was getting more forgetful. I walked into the quiet kitchen to see my brother preparing to go. We both had to be gone by eight, so we could make it to Bemidji for Upward Bound, a college prep program, by nine. We didn’t want to keep Jada waiting. I didn’t honestly think I had the time or effort to make food, so gas station food sounded pretty swell. I didn’t want to bother waking up my youngest brother, Adam. He would see me later. I did decide to go wake up dad and wish him farewell, maybe even give him a little crap for not waking me up. Matt told me he was in the living room hunched over the couch. What did that mean?
Weird.
My dad was well renowned for his awkward sleeping positions and his terribly bad snoring. But dad’s knees were bad. Why was he sitting like that? I knew he wasn’t asleep, based on the fact that his snoring was nonexistent. Maybe he was stretching. He liked to stretch. Or, maybe he was just waiting for me to scratch his back. He loved it when I did that. . When I made it to the living room, I got the vibe that something was terribly wrong.
Very weird.
It didn’t feel right, leaving him like that, so I asked him if he needed some help getting back on the couch. After about five seconds of silence, he said yeah. Silly dad. Why does he need my help? Maybe he is in some sort of deep sleep, like those episodes people have when they sleep talk and interact quite well. Coming from my dad, I’d expect it. But he was awake… I knew that much. I started to lift him back onto the couch, except he wasn’t using any effort; none at all. That’s when I called Matt in from the kitchen to come help me hoist our large father back to a comfortable spot. He is a big guy. I was proud that we lifted him up. Then I took a second to observe my strangely limp father. His left arm, we accidently got it smushed under him. In any normal situation he would have yelped. I mean, it did look to be in a pretty painful spot. Matt helped him put it into a comfortable place. Dad must have really been tired to be acting like this. What was going on?
We could hear Jada pull into the driveway, and that’s when we said our goodbyes. I have a rule that comes to hugging. I prefer a person to use two hands when they hug. My dad knew that. But when I hugged him, he didn’t hug back. I looked at him straight in the eyes. His eyes were not focusing on mine. I told him that I loved him. I dont think it registered to him right away. But in a slurred speech, he said it back. Then Matt hugged him, and we left. When I walked out that front door, I felt sick. Something was terribly wrong.I knew that because of the staleness that wouldn’t leave my mouth. We hopped into Jada’s car and started to drive off. We explained to Jada what just happened; the condition my father was in. The thing she told me made my heart sink.
“Call your mom, it sounds like your dad is having a stroke.”
The next week was the hardest, most stressful week of my life, and that scenario of me waking up and seeing dad that way played like an endless record, haunting every second of my existence. Why didn’t I see it sooner? Was I that stubborn to see my own father was in pain? He now only has use of the right side of his body. He thinks slower and will hardly look people in the eyes. His hugs, still warm and cuddly, are one armed, but for him, I make an exception to my rule. I still blamed myself for not getting him help sooner. Somedays, I still catch myself blaming it all on me. The pain I felt, the pain I still feel, stays bottled up and locked away. It aches. But, we move on.
If dad would have been healthy, maybe none of this would have happened. We’d still be a happy family. I would still be able to visit him every weekend and have him take care of me, instead of me taking care of him. I miss the serious side of my father, the big scary guy. I miss his guidance; his wise words. That side of him died after the stroke, never to be found again. He still has his humor though. I still have him. He still hugs me, holds me and tells me he loves me. Except I feel as if our roles have flopped. I tuck him in at night and wish him sweet dreams, just like he used to for me. It’s as if I am fathering him; keeping him out of trouble. It’s not so bad. At least I still have him… But… I miss him…
I thank God I still have him.. I look at his silly grin when we drink coffee, and it makes me happy. Some mornings when I play our favorite radio talk show, I’ll make him breakfast and we will sit and talk about the dumbest things like a father and son are supposed to do. It makes me feel better. I had a lot of time to look back on what happened and located the facts. Dad had bad health. I knew that. But I was so blind. Blind enough to forget all warning signs. It’s all weird to think about. I try to ignore it as I sip my coffee and chit chat with my best buddy; my hero.

