Friday, May 18, 2012

on teaching writing.

Of all the things I do in my life, one of the most satisfying is teaching kids to write.  It's also one of the hardest things I do, most days it feels impossible, so that's I guess why I feel so satisfied when I think it goes well.

"A perfectly healthy sentence, it is true, is extremely rare.  For the most part we miss the hue and fragrance of the thought; as if we could be satisfied with the dews of the morning or evening without their colors, or the heavens without their azure."  ~Henry David Thoreau

I teach Creative Writing, and we do a lot of really cool assignments and those kids write some truly breathtaking work, but that population is easy, actually.  They take Creative Writing as an elective because they want to write, and in almost all cases, they already do write (for pleasure!) and, they are all avid readers. 

Today I'm just talking about my seniors who have to take English, and do not probably ever write by choice.  I love teaching seniors because they are smart, funny, confident, and on their way into the world.  Even though I've had some extremely chatty kids this year, and have practically worn out my "be quiet right now" stare-down, there is something so very satisfying about working with kids during their last year in public education and sending them off to graduation.

But there is also quite a bit of self-induced pressure on me as the last writing teacher they will have in high school.  I feel like this is my last chance to save them from the unfortunate fate of being an ineffective writer.  Because really, what is worse?  They will want to write well in college, yes, but they will also want to be able to profess their love for someone in writing someday, or write a persuasive letter to a company who screwed them over, or write a letter-to-the-editor about an issue near and dear to them, or write a really effective thank you letter to someone who impacted their lives, not to mention cover letters and resumes.

My seniors' big research papers came in a few months ago and the first drafts were so bad that I told my students that reading them made me want to kill babies.  I probably put my head down on the stack of papers twenty times and just sighed.  There were typos, confusing transitions, run-ons, and most of all, way-too-casual writing voice that didn't sound definitive or confident.  I riddled their margins with ??? and WHAT?  and UGH!.  I was in a bad mood when I passed back their drafts.  They were very quiet.  Lessons on formal diction ensued, as did reprimands about proofreading, and sharing examples of how to effectively embed outside sources into a persuasive paragraph. 

"I am returning this otherwise good typing paper to you because someone has printed gibberish all over it and put your name at the top."  ~English Professor (Name Unknown), Ohio University

I retaught some tactics and rules I had wrongly assumed they already knew, and we conferenced, and they revised and revised again.  What I got at the end of that month made me really proud and encouraged. Many cups of coffee later, the research papers were full of feedback and grades, and I was very satisfied.   But still, I wasn't feeling super confident that they would go on to their next writing opportunity and remember all of this work we had done. 

Just with first learning how to read, I think there is a little bit of magic involved in learning how to write well.  I can teach skills, we can read a lot of amazing novels and memoirs, I can review grammar rules (the semi-colon is not just a fancy comma, people!) and formatting rules, and talk about how to sustain a good argument.  I can go over the citation rules, explain and illustrate the difference between informal and formal diction, help revise sentences into active voice, but at some point, I just have to kind of wave a magic wand over them and hope that it all comes together.  I have been running along side of them, but now I have to let go of the bike and watch them take off and hope they stay upright, the wind in their hair.  (That was a metaphor).  

At the end of this year, much to the dismay of my seniors, I felt the need to cram in several more writing assignments because when I wake up in the middle of the night as I always do, I would lie there and think about them going in to college classrooms and writing their first essays, and I felt a nagging sensation that they weren't ready.  Their writing was showing signs of progress, but still sounded awkward or was sprinkled with errors.  I told them I couldn't let them out of my sights in this condition.  I couldn't let them go until they tightened things up. 

So, in the last three weeks, I retaught some skills and tactics, explained some things in a new way, and they have written five more assignments:  a personal essay saying goodbye to some aspect of their pre-college life, a formal literary essay on The Catcher in the Rye, two one-page written responses to ideas we discussed in class, and a formal letter of thanks to a former teacher in the district.

Really Ms. Manhart?  Yes.  Really, you guys. 

I wanted to kick myself as the papers started coming in.  Piles of papers. Papers spread out all over my desk.  Papers everywhere.  I was already pressed for time, but now this!   But as I've been reading through them and responding, I am feeling lighter and lighter.  You know what?  Something magical has happened in the last few weeks.  My seniors can write. THEY. CAN. WRITE.

