Composition Theory and Pedagogy
Writing With a Purpose
by Daniel R. Simonds
Writing is something that always came relatively easy to me. I was not the best student in High School, though that was primarily due to my lack of effort and enthusiasm. I was certainly capable of doing the work, though baseball and Atari always seemed to come first. But with writing, I was most often able to produce the quality of work my parents expected of me in a short and painless amount of time.
As I set such a scenario for you, two problems are clearly recognizable. The first lies in the lack of effort I put forth in my early schooling, and the second is that I recognized very early what my parents expectations of me were, though I failed to explore my own subdued expectations. They were bubbling just beneath the surface of my false façade of a student. It was not until my years in college, and my subsequent experience, although it is still in its infant stages, of teaching High School English that I began to appreciate writing and reading as a useful tool rather than a mechanism for keeping a smile on my parents’ faces. When this released enthusiasm became part of my life, the latter of the scenario’s problems quickly solved the former.
He was a professor at SUNY Cortland, Ross Borden. And it was only by a twist of fate that my path was fortunate enough to cross with his. As I signed up for Early British Literature as an undergraduate, I expected simply to carry on with my typical style of enduring English, for my major was in the sciences. I had known from the time I graduated from High School that I was probably most apt to succeed in English, though my personal restraints pushed me away from it. Nonetheless, as I walked through the door to Early British Literature, I had expected a woman professor, as my schedule had insisted, though I found myself sitting before Ross Borden, a man who would eventually change my life. Evidently, Mrs. so and so was pregnant or out of the country; it doesn’t matter.
Borden, a professor who taught solely Children’s Literature, was assigned the course only a short time before it began. Immediately his passion for literature and for writing, both creatively and analytically, came across to those students who would accept it. He spoke of Shakespeare and of Milton as if they had not just written poetry, but as if they had expressed ideas that were unknown to mankind but for in verse. As I began to appreciate the poets and their fascinating ideas, I soon began to develop ideas of my own. It was an unearthing of passion and enthusiasm that had long been hid from me, though it was within me. Professor Borden gave me a reason to write. He gave me a purpose for my writing other than meeting someone’s expectations or reaching a grade that was acceptable; writing became a means of communicating, of expressing ideas, and of exploring something wonderful. I soon switched my major to English, and eventually attained my certification as a teacher.
The reason behind my choice to teach is quite simple, though it has led to a great deal of dilemma in my professional life as well as my personal life. I wanted to reach students as Borden reached me. I wanted to help my students become passionate about writing, though I have found myslef thus far, more often than not, frustrated with my limited success. I am now in my second year of teaching, and my second district in New York State. In this brief time, I have come to several conclusions about students and their tendancies as writers. The first is that students today are faced with so many state and national mandates, that traditional writing instruction is not all too successful. With the Regents examination and the eighth grade English Language Arts assessment, students are given only a short amount of time to complete a variety of writing tasks. The problems with such a format are seemingly endless for teachers of writing. First, the most effective way to write, as Peter Elbow suggests, is by following a methodic series of drafts and revisions, though the standardized tests eliminate such a process due to their time constraints. Thus the teacher must decide how to instruct the students. I grapple with teaching the traditional process, one that I believe strongly in, and with teaching the students how to respond as quickly as possible to a topic that is supplied by state officials. Should the instructor guide the students into writing with patience and passion, or into meeting the acceptable rubric assigned score on their exam? The first method may promote life long writers and readers, though the second is necessary for the students to pass their test, and subsequently graduate. In order to teach a student to write, the instructor must, as Professor Borden was so successful in doing with me, find a way to make writing desirable for the student. While testing may be a nessessary device, it often frightens students, especially when the students’ futures depend on the results. Thus the students equate writing with fear, agony, and potential failure.
Furthermore, many veteran teachers and some relatively inexperienced, make a habit of assigning writing tasks as a type of punishment. The common example alluded to often in modern television comedies such as The Simpsons involves the student writing several times the same word, definition, or phrase because he or she had acted inappropriately or missed a question. While the punishment is perhaps effective for some teachers, it instills in the student the ideology that writing is a punishment. Thus the student will continue this attitude until someone, like Ross Borden, is effective enough to change it.
While the difficulties in teaching students not only to be good writers, but also to enjoy writing are easy to complain about, they are not immediately changeable. Consequently, as a teacher of young writers, one must find a way to make the system work. Ross Borden found a way with me, and I feel I have found a way with many of my students, but not all of them. So I continue to read, and I continue to write, and I continue to teach, though I also continue to struggle with the many problems surrounding the field.
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