Posted in Writings by Students

Still Smiling

Strong. Webster’s defines it as an adjective, “having the power to move heavy weights or perform other physically demanding tasks,” or “able to withstand great force or pressure .”Everyone has struggles and trials in their life.But the challenges we face do not mean we can’t go on. They simply mean we must discover how we truly handle stress. Then we change because of what we have accomplished. But the only way to get through these rough times is to not only stand firm in what we believe but to also be strong in who we are.
I sit by my mother’s bedside, the dim light of the bedside lamp giving off an eerie light in the dark of the night. My grandmother leans over my mother, carefully and gently washing the stitches along her spine. I turn my eyes to my mother’s face. Her eyes are squeezed shut and her lip is caught between her teeth as she breathes quickly.I was sure she would cry; I surely would. Having surgery on your spine to fix two discs and then to wake up and find you had nerve damage due to a doctor’s slip of the hand, would have left me in a puddle of my own tears. I look away. She doesn’t make a sound, but I know she wants to.
Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “A woman is like a tea-bag, you can’t tell how strong she is until you put her in hot water.” Roosevelt was right, in many ways, however not only women are like tea-bags. All people naturally keep a barrier between themselves and others. We use this “wall” to keep ourselves from entering situations that make us uncomfortable or puts us in danger. But what happens when someone or something breaks that wall, and you’re left exposed? This is what Eleanor was referring to as the “hot water.” The hot water is any powerful or intense situation that requires you to show your true self and how much you can withstand. Each person’s threshold is different.
My grandmother moves and begins to help my mother sit up, often a lengthy and tearful process. Tonight I move to help, putting one arm gently under my mother’s side and waiting. I watch as she takes three deep breaths, and then holds the fourth as she begins to move. My grandmother and I steady her, and help her to a sitting position on the bed. She breathed heavily, clutching the bedspread as her life support.
“Strength doesn’t come from what you can do, it comes from overcoming the things you once thought you couldn’t,” stated Rikki Rogers. Strength isn’t always defined by how many bench presses you can do, or how much weight a person can lift. Sometimes being strong means getting through the rough times, like losing a loved one or getting in an accident. Strength can come from the little things in life too, like finishing a paper you never thought you would, or getting an A on a math test you were sure you failed. All of these things, although they are tough to endure, make you stronger in the end.
My grandmother holds my mother’s hand, steadying her as my mother slowly stands. Her hand grips my grandmother’s like a vice, her fingers wrapped so tightly around her hand, I wasn’t sure if she was cutting off circulation. Slowly, they walked towards the bathroom, my mother limping and stopping every few steps to catch her breath. But my mother never stopped trying. She kept pushing forward in the coming months, getting better day by day. As Mary J. Blige said, “There’s so many things that life is, and no matter how many breakthroughs, trials will exist and we’re going to get through it. Just be strong.”

After a year, I noticed my mother smiled more often. Somehow she still smiled after all she had been through. She still limped, and she could no longer work at her job at the hospital. But her outlook on life did not change. She still loved her garden, and she continued to bake every day. She didn’t let a setback in her life stop her from living. She picked up from where she left off, and she made do with what she had.She showed me what it meant to be resilient; she defined strong.

Work Cited
“Mary J. Blige Quotes.” BrainyQuote. Xplore. Web. 24 Nov. 2015.

Webster, Inc. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. 11th ed. Springfield, MA:
Merriam-Webster, 2003. Print.

“Richard Rogers Quotes.” BrainyQuote. Xplore. Web. 24 Nov. 2015.

“Eleanor Roosevelt Quotes.” BrainyQuote. Xplore. Web. 24 Nov. 2015.

“Famous Quotes.” BrainyQuote. Xplore. Web. 7 Nov. 2015.

