Teaching Matters! Podcasts!

I would like to introduce Teaching Matters! A series of podcasts by the Resource Center staff of the Writing Program, here at UMass Amherst. Here you will hear 4-6 teachers talk about their own experiences teaching first-year writing. Each podcast is focused on a specific issue–preparation and lesson-planning, teacher persona, and diversity in the classroom.

Give it a listen!


The Balancing Act

The start of the new year and the balancing act begins. We are teachers, but we have other “lives” as well — graduate studies, scholary work, families, etc.

How do we balance all these lives?


What are others saying about how to teach writing?

As a teacher of composition I struggle with how best to teach writing. As a fiction writer who teaches College Writing I struggle with the ways we (the academy) categorize writing –creative writing usually means poetry and fiction, composition usually means non-fiction expository writing. However, as writers and teachers of writing we all know these lines are blurred and become blurred in our classrooms regardless of the type of writing we are teaching. This month the Atlantic Monthly is also raising these questions in a forum called “Why American Students Can’t Write”. See what a range of guest panelists have to say and feel free to post your own thoughts here.

P.S. One of the Atlantic Monthly’s guest panelists is Dorothea Lasky, UMass Writing Program and MFA Alum!

Error Gone Right

I made a mistake in my class. It wasn’t a big mistake, but it was a mistake. This semester I’m teaching an experimental writing class. Like all classes I teach, I have a notebook where I write out my lesson plans and notes for the course.  I keep these notebooks so that I can refer to them the next time I teach the course. Now I’m going to be honest. I don’t always write out the most detailed lesson plans, but at the very least I do write down the plan for the day, particularly the order of how things will go and a loose time frame to keep me on track. So for the first day of my experimental class, here is what I wrote down in my book:

Introductions (introduce one another, recommend a movie)
Go over syllabus & course
Postcard exercise
Write 20-25 mins. read aloud,
Maybe take break before read aloud?
Label – maybe in pairs? maybe in three?
Pass out poems –begin talking about genre
Explain homework – turn postcard ex into another genre

So the first day of the semester I went to class, opened my teaching book and began. I introduced myself, went over the roster, and passed out the syllabus.  I talked about the course, about the writing we would be doing, what the grading policy would be for this pass/fail course. Then we began our first writing exercise.  We all wrote and then we began the process of reading our pieces out loud.
I like beginning a writing class like this. I think it sets the tone for the type of writing community I want to foster—a community where we write together and share our work.  I also like to use what I call the postcard exercise—I have a box of postcards that I throw on the table, ask each student to select three postcards and then generate a piece of writing that incorporates all three.  I like to begin with this exercise because it reinforces one of the basic assumptions for any writing class that I teach—there is no right way to do an assignment and part of the assignment is negotiating how to do the exercise. Asking the students to read out loud what they have written also helps to break the ice. All their voices get entered into our classroom space on the very first day.  This also gives me the opportunity to show the students that I mean what I say. As they go around and read their pieces I say something to validate each piece. (Just a note this isn’t hard or by any means a stretch. I have done this exercise many semesters with many different students and every writer does something surprising, interesting, beautiful, and great. I am also constantly amazed at how many different ways students find to create a piece of writing out of three random postcards.)
As usual when we begin to read what we had written I reminded the students to say their names so we could begin the process of learning everyone’s names. Everyone did, but as we went around the circle I had the nagging feeling that I had forgotten something. It wasn’t until we took our break and I looked down at my teaching book that I realized that I had forgotten to have the students introduce themselves. I introduced myself to them, but I forgot to have them introduce themselves to one another! What an idiot! I thought to myself.  All this talk about building a writing community and I forgot to do the most basic part—have them introduce themselves! Looking down at my teaching book I had to decide quickly. I could skip the introductions and just continue on with the class. That way I wouldn’t look like the absent-minded professor in front of them. I could do the introductions and pretend that was the plan all along, but they might think it was odd since as upperclassmen they know the routine of these small classes. Or I could just fess up and ask them to introduce themselves.
I decided to confess my error. When they came back from the break I said, “I just realized I forgot to have you introduce yourselves to one another.  I was so intent on going over the course that I forget to have you do that. So we’ll do it now.”
“Yeah,” one of the students said. “I thought you were going to make us do that, but I’m glad you didn’t. I liked that we wrote first.”
“Okay, “I said. “Why don’t we go around and introduce ourselves and tell us about a movie you would recommend us to see.”
So as they began to go around the table and tell us the usual things about themselves and the movies they like I began to realize that maybe, just maybe this is an error that had gone right. The students seemed a bit more relaxed while giving their introductions, they seemed to be listening to one another a bit more, they seemed to laugh a bit more, they seemed to be a bit more engaged with one another. Although asking the students to introduce to one another seems like a great way to begin a writing class (and I’m not saying that I would ever give it up) maybe it seems to the students a bit artificial. Maybe saying your name, your major, etc. is just the routine way of interacting in a college community. Granted I have tried to break this up a bit by asking to recommend a movie—giving them something else to say as a way to connect to one another. But maybe having shared their writing with one another first gave them something to connect with, something that gave them the sense that they were already getting to know one another.
So maybe the way to build a writing community is to actually have them engage together in the process of writing as soon as possible.  Maybe this is a mistake I will make again.

