The Good Along With The Crappy

Earlier today I posted about one bad class. Riding the bus home I realized I’d said nothing about the to great classes I taught today—perhaps because they came after the bad one and I was busy as hell since the first of the two good classes began.

The first good class was like a taste of water after trudging about for a day in the sun-baked desert of mediocre, don’t-give-a-crap students. This was a bunch of young techie students and they’re great. They always bring a smile to my face. There’s a few “couples” in the class (only one couple is really dating, another ought to be, and one is really a trio of two boys and a girl). There’s also a gang of cool guys in the back. I love the way these students interact with one another and with me. They joke, and fool around, and tease me when I leave an opening, but they also pretty much respect me, and respect the fact that they’re in the class to work on their English. There were a few running jokes in class, including when the girlfriend from the “real” couple jokingly confided in the class that her boyfriend is really a North Korean spy (to everyone’s amusement since that boy could never be a spy), and another being that I meet other students girlfriends on various nights of the week (I was trying to get them to remember to use the possessive when asking questions like “When do you meet [your] girlfriend?” After that class, the few doubts I had about whether the bad class’s behaviour was partly my fault were dispelled. I taught the same lesson to the good class, and it was basically their attitude that made the class fun (read: a success).

Secondly is a moment from my writing class. This is also a good group; granted, some of them can’t speak at all and don’t belong in the course. Then again, most of the people who truly don’t belong there have already dropped the class.

Anyway, I was lecturing the students to write simply. It’s funny how this is exactly what you also have to tell native speakers of English in freshman writing classes: stop trying to sound smart and writerly and write it simply, the way you’s say it. The grammar will make more sense, the structure will be clearer, and then you can go back and make the clear, sensible thing a little fancier. What amuses me is that this is true even with the few students who basically cannot speak English, all the way to the few native speakers I taught in Montreal.

“Well,” a girl says, “I want to express more. I want to express myself. How can I do that if I am writing simply?”

I smile and tell her, “Look, the key to expressing yourself is: who are you expressing yourself to? It’s to your reader. So you need to write simply, naturally. If you write clearly, you express more than when you try to use big words and sentences and everything comes out a mess,” I said, and then ventured a (fake, made-up on the spot) example of gobbledygook while holding up one of the essays on the podium. Everyone laughed when I scratched my head and asked what the sentence meant, but nobody could explain it.

Then I went on: “I can’t fix all of your grammar and style, but if you want to fix that, you know what you need to do? Basically, read ten times as much as you write. And then say your ideas out loud and then write them the way you say them, which is gonna be the clearest was possible.” Students gasped and shook their heads. I nodded, and went on: “And then practice writing for about ten years, every day. After that, you’ll start to get good at it. That’s how long it took me. But we’re not trying to do that in this class! This class isn’t going to teach you to write like Tolstoy!” The students all laughed here, before I went on. “This class is to teach you to write with structure, so that your idea comes across in an organized way. If you all end this class knowing how to do that, I will be happy.”

Another amusing moment in this class was when I was handing back assignments. I had been insisting that the students focus on the comments on their writing, which would help them in future assignments, and not think too much about the mark, which makes up only a tiny part of their grade anyway.

“What’s important?” I hollered quetioningly.
“Skill!” they yowled back at me.
“What’s not important?” I asked.
“The grade!” they all chanted in unison.
“Do you believe this?” I asked, hopeful.
“Nooooooo!” they hollered back. But they were laughing and I hope that at least the brightest among them actually caught on that what they’d said was, at least in this class, true.

So there are nice moments in teaching, too. Even in the same day when you have to yell and holler.

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