by ALISTAIR BOMPHRAY
Wanted to share with you all an excerpt from Linda Christensen’s poignant article, “Teaching for Joy and Justice,” from the most recent Rethinking Schools. I don’t typically like to excerpt things this long, but here Christensen earns a rare exception. She touches upon one of the central dilemmas of teaching, while offering a vision of education in which both parties, student and teacher, can feel a little better about themselves (and I mean legitimately feel better—not some kind of cheap, white-lie-induced lovefest, like when you tell your brother’s 5-year-old kid you love his drawing when you and he both know it’s bush league even by grade school standards).
My student Jerald taught me the importance of searching for a student’s talents instead of lining up his writing in the crosshairs of my weapon—a red pen. Jerald entered my classroom years behind his grade level. One day he sat at the computer behind my desk working on a piece of writing—a narrative, an imaginative story, I can’t remember. Jerald knew how to write stories and essays in the big ways that matter. He knew how to catch the reader-listener by creating characters and dialogue so real and funny or tragic that we leaned in when he read his pieces out loud. And the boy could out-argue anyone, so essays were a matter of lassoing and reining in a thesis and lining up his arguments. Jerald had been kicked out of most of his classes, so he came to my class about four times a day. He was placed in special education, and clearly, Jerald lacked the conventional skills that mark literacy—sentences, spelling, paragraphs—but he didn’t lack intelligence.
One morning during my prep period, I decided that I would teach Jerald how to punctuate. I printed out his piece where verbs not only didn’t agree, they argued. And Jerald, depending on his mood, either loved the comma or left it out completely. So on this day, I was determined that I would teach him where the periods and capitals went once and for all. “Come here, Jerald,” I said. “Let’s go over your paper. I want to show you how to correct your punctuation.” I bent over his dot-matrix print-out and covered it with cross-outs, marks, and arrows.
When I looked up, Jerald, instead of hovering, pulled away from me, from his paper. He looked at me as if I had betrayed him. I had become every teacher he’d had over the years, the ones who told him what he couldn’t do instead of showing him what he knew and understood about writing. Instead of telling him how beautiful his writing was, instead of finding what worked in his piece, I found every single thing that was wrong.
Ultimately, students like Jerald taught me to teach the writer, not the paper. Locating his brilliance doesn’t mean that I ignore what needs to be fixed in his writing, but I start the conversation in a different place, and I measure my critique. I show him one or two things he needs to develop in order to become a more competent essay or narrative writer. With each piece, I teach him a bit more about punctuation or grammar. He doesn’t have to learn everything in one draft. If we write frequently enough, he can practice and improve his writing, one essay, one narrative, one poem at a time.
If you want to read the rest of Christensen’s article, here’s the link: http://www.rethinkingschools.org/archive/23_04/joy234.shtml
Can I get an amen? I can’t tell you how often I’ve felt that tension between creating a positive classroom environment where students of all abilities feel valued and the other very real concern of dear-God-this-kid-can’t-write-a-sentence-to-save-his-life-and-it-is-my-moral-and-professional-obligation-to-teach-him-right-freakin’-now.
It is no fun to mark the hell out of some kid’s paper with a red pen (some teachers will argue, that’s why I do it with a green pen, as if kids were that easy to psychologically manipulate), and it’s no fun for said kid to receive said marked-up-to-hell paper. No fun + no fun = a really shitty time had by all.
I’m not saying education has to be fun all of the time. It shouldn’t be. Learning should, on occasion, be hard. As in, it’s hard to write a good paper. It’s hard to read dense historical texts. It’s hard to solve a geometric proof. I’m just saying it shouldn’t be joyless—no matter the content’s relative level of difficulty. Or we risk losing our students completely.