I have been writing and thinking about my career as a writing teacher, interspersed with email correspondences, playing hooky by glancing (promising myself they will be only glances) at the WPA-l and the NCTE Leaning & Teaching Forum. These three activities plus my current read of The Rhetoric of Pleasure have occasioned some uncomfortable reflections that kept me awake last night.
I have a kind of push-pull in my psyche, leading, I think to a certain kind of blindness to what I see in others but can’t see in myself–unless I start to think about it when I can’t get to sleep.
I’ve been teaching for a long time in a variety of teaching situations. I started to learn how to teach writing when I first worked with the Bay Area Writing Project in 1977. I have been learning ever since. There have been some bad moments, maybe even bad years, but overall, this has been a beautiful life. I know I have enjoyed teaching writing because by and large, I have adhered to the four rules I have at the top of this blog. I learned to lean in this direction with some of my friends from BAWP (missing Miles Myers), but also from my students and with a large lift from James Moffett.
Anyone reading this blog and my WPA rants knows that I think grading student writing is not a very good way of teaching writing. I haven’t been grading student writing for about forty years. Well, I did try it for about one semester sometime in the early 80s, but it just seemed silly to me. I also learned–particularly as a high school teacher with five classes averaging 35 students per class–how to get students to circulate their writing, writing, reading, and writing back and forth to each. I thought and still think that writing should be fun, as it usually is for me. And I think writers should write about what matters to them and to their readers of which I am one (certainly the one with the power of the grade and a bit more knowledge & experience): but I am one, not THE one. And finally, I think students should work in a variety of genres, but they should work from the inside out, from the specific to the general and then back again, Moffett called this playing the universe of discourse.
I think I know a few other things: like I should write with my students and get my essays in the stack, and I should always look for feedback from them about what is and isn’t working in our class. And that they should have a challenging and positive experience in our writing course. Wrap it all up, and that’s about what I know about teaching writing.
Here are the horns of the dilemma–that one that kept me up last night. I think I’m right. I of course have some support from others who have followed John Dewey, one of my first great influences. But I also have a lot of friends in our rhetoric and writing community who basically think I’m crazy; others who think, you have a point, but . . . “
In those moments when I can’t sleep, I think I close myself off too much from hearing others, from opening up a space for others to present themselves in this wide universe of understanding. I know there are so many different ways to help our students negotiate the world of writing. I know in the writing programs I have directed that the best way of directing is allowing space for teachers to teach in the way they know best. The same is quite obviously true for our student writers.