Posted in Writings by Students

Everything’s Gonna Be Alright

The first week of high school. It’s filled with fear and anticipation. Most of us have or will experience this feeling at one time or another. But as we find out, things usually turn out okay.
I was feeling pretty good as I came home off the bus that friday, my first official week of freshman year completed successfully without any mishaps. Everything was going to be okay, I had thought. The sun was still bright in the sky and I could feel its warmth on my arms as I reached for the key and unlocked the front door. I could already hear the chorus of my mother’s three small dogs, ankle biters some people like to call them, as I turned the key in the lock. I opened the door and was met by a swarm of wiggling tails, fluffy ears and wet tongues.
Closing the door behind me, I set my backpack already filled with homework onto the porch floor. Sighing, I walked into the kitchen and filled one of mom’s clear plastic cups with water before walking into the well-lit living room where my mom was sitting in a lazy-boy recliner reading her daily newspaper.
“Hey mom,” I said unenthusiastically. She looked up from the newspaper and smiled.I see her face already showing laugh lines and wrinkles, yet still looking like the same mom I’ve always known.
“Hey honey, how was school?” she asked, setting her newspaper aside on the small side table.
“Good, but I have homework.” I mumbled, spitting the word homework out %like it was taboo.
Mom laughed, “I know what we should do then, let’s go riding. That will cheer you up. Go get the horses saddled up, I’ll be right out.” Practically running, I tugged on my riding boots and bolted out the door, not bothering to stop for a helmet or gloves. I slowed myself down as I got out toward the barn and finally reached the pasture. I was greeted by the *sound of sixteen thundering hooves, and for those of us who are bad at math, that means four horses. I pushed open the rough wooden barn door, faded with age and weather. I grabbed two halters from the nails on the wall, one blue and one pink. I stepped back out into the afternoon light and pushed open the gate.
“You guys, move out of the way, honestly.” I waved my arms to signal to the horses to back up from the gate as I tried in vain to open it successfully. I finally pushed my way through and got into the paddock.
“Shasta, Apollo, come here.” I said, in hopes Magick and Dancer, would somehow understand that they weren’t being fed like they thought. I quickly slipped the pink halter onto the mare, Shasta, my mother’s somewhat short horse. She was a lovely chestnut color, with a golden mane and tail. She dipped her head down, resting it on my shoulder as I slipped the buckle into the third hole of her halter. I quickly snapped a lead rope onto the small hoop at the bottom and then walked over to Apollo. Apollo was my newest horse, a slightly taller gelding, and a stunning golden color over his entire body like a sunflower, with a white mane and tail. His eyes were a deep chocolate brown filled with kindness.
“It’s okay boy, I’m just gonna put this halter on, and we are gonna go for a little ride.” I murmured before gently sliding it onto his nose and over his ears. I snapped another lead rope onto Apollo’s halter and led the two horses out, quickly turning around after making sure they were clear of the gate to keep the other two in. As we walked to the trailer sitting beside the barn, the other two horses nickered to their friends as if they may never see them again. I finally reached the trailer and I tied the horses to the bright red hooks, one on each end. I efficiently tied slip knots that could easily be undone in case a horse spooked or fell as I had been taught. As I walked back to the barn to grab the grooming kit, I saw my mother appear from around the corner of the house, her ankle biters trailing behind her.
I walked into the barn and grabbed the grooming kit from a shelf on the dusty, cobweb infested barn wall and walked back to the horses. When I returned, mom was already busy getting tack, which was all the saddles and bridles, and setting it out on the ground beside the horses. Quickly, she set about her routine of saddling and bridling her horse. I watched her with awe as I often did, amazed at how little effort it seemed to take her as her hands, worn with years of work and beginning to succumb to arthritis on cold days, somehow tied those small knots and put every buckle in its place. I watched as she so nimbly lifted her saddle and flung it on her horse’s back, her small, short frame greatly outsized in width by the saddle yet so easily she seemed to handle it with grace. I quickly did the same, saddling and bridling Apollo. Mom looked nervous as I unhooked him from the trailer and placed my foot in the stirrup.
“Maybe I should just lead you around first, we don’t really know him that well yet,” she stated as she stroked Shasta’s face, her fingers knotting in her mane.
