Friday, February 3, 2012

Yes, Our Teaching Does Help Our Students

Jim Schaefer

As I complete another semester, I welcome the pleasurable task of reading my students’ reflections about what they learned about their writing as they struggled to express themselves with meaningfulness and competence. Their final journals this semester have again confirmed that, yes, my teaching did help them as they attempted to find effective ways of putting their thoughts into words. I’d like to share some of those thoughts, although I have omitted their names for obvious reasons of discretion.

Student A said that at the beginning of the semester, her writing was “a train wreck, to say the least.” She stated that she “lacked the confidence and strength to be able write.” Then, as I continued to work with her in what she called “long reflecting conversations,” she took a “new pathway” in her writing so that she is leaving the class “confident and ready for anything thrown my way.”
Another older student, Student B, noted that she was “nervous” at the beginning of the semester because previously she had not had to write “structured and formatted” papers. After revising her essays so she could learn from her errors and improve, she claimed that she was “surprised” at her writing and was “even more taken by how much I find myself enjoying to write.” She even added that she would “continue writing even after this class finishes” and that she was “thankful for the knowledge, as I have seven more years of school left.”
Student C observed that being able not to use a formulaic approach to writing allowed him to write from “the heart and not from the brain.” As a result, his writing seemed “to flow better,” and he thought that he actually sounded “like a person, instead of a heartless robot.” He also noted that revising his essays permitted him to learn “something new” and to improve his writing.
Student D noticed that he had shown “a lot of improvement” in his writing, although he was still struggling and had “room for growth.” This student wanted to polish the aesthetic of his writing, so he could “add more color and expression” and build his vocabulary, so that his essays could be more “engaging and poetic” in an “elegant flow of words.”
Student E discussed the re-discovery of her passion for writing, which disappeared after a violent episode in an abusive relationship. That episode had represented a roadblock that took away all her motivation to express herself, so that she had stopped writing altogether. Gradually, after a sustained effort in my class, she was able to “get past the anger and pain.” Now, she said, she feels like she has “travelled through a terrible storm and come out on the other side to find the sunshine.”
As teachers, we do work very hard to help our students find the sunshine on the other side of the struggle to express themselves. At the end of a semester, as we try to complete all our tasks of evaluating papers, we may not remember a crucial insight that the progress that our students have made resulted not only from their efforts but also from our work with them. As Parker J. Palmer, in his book, The Courage to Teach (2007), said, teachers offer their students the generous gift of the life of our minds, so our students can give full voice to their thoughts. When we have done that, we have done a good job, a job worth remembering.

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