Assistant Professor of English
Dancing the Minuet: Notes on Teaching and Writing
Following Georgia Heard’s lead in her thoughtful little book Writing Toward Home, I’ve been making more observations this semester, or at least writing about them. Heck, I always make observations, but I’ve been writing about them in class with my students. Yep, Lucky me. That’s what we do in my classes. We write every day and we have time to share with one another. And sometimes people share the strangest of stories. Of course, these are writing courses, so that is what you would expect.
An observation from March 8: “10:45 in the morning, third floor of the Humanities building, twenty students sitting with their backs to the wall, the same textbook splayed out before them in their laps. All studying for the same exam. Feel the intensity—you can cut the tension with a knife.”
Some other words and phrases that came out of these daily writing invitations:
The windows are smiling on the great world.
Neon green April light of early spring into
Yellow orange of late summer
Sunshine: both particle and wave (what else?)
The windows are again smiling on the world.
* * *
I’ve been paying more attention to students lately. Students leading writing invitations and literary storehouses in my classes. Those students worriedly studying for the big exam on the third floor of Humanities on March 8, their stress creating a palpable tension in the air. Students coming in for advising, students at SOAR who don’t want to take anything too difficult. “Can I get in an aerobics class?” Students on their way to becoming teachers, lawyers, pastors, business people. I see myself in some of these students. So much you don’t know at that age, barely out of high school, just beginning to develop mentally.
And yes, my own students in my classes, all of whom sat with me in my office for two writing conferences. For the last two or three years of my teaching, I had almost given up on these individual writing conferences with each of my students. I had decided that this procedure took too much time and effort on my part. It is true: even though composition courses are capped at twenty three, it takes about a week of block scheduling for me to meet with each student in my writing sections for fifteen minutes. The answer? The only answer for me: cancel classes for that week and hold conferences through the normal class time, making sure the students have an ongoing project that they are working on (a draft of which they bring to the conference), and that they know failure to appear to the writing conference counts as a class absence. Case closed.
So I sat down again this semester with each of my students, the first time I had done that since I began teaching a full load here at UTM in 2004. Donald Murray would disapprove mightily, but he would he happy to hear that I am trying it again. I invited students into my office, offered them a comfortable seat, looked them in the eye, and, well, talked to them. More accurately, I tried to get them to talk to me. I asked them questions. “So how is this current project going for you?” Sometimes that is enough to get them going and sometimes not. Some people are more reticent than others. I was pleased with the results of meeting with each student individually. I learned things about them I did not know before. I asked them where they were from and what their majors were. I was impressed. I mean, I may not be getting old enough to say this, but sometimes I want to say, with the Who “The Kids are All Right,” because they are. The kids are all right.
From March 8, in class writing at 8:00 a.m.
Spring fever, blooming like madness,
Like ice, like fire.
Love is home, children are here.
Trees know your name. The windows are smiling.
The palace of wisdom awaits you.
Don’t wait another day.
The best thing about writing conferences? When plain conversation leads a student in a new direction, such as the time Laura [not her real name] realized that her “holdover hippie” grandmother was interesting enough to write a ten page essay about. After a little talk I learned that when she was little, Laura’s grandmother would take her and the other grandkids out to a field behind the house, spread a blanket, pour lemonade, talk, listen to Joni Mitchell, and sometimes stay the entire night. And her husband, Laura’s grandfather, worked in Chicago for five years to make ends meet, traveling back and forth every few months. “I wonder what that was like?” I thought out loud. “For them. For her. Laura, you have to write about this.” Her smile widened. She nodded her head. Her eyes smiled. “Yeah, you’re right. I could write the whole essay about her.” Laura’s whole being shone like the sun. “I am ready to get started writing on it.” As she rose to go, she smiled big and said “great writing conference!”
That was one of those—at least for me—rare conferences, when a few minutes of conversation, most of it spoken by the student with me listening, led her to make a choice about her writing. It was the kind of conference Donald Murray describes in his many publications on this subject. Ask a few questions. Let the student talk. Begin with, “how are you?” Or “So what’s your major and what do you plan to do with your life?” Or, “How is this class going for you, and how about this latest assignment?”
The late American poet, teacher, and pacifist William Stafford called teaching writing “dancing the minuet.” In the book Early Mornings: Remembering My Father, William Stafford, Kim Stafford comments on the difference between his Dad’s teaching style and his own, a difference made clear one day when his Dad substituted for Kim’s class. Kim’s teaching style was to come to class armed with books and quotations to sprinkle throughout his talk, hoping to inspire his students with his stories and advice on writing. William Stafford, on the other hand, would often come to class completely empty-handed, perhaps armed only with a question or two. He taught with silence, demanding that his students take responsibility for their learning. When Kim asked his students later whether or not they thought his father’s teaching style was “easy,” one student replied, “I wouldn’t exactly say it was easy. He heard everything we said—every little thing, and he kept turning it back to us. It’s like he couldn’t leave out the slightest idea that came up” (209). I aspire to be a teacher like that, a teacher who can walk in empty handed and engage a class with the right questions, the right lead step. It is a dance, after all, this work we do with students day in and day out. And the moves we show them during our time together, and vice versa, we will remember for a lifetime.