Friday, October 06, 2006
On what seemed to be a never ending flight to Phoenix with my grandmother, mother and aunt – I was able to start and finish Frank McCourt’s latest novel, Teacher Man.(An excerpt can be read here.)
I like to know what drives writers to write as they do – and am thrilled when they share. It serves as such a wonderful model for frustrated writers of every age to hear how those who have been published and received a public stamp of approval (can we say “Oprah”) share their ups and downs as well. Writers on Writing from Australia and California via podcast are two great examples of clips to show students. Reminiscent of Stephen King’s On Writing, McCourt shares the story of his teaching life – specifically the teaching of writing. While I was distressed at times by his attitude towards teaching, I found myself reading on to find what pearls of wisdom this accomplished author imparted to his students.
While this might not be a book that I would share with students, I think that teachers of writing might be inspired by reading it. Here are some “gems” that I captured:
1.We need to be learners alongside our students – and tell them that. At the beginning of each term, McCourt would tell his Creative Writing classes,
“We’re in this together. I don’t know about you, but I’m serious about this class and sure of one thing: at the end of the term, one person in this room will have learned something, and that person, my little friends, will be me.”(p. 199). McCourt characterized this as presenting himself as the most eager and “elevating himself above the masses” but I think it is a smart strategy – particularly in writing. I would often show my students my “writing” where they would give me feedback, suggest revisions, and sometimes tell me I needed to start again. It was easier to have them work with one another once I took the risk and shared what I wrote. And I learned from them – particularly those who struggled with writing themselves. They gave me insights into my own writing – and into the “voice” I used that I could not find myself. Being my audience, they strengthened my writing as I hoped to strengthen theirs.
2.Sometimes, the most powerful teaching moments come when you go with the flow. In Chapter 13, McCourt share the story of how the adolescent need for food turned into a powerful reading/writing/performance of recipes complete with music. It brought his class together as a group and they practiced some power peer review – yet throughout it all, McCourt could think only of the “other” teachers at the school who were dutifully following “The Curriculum.” Yet somehow – out of chaos, an amazing curriculum responsible lesson emerges!! Students find “voice” in writing restaurant reviews based on “Mimi” and learn some powerful lessons in persuasive writing. We could all learn a lesson from this – how many times have we wanted to capture the enthusiasm of our class, only to be stopped short in our journey to the “end of the curriculum?”
3. Grammar matters – but it is not the life and death of writing! There are several instances throughout the book where McCourt admits his grammar faults. He cannot diagram sentences well – in fact, at one point, a student takes over the class. But he attempts some amazing lessons on parts of speech (including an analogy to a ballpoint pen) and shares those discussions with the reader. What is powerful about this are the conversations – he lets kids say they don’t see the point and models well how to encourage student questions of authenticity to turn them into learning experiences. I am not a grammar guru myself – but this is how grammar should be done!!
A nice airplane read – I wonder what our stories would tell us about our teaching?