Thursday, October 18, 2012

Writing and Me

As an elementary student, I used to love, love, love to write. I remember that much of my spare time in the fourth grade was spent writing limericks, poems, and short stories. Actually, these stories weren't so short--sometimes they were up to 20 pages.  I remember that my fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Seamons, wrote "You truly know how to paint pictures with words" on a personal narrative that I wrote in her class, and I felt like I had great feedback from teachers that solidified my identity as a writer.

By the time I hit the ninth grade, for several years I had been mulling over what was (in my mind at least) a brilliant psychological thriller, born from my intense love of mysteries and horror stories in the ilk of Nancy Drew and Alfred Hitchcock. The protagonist of this thriller was actually a murderer but had a split personality and didn't know it. I spent months putting my thoughts into words as I wrote this story, prided myself that plot was really subtle but still engaging. I can't remember all the details now, but I do remember that a red handkerchief was the clue that ended up tying the story all together.

Well, I remember Mrs. Brown, my ninth-grade English teacher, returning the story to me with a big A- written on the top, and all it said was something like, "So the protagonist is the killer?" I remember that she also gave our class a lecture on how this set of short stories was the darkest set of short stories she had read in her life, and she was worried for the future of America if the youth like us were so obsessed with madness and darkness.

From that time on, I pretty much gave up on creative writing. I stopped writing poems, limericks, short stories. When I took a creative writing class in high school, I felt like it was more of a chore than a method of self-expression. I don't mean to be a "teacher blamer" or anything, but teachers have a lot of authority in our lives, and for me, the fact that I got an A- on a story that took me years to conceptualize and months to write meant that I must not have been very good at creative writing.

I still do a whole lot of non-fiction writing, however. Mostly writing up the results of research for publication or grant applications, much as one is expected to do when you are an academic. Looking back on the situation now that I have been a teacher, I realize that teachers actually are not the ultimate authority. Since then, I have had people critique my writing in harsh and severe ways--saying much worse things to me than "You deserve an A-", but other people have deemed the same piece of writing good enough to publish in a top-tier journal. So I have come to realize that one person's opinion cannot constitute the absolute authority on my writing. However, I think I had to be at a certain point in my own personal emotional development to be able to take criticism without internalizing it too much as the product of my own personal failings. Still, though, I will say that any time I get an article rejection or a particularly discouraging review I still have to steel up my backbone and tap into reserves of emotional fortitude.

What this experience taught me is that teachers and their feedback can have huge consequences in the identity development of their students--they can foster identities as "good writers" or "bad writers," for example. I know that we, as teachers, may grade 200 assignments at any one time, and it's easy to become mechanical about how we respond to students without realizing that every one comment we give can make a real difference in their psyche. It's important for us to take our charge as teachers seriously, to wear the teaching mantle well, if you will. For the sake of our developing students.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The Ideal and the Real

I write this post in the context of having a herniated disc in my back, lying on my bed with my legs propped up. Over the last several weeks, I've been spending most of time either lying down or standing with small periods of time spent sitting. I've injured my back before, and I think teaching is actually the perfect profession for me because it does not require a lot of sitting. 

This situation has prompted me to think about the ideal and the real in teaching. When I think of the ideal, I think of the following: what we know we SHOULD do, what we want to do, who we want to be. For instance, maybe we know that we should do hands-on minds-on lessons, that we should provide engaging before reading instruction prior to reading texts with our students, that we should plan engaging topics for discussion and come every day prepared, that we should read and comment on our students' assignments in constructive and substantive ways, that we should be ceaselessly positive and caring. We know we should do that. We have an ideal version of ourselves as teachers, as the people we aspire to be. 

Then, reality hits. We have to spend hours on our backs because we have a herniated disc. A family member gets sick. Or even simply--we want to spend time with loved ones, such as our children, and we find ourselves out of time and unable to reach the ideal.

I struggle with this tension constantly. I still have assignments to grade for tonight, a tenure/promotion binder to finish, a letter of intention for a grant application due tomorrow, and a lesson to plan. And my back exercises to do and my health to manage. Maybe I'm just a poor time manager, but I find myself in this type of situation a lot.

I think that previously, I would have sacrificed my sleep to get everything done, but now I have a greater concern for my health and am not willing to do that anymore.

I know this is a blog about literacy--but I think that who we are as teachers is related to everything, including the quality of instruction (and literacy instruction) to provide. I can imagine myself again as a secondary teacher, knowing that I SHOULD do things like provide before reading instruction but being mentally tired and not wanting to think about it. On the other hand, I don't think it's fair to let myself (or other teachers) off the hook by saying, "Oh, you're tired," or "Oh, your back is sore, so you don't have to provide quality instruction to your students."

I don't think there is any easy solution when I think about the tension between the ideal and the real. I have been teaching for 15 years and still this is something I struggle with on an ongoing basis. But I do think that by sharing with each other--our struggles and triumphs, our lesson plans, our frustrations, that we can come to a more comfortable place in our minds, our hearts, and our teaching.