Friday, December 01, 2006

Comp. 101

So, as of right now (everything is subject to change at TCC), I'm scheduled to teach three composition courses. Two are face-to-face classes - "chalk and talk," my boss calls them - and one is a hybrid, which meets face-to-face once a week and "online" once a week.

This is semi-uncharted territory for me. I've been on the other side of the desk plenty of times and have written, literally, file boxes worth of essays, research papers, poetry, and literary criticism. Most of my experience in composition has been as a student. I co-taught an AP Language and Composition course as an intern but, by the time I got to them, the students were focusing on the definitions for rhetorical terms and studying for the exam so there wasn't a whole lot of "composition" going on.

My not having taught the discipline before doesn't concern me too much, though, because I've been in the shadows of some masters and have been paying attention. I've had some fine, fine writing teachers in my past - and count one as a friend in my present - and Organic Mama spent a good bit of her professional life as an editor, so I've got plenty of support should I need it. (oh, who am I kidding? I'm going to need it!) I've been rolling around the idea of teaching writing in my head for the last week and am coming up with some pretty good ideas for keeping the class moving forward as we move through the term:

**There's a poster somewhere (though exactly where, I can't say because I can't find the damned thing now that I need it) that says:

"Ten ways to become a better writer:
1. write 2. write 3. write 4....
(you get the idea. There's also one for reading, too, but I can't find that one, either, or I'd post it)

I'm trying to decide if it's within reason to assign my writing students a "piece" a day, much like NaBloPoMo. If I decide that it IS within reason, I've got to figure out the logistics of such a thing.

**I'm seriously drawn to the idea of using blogging as a tool in the classroom. There's a certain bit of casualness to blogging that, I think, takes a lot of the pressure off of a writer. It's okay to write about stubbing one's toe or about the television show one watched last night on a blog, whereas, I think, there's a certain amount of stress a student feels to pick a "good" topic about which to write for a class. If I understand the objectives of the course correctly, the point is to write, not to write for a specific purpose. I'm thinking that blogging will be a useful environment for that kind of work. Again, I've got to figure out logistics.

**I've been remembering some of the more memorable writing teachers I've had and trying to recall the exercises they gave me, as a student, that helped forward my strength and comfort with the written word. My Freshman English teacher - then a graduate student herself - loved to give us quick, short assignments where we would be expected to respond to a quote or describe an experience or an object or a place. One professor, in particular, was all about responding to short stories or poems. I liked those assignments because they exposed me to a wide variety of writing styles, and I found myself growing more and more comfortable finding and refining my own voice. I still have many of those assignments in the aforementioned file boxes - I may go up and dig them out of the attic for the purposes of memory-refreshing.

**The woman who supervised the second half of my internship is a phenomenal writing teacher, and I still, to this day, remember some of the assignments she gave me when I was a sophomore in her class at the high school. I learned from her as her intern (or, rather, I re-learned what she taught me when I was a teenager but wasn't paying that much attention) to give the students short prompts and ask them to see where their writing goes without too much interference from themselves. "JUST WRITE," she says, "don't THINK too much; just see where your writing takes you." The students, incredulous at first (all teachers EVER ask us to DO is THINK! She wants us to NOT think?!), quickly discover that they start off writing about one thing - the flowers in the basket on a table in a short story, for example - and end up writing about something VERY different - the time they went to visit their elderly grandmother in the nursing home, and how her room smelled too strongly of rosewater. That is fascinating and important work for writers - to come to what they're really writing about - and it's gratifying to see them edit their own work to hone in on their subject and craft a masterpiece.

**I want my writing students to read, like the graphic above says, a lot and all the time. Seeing how other people use language - how words come together for that one sparkling sentence that just blows your socks off - is inspirational. I have a TON of material for them to read; it's just a matter of deciding which stories, poems, speeches, blog entries and essays to use.

So, that's my thinking thus far. My biggest concerns, like I said, are figuring out ways to make teaching three composition courses logistically feasible. I'm hoping it doesn't take me too long to settle into a rhythm, and that I'll have some fantastic stories to share with you all here.


Anonymous claudia said...

This subject prompts me to inquire as to how important you feel it is to be able to CLEARLY convey a desired concept. I know that the idea that "it's all subjective" is a legitimate point, but if we are using language to communicate with EACH OTHER,there seems to be a need to articulate thoughts,concepts and feelings so another person can grasp it,especially if it's important enough to write or say.
I don't know how many times I've asked a question that only requires a "yes" or "no" response,and am given lengthy explainations. I end up saying "I'm sorry.Was that a yes or a no????" Please,writers,help me to understand this!

December 01, 2006 1:03 PM  
Blogger Kizz said...

2 Things spring to mind while reading this. 1. Anne Lamott's book, Bird by Bird is amazing. I don't know whether it has any usefullness for the students to read at this point but even just while thinking about teaching writing it'd be very good for you to read if you haven't already. 2. The writing every day thing is, I think, important. For example the way Julia Cameron prescribes "morning pages" in the Artist's Way. It's brain dump writing but it gets that shit out of the way for when you have to write something specific. I know that Mr. Kelly used to have us write "anything just keep the pen on the paper for 5 minutes" in HS.

December 01, 2006 1:31 PM  
Blogger Mrs.Chili said...

Claudia, I wish I knew what to tell you. While I, personally, have a tendency to be wordy (gee, ya THINK?!), I, too, get PROFOUNDLY frustrated when I don't get a straight answer to a straight question. Listening to politicians answer yes or no questions with a ten minute duck-and-cover sends me over the edge.

