English 521:
Composition Theory and Pedagogy

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Personal Essay

by Melissa Moskov

For as long as I can remember, I have always enjoyed writing. Writing is an opportunity for me to express my thoughts and feelings while helping me grow to understand who I am as an individual, a student and furthermore, a future teacher. Yet, if someone were to ask me how I do it, I am afraid I could not give him or her a clear and precise answer. Trying to find that answer almost seems harder for me than the actual writing process itself. However, after having done my student teaching last semester, I have learned that modeling my own writing for the students not only helps them to see more clearly how I write, but helps me understand how I write as well.

My first student teaching experience took place in a seventh-grade English classroom during the second half of the school year. The first couple of weeks gave me an opportunity to observe both the teacher and the students participating in various writing activities. One assignment in particular asked the students to choose a topic of interest and write down on paper all the information that they already knew about this subject. A simple assignment, right? Sitting off to one side of the classroom, I decided to attempt the assignment. On the top of my paper I wrote the word "athletics". Under it, I wrote about why I chose the topic, what it meant to me and how it has played a crucial role in my life. Before I knew it, I had covered one and a half pages with information.

When the time was up to stop writing, I looked around the classroom and noticed some of the students appeared a bit confused. The assignment was not a difficult one, not for me anyway. When the teacher began asking students to share what they had written with the class, it was interesting to find that only a few volunteered. The rest of the class sat silent while a cloud of confusion seemed to sit over their heads. After only a few of them shared their writing, the rest of the class period was given to either continue writing on the same topic or to try writing about other topics of interest. This assignment was to be handed in at the end of class. My cooperating teacher encouraged me to walk around during this time and assist the students in need of help.

What I was about to experience during the next fifteen minutes would be completely shocking for me. As I walked around the classroom, I began noticing that many of the papers on the desks remained blank. There was not a word, not even the slightest marking. In an attempt to investigate the matter, I decided to sit down with a student named Laila. I asked her why her paper was blank. She replied, "I just don't know what to write about." I asked her if she had any interest in hobbies, sports, instruments, pets, etc. She replied, "I love horseback riding. I have my own horse and I ride him in competitions. His name is Sandy." Perfect. She had an interest in horses. I asked her if maybe she would be interested in writing what she knew about horses. Before we both knew it, she had written all about the kind of care horses need, the way it feels when she is riding her horse, and what a riding lesson entails. I considered my job here to be a success and I traveled on to the other students.

After visiting with different students, I found that many of them shared the common question, "What should I write about?" One student even asked me to simply give him a topic of my choice. I stood there thinking about how I could help these students. It was clear that many of them did not know where to start. It was also clear to me that I did not know how to start helping them. And then it hit me. I walked over to the table where I had sat for the beginning of the class and picked up the piece of paper I had done my assignment on. I thought that maybe if I showed them how I attacked the assignment, it would give them some idea of how to do it themselves.

My topic was athletics, focusing particularly on gymnastics. Having been a gymnast for thirteen years and a coach of the sport for nine, it was easy to write about something that I knew well. On my paper, the students read about how I have learned the most in the sport by making mistakes, both as an athlete and a coach. I continued by expressing my appreciation for my coach who guided me along my journey. They went on to read about how learning new skills in gymnastics was rarely easy for me. But the only way to conquer them was by practicing them over and over again. Even after conquering a skill, there were always more to learn. The piece concluded with the thought that although I may never fully understand how it is possible to tumble on a four-inch beam, I was able to learn to do it from my experience on it as well as my experiences falling off of it.

Then, suddenly, it hit me again. I could use my writing that day as a teaching tool about the importance of practice and experience. I discovered that day that my gymnastics and my writing shared something in common. The only way to get better at them was to practice. And that was not only a lesson I was able to share with the students, but one that I was able to learn myself. The students began writing that day. No longer was their paper blank. The bell rang. I was not able to see what they had written. The important thing is that they wrote.

I believe that there is a great difference between knowing how to do something and knowing how to teach it to others. It was like in math class when my teacher would figure out a problem and give us the answers. It was clear that he knew how to do it. But, what was unclear was how to get the how part across to the students. Just as with teaching writing, I have realized through my first student teaching experience that students deserve more than just the answers. It would have done the students no good that day if I had given them topics to write about. I would not have been allowing them to explore their own thoughts. Instead, I tried to use what I have learned through my own experience in my writing and in my life. On that day, I learned that the aspects of knowing how to do something and knowing how to teach it are different indeed, but when they are intertwined, good things can happen.

As a teacher of writing, I realize from my experience already that I need to take a step back and allow my students some room to breathe, some room to think, possibly a model writing and an opportunity to pick up their pencils without any fears or confusion and simply write. They need to believe in their own feelings, their experiences and their own knowledge of the world around them and learn to tap into them. Without this exploration, students will remain stuck sitting with that same blank piece of paper in front of them. As a future teacher of writing, I will explore my writing by working alongside my students. I am simply amazed by what I have learned from this process already.

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