“Okay, just untie his leadrope.” I nodded to the rope now dangling from the hook where he had been tied. She undid the rope and snapped it back onto Apollo’s halter and led us away to the west pasture, where there were no horses. As she opened the steel bar gate, and let the chain fall, Apollo spooked, jumping to the side. I grasped the horn of my saddle, and quickly pulled back on my reins. He quieted quickly and I let him stand for a few minutes to relax before I urged him forward into the pasture. Mom walked at a fast pace beside us, with the rope dangling loosely from her hands. Her dogs ran freely around us, sniffing the old piles of dung and they occasionally ran off to chase imaginary squirrels.I smelled the sweet late summer air, the smell of leather, polish, and the scent of grain and hay surronding me.As we circled the pasture for the third time, the sun was starting to wane and I was beginning to think I could go on my own soon. As one of my mother’s dog sprinted past, it ran right beneath Apollo’s stomach. He spooked, his hind feet going into the air and sending me soaring from my saddle. All I could think mid-flight was “Land on your side, protect your head.” And I did just that. Unfortunately, this also led to my arm snapping. I knew as soon as I hit the ground that it was broke, the familiar sting made me cradle it close to my body as I rolled onto my back, the memories of previous broken bones flooding my mind; my right arm twice, my tail bone, and my right ankle. I could taste the dirt in my mouth. But that was momentarily forgotten as I tried to sit up to watch Apollo and my mother as she struggled to contain him, as he reared, bucked and finally she lost her grip and he galloped from the pasture and my sights.
Soon my mother’s voice came into my consciousness, and she ran to my side.
“Everything is gonna be okay, Emily, where does it hurt? Your arm? Can you move?” Tears started to roll down her cheeks, as I’m sure she blamed herself for what had just happened. The tears roll down her face, slipping into the wrinkles and nooks and crannies. I took a deep breath and sat up, pain shooting from my arm and right knee. I looked down at my arm for the first time and noticed it was crooked and bent like a broken crayon.My mother’s hands reach out to steady me. I was grateful then more than ever for their strength as she supported me. By this time my father had driven the van out to the pasture, as he had heard my mom yelling and saw the horse running riderless. My parents helped me stand and climb gingerly into the car.
As my father buckled me in, his large, rough, calloused hands struggling with the seat belt, I suddenly remembered the horse.
I watched my mother gently walk up to Apollo, running her hands gently along his neck before firmly grasping the lead rope. I watched her walk him back to the trailer and unsaddle him, take off his bridle and then lead him back into the pasture and let him go.
I started to think back to what had just happened as I wait for my mother to walk back to the van. Apollo spooked when one of the dog’s ran underneath of him. My best guess is he had at one point been bitten by a dog, and he now was afraid of them. I didn’t blame him for his past experiences. But I knew now that because of what had just happened mom wasn’t going to be happy, and he wasn’t going to work for us. We almost always rode with the dogs, and if Apollo was afraid of them, he would need to find a new home.
My mom climbed into the back of the van and slid the door shut, her body sagged into the seat. My dad put the van in drive and headed for the hospital. My mother looked older now with worry. I studied her in the rearview mirror on the drive into town. The lines in her face seemed more defined somehow, and her hands shook slightly as she grasped the seat belt next to her chest. No parent wants to see their child get hurt. She had always been strong for me, but as we pulled into the hospital drive through and the nurses appeared to help me to the nearest emergency room bed I saw tears welling in her eyes again. Now it was my turn to be strong for my mother.
I looked at my arm again as the nurses started to move around me, probing. I winced as they reached my knee, which I would later learn was sprained, and yelped when they went to put a thermometer on my broken middle finger. I hadn’t felt the pain of my finger through the pain of my arm. As I sat waiting for the x-rays, I smiled. I may be in pain now, but I knew everything was going to alright. My arm would heal, and I would be back to riding in no time. My mom walked in and asked how I was doing, looking with worry at my swollen arm.
“I’m gonna be alright, mom.” I said, smiling up at her. Her face relaxed, looking more like the mom I was used to. Her returning smile told me more than anything that I would be more than okay, I would be ready for anything.