Essay after essay, I am writing "I am so proud of this!" and "Check you out!"  They seem to have figured out how it all comes together.  They are transitioning!  They are persuading!  They are using semi-colons correctly!  And for some of them, they have even found their voices at the end of high school.  Except for the stray error here and there, these essays needed almost no editing.  It's a freaking miracle.  (Actually, it's not.  These kids are products of 12 years in a stellar school district where their skills and interests have been nurtured and honed by many talented teachers, and I would be remiss if I didn't mention that when they come to me, they are in very good shape already.)

One thing I'm not sure you can actually teach kids is how to have voice in their writing.  Many of them just lack the life experience and confidence to have a unique personality in their writing voice.  But they are definitely getting there.  When it happens, when I have a kid who finds the sweet spot, when the writing takes on an effortless quality, it is such a total joy.  The kid in my class who is the truest scholar, who writes the most thoughtful and original essays and has the most personality in his writing, is the kid who hides behind his hair, has multiple piercings, and has been in a lot of trouble with the law.   He misses a lot of school and hands in everything late.   His essay on The Catcher in the Rye made me cry actual tears.  Probably because he IS Holden Caulfield.  But that kid can write with so much genuine passion that I didn't even care that he had hardly any quotes from the text.  If your essay makes me cry tears of joy, you get an A.

"Easy reading is damn hard writing."  ~Nathaniel Hawthorne

 In September,  my seniors were struggling for ideas for their college essays and full of nerves about where they will be accepted, or what they will do next year.  Their first essays were rough.  They were awkward and disjointed.  By May, the seniors have put in a solid year of work, and have their plans set (for the most part).   My back bulletin board is plastered with my seniors' names and where each is headed next year.  University of Maine, University of New Brunswick, Boston College, Air Force, Army, Naval Academy, Colby, Husson, Eastern Maine Community College, URI, Suffolk, Northeastern. 

I'm letting go of their bikes, and they are riding away.  I'm sending 52 kids out into the world who will impress their professors with cohesive literary arguments, persuade others of their beliefs, and woo their lovers with grammatically-correct love letters.



Bailey said...

For my required "English 101" course in college, I had to write about my experience learning to become a writer. I wrote entirely about you; I wrote that I didn't really learn my voice or my potential until your class senior year.

Now that I'm becoming a teacher of writing, I can see and appreciate everything you did for me on an even greater scale. So, thanks again, Ms. Manhart.

Emilie said...

BAILEY MASSEY! I LOVE YOU. You are going to be the most amazing teacher. I would totally take your class. xoxox

ltlindian said...

How lovely that you are so excited about your teaching and show passion! I wish my children had the opportunity to take your class. Any chance you want to teach at Boothbay?

And also what a lovely compliment your student just gave you! How lucky are you both to be working in your life's passion. :)

susant said...

Such a great testimony to teaching! When I decided to become an English teacher, I thought I love books so literature would be the best part of teaching English. Well, it is amazing when kids discuss ideas from their reading, but my big surprise was how much I loved teaching writing. So satisfying to see their work improve as you so eloquently described!

Pattie Reaves said...

You're the best writing teacher I ever had. :)

Maybe I'll see you tomorrow! Good luck!

SNW said...

Love the margin notes.. I still remember when Mrs. Jones made a sad face with a puddle of tears on one of my 9th grade papers. Probably a pop quiz!

Anonymous said...

As a parent, I loved this.....

Anonymous said...

This is a wonderful post. I am a writer, and I have incredibly clear memories of the teacher who "taught me" how to write. I read your blog for many reasons; THIS is why it's so good.

Willow @ My Owm Trail said...

As a community college history professor (well, part-time) all I can say is thank you. When students come to my class with a solid set of writing skills, it makes it so much easier for me to teach them history...especially since I assign a LOT of essays and a final research paper.

Leigh-Cheri said...

This post made me incredibly happy to read. If it weren't for our beloved creative writing class during high school, I would have have chosen to pursue creative writing in college. I have recently graduated from Suffolk University with a B.A. in English, and a concentration in Creative Writing. I worked as a writing tutor for two of my college years, and constantly used tactics and writing prompts that you had taught our class. Because of your encouragement, I continued writing poetry, and became Suffolk's participant in the Intercollegiate Poetry Festival in Massachusetts. So, a hearty thank you to you, Mrs. Manhart. You and your classes are entirely inspirational and encouraging. Thank you! : )

Anonymous said...

Nice work teacher!