Monday, August 3, 2009

Freshman English

I was hired to teach English 101 at a local community college last summer, a week before class was to start. My primary qualification was my long career as a semi-professional student. Of course I had no clue what I was doing.

On the first day of class, I asked the students to split into pairs, perform cursory interviews of each other, and then make introductions accordingly. Mode of transport apparently ranked as one of the most important biographical details, at least among the males in the class.

I also asked the students they were taking English 101 and what they hoped to gain from it. Because the course was a requirement for all students, I received the expected answer from nearly everyone – they were taking it because they had to, and what they hoped to gain was a passing grade and college credit.

Because this particular course was added to the schedule in the week before school started (thus my last-minute hiring), my students had also been those who were still figuring out their schedules, for whatever reason, at the very last minute. Many were dealing with serious financial and personal issues, illnesses, multiple jobs, etc. Some were in high school. A few were older than I.

I had no idea what to expect, but I certainly didn’t expect what I got. One of my students, an excellent writer, explained that he had gotten through 2/3 of the class in the previous semester but had had to drop out upon being sent to prison. He further explained that he had recently developed a case of severe writers’ block which he attributed to the cessation of recreational drug use.

Another student was a professional plumber in a technology AA program. He was well-muscled and tattooed. His writing was breathtaking, and he shared with me that he sometimes wrote poetry in his spare time. The following semester, he became an English tutor, and he has since received a scholarship to pursue a four-year degree.

I did not experience many of the issues I had been warned to expect from my students with plagiarism. Missing assignments (and highly creative excuses) were more the norm. But those students who did adhere to the butt-in-chair rule and took the work seriously turned out to be generous sharers, both with me and with one another. They talked about what mattered to them. They confided intimate details of their personal crises, dreams, desires, fears, secrets – not just to me but in their online workshops, as well.

In an essay on role models, one student wrote about Britney Spears and Martin Luther King, Jr. And, God love her, she actually made it work.

I honestly have no idea whether I taught them anything, but they taught me so very much, and I am grateful to all of them.

Writing Workout

During one of the earliest class sessions, I asked my students to describe a place that was meaningful to them, choosing details carefully to evoke a particular mood. After they wrote for fifteen minutes, I asked them to go to the place and write the description again.

I expected that most of them would say they were able to write a more fleshed-out essay with more vivid sensory detail when they were in the place rather than just imagining it. Indeed, a few did. Many said that quite the opposite was the case – that their imaginations were hindered by the presence of the actual physical environment. Some said that their essays were merely different – that they wrote about the crowded cafeteria at lunchtime and then, while there, wrote about the cafeteria empty.

(Then there were those who got lost looking for the place and those who never came back – the dangers of ever letting students escape the classroom, even at the college level.)
My take-away lesson for next time was to make sure to plan adequate time afterward for discussion of differing writing styles, habits, preferences, and methods. This exercise was a big eye-opener for me.

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