Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Getting Naked in Class

I teach writing at a career university where English isn’t offered as a major, but all the students must have some English composition courses in order to graduate. A lot of them don’t really like to write. They haven’t read a lot. When they do write, it is often in “text-speak.” And yet most of them understand that writing well is important for their future careers so they come to class with their writing utensils and notebooks.

One of the things I do is give them in-class writing assignments to give them a little writing practice and sometimes to help them create a personal connection to the reading assignments. So they write for ten minutes and then everyone shares what they wrote. They are allowed one pass so that if they have written something they don’t want to share, they don’t have to. On the other hand, I don’t encourage not sharing. Most of them, it turns out, are more than willing to read aloud what they’ve written. And this is where they always blow my mind, taking my preconceptions and turning them inside out. And I do the same to them. We engage in a little transformative writing.

Last week, the in-class writing assignment I gave them was this: write about something (or someone) in your life who shaped the person you are now -- or the person you are in the process of becoming. A simple assignment really. Innocuous even. But the stories, one after the other, of betrayal by parents, or sacrifice by parents, or friends who have destroyed their own lives poured out. And as they did so, they transformed in front of my eyes. I knew their names. I knew where they were from. But I had no idea who they really were. Until they stood up and told just a small piece of their story.

Will was the first one to volunteer to read his in-class writing assignment. He told us that when he was in middle school his mother got breast cancer. He described how she had told him about her diagnosis and how devastated he had been when he learned he might lose his mother. He had to go to school on the day of her surgery. When he asked his Spanish teacher if he could leave the class to find out if she’d come out of it okay, the teacher told him no. “I got up and left anyway. No Spanish test was more important than my mom.” His mother had survived the surgery and in fact survived the cancer, but he told us that this event had taught him to cherish the people he loved and had changed his life.

It’s easy to feel superior to your students when you are a teacher. You know a whole lot about your topic and they know very little. But when you hear about the hardships they have overcome just to come to college or when you learn about the love they have for a family member or a friend, when they tell you about the rejection, the anger, the pain, the joy in their lives, then you can no longer feel superior to them. Instead, I look on them with awe and admiration.

Because I don’t think it’s fair to ask my students to do something I wouldn’t do myself, I write my own response to the assignment in the ten minutes, and I stand up and share with them. I told one class about being abandoned by the father of my child when I was three months pregnant, and how that led to my going to graduate school to get a Ph.D. I told another class about how I partied too much instead of going to college right after high school and didn’t get serious about my education until I was 25. I talked about how my teachers (even the one who came to class drunk) helped shape me. So just as I saw them as more like me, they saw me as more like them or like people they knew. We took off our masks and momentarily transformed into our authentic selves -- our naked selves.

WIY (write it yourself): What is something that happened in your life that shaped who you are or who you are in the process of becoming? Take ten minutes. It’s easy. Then share it with someone else.

1 comment:

  1. This is worth remembering, if you're an English teacher starting off on ONE MORE FREAKIN SEMESTER OF COMPOSITION 101. If you're tired of reading 18-year-olds' opinions about world events, maybe you can do something about it. This is a great way to get students to think abow writing in a more interesting way.