On Writing and Teaching Writing

As I set out on the 6 x 6 challenge, I’m confronted by the same rhetorical considerations as any First Year Composition student and any writer, really. I must ponder who is this piece of writing for? What do I want the writing to do? And, like our students, my composition of this piece was nearly derailed by the obstacles of everyday living. And so, that’s the purpose I’ve happened upon, for this entry anyway: I want to share this odd idea I have that a) our students aren’t that different than we are and b) our students might be trying harder than we think they are. B is going to take more up more than one entry as it relates to a more broader philosophical approach that I call strengths based learning.

When I saw the email from the CTLE about Write 6X6, I was interested in participating but fearful I wouldn’t be able to carve out enough time to submit something every week and a bit intimidated at the idea of a group of quite accomplished professionals being my audience for each entry. Of course, this is exactly how most of our English writing students feel. They want to become scholars, learn, and contribute to our college, but they’re not sure they can keep up the time commitment and, for all too many of them, they’re not sure they belong. I can think of all too many examples to support the latter point. Here’s one: Just two days ago, I did a peer review in my Developmental Writing class. The class seemed quite invested in their discussion of each other’s work, and two were still talking after class ended as I erased the boards and packed up those whiteboard markers that are such a vital part of my English professor ethos. I cleared my throat a little more loudly than I meant to and the students both quickly apologized. Surprised, I realized they thought I was trying to give them some kind of hint to wind up and leave. I told them that far from trying to hurry them, I appreciated their concern for each other’s work and their desire to finish the conversation they were having.

When I left, I thought that perhaps part of the problem is they saw the classroom as mine, when in reality it’s theirs. They are the ones who pay the tuition, and, in turn, we instructors are paid to provide a service to them. Feeling comfortable and safe is a vital foundation for the learning process. While I do consciously cultivate this in the classroom – via learning and using students’ first names quickly, talking with them before and after class, acknowledging the effort they put into every classroom interaction and assignment, etc. – this made me realize we have to do more to make students realize the college belongs to them. They need to feel the same sense of ownership across the entire campus that I feel in my office. They should feel like scholars, integral parts of the educational apparatus, not visitors or worse, intruders. Perhaps this is one of the reasons participation in campus activities is related to completion. If you’re connected to other students, an organization, a building you visit to watch an event, you belong.

But I digress. I wanted to think and write about how the challenge of written communication crosses roles and generations and that being more conscious of that can help us help students find greater levels of success in their writing courses. Time is the next point worth mentioning here. Certainly, students must make time to complete work outside of class to be successful in any college course. Indeed, HLC sets out expectations in regard to this. But where does it all fit? Before I gave the first writing assignment, I asked my developmental writing students to write about when and where they will do their writing. I asked them to consider their work schedule and identify unforeseen obstacles that might arise. They took me at my word, and their writing offered me a window into the many responsibilities every one of our students has to balance, including everything from working full time, to caring for siblings, to addressing immigration status. And don’t forget many of them are taking other classes as well. I marveled at their determination in the face of this, yet I know from experience determination isn’t always enough.

My own plans to complete my first 6 x 6 entry went awry when pet care, dishes, and other fatherly responsibilities got in the way of the writing I planned to do this morning. Then it was time to take the kids to gymnastics. I’m not a procrastinator; I couldn’t write during the week because grading got in the way. This is exactly what our students run into. Work and family obligations come first. Of course they do! We can shout from the rooftops how many works hours for week we think are doable with a full load of classes, but for those students that work to pay rent or help their family buy food, those arguments are, if you’ll excuse the pun, academic. So yes, their plans to write get derailed just like mine do. I’m old enough to know that you shouldn’t give up just because you don’t have as much time on something as you would like, but many of our students are discouraged enough by such obstacles that they quit and say things like, “I’m just not good at college.”

Our goal is to give every student we meet the best possibility of success in our class and beyond. To help them find success, we have to not just acknowledge adversity and setbacks, we must plan for them. I continue to emphasize peer reviews as a place where you bring writing that isn’t perfect, where you bring work to get better. I have found that students who participate, even if they only bring in a page, typically submit the Final Draft of the paper. I talk openly with students about writing as an art that literally anyone can gain proficiency in through time and effort. And I always acknowledge their efforts, even if the outcome wasn’t what they and I had hoped for. Don’t get me wrong. The competencies are the competencies. The rubric is the rubric. But when I see a final draft that feels rushed and just barely passes, I try to remember that sometimes just finishing the thing is an accomplishment, and maybe in the next paper, life won’t get in the way quite as much.



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