Undoing

My summer program ended yesterday and I’ve begun to read reflections about the class, the final assignment students write. These reflections reaffirm many of the things I know to be true about myself: that I’m initially imposing, that I’m relatively harsh, that I love what I do, that I love my students.

Eventually, we reach a place of peace, but the 4-5 weeks that are required to get there are usually fraught with under-the-breath swears (and I’m sure they’re quite colorful, as adolescents have lovely vocabularies in that regard) and worries about passing the course.

For the most part, they all do pass. I tell them I’m not necessarily concerned with how they start, but how they finish. It’s not rocket science, I continue. If you buy into the class, if you commit to being excellent, then we’ll work together to be excellent. And you might just become a great writer, or at least start down the path to being a great writer.

In this course, excellence requires revision: lots of it. It’s a near constant process. Thing is, once the kids begin revising and pass the paper, some ask what they can do to achieve an exceeds. Those conversations are some of the best, because then they are about word choice, about sentence variety, about punctuation…those conversations are about what real writers do.

But I don’t have those conversations with everyone; for the most part, they are generally worried about meeting expectations, which, I’ve suspected for a couple of years but now confirmed, is difficult because I’m undoing.

Undoing, in this respect, means breaking them outside of what they are accustomed to. No formulas, no minute details about what goes where in what paragraph. I didn’t realize how much that freaked them out until so many of them wrote about it in their reflections. They said that initially they were concerned by so much freedom (WTH? As a writer–even an academic writer–I relish freedom), that that freedom caused them so much panic that it led to inertia (seriously, they couldn’t get started)…

But once they began to just write, they surprised themselves. Most importantly, they found themselves. Here’s a snippet from one kid who knows the formulas for essays in his sleep. He didn’t know what to do with me because I challenged him to find himself in his writing, to leave those formulas in the past. He wrote about, essentially, wearing a mask as a writer, that allowed him to detach and write perfectly functional but emotionally devoid essays:

A poker face that said nothing, had nothing to say, and could not say anything on his own. Why? I remember you telling me that I should try personalizing my essay, try to change from  using the traditional formulas for essays. And now I see why, because I can remember the times in eighth grade when I felt proud of everything I wrote. It was not just the satisfaction of finishing my essays, but also the joy of writing my own essay. An essay that was all from me, no one else’s. Originality, they call it.

[My reflection] and the Literature Appreciation Essay are great examples of the improvement I have made. I tried to refresh my style in papers that give me the opportunity to do so. I think that it would be the ideal way for me to change, step after step, like a turtle. Although I have made changes such as using the dictionary and thesaurus more, changing my sentence structure, using punctuation marks and separating or combining sentences, I think that the poker face now sitting somewhere else than my own face is a more significant change. It just makes me happy to know that I can now, after all, write things that I can be proud of writing, that I can be happy writing.

I might be a sentimentalist, and I might just be overwhelmed with packing up my apartment for my impending move and endings in general, but this reflection gets at what I work really hard to undo, or, actually, what I’m realizing is a process of undoing.

If we teach kids to write so well in these formulas, how do they ever know how to break them? How do they ever know what their voice is? How will they ever know how writing can work for different purposes? I’m not such a fool to believe that kids will love writing, but at least I would like for them to know in their bones that they can do it, in whatever form, and be good at it.

I have been so complicit in promoting the formulas when I first began teaching 10 years ago. What changed was that I had to write a lot in graduate school and I became much more aware of my own processes and desire to write for an audience that mattered. If I was bored, then my audience was sure to be bored, too (another gem I tell the kids: don’t bore me).

Don’t kids deserve that chance, too?

I know this summer class is just that, a summer class for high achieving students, many of color, some not, all low-income and all of promise. And if these kids are writing like this, then that does not bode well for the ones who are not here.

But I end knowing that we have to change the writing instruction we do with students. We have to teach them that what they have to say matters, and what they have to say doesn’t fit within a structure. Sure, structure is important and certain tasks demand a particular response, but if that response is all we train kids to do, we are committing a tremendous disservice: to them, but also to ourselves. I simply cannot stomach that.

In that move towards helping and convincing students, really, that their voices matter, they get it.

One final piece from another reflection: Kim’s class was not the regular class that I expected. It did not teach us how to write based on lectures and long talks. We learned from our own writing and mistakes, both inside and outside of class. She taught us that we can learn from ourselves.

I feel like I don’t even know what regular means at this point in my career. I know what teaching writing looks like in this context, and I know what helping kids find their voices and produce excellent pieces of writing looks like. I simply wish more teachers (and I know they’re out there) could do the same.

There’s more to writing than formulas. Now, at least, some kids know that. And while they’re writing in their classes over the next year, they’ll know what else they could be doing and how they could be doing it, and perhaps they’ll take some risks, break the formula, and be commended for writing themselves into their papers.

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