Posted in Writings by Students

I am a Slave to the Writing Process

Writers should write for themselves. I’ve stated this many times to my peers and teachers alike. Although writers may write to entertain others, it is still for themselves. They like to know someone picked up their work and gave it the time of the day. They like to know someone took their work and laid down in bed with it for a few minutes. They like to know young adults gab about the characters in their story. And they like to know someone spent a buck or two. Writers write for themselves. They write for the inner satisfaction. That is why I am not a writer and why my writing process isn’t sincere.
I do not sit around and fantasize about a character who must go on a quest. I do not conjure up a magical world in which an amazing, epic journey takes place. I get up at 6 AM, shower, drive to school, go to my classes, attend drama practice, do homework, eat something, and go to bed. I live in reality.
When I come to school every morning, I sit down in the commons and check my schedule for the week. My head is full of spinning, groggy nonsense. I usually just sit there and think of nothing but the ensuing doom that is the work load I will receive throughout the day. And I do receive it. Worksheets and projects and papers galore. So much I could dump it on the ground, out of my folders, and recreate a whole tree out of it. I could give a tree life again. I could restore the natural order.
And I work so hard. I work so, so hard.
For one thing.

College . . .

I work so hard for more schooling. A harder education. Four more years of it, to be exact. I spend all my time striving for the green light to attend a university that will send me spiraling into financial debt. This whole process just seems so redundant.
If I had it my way, maybe I would go to college. From my classes, I would learn how to speak really clean Spanish. Meanwhile, I would be working and saving my money. Then, once I got out of college, I would take a train down to South America and evade my student loans. I would change my name and spend my days living a carefree, open-minded life, working in some trash hole restaurant, where the kitchens were stained with grease, but the food was authentic. I could rise in the morning, greeted by the mild sun. The wind would blow on my tanned skin. Maybe I would just keep traveling from place to place. Perhaps I would meet friends in every country and I could stay with them when I visit, if they were so gracious. Maybe I’d lose weight. Maybe. That all certainly sounds like a great novel. But I don’t daydream. And I’m not a writer. So forget that.

That’s what I would do. If I could do it.
But I can’t.
Like I said, I live in reality.

So, I get up at 6 AM, shower, drive to school, go to my classes, attend drama practice, do homework, eat something, and go to bed. So I pump out papers endlessly in the hopes I will pull through the school year with good grades to impress my family and my peers and my teachers. And so I will apply to a nice college and attend classes there. I will work endlessly to pay back my student loans.
Writers should write for themselves. I write for others. Although writers may write to entertain others, it is still for themselves. Although I may write to entertain others, it’s really just to impress them. Writers like to know someone picked up their work and gave it the time of the day. I like to know a teacher picked up my work and graded it in a timely manner. Writers like to know someone took their work and laid down in bed with it for a few minutes. I like to know a teacher checked off all the appropriate boxes I was required to fill. Writers like to know young adults gab about the characters in their story. I like to know young adults are on the same track as me. And writers like to know someone spent a buck or two. I like to know I have a buck or two. Writers write for themselves. I write for others. Writers write for the inner satisfaction. I write for others’ inner satisfaction. That is why I am not a writer and why my writing process isn’t sincere.
There is no process. Just a mad dash to get it written in a satisfactory manner in the hopes it will come back to me with high marks. If that’s not a strong enough image to end on, then please picture a young adult who is typing away on her laptop feverishly, with thoughts of financial doom and existential crisis looming over her in a sadly cartoonish thought bubble over her head.

