By Dr. Jane Maher
Two weeks ago, I got a longer-than-usual email filled with questions from Rachel, a young woman who is going to be teaching a non-credit writing course for the first time in the college program at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for Women. She will not be teaching the course until Spring 2018, but she plans ahead. At the beginning of the summer, I had agreed to mentor her. We are good friends, we work well together, we respect each other, we do everything we can to support the program, and Rachel believes I am qualified to mentor her because I have been teaching writing for 20 years at the prison and for 35 years on the “outside.”
We had initially agreed that the best way to begin would be to email questions, thoughts, ideas, suggestions for readings, and we spent most of the summer doing this. I also forwarded scores of articles, blogs, websites, anything that I came across that would help Rachel to get a sense of the incredible resources available to us as teachers, and I’m hoping to get her to a few of our LIWP Saturday Series events. (Rachel took education courses as an undergraduate, but she does not have specific training in the teaching of writing.) Although I was sending everything from ILA, NCTE and Education Week articles to videos from the Teaching Channel, I felt confident and comfortable because Rachel responded in one of her emails: “I want to let you know that I really appreciate everything you have been sending and have been looking at it all.”
Rachel’s questions in that email were reflecting the concerns of all new teachers. But her questions were also reactions to some of the information and advice I had already sent to her. I had talked about the relationship between reading and writing, leading Rachel to ask, “How do I teach reading? How do I help students work on their reading skills?” In response to information I had sent about pre-writing as part of the writing process, Rachel asked, “Is pre-writing about organizing your writing at this stage or just writing? Do you believe in outlining? Do you provide other strategies for brainstorming?”
At about the same time I received Rachel’s email, I had begun to review my students’ essays from last fall in order to revise my syllabus and assignments as I prepared to teach WRIT 101 again this semester at Bedford Hills. (I teach WRIT 102 to the same cohort of students in the spring semester, so I am able to teach more effectively because I already know the students, their skills, their learning styles, and their interests—and they know me.) I found myself looking at my former students’ writing through the lens of Rachel’s questions, and I began to think more deliberately about the way I was going about mentoring Rachel. Up to this point, I was pretty much just passing information along, information that I thought she would find useful, information that addressed some of her questions, and information that I felt would inspire her. Rachel is one of the smartest people I know, and I remember thinking that she would find the field of composition studies engaging and important.
The question that made me really begin to examine the way I had been communicating and mentoring Rachel was one about sentences: “In the article you sent about developing voice,” she wrote, “it talks about sentence fluency. Is it okay to teach them to use short sentences?” I knew immediately why Rachel was asking this question. She is one of two full-time administrators of the college program at Bedford Hills, and in that capacity she often tutors the students, reviews their essays with them, mentors and supports them when they feel overwhelmed or when they are not earning the grades they want. And the students who seek help are often the ones who are struggling the most, thus Rachel has first-hand knowledge of what writing looks like when it is messy, disorganized, unclear.
I could have answered Rachel’s question in any number of ways, from citing more writing theorists to sending her a copy of NCTE’s position on the teaching of writing, but I was finally beginning to realize that I was guilty of what we accuse so many graduate education programs of doing: All theory, no practical, hands-on exposure. As someone who has been teaching not only credit-bearing, but basic (non-credit, developmental, remedial are some other terms used for these courses) writing for so long, I still harbor a secret suspicion that even the best theorists do not see, much less have to respond to and assess, the sentences our least proficient student writers produce.
I know the kind of sentences that had led to Rachel’s question because I know the kind of sentences Rachel has seen as she worked with the students in the learning center—some an entire page long, some unclear, some containing so many ideas that the reader has to work harder than the writer to figure out the relevance or meaning of the sentence, no punctuation. It did not take me very long to find such sentences as I reviewed my former students’ essays from early in the semester. I realized I needed to talk with Rachel about these sentences, and I needed to talk in such a way that Rachel would more deeply understand that we, the ones responsible for somehow fixing these sentences (read: these writers), must never view our students’ sentences as evidence of their deficiencies, because this leads us to the very solution that Rachel had suggested: to make their sentences shorter. As if getting our students to write less will make their writing clearer, more “correct.” Or worse, somehow hide the fact that they can’t write. I wanted to choose sentences that were problematic, but I wanted to show Rachel that every sentence students write contains evidence of their strengths as thinkers. Our task is not to get them to write shorter, simpler sentences; rather our task is to help our students to see that their sentences can be rethought, reorganized, rewritten, so they reflect what the students mean to say, make the connections the students mean to make, and lead to other sentences that develop their thoughts and ideas. I had been sending material to Rachel and she had been reading it assiduously, but I had been ignoring the most effective teaching tool of all: the students’ writing. It had been so easy and satisfying to send Rachel information and to hear back from her that she was “looking at it all.” But I had forgotten the most important component of teaching writing—the writers themselves.
I will continue to send Rachel articles and links and blogs and TED Talks and NCTE position papers, and titles of books and essays and articles that take my breath away that I want to share with my students (and that I want Rachel to share with her future students), but we have also decided to meet once a week during this semester to look at my students’ writing. To talk about it. To learn from it. And to become better teachers as a result of this time-consuming, difficult, challenging, but engaging and important work.
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