The Stack

This was originally posted on the Writing Program’s “It’s a Process” blog on 9/26/2010.

I’ll admit it. All weekend I was dreading it. When I was walking my dogs by the lake, running the usual weekend errands, waking up in the middle of the night, I would remember that on Tuesday I would be picking up the final drafts of my students first papers. In my mind I kept seeing this stack of paper. I kept dividing “the stack” into piles, sorting “the stack” into seemingly manageable piles, cutting the piles into smaller and smaller piles. I began making the usual deals with myself. (Okay, after every fifth paper, you can get a cup of tea or a cookie or check email or take the dogs out for a walk.) In my mind I kept going over my calendar, blocking out chunks of time in order to get through the stack. As the weekend progressed, the stack in my mind grew, became larger and larger. By Sunday night all I could think of was this giant, towering stack of papers covering on my entire desk. “I can’t do it!” I thought to myself. “I’ll never be able to read them all! Never!!”

At the end of class on Tuesday, I collected my students’ papers and carried them up to my office. I arranged them in a neat pile on my desk. Although the stack wasn’t as large or as towering as I had built up in my mind, I could feel a new sense of panic creeping up in me. “How am I going to respond to all these paper?” I thought to myself. “What am I going to say?” Panic gave way to despair. Why did I assign Myself in Words, again? I already saw the quotations they brought in. I already read their first drafts. I really don’t have anything more to say about living life to the fullest, to always be sure to appreciate your family and friends. I really have nothing to say about the importance of working hard. “I can’t do this,” I thought to myself. Glancing through the stack I could already see that many of these essays were the traditional five paragraph essay, many were filled with generalizations, partially developed thoughts and ideas. What was I going to do?

So I did what most teachers faced with a stack of papers do—I checked my email, I sharpened my pencil, I went to get an iced coffee, I checked my email, I sharpened another pencil, I googled something, checked my email again—until the fear of not getting through the stack became so great, I finally sat down at my desk, picked up the first paper, and began to read.

And then I realized what I was forgetting. These papers were written by my students. The students I have been getting to know over the last three weeks, the students I’ve been doing writing exercises with, listening to, talking to. As I began to read, the students’ faces appeared before me. I could hear their voices through their words. Things they had said in class came back to me. I wanted to keep reading. I realized that I wanted to know what they had to say. I wanted to know what they were thinking. I wanted to say something back to them.

As I made my way through the stack of papers I realized I was no longer reading clichéd papers about the importance of friendships, of being nice to your family, and the virtues of working hard. I was reading about Lisa’s* homesickness, Jack’s fears of dealing with the academic challenges of college, Mary’s feelings about being away from her family. The stack was no longer a stack of paper, but the students in my class.

Okay. I’ll admit it. I still sorted the papers in smaller piles. After every paper that I read I counted how many I had left to do. I still took breaks and bribed myself in order to make it through the stack. The panic that I wouldn’t get through them all, never really went away. And I’ll admit it, when I finished the last paper I did get up and dance around my office.

But I realized I was forgetting something else. I was forgetting that these first papers are more than just the first papers that our students write. These papers are just the beginning, the start of what we are going to be working through all semester. These papers are the beginning of us learning more about our students. Our responses are the beginning of the dialogue we want to open up with our students about their writing.

