Composition Theory and Pedagogy
by Nick Weiss
John Lennon, the late Beatle, and immortal Walrus, said, “I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together. See how they run, like pigs from a gun, see how they fly-I’m crying.” And, the strangest thing about it is, after A Hard Day’s Night of typing this into my computer’s grammar checker, the program didn’t indicate a single error. Imagine, three decades before the age of the word processor, Lennon made his words Come Together.
Think back to secondary school. What would many of your teacher’s reaction have been had you written what John Lennon did? I think I have an idea how some of my teachers might have reacted. I’d likely have been referred to the guidance counselor for drug counseling, and I’d have been sent home with a note to my parents. Granted, things have changed over the past twenty-five years, and many of today’s teachers realize that “good” writing consists of more than three-sentence paragraphs and single-subject-single-verb sentences. Where educators could once refer to a universal writing ideology, they must now recognize social diversity as a factor in critical evaluation of students’ work.
Understand, I have never taught children in a school environment, and my only insight into what it is like is through reading books and essays, my discussions with friends who teach, you, my classmates, and, of course, my own memories of secondary school. So, when I offer my opinions, I do so humbly. Having said this, you’ll excuse me while I rant about the topic of our October 9th classroom discussion of what makes “good” writing and how to teach it. I found our discussion of “If I Learn It’s a Mircal,” by John, the “remedial” first year community college student, engaging.
We talked about “voice,” and we weighed its value in determining John’s grade. Many of us agreed that the content of the student’s writing interested us. In fact, some went so far as to compare the work to poetry. Based upon what we perceived to be indicators of his social background, many of us may have felt pressure to be politically correct in our initial evaluation of John’s assignment. In her essay, “On the Subjects of Class and Gender in ‘The Literacy Papers’,” Linda Brodkey writes, “Since writers cannot avoid constructing a social and political reality in their texts, as teachers we need to learn how to ‘read’ the various relationships between writer, reader, and reality that language and discourse supposedly produce” (640).
I believe the opinion was unanimous that his writing skills are poor and in serious need of attention. Therefore, based upon the vague parameters of the assignment and the fact that it was an initial paper in a remedial composition course, agreeing on a letter grade posed some problems for us. If you recall, there were those of us who were quite lenient in our assessment, and there were those who tended to grade the composition more strictly. I’ll add that even those who went easy on the assignment agreed that they would get tougher on John’s future writing. Brodkey adds, “The question then is how to read what students write. And at issue is the unquestioned power of a pedagogical authority that insists that teachers concentrate on form at the expense of content” (640).
I suggest that the scenario posed by this student presents an ethical question: Is it fair to judge a student whom the education system has failed to such a degree that he finds himself beginning college without the proper tools? One might ask, did he actually graduate high school, and if so, how? Perhaps he received his G.E.D. at night school. But, regardless of how he got where he is, he is there, and since he is there (presumably) voluntarily, he deserves a fair chance of success. This offers the teacher a complex task-a balancing act-in which he or she must consider how to make the student realize, in no uncertain terms, just how much work and dedication on his part it will take to improve his writing skills while at the same time not discouraging him.
prepare this student to adequately undertake college writing assignments. A semester is hardly enough time to teach a person who is starting from scratch how to write. However, John’s essay offers evidence that he has the fundamental understanding of sentence structure, punctuation, and thought organization. Granted, at first, his writing appears to lack sophistication and profundity, but a closer more abstract look reveals exactly the opposite. His spelling appears to be his weakest asset, but concentrated reading of his sentences reveals that his spelling is phonetically true to a particular urban vernacular. Therefore, I suggest that it is entirely possible to salvage the fundamentals John has retained and improve upon them.
