Monday, August 17, 2009

Come September

On the first day of school in our first year of marriage, my teacher-husband indoctrinated me into the Ford Family Back-To-School ritual. Fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies were expected to greet the returning troops from a day of collecting book covers and rules, tales of summer and, in the case of my father-in-law, a day at the “office” as principal of several hundred elementary students (including two of his own).

As an avid nonbaker but equally avid chocoholic, I have grown very appreciative of this rite of fall. (Thank goodness for the break-and-bake variety of desserts now available in your grocer’s freezer.)

A teacher friend from Pittsburgh wrote me over the weekend that all these posts on about going back to school were making her depressed. This observation was followed, instantly and characteristically, by her enthusiastic plans for the new year ahead.

Many of us, it would seem, have a peculiar love-hate relationship with the return to homework, lesson plans, sports, friends, colleagues, structure, tests, grades, and “real life.” While fall is my favorite season, the end of summer is bittersweet as my husband (boo) and kids (I have to admit, mostly yay) go back to school.

September is that one special time of year when I often feel especially inspired to write. I step into a school, I smell that “school” smell (part cafeteria, part paste and markers, part I-don’t-think-I-want-to-know), and I am nine years old again. So many of the “school story” books I’ve always enjoyed began with the new school year. And of course come September I have a quiet house, which is always a help regardless of whether inspiration is actually at hand.

Now that I am married to a teacher, I live the school schedule as much as any kid. My husband and I watch the Weather Channel all winter long in hopes of a stray flake that might close schools (sometimes for more than a day, this being a panic-instantly-at-frozen-precipitation sort of state).

A week from today, my husband will go off for his week of teacher prep, my son will start his first day of preschool ever, and my daughter will finally be relieved of the endless boredom of summer (as she has reminded me every day). I will have a blessedly and somewhat depressingly quiet house, and I will fill it with the sound of clicking computer keys and the smell of brown sugar and melting chocolate.


The “Diagnostic Essay”

As I may have mentioned before, I write lousy first drafts. Therefore, I am sensitive to the somewhat dubious predictive value of the “diagnostic essay” typically given at the beginning of the school year.

I was told that, at the college level, this essay is assigned to:
1) ensure proper placement
2) give a baseline indication of a student’s writing abilities to make future plagiarism more difficult (or at least more easily recognizable).

My husband, a sixth grade reading teacher, said that he used to assign a topic of “favorite books.” I read his students’ papers with great professional interest, but he grew disenchanted with the assignment after too many protests of, “I don’t have a favorite book,” “I only read comics,” and other such statements that make the year ahead seem very long.

Last year, he changed the assignment to “write about your passion.”

I promptly plagiarized from my smart husband and asked my students to do the same.

As a new teacher, I worried about remembering my students’ names. After this assignment, I no longer worried.

I asked my students to avoid clich├ęs and to provide vivid and specific details (making use of all five senses). I asked them to try to make me “feel their passion.” (Yes, I did have the foresight to specify PG-only.)

I wanted these essays to set the tenor for the semester to come. I wanted my students to know that writing is not a magical/mystical process, and it need not be painful or something to look upon with dread.

For every subsequent assignment, I tried to give the typical “descriptive essay,” “comparative essay,” “narrative essay” assignments a spin that would allow them to explore their interests and write about something that mattered deeply to them. I had my share of students who lacked the discipline to complete assignments, but I had very few problems with plagiarism, as the subject matter demanded honesty and self-reflection.

We professional writers have all heard the advice to “write what you know,” and we have also heard its antithesis. I believe that when it comes to choosing a topic, only one thing truly matters. If we strive to write well – the reason we strive to do it at all -- is to write what we’re passionate about; and, of course; to be passionate about our writing.

Signing off to eat chocolate,

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