Why celebrate what’s working in student writing?

A review of Roger Rosenblatt’s Unless It Moves the Human Heart: The Craft and Art of Writing, written by a first-year writing instructor. The point about the need for better working conditions of writing teachers is important, of course, but I especially wanted to remind myself of this:

Wade quotes Rosenblatt saying, “If you find things you like in a student’s work, and celebrate them, then the things you don’t like — the really awful parts — will seem anomalous mistakes uncharacteristic of the writer, ones they can correct. The students will side with you against their own weaknesses. If, on the other hand, they begin to think they can’t do anything right, they will get worse and worse.”

Inside the Workshop
­By Stephanie Wade

(January 13, 2011)    Writing a review of Roger Rosenblatt’s new book on writing and teaching makes me feel like a farmer commenting on M.F.K. Fisher’s “The Art of Eating.” I know these ingredients — students, writing, teaching — but I know them in somewhat rougher forms.

Like Roger Rosenblatt, I teach writing. Unlike him, I teach writing to first-year college students who, in stark contrast to the graduate students in Mr. Rosenblatt’s book, generally disdain writing, and who, for the most part, take my classes because they must. In fact, some of my students were Mr. Rosenblatt’s students because, for a short time, we both taught at Stony Brook Southampton.

“Unless It Moves the Human Heart,” which is set in a seminar room on the Stony Brook Southampton campus, made me miss the students I knew and made me wish I had known the others. His book made me wish I had been a student in his class.

What makes good writing? What makes a good writing teacher? These two questions occupy much of the book. His answers are delicate and pointed. He has specific ideas about good writing, yet he humbly acknowledges that his aesthetics could, perhaps, deter future Michael Chabons.

On teaching, Mr. Rosenblatt offers stories, not recipes. He questions his students, but, unlike practitioners of Socratic dialogue, who trick students by engaging them in seemingly open questions that lead to predetermined answers, he is interested in his students’ unique answers. In this way, he is more like M.M. Bakhtin, the Russian philosopher known for his study of dialogic knowledge.

Of course Mr. Rosenblatt leads his class with his rich knowledge of literature, but he also makes meaning together with his students. Because he offers the voices of his students — writers who care deeply in diverse ways about writing and literature — along with his own, readers gain multiple perspectives on craft in addition to a fine example of dialogic pedagogy.

This book offers lessons for a variety of readers. Potential M.F.A. students will get a glimpse of a famous workshop. Writers who cannot participate in writing workshops will get a heady substitute.

What teachers will get is more complicated. I am lucky; I can consider myself a farmer. Many writing teachers work under conditions more like that of day laborers or migrant workers. They have large classes, small salaries, and negligible job security. A recent study by the Modern Language Association found that approximately half of the college teachers in the humanities are part-time, adjunct instructors, who may teach more than 100 students a semester, often on geographically distant campuses. These conditions mitigate their ability to give their students the deep attention that Mr. Rosenblatt models.

For example, reading students’ papers twice is an important practice. It helps teachers see what is good about students’ writing. As Mr. Rosenblatt writes: “If you find things you like in a student’s work, and celebrate them, then the things you don’t like — the really awful parts — will seem anomalous mistakes uncharacteristic of the writer, ones they can correct. The students will side with you against their own weaknesses. If, on the other hand, they begin to think they can’t do anything right, they will get worse and worse.” [emphasis mine]

Finding and celebrating students’ accomplishments takes time, especially when one has 60 or 100 underprepared students, students who often think they can’t do anything right because, perhaps, they don’t do well on tests, or, maybe, they are learning English as a second language, or, in cases, they simply haven’t had practice writing.

This brings me to the audience who I most wish would read this book: college presidents, deans, provosts, school board members, and taxpayers. Were they to get the lesson with which Mr. Rosenblatt concludes his book, perhaps they would work to improve the working conditions of the vast number of writing teachers, who labor in fields much rougher than the M.F.A. program in Southampton.

Because the ultimate lesson of this book is that writing offers power. As Mr. Rosenblatt writes: “The trouble with much writing today is that it has been fertilized and nourished in classrooms like ours, where the elements of effective writing have been isolated and studied in parts. No teacher of writing, myself included, dares speak of the subterranean power available to every writer, if that writer will but take the time to brood on the matter and unearth it.”

These lines made me stand up, walk around my apartment, and pump my fists in the air as I chanted “Yes, yes, yes.” All students — those in my classes, in the developmental classes that some of Mr. Rosenblatt’s students teach, in M.F.A. programs, and in community literacy centers — can use writing to speak truth to power. But, as Mr. Rosenblatt points out, many writing classes discourage this, focusing on disembodied formal aspects of writing, rather than delving into the messiness of making meaning.

We — as voters, writing teachers, parents, students, administrators — can address this problem. We could introduce a greater range of writers to the power of the word by calling for improved working conditions for writing teachers and by resisting standards-based education, which relies too heavily on testing and high-stakes assessment. These tests are like the pesticides employed by commercial farmers. They are like fast food. They destroy the creativity, diversity, and vision that teachers such as Mr. Rosenblatt cultivate. And we need creativity, diversity, and vision to navigate the challenges of the 21st century.

Roger Rosenblatt is the author of, most recently, the memoir “Making Toast.” He lives in Quogue.

Stephanie Wade is an assistant professor in the department of writing arts at Rowan University in Glassboro, N.J. She divides her time between New Jersey and East Hampton.


2 thoughts on “Why celebrate what’s working in student writing?

  1. I will have to get Rosenblatt’s book for sure, now. I reviewed a book that changed my view of teaching writing forever…and I mean, completely dissheveled my worldview. The book is co-authored by Mary Ann Reilly, Jane M. Gangi, and Rob Cohen, and is called “Deepening Literacy Learning.” It is a volume in a series by Professor Tonya Huber.

    I put it into practice the same year that I reviewed it–spent time reading manuscript, then composing review, then making plans, and finally putting it to work in a fourth grade classroom!

    It is powerful seeing students who typically dislike writing “come to life” when the writing becomes an expression of something of great interest to them.

    Great post…and website.


    • Hi, Katie.

      Thanks for mentioning Deepening Literacy Learning. I’ve been thinking lately about how to design assignments that allow students to get more into what fascinates them. So I’ll check that book out. Thanks again.


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