Monday, April 06, 2009

Just Talk Through Your Fingers!

I became an English teacher for two reasons, one of which is the main reason that most people choose to enter the profession, one of which is something that many would just as soon not have anything to do with: I love to read, and I wanted to lead young people to be lifelong readers; I also loved grammar, the study of language and how it works and wanted my students to share my love. You may notice that I mentioned nothing about loving to write and being eager to teach my students to be good writers. The truth is that I never enrolled in any writing classes past the mandatory Freshman Composition. My college, from 1958 to 1964, didn’t offer any courses in writing except one semester of creative writing. I had no desire to write short stories or poetry, so I shied away from that elective.

For about twenty-two of my thirty-two years in the classroom, I struggled with teaching writing and with getting students interested in writing. Oh, I could teach them the five-paragraph essay in the inverted pyramid form, but I couldn’t get them to be enthusiastic about writing, not even about persuasive papers in which they could promote their biases.

After I participated in a writing workshop one summer, led by three teachers from Ft. Walton Beach, FL, I discovered what my problem was: I didn’t like to write, so I couldn’t instill a love of writing in my students. During those two weeks in 1986, when my “new best friends” presented us with activity after activity intended to help students become better writers and to enjoy writing, I became a better writer who could hardly wait to get her fingers on the keyboard.

Two truths that I brought from the workshop into my classroom were that I needed to write with my students to show them that I loved to write and that I had to find my voice before I could teach my charges to find theirs. I had always thought the third-person approach to writing stilted and wanted to get away from it, but I almost had the idea that writing in any other point of view was practically illegal. I know that’s crazy; however, in composition classes, I had always been taught that using first person was a no-no.

Early August in 1986 found me breaking in my students with one of my new activities: I know, I think, I wonder. On the very first day, after I had given my annual this-is-how-things-are-done-in-Mrs. Young’s-classroom speech, I had them write this very informal assignment addressing what I had just told them. I loved reading these journal-type pieces in which they let me know what they knew about my expectations, what they thought about them, and what they still wondered about Old Lady Young’s class.

Through that first year of my new approach to writing, I wrote along with my students. Sometimes they liked what I wrote; sometimes they didn’t. I had found my voice: I sounded like myself, and that’s just what I wanted. Now my job was to help my students find theirs.

They balked at leaving their comfortable third-person voices, voices in which they didn’t have to expose themselves because they were just spitting out what someone else thought, whether they were writing literary essays or research papers. I was asking them to have original ideas and to talk to each other and to me about them. I had to un-teach what my friends had been drilling into their little heads for years. Each year, including the first, I would walk slowly to the door of my classroom, close it, and say, “We need to talk.” Then I’d begin my teaching of voice, telling them that I expected them to use I in many of their papers during their senior year. They wrote the occasional essay in which I required them to write in third person just so that they wouldn’t be lost in college. But for the most part, they used first person. One year, a girl who had rebelled against first person all year wanted to write her autobiography in third person. Oh, brother!

Though at times I wanted to throw my hands up in frustration, teaching students to talk to the paper through their fingers, either with pen in hand or on a computer, was one of the most rewarding things I ever did in the classroom. If teaching voice were the only thing I had to do there today, I’d go back in a heartbeat.

(If teaching English happens to be something you’re interested in, you might want to check out my post on October 16, 2008, another adventure in first person.)

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