Friday, September 12, 2014

The Rock: Thoughts on Teaching Writing

Jim Schaefer

Through my years of teaching writing, every once in a while, I’ve encountered a student whose voice is so powerful that it makes all the day-by-day effort worth every minute. With this student, Rodia Heard, the victory was even sweeter and more profound because she is blind. This particular essay also represents a pedagogical victory because I was able to work out a way for her to use her powerful voice. Before this moment, Rodia had to rely on a note taker and a typist.
I noticed that this interfered with the flow of her expression, so I suggested that she buy an audio recorder so she could record the flow of her thoughts and then have the note taker and typist take it from there.

It took a while for Rodia to get the recorder and to use it. During that time, she was also struggling to figure out what to write about. I encourage my students to select a specific moment and then use critical thinking to unpack the significance of that moment. As we were conversing about this, Rodia remembered the rock that I show to all of my students on the first day of class. Although she couldn’t “see” it, she could feel it in her hand and sense its presence. I always tell my students that this rock is from a river in Vietnam. I also tell them that this rock, purchased from a store called Ten Thousand Villages on Main Street in Ann Arbor, represents how I feel about writing: that through multiple applications (the rock has nine layers of lacquer), I can make something beautiful that never existed before. As you will see when you read Rodia’s essay (I have her permission to share it), you’ll notice how powerfully Rodia explores this “moment.” When Rodia presented me with this essay, she told me that she was so grateful for this empowering experience because now she knew that she could use this process in any situation in which she had to express herself.
The Essay: The Rock
by Rodia Heard

When I started my summer semester at Wayne County Community College District, the first class I took was English 119. Upon entering into the room, I sat down. It was silent, the sun was shining on the desk, but there was no movement. I was told that the Instructor was sitting there, still and silent. This puzzled me. I was not getting a feel as to what type of teacher Mr. Schaefer would be because he was silent. When he finally began to talk, a rock was the first thing he spoke about.
He passed this rock around for each and every student to feel it. He was explaining what he felt about it, and when it reached me, I held it in my hand, and at that moment I knew that my class was going to be enjoyable. I was going to accomplish what I set out to do, which is to learn and be knowledgeable and to obtain a good grade. When I held that rock, it empowered me. It made me feel stronger. The rock, as he told the story and I was holding it in my hand, I connected with it. I could feel the energy from the rock as he spoke about it.
This rock came from Vietnam. The Vietnam era was a time in life where many Americans didn’t have anything positive to say about that country. When I held that rock, which was once something that was found in a river, I didn’t know where the beginning of the rock had come from. Did it break from a larger mountain? I did know that it was there in an area where the water had flowed across and over it. I don’t know how many hundreds or thousands of people had walked by it, yet it was still there waiting to be picked up and used in a positive situation.
This rock now being displayed in my English class was once just a simple stone, dirty, never cleaned. No one had ever taken time to just say, this rock can be something beautiful. A person must have come along and picked it up. Now, as I’m holding it in my hand, I was admiring its beauty. I could feel its texture. It had a shape that was not round, not long, and not extremely large. It could fit in the palm of my hand. As it did so, it gave me a sense of power and control over my situation. Even though this was an object that could be used as a weapon to hit or cause harm to some one, it was empowering to me just to hold it, as my instructor talked about the layers of lacquer that had been applied to turn it into this finished piece of beauty.
This rock was once, probably, from a family of rocks. It stood alone just like I was in this class, alone, yet empowered. I wondered if, while this rock was on the bank, someone had picked it up and brought it through customs, traveling from Vietnam to the United States. Many of us will never take the journey that the rock has because we don’t leave our homes to venture off into other places.
Not knowing anything about Vietnam, I’m holding a rock that symbolizes something beautiful. When we think of the Vietnam era, we think of negativity, of war, of killings, and captivity. We hardly ever think in terms that something beautiful can come from it. This rock that I’m holding in my hand symbolizes a work of art, of beauty. It was a stone that had been polished. Once, it was just a rough piece of rock lying on the ground. People were walking over it and never paying attention to it. The person who thought to pick it up saw its beauty. They saw that this rock could symbolize something positive. That’s what I get from the rock when I hold it. I think positively. I think beauty, strength, and of determination and endurance because this rock has endured all types of climatic changes. This rock is unmovable. It has stayed unbroken. It’s whole. It’s something that people can identify with if they would just take the time to look at it in a positive and beautiful way, as I did.
I feel that this rock also show us that anything can be refined, restored, finished and processed with layers and layers of effort, in this case, lacquer. First, it was painted black. Black is a color or strong power and strength. This black-colored rock that I held in my hand had been painted black and then coated with layers of lacquer. Lacquer was applied to the stone to make a finished product. I would never have thought of this rock as being inanimate, something that had no power and no sense of history. I would have just overlooked it. Now, when you look at it, it’s beautiful. It symbolizes a gemstone. It is a stone that has been through many types of obstacles and troubles, even times of war. Perhaps someone had fallen upon this rock, or someone had rested there to take a drink of water, but never taken time to look at it and say, I’m going to take this rock and make a difference. This rock symbolizes change. We can all be made to be something different, something more beautiful if we just apply time.
Someone took the time to recreate and restructure the rock. It had several coats of lacquer applied until it shined. It was not something that was just done over night. It was a process. After it was coated with the lacquer, it had to dry for a long period of time before one can go back and apply more lacquer. So, when we think about the rock, it’s something like creative writing. It’s a process. It’s not something that’s done in one application. It is a continuation of work, work, work, work, until you have coated it several times. You have to wait a period of time and go back, set it down, come back to it at a later date and pick it up again and apply another coat of lacquer until, in the end the finished rock is glistening and beautiful.
Afterward, the artist began to put different images on the rock. On this particular rock, it shows two fish going in a circular motion. That circle symbolizes unity that is an unbroken bond with no exit point. As students in the classroom, we are united into groups. The setting was similar to the rock because we formed our own family. In our circle we learned about each other.
When I sense the rock, it indicates strength, power, and connection to me. We are symbolic of a rock because, in the Bible, Jesus said, “Upon this rock I will build my church and the gates of hell shall not prevail.” So, I look at this rock as something where no harm will come against it because it’s unbreakable. In the class, as people, we should be as the rock. This rock, to me, symbolizes that I am strong, I can endure all things, I can conquer all things. I am beautiful just like this rock. I was empowered from the moment that I held this rock in my English 119 class. I felt the strength and the energy that poured into me from that rock. That is what writing was to me. It’s hard at first, but as I hold it and connect with it, my writing and creativity begin to flow. As I held on to that rock, I began to become energized and empowered, and I enjoyed the story that was told.
As I leave to go to other classes, I will always think back about my experience with the rock that was from Vietnam that traveled through countries to make it all the way to Michigan. Not only to Michigan, but to end up in Detroit at Wayne County Community College District, in an English class that was about creative expository writing.
Creative writing symbolizes strength, power, work, and application upon application, the same as the rock with its layers of lacquer. It had to be coated. That’s the same as writing. It’s not just a one-time process. It’s not a one-moment process. It’s not instantaneous. It’s something that takes time. You have to go back over it and over it and over it again, until you have created a masterpiece. The beauty of the rock symbolizes strong, unwavering power and unbroken strength. That was what this rock was to me. I am like that rock. I will endure because of my connection with that rock.

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