"As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame; / [ . . . ] Each mortal thing does one thing and the same: / Deals out that being indoors each one dwells; / Selves -- goes itself; 'myself' it speaks and spells, / Crying 'What I do is me; for that I came'." --Gerard Manley Hopkins

04 May 2007

Slow Learner

Freshman Composition is the toughest class I teach. I don't know anyone who teaches it regularly who is ever entirely satisfied with any particular semester. The highest praise I've ever heard has been "It was okay, but . . ." I'm not sure why this is the case, except that there is so much we need to accomplish in just one or two semesters, and because teaching writing is not teaching information but teaching skills and performance, and the same techniques never work quite the same way with different students and even different mixes of students. After a few years one learns never to assume that because an activity was a stellar success this semester it will infallibly work the next. And there is always the matter of which readings will be most accessible, challenging, and helpful for each skill being taught; the book edition is likely different, with one's favorite readings no longer available, or one wonders if the students might respond better to different topics . . .

However, there are of course basic concepts one always addresses; it's the how, not the what, that causes our angst. I developed a basic structure years ago which I find the most helpful in building those concepts over the semester. (There is, of course, no textbook which follows this structure and/or defines its parts the way I do.) So every summer as I plan for the fall, I jot down this structure and then begin inserting specific assignments, activities, etc. into the daily schedule. Usually I'll forget part of the structure at first and have to start the planning over; then during the semester I'll forget that I had a handout or activity that would probably have helped this particular class with some specific skill until we're well past that point. In other words, I'm thoroughly organized but don't always remember that I am.

(I understand this is a quality of intuitive types. It's not bad, really, just inconvenient, kind of like having no concept of time, another intuitive trait I muddle along with.)

But God has a sense of humor. Last week a young lady asked if I could give her some tips on teaching her high-school aged brother composition this summer. Sure, I said, thinking of my well-defined structure; come on by. And then I realized that if I typed out that structure with brief explanations and a list of the handouts and activities that I use under each section, it would be really helpful to her and easy to explain . . . So, yes, after all these years, I am finally actually putting all this in writing so that it's readily available -- to me -- at any time . . . and, yes, I do feel a fool.

It won't make the class any easier to teach. But maybe the planning will take a few minutes less, and I won't forget as many possibilities as I have already available. Now, if I could make myself do the same for the second semester . . . but that might be asking rather too much for one lesson learned, to apply it elsewhere.


Fr. Bill said...

Hi, Beth,

This made me think of the years during which I have taught my daughters to write prose (term papers, essays, etc.). My method could never be applied by a classroom teacher for reasons of scale: it would take far too much time with even a small class.

I taught my daughters to write by ruthlessly editing their efforts, and then by carefully explaining to them why I made the changes (often, deletions). The changes themselves weren't really mysterious -- word choice, active instead of passive verbs, saying more in fewer words, and similar techniques.

In their high school years, I taught pointedly against what they heard in the classroom. Those teachers deserve to be imprisoned for life. Consequently, my editorial work continued into their college years. My daughters are not stupid; so, I conclude that good writing habits come slowly, and that bad habits are difficult to erase.

When I think of my own writing and how it evolved over the years two things stand out:

1. Good reading. Find a good writer and read everything he ever wrote, attending carefully to how he achieves his effect. Chesterton is a very good model to mimick. There are many others.

2. Draconian limitations. The one professor who did more than all the rest to hone my writing was a Greek professor in seminary, who demanded extremely thorough work within almost impossible-to-achieve limitations on length.

He would require us to limit our exegetical papers to 2500 words. Those words much include bibliography (!) as well as obvious consultation with Schaff's Fathers of the Church. Exceeding his limits dropped our grade by one letter, unless he deemed the offense egregious, which dropped the grade two letters.

I can recall rewriting, counting words, and rewriting again and again. He forced me to learn how to pack the maximum meaning into the fewest words. It's a habit I've retained, and it permits me to stuff large amounts of communication into traditionally short Anglican homilies.

How to "force" such technique into 20 to 30 students in one semester is beyond me.

And, as long as you're finally writing things down, have you thought of actually writing a How To Manual and publishing it?

Fr. B

GrumpyTeacher1 said...

Before I'm packed off to prison, would you be willing to send a copy my way? I'm sure that my dual credit composition students could use your insights.

alaiyo said...

Bill, that's what I wish I could do with my own son! But after trying to do it as well as one can with 20-40 freshmen all day every day (not to mention the lit classes, and I'll have another 20+ in advanced comp this fall . . .), I have no energy left for the added commitment -- and so writing is the worst of this English prof's son's skills! But one of my former students is taking him and 2 other high schoolers on next year, so he will get a taste of it at least before college.

GT -- I'll email the outline. Would you like the handouts, too?

I guess this is how textbooks get written, but I doubt if I will ever want to spend the time it would take to put together such a thing -- and no "real" publisher would print it anyway because it would be too conservative in approach (and I mean academically conservative, but of course the occasional politically or religiously conservative article would pose other hurdles, too!).

GrumpyTeacher1 said...

I'll take the handouts if it isn't too much trouble. I feel guilty about asking though.

alaiyo said...

I shall send them -- and don't feel guilty! That's how teachers get stuff, isn't it? Why completely re-invent the wheel when you get at least a blueprint? :)

amelia ruth said...

All I have to say to that is: I am continually using the things I learned from you in Freshman comp. for my two tutoring students--and though I sometimes feel like a fool, I'm sure my students can never tell!

GrumpyTeacher1 said...

Thanks for mailing all those materials.