Posted in Writings by Students

Life in a College Writing Center

successservices

Although I’m busy doing several different jobs in my un-retirement, one of my favorites is tutoring in a college writing center. Maybe some understanding of my work there can be useful to high school teachers as they seek to fulfill the elusive nature of what it means for their students to be “college-ready” writers.

I work with college students on their writing for classes from across the curriculum. About half of the writing I see originates in English classes; the other half comes from other departments, most commonly nursing, art, history, engineering, speech, and psychology. I also see students seeking help for writing personal statements as they prepare to transfer to other schools, applying for internships or other work experiences, and developing ideas to use in their first-year seminars.

Here is the dilemma for college writers. Each student takes an English class, right? In that class he may work on organization, argument, voice, synthesizing ideas from a variety of sources, and overall coherence. Then he goes to his next class—let’s say it’s a nursing class—and the writing expectations are completely different. The writing in a nursing class is expected to be devoid of any personal flavor—no synonyms, no transitions, and definitely no opinions. Then he goes to his history class where his writing is expected to be objective at times and subjective at other times. In each class, the instructor sees writing a certain way and usually has very little understanding of the writing expected of the student in his other classes. But that student must navigate all of these expectations and switch gears for each writing assignment. My work in the writing center is to help our students see that dilemma more clearly: Although the instructors contradict each other, they are merely responding to the needs of their disciplines.

What do I find so gratifying about this work? First of all, it’s one-on-one. Each student comes in with a writing-related problem, and we work together to make progress on it. Sometimes that involves a quick lesson on a mechanical or usage issue. Sometimes they know they are missing transitions, or a conclusion, or examples. Some are mystified by documentation requirements. The guiding principle in the writing center is this: Developing the writer is more important than developing the writing. In other words, we’re not focused on “fixing” this paper right now; we’re more interested in helping the student become a better writer.

My favorite tutoring sessions are those that involve brainstorming. This happens when a student arrives and says, “I have this assignment, and I don’t know how to start.” I take a look at the assignment, clarify the student’s understanding, and then I ask, “Is it OK if I take some notes while we talk?” Then I ask some guiding questions, writing down the parts that sound most interesting. As the student continues to explain her thoughts, I try to see what parts fit together, and how it might work as a coherent response to the assignment. At some point, I’ll say, “How about this?” and then show her a rough outline of her own ideas that might just work as an approach. The looks on their faces when they see an outline of their own words just waiting to be fleshed out in paragraphs is enormously gratifying.

Another very cool aspect of working in the writing center comes from the fact that so many of our students are new to America for a variety of reasons. I learn so much from them! I’ve had fascinating conversations about Jamaican cooking, Polish World War II heroes, Nigerian schooling, and how Russians view themselves as different from Americans. (“Americans like to have fun. Russians are sooooo serious all the time.”) I’ve always known that one of the advantages of being a writing teacher is improving my understanding of human nature, and working in the writing center definitely reinforces that advantage.

What implications does all of this have for high school teachers trying to achieve “college-readiness”? Well …
1. We can avoid drinking the kool-aid of the standardized testing industry that tries to define college-ready writing in terms of their for-profit test platform. I’ve never seen a standardized test that approximates the writing expected in college. The new ACT writing test is a step in the right direction, but it doesn’t come close to the demands of a typical college class.
2. We need to prepare students for writing in many different modes. Expressive, narrative, objective, research, expository, analytical, and persuasive writing are all alive and well on college campuses—and students frequently must write in more than one of those modes during the same semester in different classes.
3. We can help students become comfortable with talking about their writing. Conferring with high school students about their writing, and helping them become comfortable with asking questions about their papers will serve them very well as they meet with professors and tutors to discuss their work. A bonus for high school teachers who do writing conferences is the relationship-building that happens when we talk with students about their words and ideas.

As always, thank you for the work you do, and for reading this.

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