The Humanity

I didn’t say this because I wasn’t sure I should. I’m a teacher, and I’m also a human being.  I know, I know, it’s hard to believe.  First I don’t sleep in my classroom… then this.

People from the National Writing Project don’t ask me to be ashamed of spending time writing.  They softened my attitude toward writing, and myself.  They suggested that the more I wrote, the better I would be able to teach writing to others.  In the world of public education, this is heretical.  Teachers should be grading papers all weekend– not practicing what they preach, right?

I took writing courses in college. The first one usually sent me back to my dorm for a good cry.  The other one bored me to tears.

I still wrote on my own.  Journals, fiction, poems.  I couldn’t stop myself.  But I felt awkward sharing my work, and the process of submitting to journals and magazines was discouraging.

When I started teaching writing to high school students, all I really knew how to do was give assignments and grade them.  Nothing in my education classes covered writing instruction.  During my first Writing Project class, they didn’t tell us how to teach writing.  Instead, we wrote.  We met in an old house that had been converted to a meeting space.  The first time I was asked to read my piece, I wanted to run upstairs and hide in the claw foot bathtub.  I thought I might die.  I didn’t.

With practice, sharing what I wrote was not the same as taking off my clothes.  I realized that I hadn’t charmed anyone with writing since elementary school.  In 3rd grade, I wrote little storybooks for my classmates about the Stuff family.  The Stuffs were little blobs whose chapeau looked suspiciously like those of  the Berenstain Bear family.  I churned out volume after volume for my classmates.  My audience was authentic and receptive.  It made all the difference.

Because my Writing Project colleagues were so open and supportive, I began to think that maybe I could find an authentic receptive audience for my adult writing, too.  They liked my ode to macaroni and cheese, and my serious pieces on teaching.  Maybe I could get things published.  Maybe people could give me helpful suggestions.  Maybe I wasn’t a great writer or a bad one.  Maybe, like most people, I was somewhere in between.  I observed myself as a writer, noticed what I did and what helped me.  I listened to other teachers discuss their writing and how it evolved.  I did my own research about methods of teaching writing.  I was learning to teach writing, not just assign it.

How could I teach my students those things if I didn’t really believe them myself? How could I encourage them to open up when I was so shut down myself?  You can’t teach what you don’t know.

People aren’t multiple choice, and they’re not matching.  Writing addresses their unique human needs, providing the opportunity to reflect and explore and connect. National Writing Project colleagues treated me like a human being.  They empowered me to be more human with my students, and make writing a more authentic and productive part of my classroom.

The National Writing Project has recently been defunded at the federal level, and many of us who have benefitted from their efforts are disheartened.  Taxpayer dollars have been very well spent by this organization, as research has proven, and it deserves continued support.

For more information, see: http://www.nwp.org/cs/public/print/resource/3507

Eating Your Words

There is a difference between kissing and talking about kissing.  There is a difference between dating and marriage (apparently).  And there is a difference between reading and memorizing, which is actually what I’m considering here.

I took my students to a writing workshop last week, and one presenter explained the importance of memorizing poems.  That while reading is critical, memorizing is ownership.  I have a great deal of trouble memorizing.  I read like bulimics eat.  I have trouble slowing down.  I am too impatient to digest.  And even more trouble taking small bites and tasting.  Emily Dickinson helps me with this.  She’s so dense and stingy that she forces my attention.

In high school, I was assigned to memorize Robert Frost’s “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening” and Macbeth’s “sound and fury” soliloquy.  I also memorized Juliet’s “Thou knowest the mask of night is on my face.”  I can’t say it was like pulling teeth.  It was more like trying to shove teeth into your mouth, implant them somewhere up there without a mirror or glue.

I already felt ownership of my language.  My brain waves with iambic pentameter– I grew up on Mother Goose and Protestant hymns.  The smell of English poetry was mine the way Old Spice was my dad.

That kind of ownership is deep stuff, without subtlety or particularity.  With that kind of ownership, I could wax easily about what Shakespeare meant.  I could even write a passage of faux Shakespeare.  I loved writing my own dictionary definitions in 6th grade.  It was much faster than looking them up.  I was never caught.  However, I was caught adding an extra chord to a Mozart piece, and my piano teacher laughed at my insistence on “improving” Mozart.  See, I’m a showoff dilletante.  While I could demonstrate rhythmic and thematic and style understanding, I didn’t own a particular piece.  The generalities were mine and the details swept through my fingers.

My junior English teacher didn’t know or care about my struggle to memorize.  He was just going to sit there with the text while I recited.  (He told us we had to memorize poems so that we wouldn’t go insane if we were trapped in a POW camp.  Funny…and wise.)  There was no way I would screw up an English assignment.  So I shoved Frost and Shakespeare into my mouth, piercing word by word.  I recited to the shower tile.  I recited to the popcorn popping on the stove.  After fifty repetitions, I still got lost and substituted words and mixed up phrases.  I kept going.

Memorizing gives words a sensuality that reading cannot.  Reading once, even reading aloud, you can’t feel the words in your mouth the same way you do when they are memorized.  And the difference is commitment:  time and tenderness toward each sound.

The poems are still there as much as my teeth are– drilled out and refilled, and five of them just gone.  It is good to be able to run your tongue over them, occasionally.  Several times, I’ve silenced students by setting aside the textbook and doing the Juliet speech myself.  I’m not a great performer.  It doesn’t show that I understand Shakespeare.  It just shows is that I own a little of Shakespeare, and I hope it shows that he is affordable.