Today was one of those glorious, exhausting teaching days; just what I needed to get my focus back on what really matters.

Due to an unexpected interruption in my schedule, two of my Freshman Composition classes at the community college had essays due today. (I usually stagger the due dates).  Consequently, I had a full day of writing workshop helping over 60 students meet their first college writing deadline.

Many of them have worked their way to this class through a gauntlet of English remediation courses, and all of them are nervous about this first assignment. Writing workshop in my classes is a cross between an internet cafe and a busy office. Three or four students are working on their laptops; others are writing with ink and paper. Some go back and forth from our second floor classroom to the available computers in the small library downstairs. Occasionally, students will pair off, quietly asking questions about their paper or getting last minute feedback on a draft.

I sit at the edge of my desk/table near my own laptop, where I can keep our class Blackboard website and MS Word open.  Several of my students (some older adults, but some recently out of high school) do not know how to use word processing software. I get more savvy classmates to help some while I patiently show others how to setup double-spacing and explain for the third time why they don’t have to hit Enter at the end of every line.  I have to do repeated tutorials on how to upload files into our class website since I require them to submit digital versions of their work. Many, if not most, of my students do not have computers and/or Internet access away from school, so deadline day finds them jamming the computer lab downstairs. I’ve noticed that those who have laptops don’t share them; and I’ve only seen one student with an IPad all year.

In between the technical questions, students tentatively ask me about their drafts. Some bring hard copies, painstakingly written out; others insist on bringing a “clean” printed copy (which I’ve asked them not to do) because they don’t want me to see their struggles. We’ve been working on these essays (I say we because I have been writing too) for over two weeks, but I was away for a week, and it’s still early in the semester, so we haven’t yet developed the trusting sharing that will come later. I can tell by their expressions and their body language that they are bracing themselves for what they expect me to say. Many hand me their work with their heads down, almost mumbling, “I know this probably isn’t right, but could you look at it please…”

Some are actually shocked when I start to ask them real questions about the content of their papers, and don’t immediately start pointing out flaws; when I genuinely laugh at a well-turned phrase or sincerely ask about a revelation of personal pain or loss. There is a wave of shock, then relief when I announce that for this first essay, I do not have a required length nor will I deduct points for any grammatical error other than misspelled words ( I will, however, put marks in the margin of lines that contain other problems, which we’ll address later). My goal with this first assignment is to draw them into the writer’s world; to focus on development of an effective thesis; to wean them off the five-paragraph formula; and to encourage them to attempt some of the techniques they’ve admired in the model narratives we read together in preparation for this assignment. Of course, this is college and grades do matter. This first essay will be about 5% of their final grade. In the next essay, we’ll add focus on some additional skills, and the penalty for poor writing will be higher with each assignment.  In between deadlines, however, they will be working on those individual areas of weakness that I’ve indicated in the margins and develop both fluency and technique as writers.

Most important, they will become more confident about expressing their own ideas in writing for academic and professional settings. I’m exhausted, and I still have almost 70 essays to which I must give meaningful response–in a relatively short turnaround. But I also have strongly mixed emotions because I know what’s coming. At least a third of them, some semesters up to one-half, will not complete the course. Family problems, loss of babysitters, loss or change of jobs, poor health, frustration, and lingering self-doubt will dwindle the numbers. For those who persevere to the end of the course, I’m going to get a final portfolio of their work and a final exam essay that requires them to reflect over the semester and their own growth as writers. It will be some of the best writing they’ve ever done, and reviewing them will inevitably be a joyful, informative, and humbling experience for me.

What a blessing.

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