Returning to the topic of “voice,” who can say whether John’s voice is any less profound than John Lennon’s in the lines I quoted from the song, “I Am The Walrus,” or Walt Whitman’s when, in “Song Of Myself,” he writes, “The smoke of my own breath, / Echoes, ripples, buzz’d whispers, love-root, silk-thread, crotch / and vine” (2037, 22-23)? It is my opinion that we cannot. Therefore, when John writes, “The quick shy fox jump over the lazy brown dog. The teacher all ways ask whart that means. I didn’t know but, why the dog had to be brown,” we must accept that he is telling us, in his own way, information about his life and experience that is heartfelt and significant.
I hear you mumbling under your breath. “Okay Mr. smart-guy; tell us something we don’t know. Now, what do you propose we do about it?” Well, I strongly believe that the most important challenge with John is that every attempt be made to avoid discouraging him. I mean, do whatever it takes; even if that means grading his assignment on a different scale than more advanced students. Some may argue that that is not ethically sound. I suggest that it is entirely ethical if the teacher bases his or her grade on the effort put forth by the student. An alert teacher will notice whether the student’s writing is improving with successive assignments, and, if so, that justifies grading on a sliding scale.
Positive reinforcement will be crucial to this student’s success. His initial essay proves that he has, thus far, had little in the way of encouragement in his life. I am not suggesting that his errors be glossed over, but I think they should be approached in a manner that assures him he is not alone in making them. It is my opinion that disappointment is contagious; therefore, I put forward that the teacher should avoid displaying any visible or audible signs of frustration. This should be obvious to most tactful individuals, but I recall how the mood of an entire classroom would diminish when a particular teacher would say, “I am really disappointed in your grades, class.” Then, with all the sensitivity of a carnival barker, she would add, “Except Suzie. She got an A+. If she can do it, I do not see why the rest of you cannot.” At that moment, I felt worse for Suzie than the rest of us.
John’s form and spelling must be addressed quickly. The sooner he is reminded of the basic rules of syntax, the sooner his writing will appear more acceptable. It is evident that, at one time, he was taught proper sentence structure. It might have been when he was in grammar school, but he knew it once. A method of jarring his memory may be as simple as sentence diagramming. Assignments that draw on his personal experiences may illicit more free use of urban vernacular. Perhaps, then, a better way to allow the student to focus on form is to avoid (at least initially) assignments that evoke strong emotions. These assignments can be as simple as putting the class in pairs and having them each write one paragraph describing their partner. Another might be to ask the students to write detailed instructions for walking from their home to the school. These assignments are only as limited as the teacher’s imagination. As far as John’s spelling goes, he knows how letters work and what sounds they make; this is evident in the way he is able to sound-out and spell his familiar dialect. Take for example, “mircal” for miracle, “edcation” for education, and “plegded of leadgen” for The Pledge of Allegiance. One might even say that what he has written is more difficult since these versions of common words have not been incorporated into the English language. The challenge, here, is to teach the student to listen to the language. I feel strongly that by careful synthesis of proper (I should say traditional) English pronunciation, John’s spelling is likely to improve as well.
This student, like many others, slipped through the cracks of secondary education. And, his social atmosphere certainly was not conducive to traditional learning. But, despite the obstacles placed in his way, he has arrived in a teacher’s classroom, and he is saying, ‘Help me learn.’ Why he is there is not as important as making sure he remains long enough to receive what he is asking for. His voice is honest and politically relevant. The teachers who assist him in refining his language and writing skills can take pride knowing that they share a certain part of his successes. I think John Lennon would agree: As this student heads down The Long and Winding Road, he will be grateful to the teachers who have given him his Ticket To Ride.
Brodkey, Linda. “On the Subjects of class and gender in ‘The Literacy Letters’”. Cross-Talk In Comp Theory. Ed. Victor Villanueva, Jr. NCTE, Illinois. 639-658.
John. “If I learn it’s a mircal.” ENG 521 class handout.
Lennon, John and Paul McCartney. I Am The Walrus. The Beatles. Comet Music Corp. 1967.
Whitman, Walt. “Song Of Myself.” Anthology of American Literature. Ed. George McMichael. Prentice Hall, New Jersey. 2037.
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