Friday, October 10, 2008

Hooray for Slacker Prompts

I don’t remember learning how to write essays in junior high—we just wrote them. The teachers that I had back then emphasized grammar above structure. As long as my spelling was reasonable and my commas well-positioned, I got the grade I wanted. Still, I was writing constantly. Usually it was stories about horses or cats, but occasionally I threw in a dog or a sheep. (My heroine was a girl invariably named Sarah or Becky—or Sarah Rebecca. I loved those names…ha.) I had time to write back then.

I really didn’t learn much about essay writing until high school. Thank heaven for Mrs. Morrison! She taught us an outlining method to organize our thoughts and gave us plenty of practice with the basic 5-paragraph essay. Those who signed up for her class knew they were going to be challenged, but that they were also going to learn something. I still use concepts that she taught me, one of which is very similar to what Adrian was writing about: Don’t panic when a thesis is elusive. Just write all you know, and you’ll find the answer as you go.

I can really empathize with students who are frustrated with their writing, because at least once a week I’m in the same situation. Just because I have the structure or the idea does not mean that things are going to “flow” smoothly. Even with the correct formula, the sentences sometimes don’t want to cooperate.

Writing is one of the hardest—and most rewarding—acts we do as human beings. Sometimes all it takes is a sympathetic ear or another set of eyes to help us move on.
The model of essay writing I use now was taught to me as a sophomore is high school. It is the standard five paragraph essay. I still use a (ever-so-slightly) more sophisticated version of the high school essay. Essay writing for me is closer to algebra than composition. I start with the standard template, plug in variables, create a thesis from the variables, and restate the variables in the closing paragraph. My essays are structurally uninspired, and I'm fine with that. I don't enjoy writing essays. I'm a creative writing emphasis. I like to spend the bulk of my writing time on other projects, so essays tend to get the bare minimum of my creative resources. When explaining essay writing to 1010 and 2010 students, I usually tell them to write their paper first, and then decide what their paper is about. The thesis/intro/conclusion bit comes last. Once you have a body of writing, you look at it and decide what it's saying. That is your thesis. Then you cut the parts that aren't pertinent to your thesis and make a list of what's left. This is the rough draft of your introduction. Once you have a polished introduction, you restate the exact same thing in a new way and put it at the end. That's your conclusion. It might seem juvenile and formulaic, but the western tradition of essay writing is in fact pretty juvenile and formulaic. Stray to far from the juvenile formula, and you won't be fulfilling the requirements of an "essay."

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Growing Up Among Word Nerds

My mom double majored in math and English. Interesting combination, and it brought about interesting dynamics at my house. When we brought home “essays” as homework in elementary school, she would gush over how much she loved to write. When we had math homework, she taught us “fun” ways of doing the problems that always seemed to make more sense then how the teacher explained it. In this, I have been very lucky. Growing up in a home that valued education, and different kinds of education, I think I learned a love of learning before I actually ever learned anything.

Growing up, I learned to write from my mom. It was just something that I picked up as she helped me write my papers when I was little, and I always knew she could and would edit them as I grew up. It’s the sort of house where you can announce that you learned a new word when you walk in the door, and people will stop to listen. Nerdy, I assure you. It’s been years since I’ve gone to my mom for help on a paper, but for years she was my help on papers. I do not recall any teacher or professor explicitly explaining how to write a paper, but I have a blur of memories of my mom explaining about paragraphs and main ideas, and later thesis statements and comma splices. More importantly, I have a blur of memories of my mom gushing over word choice, sentence structure, and the idea of writing in general. I grew up with the idea that reading and writing are fun…No wonder I turned out the way I did…

That being said, my brother is two years younger than me and he feels none of it. He never reads unless forced, and he would be ecstatic if he never had to write another essay. He grew up in the same house, with the same mother delighting over numbers and words at every turn. He’s not a half bad writer when he gives it half a chance, but I don’t imagine him ever calling it fun. It would make sense to think maybe he rebelled against the nerds, but it’s more that he’s indifferent. I love to read. I love to write. Remembering my brother helps me to relate to those who don’t share my fervor, and realize that you don’t need to be overjoyed at the idea of writing a senior thesis-which I am- to write a good paper. For me, writing was a life long process of gleaning information from another word nerd. I failed to pick up my mom’s love of numbers; I never questioned that writing was the cool thing to do. Nevertheless, working with my brother has helped me related to all those normal people out there who don’t understand.

