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.

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faith is like a fire

from Islamic terror is real, as is Jewish and Christian terror.

We need to admit that faith is like a fire – it can warm a home or burn it down. It’s not the fire; it’s how it is used. We need to simultaneously call out those who use their faiths as destructive fires and also remind people that just because terror is an expression of some people’s faith, it is not the only expression of that faith, or even an essential part of it.

Reading this got me thinking about my English 101 religion theme (that I’ve taught twice — last Winter and Spring). In the last essay, students are to write a persuasive essay on the question, “What is the value of religion to society?”  The majority end up picking an aspect of religion and using that to argue that religion helps or hinders society. I want to find a way to get them thinking more of the complexity of the topic. I haven’t emphasized that enough in class before. I’ve focused on the rhetorical “moves” academic writes make (using They Say, I Say by Graff and Birkenstein).

I’ll probably use Elbow’s “Believing and Doubting Game(s)” as a way to help them deepen their understanding by doubting what they believe and believing what they doubt.

But, overall, need to do some more thinking.

planning for WR 121 with “becalmed sailors”

It’s already Wednesday night of orientation week. (Me, Julie, and Peter are helping Sara train/orient the new TAs). I’m fairly stressed, but not half as much as I worried I’d be (or one-fourth as much as I was last Fall when I was new to OSU). I guess I’m stressed enough, though, since I’m not sleeping much lately (just too much on my mind, I guess). But I expect that to improve. I hope.

I think I’m STARTING to get a decent feel for the outline, the course of the whole course (WR 121), what happens when, etc. Still not exactly sure what I’m going to do on the first day — I mean, specifically how I’m going to have the students introduce themselves (how I’m going to have them “break their ice,” as Peter says),  what writing I’ll have them do in class, and what their first writing homework will be. But I’m close. I hope. ;-)

I like Julie’s idea of having the second (informal) homework be something re “What would you do in education, what would you major in, what would you study, if you could do anything else other than what you’re doing?” (except of course for the UESP (University Exploratory Studies Program) students who are undecided as it is)… because I can then use this homework/freewrite to help students decide what to do their research paper on… a way to avoid fall-back (and therefore over-done) topics like abortion, steroids in baseball, etc.

I was just going over the assignment sheet for Essay #1, and it occured to me one early activity could be simply going over the terms “synthesis” and “thesis” and “thematic.”  The essay assignment is titled a “thematic synthesis” and students are supposed to practice “extracting a theme from close readings, juxtaposing positions, [and] creating a thesis.”

And now for something completely different…  I have this “Wizardology” calendar in my bathroom. It’s very Harry Potter-esque, and I love the drawings, the text about things like “Jupiter Amulets” and Gryphons, and the cool pre-1700 fonts/printing style. Anyway, this morning I read about “Wind-Knots”

Some unscrupulous wizards make money at ports and harbours selling wind knots. Each time a knot is untied, a wind blows to aid becalmed sailors. The strength and direction of the wind cannot be predicted.

I like that. I like the phrase “to aid becalmed sailors.” What a cool word – becalmed. It’s at once a positive-sounding word (because “calm” is usually a desired state of being) and a negative one (because sailors require wind). And the whole description is just fun. I love the last sentence, too — “The strength and direction of the wind cannot be predicted.” Heheh, it conveys how, hey, these wind-knots are taken very seriously, and since they are, one must be warned about their limitations. Yes! Don’t buy your wind-knots from just any old wizard,  now.