The push (and pull) of teaching writing

As the end of the semester approaches, too rapidly for some of my students and not nearly fast enough for others, I brace myself for “the push.”

The “push” is one of the more affectionate names for the end-of-the-semester reading marathon that confronts most English teachers. Like many of my colleagues, particularly those of us in high needs schools, I’m looking at somewhere between 100 – 150 pieces of student writing for this last regular assignment. That translates into a minimum of 12-16 hours (outside of classroom time); time I won’t be spending with my own family. Since I now teach Freshman Composition at the community college for college and high school students, the final exam is also a mandatory department-wide essay. So, double that reading and grading time over roughly a two-week period.

Granted the push goes faster than it did when I was a rookie. Now, I know to stagger due dates, and more important, to help my students help each other as they work through the process of writing. The quality of their “final” versions is measurably better than when I simply assigned and collected.

To help me through the push and other less-then-exciting aspects of teaching writing, I think about what my students and I share as fellow writers. I frequently bring my own work to class, pieces I’m developing for publication, and show them the notes from my editors or my own, often more vicious, critiques. Some of them, especially the older, non-traditional students, are visibly relieved to know that even experienced, published writers have to work at putting thoughts together clearly for an audience.

It has also helped my students and me that more of our work is now done digitally. No more lugging home those large cloth tote bags full of papers. My students submit all their work through our website-where we also discuss it and help each other. I view and respond to their work in digital formats (sometimes as simple as highlighting or commenting on Word documents).

What hasn’t changed are the challenges and hard work it takes to help each individual student identify his/her strengths and weaknesses as a writer; to push them to take the risks inherent in putting one’s thoughts on display for public response; to uncover and recover from years of poor writing, little writing, poor instruction, no instruction, and almost incapacitating self-doubt.

The payoff, though comes at the end. No, not financial; I took a $7,000 base pay cut to move from the high school to full-time at the community college—but that’s another blog. For their final exam, each student receives an individualized prompt about his/her own development as a writer over the course of the semester. On one level, it is usually the best thing they’ve written all semester; on a deeper level, it gives them and me a wonderful opportunity to reflect on what has happened among us and what those changes have made possible.

It’s why I love what I do.