Composition Theory and Pedagogy
Steps in the Process
by Jill Harbeck
I have found becoming a writer every bit as much a process as writing itself. One does not become a writer overnight but over time, and I offer the following stories as examples of some of the steps I have taken in what is proving to be a life-long process.
My initiation into writing was typical of the 1960s, when I began receiving a public education at Alexander Hamilton Elementary School. Writing consisted primarily of penmanship, books reports and research papers, all with highly structured formats as designated by the teacher or by the textbooks the teacher used. Our schools days were equally as structured with class time divided by subject, the major ones being English, math, science and history and the minor ones being gym class, art and music. The terms “interdisciplinary and “cross-disciplinary” were not included in the vernacular at that time. English was one of the subjects that, for me, floated to top like cream, while history just didn’t churn my butter. I loved reading fiction and even devoured the rules of grammar, spelling and punctuation, but I detested dry history books and memorizing names, dates and places. When we were instructed to sit quietly and read our history books, I would hold mine standing straight up on my desk and hunker down with something more interesting hidden inside it, like Jane Eyre. Thus I came to appreciate those large history books. By the time I advanced to junior high, my dislike of history was as well-ingrained as my love of English.
It seemed this would be the case for the rest of my life, had it not been for an English teacher at John Marshall Junior High. Although the Great Disciplinary Divide continued, as it would throughout high school, this teacher (whose name I don’t recall) chose to ignore it one day. Instead of asking us to do the usual writing assignment, she announced that we were going to try something different, something called historical fiction. At first, the idea of pairing history with English struck me the same as when I heard that the sixth grade teacher I abhorred was going to marry the third grade teacher I adored. They just didn’t go together in my mind. Then I learned that, although our stories had to be based on historical facts, we were free to take creative license with them. My imagination was sparked. Since in history class we had just finished reading about a president whose term of office was marked by the uncivilized behavior of his supporters (I don’t remember his name either), I decided to use this as the setting for my story. I wrote a Gone with the Wind-type tale in which the ladies attended the Inaugural Ball in beribboned hoop skirts, the men got exceedingly drunk and unruly, and the story climaxed with the smashing of the White House’s crystal punch bowl. What fun! As a result, I began experimenting with various forms of creative writing, ultimately latching onto poems as a form of self-expression that suited me. By the time I moved on to high school I was spewing poetry like water from a high pressure hose.
Somewhere along the line one of my teachers suggested I enter a state-wide student poetry contest and my poem won an honorable mention. In addition to having my name printed in The Detroit News, a thrill for me, I was invited to attend a conference of all of the winners from around the state. My enthusiasm was soon dampened. All of the top winners, whose entries were published in the conference booklet, had written poetry that didn’t rhyme and, frankly, didn’t make any sense to me. The top prize went to: “I’m nobody’s Thursday. Someone is saving me for a rainy day.” Now what did that mean? In one of the day’s sessions we reviewed and discussed another winning poem about old tires and other junk floating in a swimming pool. I didn’t get that one either. On the other hand, my poem was about a high schooler named Henry McAllen, who “thought he was cool,” “skipped out of school,” swore at the priest, indulged in arson, and ended up going to hell as a result. This made sense to me, but clearly the world of poetry and I were out of sync. That didn’t sway me from continuing to write more works of this type, since I enjoyed it and my teacher apparently approved. At the same time, I accepted that my rhymed pieces would no more win the poetry contest than the sanctimonious attitude they revealed would win the prom queen election.
Alongside this creative outpouring my skills and interest were being shaped by continued involvement in non-fiction writing, especially in the classroom of Mr. Diadiun. He was known as the journalism guy at John Glenn High School since he taught all of the journalism courses and supervised the production of the school newspaper and the yearbooks. More than six feet tall, with broad shoulders, a ruddy hawk-like nose and a brush cut, Mr. Diadiun looked more like a drill sergeant than a high school teacher. And drill us he did. On the importance of who, what, when, where, why and how. On grammar, spelling and punctuation. On the need for clear, concise reporting. On the need to meet deadlines. On every aspect of being a good journalist. At first glance he appeared to be a no-nonsense sort of guy, until the day he raised the projection screen at the front of the room; the blackboard beneath was covered with wordplay using the name of a student who was celebrating a birthday. Mr. Diadiun invited all of us to join in and blackboard birthdays became an event of note, gaining school-wide fame. What a delight it was to see him raise that screen and unveil such pithy prose as: “When Romeo took her to dinner, how Jill-y et.” Not exactly army issue nor the stuff of The New York Times.
From these and myriad other teachers I have learned many different things about writing and about being a writer: That content and style matter, as do such seemingly mundane issues as grammar and deadlines; that writing can be serious business and fun as well; that being a writer is about making choices of words, style, format, audience and purpose, and that one can choose to follow a trend or go one’s own way. I also have learned from all of these people that the only real limits are one’s imagination and willingness to take a chance. Most importantly, there is a commonality in the teachers and experiences highlighted here. These stories seem to suggest that the greatest moments in my growth as a writer occurred at those times when I, the teacher, or both of us veered from the norm, as when the one English teacher crossed the disciplinary divide into history, the other submitted my metered, rhymed poem at a time when free verse was “in,” or when the drill sergeant indulged in wordplay. Robert Frost wrote that taking the less-traveled road “has made all the difference,” but those tradition-grounded teachers who forayed into the untraditional helped me see an untold story in Frost’s poem. While he asserts that taking the less-worn path made the difference, taking the well-worn one has benefits too. In writing I haven’t found the two as mutually exclusive as Frost depicts or that choosing the well-traveled road won’t also make a difference.
It is only now, more than a quarter century later as I prepare to become a writing instructor myself, that the differences effected by those teachers are becoming evident. I never did especially enjoy history class, but recently I developed a cross-disciplinary course, “Literature of History,” in which such works as the Declaration of Independence, The Star-Spangled Banner, the Gettysburg Address, the poem at the base of the Statute of Liberty and Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech will be examined “both from a literary point of view and from within their historical contexts” to discern not only how history shaped such writings but how they, in turn, shaped history. I still compose poetry that rhymes for my own use and enjoyment even as I have come to appreciate poets like Ezra Pound and e.e. cummings, and I have learned the importance of considering audience when writing for public consumption. Lastly, in the summer graduate course I developed and taught, “Integrating Technology in the English Language Arts Classroom,” my syllabus stated that the final project and accompanying paper had to demonstrate a grasp of the theory and practice of integrating new technology. Yet such old standbys as grammar, spelling, punctuation and meeting the deadline counted, too.
As an instructor, I want my students to appreciate the craft of writing as a serious art, but I also want them to have fun and feel accomplished doing it. Most of all, I want my students to see that there are endless choices available to them as writers and that at any time they can step from the well-worn path to the less-worn one and back again. Contrary to what Robert Frost says, I think it has been my travels on both kinds that has made the difference, thanks to those teachers who guided me along the way. And I am all the better for that.
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