Tears For Freshman Comp
This essay by Lisa Shapiro was published in the book Attachment-Based Teaching: Creating a Tribal Classroom by Louis Cozolino
I always shed tears at funerals, weddings, or a dedication ceremony to name a baby. One other place I’m almost certain to cry is in my freshman composition class. When I first started teaching college English, I was stunned to discover how many students hated it, and their loathing of the subject seemed directly connected to past experience with the five-paragraph essay. This simple structure – an introductory paragraph followed by three body paragraphs with a topic sentence and supporting examples, and then a paragraph of conclusion – helps students organize information. As a creative process, however, it’s like spending a few hours naked in a walk-in freezer – mind-numbing to the point of imaginative hypothermia.
To rekindle the fire of inspiration, I asked my students to write narrative essays. My goal was to get them to hear their own voice – the “I” voice – which many of them had been cautioned never to use in writing. What ensued was like a reality T.V. show for freshman comp, with everyone spilling all kinds of emotional stuff; to hell with the punctuation. Then, to help students really hear their writing voice, I asked them to read their essays out loud.
This process of writing and reading seemed to draw them out, to help them connect to the class and to one another. The students also became more engaged with the content of their essays, and they seemed willing to pay a little more attention to details like sentence structure. Initially, I thought this was just a backdoor approach to essay writing, a way to get them to buy into the assignment by making it more relevant to their own experience. Gradually, however, I began to see that in addition to being more interested intellectually, the students were also more engaged emotionally, which led them to take more control of the assignment. Rather than waiting for instructions, they would often approach to ask if they could tackle a certain topic. Could they write about getting drunk, stealing, using drugs, being involved in a gang? The answer was yes – always yes. Could they use swear words? Of course. Not all of my students were rascals; some wrote about sitting in a hospital room with a parent who had cancer, and then becoming like a parent to a younger sibling. They wrote about loss and love and life, and about all the lessons they learned. At some point, the essay itself took a back seat to the topic, and it seemed to me that that was how it should be – content should dictate structure.
Something else was happening in the classroom, too, and after a while I couldn’t ignore it any longer. The essays that my students were writing were important to them, and they were important to me, and not just as a teaching tool. Their words got under my skin, wormed their way into my consciousness and into my heart. Their lessons left a mark on me, and I was learning from their experiences. I wasn’t immune to the emotional vulnerability they shared, and so the classroom was suddenly a riskier place for me to be. It caused me pain, and it made me cry.
These moments that I share with my students are as beautiful as they are painful, they impact me as much as any wedding or funeral, and they happen every semester. I know that when I walk into a classroom and students start writing and reading their stories, their lessons will open me, fracture and enlighten me. Freshman comp is one of those classes that students dread, but it’s the class where I learn the most, and I’ve come to love it, even though it makes me cry.