I’m taking a class called Composition Pedagogies this semester. Basically, we’re learning about how to teach Freshman or First-Year Composition classes. Well, not so much of how in a day-to-day sense of “this is how the computer system works,” or even “these are the kinds of things you should be teaching.” So far, we’ve been looking at some of the different “big picture” ideas of what Freshman Comp. is for, as in, “what purpose does it serve?” I thought I would have trouble with this, because as a high-school teacher, we’re already told what purpose our classes serve, which is to meet or exceed the state’s pre-determined objectives. I’m learning, though, that within that, there’s still a lot of room for “big picture” ideas, because, since there’s no way to cover every objective (I wish I had a source for this, but someone once told me that they had read an article in which someone had done a time-and-motion study with Oklahoma’s Priority Academic Student Skills, and found that the objectives for Junior English would take 250 clock-hours to teach to mastery, and what we have is 175 50-minute class periods, assuming class isn’t canceled or shortened for a pep assembly or a fire drill or something), teachers have to decide for themselves what is most important for their students to learn.
I believe that the most important skills for my students of any age is argumentation and analysis in writing. I believe this because I didn’t learn how to do it, or how important it was, until I had already received my Bachelor’s Degree in Creative Writing. During the course of my degree, I became so frustrated because I didn’t understand why I wasn’t getting good grades on my essays that I almost dropped out several times, and I only managed to finish because I am more stubborn than any six regular people. My papers constantly came back with comments like, “What’s your point?” and “So what?” and my favorite, “Brilliant, but scattered. Could you try to organize your thoughts a little more next time?” I had absolutely no idea what they were looking for, and no clue even what questions to ask.
I finally learned about analysis and argumentation several years later. I had tagged along to a forensics (speech, drama, and debate) tournament with my mom and dad, who were judging. I went to an Extemporaneous Speaking round with my mom, and she explained how the speeches should be structured: an introduction that gave background on the question, then the question itself and the student’s short answer, then three brief reasons why the student thought that answer was correct; then, the three reasons would be expanded and explained, one at a time; and finally, the student would return to the background and somehow tie the whole speech together. Mom also said, “It’s like a five-paragraph essay that you speak instead of write.” I learned to write a five-paragraph essay back in high school, but I’d never seen it applied to a persuasive essay before – we’d only written informative essays when I was in high school. For the first time, I understood what my professors had meant by all the comments they’d written on my papers. I was at once excited that I finally understood, and desperately angry that no one had ever taught me to do this. From that moment on, my mission in life has been to spread this Gospel to all students I encounter, so that they will never feel as lost, confused, and frustrated as I did as an undergraduate.
I am not alone in believing how crucial this understanding is. The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) list “creating and supporting opinions” as their first goal for writing (link), and they plan to begin teaching what I never learned as early as kindergarten. I think this is wonderful and amazing, but I fear that it won’t happen as much as it should. It’s sad, but I know how easy it is to put a skill on a Curriculum Map that doesn’t ever actually get taught. In any case, I know that the more important the skill, the more opportunities should be provided for reinforcement, and I am excited to be one of the links in that chain of reinforcement someday soon.
So then the first part of my mission statement is: “To teach analysis and argumentative writing skills as transparently as possible to all students.”
For years, I thought that was enough, but today, I want to add a few things. One of my classmates disagrees with my assessment that the rules of argumentation are of prime importance. He wants his students to “think outside the box” and “break as many rules as they can,” so he would rather teach other types of writing. Naturally, I had a big problem with this, but I wasn’t able to articulate it until I had my session with my life coach today (who is awesome and can be found here). She helped me to realize that my insistence on the importance of the rules is more a function of learning my boundaries than anything else. Once I know where my limits are, I will then feel comfortable enough to let my creativity shine through, and that’s what I really want for my students – for them to feel safe enough that they know where they can stretch themselves, and where they shouldn’t (because then their goals won’t be met).
Therefore, my new mission statement is: “To teach the rules and conventions of academic analysis and argumentative writing skills as transparently as possible to all students in the hope that they will learn to use these boundaries as tools to help free their creativity and learn to break rules with purpose rather than out of ignorance.”
For example, we had a discussion in class about whether a student should be allowed to “write” a resume in watercolors. My classmate that I disagree with said, “Absolutely!” because he loved the idea of the student thinking outside the box. I was perhaps a little less tactful than I could have been; I snorted and said, “Then he can kiss that job goodbye.” Someone else fired back with, “Then what would you tell that student?” I said, “I would say, ‘Well, you certainly could, but before you do, let me ask you something: What is the goal of a resume?’ I’m sure the student would say, ‘To help me get a job.’ Then I would say, ‘How does it do that?’ If the student didn’t say something about how it’s usually the first impression a potential boss has of you, and so you want to present yourself as a qualified, competent individual, I would gently guide them there, and then ask, ‘If you wrote your resume in watercolors, would it accomplish the goal of making you look professional?’ At this point, I fully expect the student to say, ‘No, not really.’ Then I would say, ‘So is doing your resume in watercolors probably a good idea?’ The student would probably reply, ‘No, not really.’ What I like the best about this is that I never tell the student not to do it; I let him tell me why it’s not really all that good of an idea by looking at the underlying goals of the assignment they’re trying to circumvent.”
In order for the strategy I’ve just described to work, though, the instructor has to have a really firm grasp over what he or she is trying to do, and what goals he or she is trying to accomplish. For another example, I have often had students come to see me while we were working on argumentative analyses and ask if they could argue both sides of a question. At first, I told them they could, but the essays never ended up the way I was hoping they would. Later on, I didn’t let them do that, and I explained to them that since I wanted to see that they could take a position and defend it with evidence, arguing both sides wouldn’t achieve this purpose. They may not have been thrilled about it, but at least they understood why I was saying no. I suspect that many of my colleagues allow variations in their assignments for no better reason than that they can’t figure out a good reason not to (and I was certainly guilty of this myself at one point, as my example shows), which then makes the teacher frustrated when the finished product doesn’t meet the original goal; and that many others don’t allow the variations but don’t explain why (which makes students upset, and they are somewhat justified in that) because they themselves don’t really understand what the purpose of their own assignment is, which then makes the student frustrated because he or she doesn’t understand what the purpose is either, and the teacher seems unwilling or unable to explain. I hope to lead my students into a greater understanding of the underlying rules of academia so that they will be less frustrated with all their instructors, not just me, because they will be able to figure out on their own what the purposes of assignments are.
This idea, of course, is applicable far beyond school – students will be able to use this experience to determine why anyone (like parents and bosses) is asking them to do anything. Therefore, if they are able to figure out the motivation, they may still not be thrilled and excited to do something, but they will do it anyway because they see the purpose behind it. Alternatively, if they are not able to figure out the purpose, my hope would be that they would be able to ask those kinds of questions politely and respectfully, which may lead to the task being withdrawn, if the parent or boss can’t figure it out either.
Socrates definitely had a point when he said that “The unexamined life is not worth living,” but it’s not enough to tell students this. It’s far, far better to show them how this is true, and I hope my mission statement reflects this more clearly than it did before.