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Correspondence
Dear Derek,

The news is bleak: one month into my first semester, and most of my students are failing.

My English 100 students are mostly young adults who struggled to finish high school here in Charleston. Their reading comprehension is okay, but few of them can string together a proper sentence. My job is to teach them to write paragraphs.

Before the semester began I was given three books: a grammar workbook, a slender how-to sort of textbook, and a book of essays. I was immediately encouraged. The essays were a good collection of work from writers I respect: Dillard, Rodriguez, Welty, Sedaris—short and engaging.

And with a grammar workbook, how could I go wrong? Assign the homework and go over it in class. Like a math workbook, it even had an answer key in back. They could check their work themselves. What would they need me for?

Here’s what I did not know: many of my students speak in dialect. Well, I knew, but I didn’t know they also write in dialect—a Gullah-Geechee blend unique to Charleston—that in no way conforms to the grammar exercises I was planning. My how-to survival guidebook cautioned me against nit-picking grammatical errors that stemmed from use of dialect. One student, a beautiful girl with long eyelashes, wrote a lovely essay entirely in dialect. If she wrote a novel in that voice she’d have a best seller. “It was no big thing,” she told me. “I just wrote it exactly like I would have said it.”

“Yes,” I said. “I can see that.”

I didn’t mean to sound snarky, but I worry. If they’re going to learn to communicate with writing, they’re going to need to learn formal grammar.

Everyone seeking a degree here at Trident Tech, from Criminal Justice to Culinary Arts, must take and pass English, so I am a gatekeeper of sorts. I know many doors of opportunity are swinging shut for my students, so I’m rooting for them to pass this class and get the degrees they desire. But passing them willy-nilly isn’t going to help. If they don’t learn quickly how to write intelligibly, their lives will remain locked in menial labor and unemployment.

Their first writing assignment was a one-paragraph memoir essay—350 words. They were supposed to write about a significant event in their lives. I poured my heart on to the white board; I bled examples of sensory details and imagery they could use in their writing to make their stories come alive. I used the analogy of a movie camera; that if they were writing about a brief encounter at their locker in middle school, they would not want to pan a sweeping shot of the entire school, but rather use a lens narrow enough to capture just the scene at the lockers.

The pocket-folders stuffed with pre-writing, rough drafts, and finished essays arrived in front of me on the due date. Some of them were battered, leftover from other projects; they slid around on the table and refused to sit in a proper stack. And despite a few of them smelling like cigarette smoke, I loaded them into grocery bags and took them home, where they sat in a few different corners for days.

Derek, you said I was procrastinating, but I didn’t have any idea how to grade folders full of writing. And deep inside my heart, I didn’t want to become a voyeur to the lives of my students. I worried that reading their stories was going to be like passing a horrific accident on the highway. I knew whatever was being pulled from the twisted steel was going to be grim.

But finally I had no choice and dug in. The grading dilemma solved itself when I saw nearly all of my students had strayed from my instructions. They’d roamed all around their significant events, explaining and summarizing, trailing behind in back story, then leaping forward to days and weeks beyond their stories. Only one guy out of my 80-plus troop of students had done what I asked, writing a brilliant short essay about his pain during physical therapy. He wrote nothing about the cause of the pain, or how he conquered it, but rendered the experience itself. I gave him the only A+.

And what of the others? I learned almost all of the young women had babies or were pregnant, or both. More than several—men and women—had witnessed shootings where people close to them died. One guy’s brother had been mistaken at his apartment for a previous occupant who had left a drug supplier hanging. A girl, the victim of spousal abuse at the hands of a husband suffering from PTSD, had been hanging with a friend playing with a gun he thought was empty. A young woman just back from Iraq was struggling with depression.

Last week I had two young men in different classes—one guy named TJ, and the other JT—who lost a cousin and a brother, respectively, one here in Charleston, the other in North Carolina. And I was having trouble grading.

They deserved a great teacher, and instead they got me.

I know nearly nothing about teaching people how to write paragraphs, but one thing I do know is if they are to learn to write, they must read. I have taught my own four kids to be readers; shoot, Althea got a perfect score on her verbal SAT. Given enough time, this is something I can teach. I nag my students relentlessly about independent reading. I offer up my only currency—points—if they’ll show up and write about their reading for the first five minutes of every class.

Still, unless I’m willing to take up their books and grade their annotations, they won’t read the assigned essays. What do I do?

I have a colleague who’s begun a teaching support group, which I think I should probably start attending. The discussion topic for a recent meeting was “How to Get Students to do the Assigned Reading.” Unfortunately the group meets while I’m teaching.

A good note to end on: I’ve been reading aloud during class, and students seem to like it. I’m careful to pick books we’ll both enjoy, so when I saw that Junot Diaz had just published a new book, This is How You Lose Her, I was pretty sure I was on to something. I’d heard Diaz deliver the keynote at an AWP Conference, and he was hip and entertaining. He’d read from this new book, too, about his protagonist Yunior, and I’d liked him back then.

The book is a collection of stories about Yunior and his failing love life. The stories have breaks in them that are perfect for reading aloud in five-minute increments. I announced my intent to the class, and asked if anyone was opposed to language that was Rated R, as if books carried a rating system. Nobody was. I told them Diaz had won the Pulitzer Prize and was a professor at MIT. No one commented, but I hoped they would think he sounded boring so I could stun them.

Imagine my classroom, jammed with desks, overhead fluorescents, two small windows that don’t open, a computer and a white board. Slumped at the desks is my class, about twenty-five mostly college-aged kids. It’s about equal when it comes to gender and there are more black kids than white. There I am, up front, the middle-aged, short, skinny white lady, wearing tortoise shell glasses, with a boring-looking book in her hand.

And so I begin, “You know how it is. A smelly bone like that, better off buried in the backyard of your life. Magda only found out because homegirl wrote her a fucking letter. And the letter had details. Shit you wouldn’t even tell your boys drunk.”

I hear a murmuring from the class, from all my classes, Did she just say that? And then they lean in to listen.

Derek, you know I am tenacious and always filled with hope for the future. Pray for me, as I do for you. Most especially, pray for my students.

All the best,

Betsy

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Derek Smith is the editor of this blogazine. This is his eleventh year teaching high school Language Arts.

Elizabeth Kalman is the great-great-great granddaughter of a Cherokee Indian maiden picked up by a wagon train on its way from the Trail of Tears in Texas to the Kentucky coal fields. Her great-great grandfather was one of the first merchants to bring silk worms to the U.S.  He kept a detailed hand-written journal that Elizabeth recently transcribed and is in the process of editing. She frequently wishes she could have accompanied Henry David Thoreau on his excursions to Cape Cod.  She grew up on Nantucket Island and is now an adjunct English instructor at Trident Technical College in Charleston, South Carolina, with an MFA from Seattle Pacific University.

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  1. December 11, 2012

    This is incredible. Thank you so much for sharing, Betsy.

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