I’m reading Penny Kittle’s Write Beside Them. I got the book for free at a book fair at Local U. last semester – the publishing companies come in and set up a teacher-only event in the hopes that we’ll find a text of theirs that we like and will use in our classrooms – and even though I had no real expectations of ever teaching in a high school, I was intrigued by the title and took the opportunity to have the book for nothing.
The thing sat the bookshelf in my office at Local U., still in its shrink wrap, until I glanced up at it last week before class (I should mention here that I’m almost never in my office at L.U. anymore; I wasn’t in it much last year (I’ve mentioned that it’s a windowless closet painted an indescribable shade of yellow, right?) but I’m in it even less now, so the fact that I was there at all to see this book sitting in its shiny plastic makes the story more meaningful, I think). “What the hell,” I thought. “I’ll take whatever help, advice, or suggestions I can get,” so I slipped the book off the self, tucked it into my briefcase, and headed for class.
I opened the book the other night, when I was feeling at a bit of a loss as to what the hell to do with my high school students, in the hopes that it would lend some insight, some inspiration, some spark. I had started down the slope of self-doubt that all teachers, I imagine, face from time to time; that downward spiral of “who am I kidding?” and feelings of being such an impostor and of believing that we’re going to irrevocably emotionally and academically damage every child who is foolishly entrusted to our tutelage. These feelings eventually lead to brain-freeze and fantasies of working part-time at a Barnes and Nobel.
How many of you are nodding in rueful agreement?
Anyway, while I can say that the book did give me comfort, it didn’t do it in quite the way I was hoping. Instead of opening the text and finding a wealth of new tactics, lesson ideas, and free-write topics, what I got was a very strange feeling of familiarity.
Many – in fact, so far, ALL – of the strategies that Kittle talks about in her book are things that I’m already doing.
To say that I was pleased would be something of an understatement.
It turns out that Local U. is considered a world-class in its writing program. Our little back-country state University has turned out (or attracted) what are considered some of the best teachers of writing in the English-speaking world. I got both my undergrad and graduate degrees from Local U, so I was brought up in that tradition; I studied under (and beside) some of these world-class writing teachers.
As it turns out, I was paying attention. There are a couple of things that Kittle does that I don’t do (yet) but, really, almost everything that I’ve encountered in her book is a variation on something I’m already doing in my classroom. I’m having my students write every day. I’m giving them the choice about what they write about (within reason, or course). I’m asking them – no; challenging them – to explore different voices and different genres. I write with my students and I share my work with them so I can model how someone who considers herself a “writer” does it. When asked “how long does it have to be?” my stock answer is “how long does it have to be for you to say what you REALLY need to say?” Imagine my surprise when I read very nearly those same words in Kittle’s book.
I’ve got some polishing to do, certainly, but I understand that being a teacher is very much like being a writer; it’s an often messy, inquisitive, experimental, exploratory practice. I would be very, very suspicious of someone who says they “know how to teach” – I find they’re usually the ones using lesson plans they designed in their first couple of years of teaching because, you know, if it worked then, why shouldn’t it work now? I want to stay inquisitive, messy, experimental, and exploratory because, while I’m getting paid to teach my kids to write, the real reward I’m getting is that I’m learning, every single day, how to be a better writer, too.
I’m still reading the book, but now I’m reading it for the positive reinforcement it’s giving me – the assurance that, even though I may feel a little like I’m stumbling my way through this, at least I’m stumbling along in the right direction.