If you had taken a writing course with me back when I was teaching at a community college, your first assignment would have been to write a story about someone you knew.
There were two conditions: The story had to have taken place within a short time span (30 minutes max), and it had to illustrate a quality – good or bad – about the person at the center of the story.
I always introduced the assignment with a favorite story about my husband. Back when we were dating, Charlie took me to a restaurant in New York City. After the meal we started strolling back to my apartment – and then Charlie suddenly walked over to a homeless man who was staggering down the sidewalk. He put his arm around the man and they walked off together, leaving me standing there.
Five minutes later Charlie was back (relief!). “I hope you didn’t mind,” he said. “I saw that the man had been drinking and didn’t know where he was. I was afraid he’d get hit by a car. He said he lived on the next block, so I walked him to his door.”
I always asked students what quality they thought the story illustrated. After some discussion they would usually come up with several good ones, such as “compassion” or “caring.” Then it was time for them to choose a story of their own, write it down, share it with their peer group, and hand it in to me.
Over the years I read many marvelous stories about students’ friends, ministers, teachers, parents, and grandparents. But I also read papers from students who couldn’t grasp what the assignment was all about. Some students would record their mothers’ entire life story. Others would write about someone they barely knew.
I remember a student who wrote about a camping trip organized by her father, who had divorced her mother a decade earlier. Her story vividly portrayed her brother and sister, but Dad was a shadowy figure who did very little but put up the tent and build the campfire.
When I asked what quality she was writing about, she couldn’t answer. “To tell you the truth,” she finally said, “I never got to know him. He had been gone for a long time, and the camping trip was supposed to be a new beginning. But things never quite worked out.”
Looking back, I suspect she (and the peer group she worked with) learned more from that unsuccessful writing task than any other assignment that semester. (She eventually earned an A in the course.)
That simple assignment, she learned, wasn’t so simple after all. Students used to tell me that this “tell a story that illustrates a quality” was much harder than they expected. It’s easy to list a series of facts about a grandparent or youth minister. It’s much harder to focus on a single quality and then find a story to match.
I started thinking about all of this yesterday when my friend Gustavo A. Rodríguez Martin sent me a link to a writing booklet called Writing: A Teaching Guide published by the New York City Board of Education. As part of a summer writing project, students were asked to interview one another, choose interesting stories, and write them down. The instruction booklet is engaging and well written, and I was hugely impressed by the whole project.
The booklet was published in 1989. If someone wanted to do this project today, I’d suggest publishing the stories through an on-demand service so that students could have a book that puts themselves and their writing front and center – for a cost of less than five dollars per student.
Back to teaching writing. Here’s what I learned over many years of teaching (and doing my own writing): It’s all about thinking, selecting your material, and working it. The secret ingredient in a successful writing task is usually the stories (another reason I always started the semester with the “story about someone you know” assignment).
I’m going to add one more thing: Writing is (or should be) about pleasure. Yes, writing can feel like drudgery. It can be tiring, confusing – even exasperating. But it should also be fun and exhilarating: “Look what I’ve done!” “Where did that wonderful detail come from?” There should be a real and lasting sense of accomplishment. Alas (and I’m as guilty of this as anyone), so often the only feedback students get is a grade and a list of corrections.
After some years of teaching, I made some changes in the way I responded to student writing. On the day an assignment was done, I sat down with each group and read each student’s paper. My goal was to simply honor what was written. Although it was a simple procedure that didn’t take long, it transformed the energy in my classroom and had a powerful effect on those student writers.
The booklet I mentioned a moment ago – Writing: A Teaching Guide – got it exactly right. Here’s the statement of purpose for the biography assignment: “Our goal was to plan a series of thematic units that would encourage meaningful language use in an enjoyable and serious atmosphere.” I couldn’t have said it better.