Reading Student Writing
This is the second entry I have made on this blog today. I have not posted my first entry on this main page. It was a bit too personal. If you want a glimpse into my personal space and its connection with my theme here, you can go to this page.
Yesterday, I finished Lad Tobin’s book, Reading Student Writing. I’m surprised that I waited this long to read it. I told Lad in an email that I resisted reading Student Writing when it first came out because I knew from other blurbs what was going to be in it, and I was jealous that Lad had written it before I did.
I’m glad I got over my jealousy and read Lad’s book—it was like reading another side of myself. Lad moves more toward the psychoanalytic and more deeply personal than I do, but nevertheless, here’s what we know about teaching writing: when teachers and students are enjoying what they are doing in the classroom, students will learn more, retain more, and very likely want to keep learning long after the class is done. I think of the narrator’s description of Gus in Deadman’s Walk. It was something like, “Gus was convinced that he had been put here to enjoy himself.”
I think the same thing about teaching and learning. The good times in life and in the classroom need, however, in some sense to be structured; one has to do more than move from one good time to another—I’m referencing Dewey here and his theory of scaffolding. In a writing class, we need good times and a sense of moving forward. With the right attitude, we can even discipline ourselves to engage in difficult projects, get involved in the overall sense of the game with some hard innings because we have learned to love the game.
With Lad, I am surprised (and quite frankly, fascinated) by resistance to playful teaching by teachers who for whatever reason think they need to be hard, give hard assignments, be hard graders, who haven’t discovered the fun in teaching writing.
Something weird is going on here. Are we in a new wave of Engfish, fake writing, junk? A friend of mine recently reviewed an article in which the writer seriously argued for “antecedent” writing—writing before writing, writers going through the motions of researching, organizing, and writing, writing that wasn’t real writing. Really. The Research Paper reborn. The writer’s logic had something to do with misplaced notions of transfer. I’m thinking of the logic behind Castor Oil.
Dewey claims that if we can’t make our field interesting enough so that students will engage in the learning process for the pleasure of learning, then we are misteaching. Dan Pink gave a TED talk in which he examined the mysteries of motivation. His message should be no surprise: extrinsic motivation (like money and grades) are highly inefficient for long-term learning. People learn more when they are learning from the inside out; they are also more likely to be life-long learners.
If teachers want their students to enjoy writing (and I’m deeply suspicious of any teacher who would not embrace this goal), they have only to follow a few simple rules, the rules that Lad and I share. First, it’s an old saw that what the students write, the teacher should write. Adhering to this dictum, teachers might construct their writing tasks with the following criterion: give assignments that you know your students (and you) will enjoy writing, reading, and responding to.
If we don’t start reading the essays as soon as students have turned them in, we gave the wrong kind of assignment. If we don’t look forward to reading our students’ essays as if they were novels, we are wasting our time as teachers and our students’ time in the classroom. We haven’t realized why we were put here.