February 17, 2016

Teaching Writing, Questions

I met with a student yesterday before class who left me feeling at a loss.  I am struggling, yet again, to set realistic expectations when it comes to writing.

The student came to me wanting to make sure he understood what I was asking in an upcoming essay.  After we had worked together to clarify and develop a strategy to complete the assignment, we had a few minutes to talk.  “Who are you?”  I asked.  “I mean, when you’re not at school, what’s your life like?”

Like so many at UMass Boston, the student is “non-traditional.” He’s probably in his forties. Emigrated as a teen to Cape Verde from Angola with his parents. Married and had two children in Cape Verde, came to the US, served in the military, brought his wife and kids over, has worked in law enforcement for decades. He puts in 70 hours a week in his job and has one child in a Boston Public “exam” school (competitive entrance) and the other in a private school. He knows five languages; his spoken and written English are rough. Unlike many I teach, he  is an incisive thinker and is unfailingly prepared when he is in class. And he is always in class. When I asked him what “year” he is, he responded by telling me he doesn’t think in terms of “years.” He thinks in terms of courses. He has eight courses left until he earns his undergraduate degree. Taking two courses a semester, he will be on track to graduate in the next couple of years.

After the student left my office, I began to second-guess myself.  I give lots of feedback to students on even short assignments. I ask them to pay attention to grammar, sentence structure, verb tenses, and word choice.  I expect them to proof read, and if they don’t, I ask them to revise and resubmit. I insist students move from summary to abstract analysis, and I ask them to cite with precision. Am I asking too much? How would I fare were I working more than full time, raising children, and commuting to a campus to earn a degree?

These questions woke me at 4 A.M.  I was filled with a sense of overwhelming shame as I imagined how hard many (but not all) of my students are trying to get ahead. I don’t want to be condescending. I don’t want to lower expectations to the point that students aren’t making genuine progress on writing, either, which I continue to believe essential. Why essential?  If students can’t analyze text, can’t formulate actual thoughts in writing, then how well can they handle bank loans, elections, job applications? Don’t these students deserve to be taught how to express themselves eloquently? Should the ability to craft a sentence belong only to the American elite?

Teaching writing takes time. Learning to write takes time. What to do when students’ most precious possession is time?

More questions than answers this morning.