No Title

I have mentioned this in class before. When I was a sophomore in high school I had a teacher who actually taught me how to write an essay. Before that I do not really remember how I learned to write. Apparently whatever I was doing was working because my teachers seemed to enjoy my essays, but when I got into my sophomore class my teacher had to spend quite a bit of time teaching us how to write an essay that analyzed a text. He showed us good and bad examples and walked us through various texts showing us how to do a new critical reading. Of course, I did not know it was a new critical reading at the time.

After that I don't really know how I advanced in my writing. It seems like it came naturally, but I was obviously copying or learning from something. I took the principles I learned from that teacher and that pretty much got me through the rest of high school. All of my other teachers never had any problem with my writing. But when I entered college there had to be something that helped me augment my writing. Back in high school it was 2-3 page papers and now it's 20 page papers so I am not really sure when and where I learned to add to what I already learned. Maybe it was all those literary theory essays I was forced to write. In reality I am still learning to write because each professor is slightly different and each professor has different expectations. So every semester I have to learn how to make my writing fit each professor's expectations.

Since I do not really remember how I learned to write in college I do find it difficult to talk about writing sometimes. Students come to me with problems in their papers and occasionally I don't know how to say what I want to say to make their paper better. It seems like these students have never really been taught to write either so we are working from a foundation that does not really exist. I try to use writing terms like content, clarity, and organization, and they want to call it flow. I try to explain what the terms mean, but they do not always understand why they should use the terms I suggest. Tutoring has really helped me develop a language about writing. I feel much more comfortable talking about writing now then I did last semester. At the same time it can be difficult to teach a concept you do not really remember learning. At least this is an area where I can join others in confusion about how to learn to write. This topic seems to be controversial because learning how to write is something people seem to think they always skip over.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

The Best Day of 7th Grade

I remember vividly being taught the five-paragraph essay in 7th grade. It was the most amazing moment of my juinor-high career. I had finally found a "formula" for writing, something I loved to do. I latched onto this formula and have learned to expand it as I have grown in my academic career. However, that moment sticks with me as when I first learned to write for school. Thank you, Mrs. Mair.

By the time I learned this essay format, I had already written a "novel" and some short stories. However, they did not have real structure or reason behind their themes and organization. Learning how to use an introduction and a conclusion gave me a pattern to use and also a name for what I often already did.

I think writing did come naturally to me before then. I always enjoyed it and always did well in school. I also read a lot, which may have helped me to pick up subconsciously how writing is done. Once I knew that my natural instincts for organization were mostly correct, I felt vindicated and smart. I remember thinking how fascinating it was to watch Mrs. Mair use the overhead projector and colored markers to scribble on our essays and point out the high and low points. I remember being completely in love with that day of school. I felt that surely all of my classmates found the lesson as important and earth-shattering as did I.

However, I now know that this could not be true. Many of the students in my class that day barely graduated from high school or dropped out. Meeting students in the tutoring center also affirms that not everybody pays as close attention as I did when learning about essay writing. I guess that is why we have writing centers. Although I know it may be nearly impossible, I hope to transfer my enthusiasm for writing to the students I encounter. Maybe I can create the moment for them that I experienced in 7th-grade English class.

My Attempt

I remember in ninth grade my teacher told us that we were going to learn how to write essays. She called it the lego block essay. She used actual legos to demonstrate what the essay needed. Her example started with an introduction paragraph, then a three paragraph body followed, and finally a conclusion paragraph. I remember her saying not to write "In conclusion" at the end of the essay, but just to conclude it. She also taught us that your three body paragraphs should support your main idea. Her lego block essay got me through high school and gave me sort of an idea of how to write a longer essay.

Later I came to Weber State and teachers were asking me to write essays that were four to five pages long! I thought that the jerks here must not have ever learned how to write an essay or understood what an essay was(five paragraphs max). I was wrong though; I was the jerk that did not know what an essay was.

