A Rhetoric for Writing Teachers

I have a Masters in English Literature, so I should really be teaching a class on my favorite books in African-American or Southwestern Lit.  But I don’t teach classes in literature; I teach developmental writing — two very different subjects of study.

So, I am in the process of learning how to teach writing in the most effective way (it’s harder than you think).  This is why I’ve just finished A Rhetoric for Writing Teachers by Erika Lindemann.

This book covers theory (creating a paradigm for how and why to teach writing); practical methods for teaching every aspect of writing; and a history of rhetoric, linguistics, cognition, and the “composition” class, which was extremely illuminating.  Did you know that the ubiquitous (and in my opinion limiting) five-paragraph essay comes from a strange transformation of Aristotle’s four and Cicero’s six views on how to structure on argument?

I learned much from this book — mostly that I’m not structuring my class in the best way.  I focus too much on errors and not enough on improving an individual writer’s strengths.

I only teach one class in addition to my full-time job, so I, fortunately, can afford to experiment.  Next semester, I will try to implement some of what I’ve learned, especially the idea of writing more in class, structuring assignments step-by-step, focusing less on errors and more on different and effective ways to create sentences. I might not even use a textbook — simply show the students writing from professionals in magazines and books and also previous student writing in my class.

As a new-to-teaching-writing instructor, I’d recommend this book to anyone who teaches writing, particularly at the college level, but also to experienced teachers who have always taught in one way (grammar drills – which research has shown to be an ineffective way of teaching students how to use grammar correctly in writing).  Perhaps it’s time for a change.

Wish me luck as I design a new course for next semester!

I’m hoping to read Errors and Expectations by Mina Shaughnessy next, but I have to wait to buy new books in April.  I already used up my book budget this month!

Do any of you writing teachers have recommendations for other books I could read to make me a better writing teacher?

My Creative Writers

I’m sorry that my prolificness (yes, I just made up that word) has waned.  Spring Break afforded me lots of time to write, but this week — not so much.  Now that I’m writing again, I thought I would present you with some thoughts about the writers I work with everyday.

I teach the most basic writing course our community college offers.  These students, most of them, have been out of school for twenty years, or just graduated high school and didn’t learn how to write the first time around.

For some reason, in college, if a student can’t write it means they are stupid (not what I think, but what I unfortunately hear frequently).  If a student can’t write in grade school, it is the failure of the teacher.  I think the truth lies somewhere between the two, but the problem my students have is that they believe both explanations whole-heartedly.  They think they are stupid and that no one cares enough to really show them how to write.

I do my best to disabuse my students of both these ideas.  One thing I do is offer a journal assignment where they can write whatever they want.  Some of my students tell me things in their journals that they won’t tell anyone else, or perhaps have no one else to tell.  Some take this opportunity to write a poem or think through a problem.  My students are not stupid; they are writers, struggling to find a voice in a world that tries to shut them up.

Here’s a gem from a recent journal:

“Writing is about telling a story that has not been told.  Writing is about treasures found like Diamonds, Rubies, and Gold.  Writing is the recording of great events.  Writing is of a night spent.  Writing is of the Nobel Prize.  Writing is excitement to the readers eyes.  Writing is the tale of foe and fame, and if you are good writing will give you a name.” – By one of my awesome developmental writing students

I hope what they learn in my class is that writing is not about rules, but about freeing the words and ideas that have gone unspoken until now.