Sunday, May 16, 2010

And So it Goes, And So It Goes.

I borrowed a stack of books from the library about teaching composition. Many are dated, geared toward that traditional freshman in college who intends to finish in a degree in four years, who does not have a part-time or full-time job, and who just needs the right kind of guidance to produce a stellar piece of writing. Some are oddly defensive about teaching the "rules" and correcting "bad" grammar. But regardless of their faults, I can certainly take something away from each of these texts.

The most useful one, in fact, is geared toward high school students. "The Pen Is in My Hand... Now What?" encourages us to begin with creative writing before switching to expository. In "S.W.A.P." activities, students construct a creative paragraph in which they answer a series of questions. Last week, I showed students a picture of a soldier holding an assault rifle and peering around a corner. I asked,
  1. What is his name?
  2. What is he thinking?
  3. Where is he going?
  4. What is his favorite color?
  5. Why does his left foot itch?
  6. What was he doing before he enlisted?
  7. What is his family like?
Students could respond to these questions in any order, however they liked. Afterwards, students read their creations to the whole class (each had the opportunity to pass). Students were proud of and applauded their classmates, and they encouraged each other. Cool!

I wish I felt as good about everything else I was/am doing. I don't know what it will take for me to feel confident. But I'll take my victories when I can. Friday, the Hemingway short story "Soldier's Home" was met with overwhelming approval; I had first played some audio of an Iraq war veteran talking about his experience with PTSD. The subsequent discussion of the story was complex and nuanced. When we talked about how Hemingway's style--short, simple sentences; lots of repetition; detached--reflected Krebs' state of mind after returning home from WWI, students got it.

My own school plans have not changed, and now isn't the time to be tentative. One of my books, "Rational Irrationality," talks a lot about the theory and pedagogy of composition. The author suggests that adults who struggled to learn to write well make the best teachers; they recognize the challenges and steps to become effective writers and can thus best explain it to students. On the other hand, adults for whom writing has always been easy and natural cannot credibly explain the importance of the writing process. The author suggests that these people approach writing in a very different way and will necessarily have trouble breaking it into steps. I'm not sure that I agree with him, but I think it's an interesting point.


mkcillip said...

Sounds good! Any books you can recommend my way?

Also, have you heard of the "portfolio method" of composition pedagogy? It's possible that it's what my teachers used (but that I wasn't paying attention). Basically, each essay gets comments but no grades. At the end of the semester, all the essays are bundled into a portfolio, along with a reflective paper about the process and substantial revisions for two of the essays. (Actually, I think it's what we did in Narrative Writing.) Portfolios are cursorily looked over so that authors of "non-passing" portfolios have the option to re-revise. "Passing" portfolios are then considered more acutely to be awarded A, B, or C.

I like the idea much better than my current reliance on precise percentages AND for the emphasis on revision as part of the writing process. I just wonder if it's something that can be compatible with our freshman composition program as it's currently set up.

August said...

I have some wiggle room. I'm grading my first batch of essays; before, revision had been optional. And few did because new assignments were due shortly, and I'm not a harsh grader. But reading these essays, seeing how minor changes will yield great improvements, I'm going to make revision mandatory and push back another deadline.

I do like the idea of more holistic grading. But it's not feasible in this circumstance. I'm excited about the revisions, though. This feels much more aligned with my own philosophy and approach.

Sevach said...

You know how fond I am of putting myself into categories (i.e. I am an intellectual, bohemian, self-deprecating arse, Leo with my Moon in Cancer, Monkey, Extroverted Intuitive Feeling Perceiving, etc, etc), so I must be careful not to shout too loud an affirmation of the author's point you mentioned above. But, I have to say that I have found this to be the case for myself: I am LOUSY at teaching composition, often because I end up over-explaining a process that could be summed up neatly in a few easy steps (steps that my tutoring colleague has mastered over the years).

This is not to say that I am a 'natural writer' in all contexts. Creatively, for the most part, yes. In the epistolary form, I think even more so. But when it comes to formulating an argument that spans over five chapters, the details of which must not contradict or repeat themselves, I get completely overwhelmed by the big picture and just crash out. I find myself, at times, totally unable to break things down into smaller steps, and to tackle a big project as a series of smaller projects. I wonder if this has something to do with how my own brain approaches problems, whether in writing or in life.

You've given me quite a lot to think about.

August said...

I think of one of my old library managers. He would say, "I'm going to teach you what I think is the best way [for processing holds, putting books in order, etc] but after that it's up to you." Everyone has their own process. I find modeling to be effective sometimes, and also I'll write with the students.