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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