When I took 3080 Mrs. Dr. Cheney used a coaching technique to help me figure out how to write a literary criticism type essay. She would let us write our essays and hand them into her, and then correct them and hand them back to us to rewrite. Dr. Cheney explained what a thesis was and how to defend it, and every time I wrote a week essay she would give me my paper back with suggestions to make it stronger. She gave us an assignment to write a new critical essay on a sonnet by Shakespeare. In it, we were to defend the idea that Shakespeare was writing that particular sonnet to his gay lover. I was surprised to find myself able to write an essay that defended something that I did not agree with. I started to feel comfortable with my ability to write a good essay. Although I have not come close to perfecting my ability to write essays, at the very least I learned how to recognize what a strong essay would read like.

When students come into the writing center who are struggling to figure out how to write an essay I feel empathy for them. I am definitely not one of those natural talents, and I still struggle to write my own essays. I have found it helpful for my own purposes to get a second opinion on my "attempts" to write, so it would be hard for me not to feel for those coming into the writing center with similar problems.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Sharing Brains

Its interesting thinking about how I, personally, learned to write essays because I’m not entirely sure if I ever really “learned” it (in the traditional sense) in one setting. I have always had the firm belief that my love and talent for writing is an indirect result from my love for reading as a child. Writing seems to come easier for those who are avid readers, in my experience, no doubt because in order to learn to write, one must have experience in the written language one is working with. Writing, in my mind, seems to be similar to the theory of how people learn to talk. Psychologists are not sure how much of speech stems from imitation and social reinforcement or simply “comes” innately when a person is born. On a different scale, writing seems to work much the same way. The chance for emulation must come at some point with the reading of other authors, but in some cases it seems that certain individuals just seem to “get it” and others don’t. I am speaking mainly about the elusive “flow” of writing and how even in the writing discipline, some authors craft beautiful sentences that convey feelings in ways that other, equally successful writers simply cannot do. However, when it comes to academic writing-like essays for instance- I firmly believe that anybody can learn how to write an organized, clear essay with a certain amount of effort. If this wasn’t the case than our writing center would be completely unneeded.
There are very few times in my life that I can consciously remember actually learning the step-by-step process of writing an essay. Past the actual writing of the individual letters (which I struggled with as a kindergartener- the “e”s really got me), I always seemed to take sentences from books that I was reading and mold them into a pattern that worked for me. It wasn’t until high school that my teachers really started differentiating between “good” and “bad” writers. In my AP classes that had required essay portions on the test, without fail my teachers on the first day of school would always hold up the model essay of perfection against the terrible essay that the graders all laughed at. This was the first time in my life that I was labeled as a good writer, instead of merely a good reader. I think this period of time too is the point where students who have qualms about the writing process develop them. If a student gets low marks in high school on his papers and doesn’t see any way of fixing them himself, he may decide that writing is just “not for him” and develop insecurities about the discipline. These insecurities carry over into college composition courses where the student is now forced to develop his writing skills whether he wants to or not.
For students who simply just don’t seem to “get” the writing process, I can completely empathize A comparable situation comes to mind as I think of my good friend in high school who excelled in the exact opposite subjects than me. He was the math and science whiz and I was the history and English nerd. Because of this, when it came to math, I had to turn to him for help in my struggle. It was frustrating for me that I just couldn’t understand the things that came so naturally to him, but on the other side he didn’t seem to grasp the terms and concepts in English that I did. Due to this, we had a running joke that if we ever “shared a brain” we would be able to get 4.0s. However, my point is that every person is good at something different, and because of this just because a student may not “get” writing, doesn’t mean that they aren’t genius in something else that I couldn’t even begin to understand. I love the Writing Center because it allows me to share something I am good at with somebody who needs the help. Who knows? Maybe some day the roles will be reversed, and then I will be the tutee learning something that appears completely foreign to me from the very same person that I helped in writing before.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Slacker Prompt

How did you learn how to write essays? Did it come naturally? Are you sure about that? Was there anyone who walked you through how to do it? Was there ever a moment when it all just finally made sense?

If not...if you've always just been able to do this, do you have trouble empathizing with students who do have these problems?

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Revisions and Revisions

Hi all. Here is a list of the changes we made to the schedule last week:

M 10.6 -- Tamar Presentation; Ong; TAs read Anson
W 10.8 -- OWLing

M 10.13 -- Peterson Presentation; TAs read Lunsford; TAs Tutor observation 3 due.

M 10.20 -- Whitby Presentation; TAs read Hartwell

W 10.22 -- Wheelwright Presentation (Perl); TAs read Rodgers

Let me know if you see any problems.