Monday, April 06, 2015

E is for ESSAYS and Other Thoughts Concerning the Teaching of English

If anyone who knew me before the April Challenge reads my blog posts, he or she knows that I was an English teacher for thirty-two years. My goodness, that means that had I not retired to begin working as a sales representative for McDougal Littell Publishing Company in 1996, I’d be in my fifty-first year of teaching.

I had a strange calling to the teaching profession as far as English teaching is concerned. I loved literature, but my true love in the discipline was grammar. I wanted to teach students to love grammar as much as I did. I had to teach everything involved with English or language arts, as it’s known today—literature, grammar, vocabulary, composition, speech—but what I really loved to teach was grammar. In fact, at Open House one year, two parents stood in line probably for thirty minutes waiting to get to talk to me. Why? They wanted to meet the lady who got soooo excited about verbals! That’d be me!

My next favorite aspect of language arts was literature. Most of my thirty-two years were spent with high school seniors, those precious kids whom, believe it or not, most teachers don’t want to teach. I never could understand that because I loved leading them through the English masters—the Beowulf Poet, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, the Romantics. I’ll have to admit that after Spring Break, they changed, and even Miz Young could hardly stand them. All they could think about was graduation. And, you know what? I was looking forward to graduation, too!

For the first twenty or so years that I taught, my least favorite aspect of the language arts was composition. Oh, I tried to teach so that my students would be successful in college, but all I knew how to do was to lead them through the five-paragraph essay that I had been taught to write when I was in high school. Students came back after they had completed their freshman year and told me that they were so happy that I had taught them how to write. But I never really felt successful in anything except the writing of essays and research papers. I really wanted to love teaching composition the way I loved teaching grammar and literature.

And then it happened! Our Language Arts Supervisor arranged for four teachers from Ft. Walton to come to Pensacola every day for two weeks to lead interested English teachers in really learning to teach composition. I remember the names of two of these rescuers, Charlene Couvillion and Ann Bevino. They were excellent writing teachers and came to share their wealth of ideas with us. These educators were in the habit of writing along with their students and taught us that there was nothing scary about sharing our writing with those that we were teaching. They encouraged us to do short, informal assignments with our kids, not just those long five-paragraph essays. They convinced some of us—me, for sure—to put journal topics on the board each day, and because I was in the habit of doing that, one day when I hadn’t put one on the board, I came up with the idea of the Alphabet Journal. Hmmm . . . maybe whoever thought of our Blogging from A-Z April Challenge heard about my assignment, one of the few original writing ideas that I ever had!
Because of the leadership of these Ft. Walton teachers, I had the “nerve” to make such assignments as The Autobiography, The “Dreaded” Anthology, and The I-Search-a-Word Research Paper, none of which were original but which required much of my students and of me. Without their model teaching and enthusiasm for writing, I never would have stepped out beyond the essay.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I still love the essay. And if I were still teaching, I’d have my students writing essays many times during the school year. It’s just that I ventured beyond the kind of writing that I did in high school, and I’m ever so glad that I did because those assignments that really stretched my seniors and their old teacher were what kept me in the classroom for thirty-two years. I never was burned out with teaching—I just thought I’d see if I could do something else before they put me out to pasture. Now I teach teachers how to use new textbooks!

An apology
This piece is probably the most rambling piece I’ve ever written. The title doesn't even fit. If you happen to be an English teacher, please don’t grade me. There’s no structure . . . just some thoughts about the best years of my life. I loved teaching!


lob said...

It is wonderful to hear from teachers who love teaching even after they have left it! My oldest son now teaches English at a college and loves teaching composition. I enjoyed your rambling writing style.

Nancy said...

Sandy, My E was an English teacher post too! I do think lots of people go into teaching English because they love literature, but I loved grammar too. I still do. I love to diagram sentences.

Frank 'n' Sandy said...

Thanks, Nancy and lob, for the comments. I dearly loved teaching and consider those 32 years in the classroom the best years of my life. So many of my students are still friends . . . mainly on Facebook. The style surely was rambling! Hope to do better this evening.