Thursday, November 5, 2015

Natalie Wexler and Teaching Writing (are bad teachers still good?)

The educational ezine, The Hechinger Report, published an opinion today by Natalie Wexler about teaching writing that I tried to post a response to but wasn't allowed. That's perfect because it justifies exactly my critique of the article so I will share it here.

Teaching writing, or college exposition, was my forté for over a quarter of a century. I was privileged to have students from many diverse backgrounds including Navajo middle schoolers, inner city black high schoolers, and top Asian graduate students in Japan and Thailand at well respected universities. I can sum up and share what I learned easily and explain why Wexler, and other ivory tower pundits, never tell the unspoken truth about this highly exclusive field of pedagogical endeavor. Even with an advanced degree in Linguistics, Composition or whatever they call it these days, very few educators can rise up to the challenge and, if they do, it will make them the envy (and sometimes target of hate) by a lot of English Department lounge lizards. Allow me to explain what my lifetime of research and experience of teaching writing has taught me.

Wexler defends the latest money cow on the academic ranch, The Hochman Method,  as a program that "includes the essay-level skills, like developing an argument" as something besides just focusing on grammar which she is correct in pointing out. Language studies do indeed show that only barraging students with rules doesn't work, despite Common Core confusion on the subject. However, what she fails to mention at all in this piece is, in the most easily worded way, that teaching writing skills is teaching thinking skills. It's always been amusing to me to see how the simple things in this world confuse those who are deemed wise in some manner. Instead, she does what many writing teachers and researchers that I have come across commonly do--obfuscate wittingly or unwittingly. Remember those classroom papers you'd get back with red lines, criss crossed across your work with meaningless abandon? It's nothing more than trying to show your student that no matter what , you still know more than they do even though you might not.

Writing is a very personal and intimate expression of self. It takes a lifetime to master if one bothers at all. Teaching writing is more than just pointing out rules or showing examples of any kind of style you want to pitch, like expository, creative or narrative. It's about shaping a mind to see and to respond to the world using its most fundamental tool--language. And if you can't speak the language of your student, then you can't teach them to speak the language of writing. I'm not talking about peppering your speech with rap riffs or anything that ridiculous. Nobody appreciates that and it's insulting to say at the very least. I'm talking about establishing a specific dialogue with a specific and completely unique human being  if they are willing which helps greatly. Think of holding an innumerable amount of melting snowflakes in your hand and trying to separate and address them individually before they are quickly gone. Do this daily with several dozen students (or in some cases, hundreds) or more for years and also take home their words with you to read and respond to at night and on the weekends while they're doing something else. You are a writing teacher. You have no life. Your student's life is yours if you are truly dedicated. But is that all that's needed? Hardly. Sadly.

You yourself need to be an expert writer, an expert linguist, an expert grammarian, an expert researcher, an expert...period. And this entails, in my opinion, becoming and grooming yourself constantly as a true amateur--someone who does what they do, regardless of pay, just because they love it and they must. And you must have shared tons and tons of your writing, both good and bad, as often as possible because how can you communicate your expertise to learners if you don't communicate your language and writing skills to your peers? But be forewarned: if you're a young college student thinking about teaching Language Arts, or whatever the politically correct term is these days (and there always is one when it comes to public education) you must be willing to bleed on the page with your very best compositional attempts if you expect your students to do the same. That's how I learned and that's how many learned from me and I thank the Lord Jesus Christ for having given me the opportunity to work with all black student populations in inner city Detroit, because although some of those children did their damn hardest to try to put together even a simple paragraph for me and couldn't, I valued their belief in me and their dedicated response without talking down to them or tagging their papers. A lot of teachers hated me for that and I'm so blessed because of it. Thank you, Natalie Wexler for not posting my response on your ezine. It motivated me to compose this much better one, so you see, even bad teachers can accomplish something unknowingly sometimes.

Blessed are the peacemakers...
a white cop, a black kid

Arnold Penxa is a white cop from black Detroit, Michigan determined to save the lives of children no matter the cost, no matter the color. He is an ex war veteran and retired Detroit policeman, now working for a private school security firm,and he sniffs out a conspiracy for a multiple school shooting. The problem is that nobody wants to believe him except for a few close friends, so he's forced to act mostly alone to bust up the plot. Forget the usual suspects. This is the Mad Motor City where the line between common sense and criminal behavior is never clear.

Get the book HERE at SMASHWORDS