Here are some numbers to consider for the end of the semester. I asked 140 IB English students to turn in their logs, into which they have composed over the last 4 weeks anywhere between 20 and 30 pages of response to the readings we’ve done out of The Best American Essays of the Century. Let’s just take the lower number for shits and giggles, do a little math, and say that my IB English students turned in at least 2,800 pages of writing for me to peek at. I also asked that same group of 140 students to write their own 1000 word essay on a topic of their choice inspired by one or more of the mentor texts from the anthology. Let’s say, that at 12 point Times and double spaced, that’s about a 3 page paper. So there’s an additional 420 pages of student work they have gifted me. And let’s say, for a final exam, students will be writing a draft of what will become an oral presentation in the first weeks of second semester about their growth as writers during our first semester course in Creative Non-fiction. I imagine that over the course of an 87 minute final exam that these go-getters will be able to carve up another 140,000 words, or another 420 pages of text, which brings my whopping total number of pages of student work that I must now DO SOMETHING WITH up to an impressive, daunting, fever-inducing, gut-wrenching, weep-worthy 3,640 pages! And guess what? Those 140 students producing all of that beautiful prose represent only 4 of my 6 classes. What are the 60 kids in those other two classes doing for a final? Well, of course, they’re writing! And grades are due in about a week’s time.
Hello, my name is Michael Jarmer, and I’m a complete idiot for assigning so much written work at the end of the semester.
No. I can’t let that stand. I would only be an idiot if I read every single word and every single page and tried to comment on all of it. That would be ludicrous. That would be physically, logistically, humanly impossible. That would drive me certifiably insane and wreck my life. So I am writing this little blog entry today to articulate finally a philosophy of teaching writing that might help my students or their parents or anyone who’s interested understand why I do what I do. It might also help colleagues in the profession, especially teachers of English, survive the math that has become the central most difficult aspect of working in an underfunded public school system.
I believe in the deepest possible way, at the core of my core, that human beings become better writers by reading and writing. Beyond anything I could ever tell a student about their writing in the margins with my little red pen, their learning about what great writers do (and what they as emerging writers can do) will ONLY come through close attention to the very best writing they can find, and through repeated, concentrated, sustained, uber-conscious efforts to practice those moves.
You may have some questions.
What do English teachers do, then, and why do we need them? We’re tour guides, essentially. And we all know how great the tour can be in the hands of a really great guide. We try to be really good at that. We model inquisitiveness and curiosity and enthusiasm about the written word. We introduce readings to young people that they would not likely ever find left to their own devices. And we trust students to find their own way after we’ve led them down the path. There are some English teachers who cart papers home with them every weekend. I’m not one of them.
What about bad writing or persistent errors that never get corrected? There may be some of those. Oh well. When the writing REALLY matters, however, and when the reading is careful and close, those errors will diminish over time. I don’t know that in my own personal experience as a writer I ever improved as the result of some punishment meted out (in the guise of a depleted grade or a smattering of red marks) for errors I made in my writing.
What about bad writing that ends up earning a passing grade or better? This may also happen from time to time, or even often. But this is what we have to understand. Writing is hard. Writing well is really hard. Some students, to say nothing about their intelligence, struggle mightily with the written word. We take them where they are and we push them as far forward as we can with lots of practice, experiences with masters of the craft, and lots of encouragement.
Doesn’t this make it easier for students to cheat? Because I did not read every page of those 2,800 pages in their response journals, it is highly possible that some students copied their entries verbatim directly out of another student’s log. First of all, what a pain in the ass that would be. And how embarrassing, too, to say to a friend, in essence, I’m a tool, I can’t do my own work, would you let me “borrow” your log? And how embarrassing for the friend, to give in to that kind of pressure, to lower herself by giving her hard work away. For what? Out of what impulse? Guilt? Kindness? Desperation for approval? All are shams. The parties who collude in the cheating–they both lose. They are both cheating themselves out of learning. They’ve been punished already by the stunting of their brains, whether I’m able to catch them or not. Plagiarizing an essay is exceedingly more difficult. I make them write these babies in class.
Would I do things differently if I did not have nearly 200 students on my roster? Hell, yes. It’s not that I believe that teacher feedback is never useful, only that it’s not the most useful, and in our current climate nearly impossible. The kind of feedback from teachers that is most helpful to a writer is the kind of feedback that’s most like a conversation. Once upon a time I taught 125 students. I could sit down with them and talk. I could write them a note and I often did. I’ve never been a fan of line-editing student work, but sitting down with a student one on one and addressing a few key issues in their writing was a real boon; or being able to write individual letters to students where I could get beyond technical issues and talk about big ideas–that was phenomenal.
My school had a visit last week from an Oregon State Legislator who represents our district. It’s the first time that’s ever happened, at least in my sometimes fuzzy memory over 24 years of teaching. And he wanted to chat with us about our current state of the school. Teachers in my building shared thoughtful and sometimes carefully prepared descriptions of their professional lives. He listened respectfully. Most everything that was said made me sad. And nothing he could say to us provided much comfort or hope. I didn’t speak, but others spoke eloquently for me about concerns I share. But what I’ve explored in this rather long blog entry, I think, is really about this: I’ve managed to make some sound pedagogical decisions about how to grow stronger writers, but I also know in my heart that I’m not giving them the attention they deserve. I understand, coupled with the idea that students get better at reading and writing primarily by reading and writing, that if I had the time to look at their work more closely and have meaningful conversations with them about that work, things would be much better, perhaps infinitely so. Class size matters. Student load matters. It matters, if not immediately and measurably in student performance, most definitely and palpably in the work environment or conditions for the teacher. I don’t read all or even half of what my students write because it would not be humane to expect me to do so.