Composition Theory and Pedagogy
by Stella Apostolidis
As I try to fight my amateur urge to be simplistic, it is impossible for me to avoid my main concern about composition pedagogy. The issue that most pervades and perplexes me is the intricate, tender yet all encompassing role and influence of The Teacher. Simply stated, I find the influence of the teacher to be the problem, and sometimes the solution in the realm of teaching writing. I read through our student essays and found the constant notion that what has influenced, and sometimes determined the fate of a student writer is-yes, The Teacher.
In the pedagogical world I have since perceived, the teacher is almost solely in control of the development of his/her students. And more often than not, an encouraging, attentive, positive and guiding teacher will have a class full of blossoming writers. On the other hand, I’ve observed that with negative commentary, harsh judgments and insufficient time and ability to escort them to their writing peak, students may come to a standstill in their development as writers; some may come to detest it because of insufficient guidance which may lead to confusion, and some may come to the conclusion that they have simply failed as writers. The fact that a teacher’s approach, caused and/or influenced by a variety of reasons, which I will elaborate, further on, may be the culprit for the vast amount of students who feel they cannot write, is a grave, grave travesty--but not one we can not combat.
I am not stating that with proper encouragement every student can escalate to the level of Charles Dickens, but I do believe that they will be able to at least make significant improvements with the proper direction so that they can be considered respectable writers. What I believe to be the core of the problem is somewhat psychological. It is about confidence. Whenever someone tells me I’m good at something whether I believe it or not, I would usually muster up the confidence to do it again if need be. On the contrary, when someone discourages me without proper consideration and criticism, I’ll usually put that practice to rest, unless someone else validates it later on.
Let’s take for example some relevant statements by some of our peers from their first personal essay. Regarding the concept of writing, classmate, Shirlee Dufort articulates, “But I am fragile, so fragile. I can write when approval is heaped on me, layered like blankets... ‘Very impressive work’, ‘outstanding job’... ‘A strong paper, certainly no surprise’... ‘You are one of the best prose writers’...Should the softest breeze stir...my hands shake so hard I can’t seem to hold a pen...A few searing comments have incapacitated me...’who ever taught you how to write?’...’Very unfocused’...’so wordy’.” Shirlee flourishes when she is praised and wants to write more, yet with negative commentary, without proper guidance and reason, she gets scared and begins to doubt herself. Anne Jung had a very similar experience in high school where she was told that her work was all wrong and until about 20 years later, where a professor simply stated, “You’re a good writer”, Anne states, “Four kind words and a nod were all that I needed...He had affirmed me as a person who could write. I had regained the ability to imagine my potential as a writer.”
These words and emotions seem to come up consistently when talking about the role of The Teacher with regard to writing. Basically, encouragement and discouragement--and how that affects the student writer is key. In most cases--if adequate praise is bestowed upon the student--then the student tends to prosper--and the opposite happens when the student is badgered and given negative commentary on his/her writing.
Part of my story about my writing process that I did not mention in my personal essay is why I had looked down upon writing; frankly, hate it by my senior year in high school. And that was due to one maniacal, perverse, uncouth English teacher who came right out and said, “You’re a dodo.” GASP. Dodo--I almost laughed at his word choice, but what was this...I am the student, the cherished, and you are supposed to be the sensitive teacher, the omniscient, the psychologist. He told me that my perfectly well formed piece on ancient Greek history- grammatically correct, structurally sound, factually impeccable- was boring. He said it just like that and added the dodo part and told me to go write something interesting. Now, what could have made him a good teacher--honesty, noticing a talented student, holding her to high standards, having her redo it--turned him into a monster--and me into a pissed off writer. If he had helped me develop it, had helped go back and see why my voice or style was not apparent, I may have learned something--but he left me there--barren in the world of never-ending Doric columns, Hera’s wrath and Spartan meals-- without any of Apollo’s sweet nectar. Where was I, a heathen in the land of the Great gods of language, supposed to turn now, with no map or escort?
The problem is that students need guidance and there is not enough time and attention paid to their writing and personal psychology because one English teacher can not be the mentor of reading, writing and analytical work. How do we reform teachers, and do they even need reform? What needs to change in order for students to become good writers and to be able to use writing as a mode of learning, self-exploration and general use? We need to change the curriculum, both amongst primary and secondary schools where teachers teach and in university education programs throughout the country that, essentially, teach our teachers how to teach.
We can target the education of our teachers. Teach them about proper psychological tactics; school them in how to nurture the developing writer. But who has the time? Who has the time to develop various writing exercises, take note of each student’s progress, and teach the many yet necessary different writing genres, think about the best pedagogical devices? Who has the time to make sure they’re structured enough to write a thesis yet loose enough to spurt out poetry. And how can we teach them about poetry, have them read and imitate relevant writers, have them write a persuasive essay to Osama bin Laden? Teachers barely have enough time to get through the required texts. In addition to all these concerns, did we ever think about whether this teacher is qualified and able to teach writing? Have they themselves been schooled on various pedagogical composition theories, have they perfected or at least improved their own writing craft-do they even like writing themselves? And if they do-can they teach it effectively?
I propose a separate writing class throughout the primary and secondary education system. Incorporating a full class session at least three times a week which focuses solely on writing will enable students to become familiar and eventually competent in writing. This class will enable the teacher to focus on all different kinds of writing including the traditional essay, fiction, poetry, business writing, etc. By the last few years of high school, the student will be able to hold a firm grasp of writing, their interest in it and proceed to develop their preferred genre whether it be journalism, expository writing, journal writing or whatever he or she pleases. The biggest complaints amongst teachers today in regards to writing is that primarily, they barely have time to complete the required work load including regents preparation and mandatory texts. How can they incorporate writing on a scale large enough to truly engage and assist every students needs? And secondly, some teachers I have spoken with feel at times that they have not been properly educated on composition pedagogy. In regard to the role of the teacher, he or she will be able to provide the necessary skills and psychological expertise in molding the student into the writer that he or she wishes to become. The extra time and focus will enable the teacher to hone in on all the student’s needs and find various methods to encourage the student into mastery of writing. In addition, the education of the teacher will be more specific, they will earn a Master of Arts in the Teaching of Writing, which will include various courses in educational psychology, writing (I believe specific courses in various genres should be included), as well as at least two classes in the subject of the course we are currently enrolled in--Composition Theory and Pedagogy.
Though there are many parts and obviously a lot of planning necessary to actualize this proposal, my plan is actually quite direct and I believe would be extremely effective. . Simply, students will feel better about their writing and produce better work if there is a skilled teacher who has been trained specifically in writing and the teaching of it, in a class whose sole purpose is to educate our youth on how to competently express themselves through writing. Teachers who do not have the time, and in some cases, the expertise, to engage and encourage a student writer many a time, end up with a class full of students who are scared to write or irresolute about the act of writing in general.
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