Tag Archives: teaching writing

Tea time

Stella wrote: What I wish is to sit around a kitchen table with a small group of women, drinking tea, and have long discussions about just such things as you’ve posted about – I miss that so much – I suppose blog/comments exchanges are the next best thing.

Oh, that sounds so lovely. I think that’s what I like about blogging, the conversations that sometimes happen spontaneously over an idea thought through in a post. These days, though, I’m feeling guilty because I’ve hardly had a chance to read my favorite blogs. I drop in, then think I’ll come back and comment, and I don’t. I’ve been rushing, with a particularly busy quarter at work, and the Monologues (0ver now), and just trying to keep up with life.

I’m brain dead. This is one of those posts that says nothing, does nothing except give a glimpse into my life. I caught up on the laundry today, for the first time in weeks. I’ve been living out of piles of clothes tossed on the bed and then into the basket which is wedged in the corner, and then back onto the bed. The floor has been covered in dog hair and dust and tracked in mud. My car has been a disaster area. But yesterday I cleaned the car, and today I got a good run at the house, and tomorrow is a day I have to settle in and get caught up at work. I have a reference letter to write for a student, a college application paper to read for another student, the rest of my syllabus for Victorian and 20th Century lit to finish, an exam to write, and a report to write for the English department. And I have to finish reading the Virginia Woolf essays I assigned for this week, which I haven’t read since the last time I taught the class, something like 10 years ago.

And I’m tired after the energy expended on rehearsing for and performing in the Monologues. But I’ve managed to blog fairly regularly despite this difficult quarter, and doing so was one of my goals, so I’m happy.

Oh, and Stella’s comment reminded me of where I went to undergraduate school, an alternative hippie college without grades, where we studied in programs instead of individual classes, and learning was very much a time of talking over tea, of deep discussions in seminars, and then in individual cluster contracts, and because there were no grades, we never had to jump through hoops (at least, it never felt like it). I remember my first visit to the campus, when I walked into the women’s restroom and eavesdropped on a conversation about Dada and Nietzsche and war and nihilism, and thought, “This is it! This is where I’m going.” I was used to the loos in the community college I’d been attending: “Hey, are you going to so-and-so’s party tonight? God, I got so wasted last night. And did you hear, Dingbat’s pregnant again.” I wanted real conversations, literature, art, philosophy. I wanted to grapple with difficult ideas, to argue, to disagree and discover. And my undergraduate college gave me all that — and then some.

This post is going nowhere, and it’s OK. I’m not going to edit or shape it or press it into respectability. I do not wish to be respectable. I am thinking of confession again, and of my discomfort with it, of how hard it was to audition for the Monologues. (It took me seven years). I am thinking of how frustrated I am that Zeke gets away with texting in class in high school, and with doing math homework in global perspectives and global perspectives homework in choir. I am thinking of how I could NEVER be a high school teacher, because I would do inappropriate things like kick my students out of class if I caught them being so disrespectful. Yet I would feel continual nagging guilt as I watched them walk out: If I am not keeping their attention, their absence of interest is a failing in me rather than them.

One of my colleagues lets the students surf when they’re in the lab and she’s talking. I was observing her and the tic-tic of the keyboard, the click-click of the mouse, the flashes in my peripheral vision as a new website loaded — these all drove me nuts. I was distracted the whole class. “If I’m not holding their attention,” she said, “then that’s my problem.” But how can we? Really? They’re used to texting and talking and keyboarding and iPoding all at the same time. Their attention flicks from TV to computer to PDA to iPhone. They pull white earbuds out of one ear to respond to a parent’s question. Am I old-fashioned to insist on them turning off the technology and looking forward to the doc-cam where we are discussing the strengths of a student paper? Am I old-fashioned to insist on respect for each other? Not just me. Each other. Surely doing six different things at once is disrespectful. It is the opposite of sitting down at tea, and looking at each other, and really listening.

Last day… loving students

I wrote the following on the last day of class. For some reason I never published it. So here it is, three weeks or so late!


Reading final papers is always interesting. It’s the moment when I get a sense of whether or not what I’ve done over the quarter has been worthwhile. In my 70 class, which is two classes below collegel level, I tried a different approach, and wasn’t so happy. I don’t think the final papers were as good as I’d have liked them to be, but a couple of students wrote well, and as always I learned something. One student, working on his draft, wrote the following sentence about a fire that had almost destroyed his home:

“Then the police officer took me to the back of my house. There he found a graffiti that read F*** You Scrap 187 with a seventeen being crossed out. Scrap is a word used to insult the set we claimed. By crossing out the 17 is how the rivals disrespect your numbers.”

He was a former gang member. (OK, for some inexplicable reason WordPress has changed my font, and I don’t know how to change it back!) The fire, set by rivals, which came close to killing family members, had been targeted at him personally (17 was his gang number). At the moment he saw the words on the back of his gutted house, he realized how destructive his life style was. Now he is back in school, sitting quietly in the back of the class, taking notes, smiling shyly when I call on him to read. He tells me he read Monster by Walter Dean Myers, and that it changed his life. (It’s now on my list to read. I love to learn more about my students.)

Given where I live, his story is not uncommon. In the developmental classes, where I ask for more personal writing, I hear stories of gang membership, drive by shootings, initiation rituals. I’ve seen scars from bullet wounds, met the babies of young girls who left the gangs when they found out they were pregnant, read one paper that began, “Most people have firefighters or police officers as their heroes, and if that’s what their dads are, they’re proud. I was proud of my dad too, but he wasn’t a fire fighter. He was the leader of one of the biggest gangs in L.A., and I wanted to be just like him.”

Sometimes I see these students for one quarter, and then they disappear into other English classes, or they drop out, or they transfer. Sometimes I follow them as they pass through some or all of my classes, and watch them mature and change, and eventually graduate. When I read their stories, I feel privileged to know that I’ve been a small part of what gave them the courage and confidence to continue in the face of the odds that would have stopped many less determined people.