* All student names have been changed.

The Post-Cool-Era-Classroom by Mark Koyama

This week’s post is by guest writer Mark Koyama. Mark is a writer, musician and graduate of the UMass MFA program. Mark taught College Writing and has served as a mentor to first-year teachers.

I’ll wager that if you look out over your fresh batch of 112 students you can count at least half-a-dozen Red Sox Caps. Am I right? Welcome to Red Sox Nation. As it turns out, a Red Sox Cap ain’t just a Red Sox Cap—it’s also a form of protective headgear. Before long, several young men will pull their caps down over their foreheads, slouch down, and in this defensive stance, be thoroughly protected from the chance of learning anything.

I’m making a Terrible Generalization. I’ll do the requisite back-pedaling in due time, but before doing that, let me indulge in another T.G: you know those students who refuse to make eye contact? They aren’t shy. They’re texting.

I know, I know. This is turning into one of those “kids these days” rants. The thing to remember is that they’re not dumb, and they’re not trying to be bad and they may not be really texting. That’s so high school. It’s not that they don’t want to learn. Most of the students are genuinely excited about being in college. What is it then? What makes it seem like they just don’t care? It’s really no great mystery. It’s actually quite simple.

They’re trying to be cool.

The paraphernalia of cool may shift from generation to generation, but the fundamentals remain the same. Since time immemorial, being cool has been a posturing game. To be really cool, one has to know when to fit in, and when to be aloof (and, of course, one must never use the word “one” as a pronoun.) The “fitting in” part involves wearing the obligatory emblem of regional pride – the Red Sox Cap. The “being aloof” part involves pulling the cap down and feigning disinterest in the anything proceeding from the mouth of anyone older then twenty-five years of age (who uses the word “one” as a pronoun.)

As a teacher in the a first-year writing course the “fitting-in” part of the equation is not your concern. It’s the “being aloof” part that you need to worry about. It can be a killer. It feels, at times, like there is direct correlation between the earnest fervor with which one tries express an idea, and how much the students greet that same idea with blithe disregard. Earnestness, you see, is anathema to cool. To be earnest, you must be willing to commit to the truth of an idea. But commitment, too, is anathema to cool. These things – earnestness, truth, commitment – they are probably listed in the thesaurus as antonyms for “aloof.”

But again – the aloof thing is not about the students being bad. No. Remember, the students are in a critical moment of transition in their lives. They are figuring out who they are and what is important to them. They are picking and choosing. It makes sense that they will do this from as safe a vantage as possible – from under the Red Sox Cap.

What’s your job? Do you order them to take off the Red Sox Cap? Do you coerce them to take it off with some grading policy stipulation? Or do you just let them keep it on?

I think it’s important that you try, early in the semester, to establish a culture in your classroom. The best learning, I think, takes place in a culture of discussion. Discussion is the dynamic that slowly, and imperceptibly erodes the aloof culture of cool. Discussion has the power to transform something you think is important, into something we find to be worth thinking about. Discussion fosters an environment in which people discover that it’s OK to let their guard down and get excited about an idea. They may not even know its happening—they may feel uneasy, but that’s alright because real learning happens when students are out of their comfort zones. Learning happens when the students get so worked up about the truth of an idea, that they lose their cool. That’s why the culture of the classroom – your College Writing classroom – should be the culture of the post-cool era.

I think the College Writing 112 curriculum is actually pretty amazing. If you think about it, the Unit 1 essay is the perfect opportunity to begin fostering a culture of discussion. You are asking them to write about themselves – which is risky for them. You are asking them to write about what they believe and why. But they may not know what they believe until they start writing about it. Writing, in this sense, is not about recording who one is, as much as discovering who one is. This surprising reality is a great doorway into discussion. If this strange dynamic elicits even the barest glimpse of honesty from the mouth of one of your students, make sure everyone in the class recognizes what just happened! This will jump start the slow process of engendering the post-cool-era-classroom.

Don’t be disappointed if, at the end of the semester, you look out and see that only a handful of caps have been taken off. You are teaching the entire class – but you may really influence only a handful. Don’t underestimate the power and the significance of that influence – those students may remember you for the rest of their lives, because you showed them something important. It’s a beautiful thing.