My Five, In Response: A Writing Teacher’s Open Letter

When I saw a blog post titled “5 Things Students Want to tell Their Writing Teachers” last December, I had to read it. Appearing on Brilliant-Insane: Education on the Edge,  the post by Angela Stockman breaks the bad news: writing teachers aren’t giving our students all that they want, or need . . . apparently.

I’ve been teaching for a while – almost twelve years – and yes, students often dislike, ignore or even resent some aspects of writing instruction. Unlike in math or science, writing instructors cannot proffer one clear-cut method leading to a clear-cut objectively correct answer, so students can tire of its will-o’-the-wisp nature. Yes, learning to write well can be frustrating.

But what makes writing both aggravating and worthwhile is: there is more than one right way to do it! Good writing instructors know that. And open-minded students who are willing to learn do, too.

Every school year, I start by talking my students through Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. We often see things in our lives in half-shadows, reflected by dim light, and because of that, misunderstandings and unwarranted anxieties can replace the rational thoughts that come from clear perceptions. Learning can often be unwanted, and even painful, like the shock of sunlight to a person who has been in a dark room for a while. Yet our eyes will adjust, and when we see things clearly, in full light, we can never be satisfied with stumbling around in the dark.

That said, here are five things that this writing teacher – me – would like to tell students:

1. Learning is more important than numerical grades. Down the line, no one will care what grade you made in my class; they will care whether you have the skills you were supposed to have gained. If a student makes 75 on a writing assignment, supposedly meaning he was three-quarters correct— he probably he knows just enough to be wrong while still thinking he’s right. Beyond that, parents or colleges may focus on the importance of letter grades, but students come to school to learn. An admirable transcript might get you into college, but learning to write will keep you there.

2. Everything worthwhile isn’t necessarily enjoyable. Many things in life that are worth having require hard work and struggle, which aren’t fun. For example, when we drive on paved streets, we have to remember that the road crews sweated and labored and maybe even got injured so we could have those nice smooth streets. Young people who want for everything to be fun and self-affirming are misleading themselves about how life works. And we teachers do them no favors when we deceive ourselves into thinking that all learning – the whole school day – can be fun. Grading dozens, or even hundreds, of papers isn’t fun either— but teachers do our work because student learning worth the effort.

3. Revision is absolutely necessary. Truly adept writers are thoughtful people, who want to revisit their own ideas and words over and over. Writers are not just crafty wordsmiths who can dash off a few paragraphs quickly. When a student relies on his own version of Kerouac’s “first thought, best thought” mantra, he only short-changes himself. Believing that first drafts are adequately thoughtful would be like believing that a first date amounts to the same thing as a year of marriage. I know that revision can be cumbersome and time-consuming‚ but neither laziness nor self-righteousness is a valid reason for avoiding the necessary work of getting the words right.

4. How do you know this method doesn’t work better for you, if you didn’t actually try it? Some students decide in advance whether or not they will learn from an activity, approaching the lesson with “This is stupid,” or “That’s not the way I do it.” If a student has no intention of giving an honest and open try to a writing lesson, then he or she will never learn, from me or from anyone else, with that attitude. We only learn when we are willing to. In short, if you’re close-minded and resistant, don’t blame your teacher for not reaching you.

5. I’ve heard the classic complaints before. The two most annoying defenses from students who won’t accept their writing’s lack of quality are: “My last English teacher said I was a good writer,” and “My family loves everything I write.” The first of the two ties back to Stockman’s #3: “Your constant praise feels a little condescending.” Some English teachers would rather praise a student and give an A than teach. That method is easier, and it avoids conflict— but that doesn’t make their insincere and lazy praise true. As for the latter defense, your family loves you, and what they’re praising is not literary quality, but their sense of your sweetness and sincerity. Unless you come from a family of editors, they’re expressing their affection, not affirming your greatness.

Angela Stockman is right in one sense: teachers need to listen to their students. I have a stockpile of tried-and-true assignments, and as I get a sense of my classes, I tailor my syllabus to the group’s needs. For example, I add more experiential learning (field trips) to classes when I see that the students have a strong grasp of fundamentals, and I reduce or eliminate experiential learning lessons when groups of students show themselves to be immature or untrustworthy. I require more in-class revisions, when I see students neglecting that aspect, and I give more one-on-one time to students who clearly want that. Knowing our students, and listening to them is integral to teaching writing— just as integral as students listening to their teachers.