I DO, however, LOVE to use language. Refer to one of my favorite West Wing quotes - "anyone who uses one word when they could have used ten just isn't trying hard." My problem is that I have SO much detail that I want to convey, and not everyone is up for wading through it all to get to the point. I'm working on that, though - I think that a teacher should now how to be cut-to-the-chase concise.

Kizz, I DO have Bird by Bird. I'll go pull it out of the bookshelf and start it today. I'm already thinking that each class will have at least (AT LEAST) two ten-minute writing breaks, and that one of them will be waiting on the board when the students walk in. Writing really is something that one must DO, and not just think about, to get better. It's going to take the students a while to get used to "ALL THAT WRITING!!" but it will be worth all the moaning and eye rolling to see how they improve over the course of eleven weeks.

December 01, 2006 2:09 PM  
Anonymous claudia said...

While reading some pieces on the decline of Western civilizations,I came across a GREAT phrase.
(just thought I'd share!)

December 01, 2006 2:14 PM  
Blogger organic mama said...

I would like to join my voice to the songs of praise for Bird by Bird. Her story that supports the title describes when Anne Lamott's Dad was telling her brother, when brother was faced with an immense project about, well, birds, that he needed to take it one by one. Her "Shitty First Draft" is a wonderful entry into what it is to write and how extremely ok it is to come up with crap right off the bat. I think using this essay as the first thing,as I did last year teaching Expository Writing sophs and juniors they read will make the prospect of COMPOSITION less daunting.

December 01, 2006 7:40 PM  
Blogger organic mama said...

Um, that last sentence should read:

I think using this essay as the first thing they read, as I did last year teaching Expository Writing to sophs and juniors, will make the prospect of COMPOSITION less daunting.

Go read it!

December 01, 2006 7:42 PM  
Blogger feather said...

claudia: The importance of brevity in responses to questions probably depends on the subject you teach, or the content of the question. "Yes" or "no" responses are dandy responses to things that can be objectively measured, like sciences, or to questions of opinion, but are less appropriate in the study of something subjective, like literature. I think it's important to use qualifications and to give background in answers to questions about literature, even if the posed question is simple on the surface. I'm trying to think of an example and can't, really, but I rarely answer just "yes" or "no" in academia. Of course, I'm obviously terribly verbose, but at least I don't make as many sweeping statements that I might later regret than I might if I stuck to yeses and nos.

My dad teaches a lot of online classes because the other professors do not like them. He doesn't mind them as much because he can work on them at home in the middle of the night. He's never used blogs; mostly just discussion boards as far as I know.

I've only taken one online class, and I dropped it halfway through because I couldn't do it. With as much time as I spent on the computer throughout my adolescence, I am just not an online learner, it seems -- I like face-to-face interaction with my teachers!

I did, however, have a class last spring in which the teacher encouraged us to use blogging as a tool. He made a group blog for the class, and suggested we make blogs of our own to "write casually about our personal responses to the readings for each week" (I just checked my email -- that's an exact quote). I HATED it. You've already picked up on my blogging anxiety, I think. Well, it was much, much worse when I was blogging for class. I dropped the blog idea pretty quickly and negotiated with my teacher for permission to turn the journal in just to him. I was the only undergrad in the class, so perhaps intimidation was a component of my difficulty. I already get nervous writing for professors, and it's much worse when I know all of the other students will be reading and judging! It didn't matter that I always did very well in the class, that the other students liked my ideas and seemed to respond excellently to the class I lead, or that my teacher favored me (when I left partway through the semester he told my advisor that I was his favourite student). I'm over-conscious of how my writing might be perceived by others. (This is also, incidentally, why I haven't yet shared my blog with anyone I know, online or off).

I'm not sure what the conclusion of this is. I suppose it's just a perspective from someone who has had blogging used as a classroom tool. Take it lightly -- I know for sure that I am on the extreme end of the anxiety spectrum.

December 02, 2006 10:38 AM  
Anonymous claudia said...

Feather, it sounds as though you suffer the same demon as many artists. When one creates,be it art,writing, music, food, an environment,a personal style,almost ANYTHING (in my opinion)that is an extension of who you choose to be,you are open to someones judgement.It took a very long time for me to feel confident enough in myself to own my right to be who I am. And I assure you,there are critics everywhere!

December 02, 2006 11:36 AM  
Blogger feather said...

Yes Claudia, it's incredibly difficult for me to share things I've created because they are so much a part of me. I feel so much more myself in writing or music or art, and it's terrifying to offer up those pure, undistilled pieces of my soul. Plain social interaction is like a dance; the movements are planned and easier to control and predict, there are rules and established moves that make it safer. Art, good art, at least, doesn't have the walls that we put up to protect ourselves in other spheres of life. It's truthful, and that's terrifying.

December 02, 2006 12:13 PM  
Anonymous claudia said...

I understand that creative people feel that their "art" is so much more personal than other aspects of their lives. I'm fairly sure that even most of the great ones were insecure and possibly frightened to expose that part of themselves.It mkes me sad to think on how many meaningful pieces of creativity have languished behind closed doors because of this fear.I have pieces that have not been seen or finished too. I guess what I'm trying to say is that I am very grateful that many saw/felt/experienced that their message/story/image was worth sharing with the rest of us.

December 02, 2006 12:51 PM  

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