In a previous semester, I asked my students a question I wanted to hear their thoughts on. They answered this question on their websites/ePortfolios as reflective essays: what was the best piece of writing that you did this schoolyear (in any class) and why do you call that your best? The students’ answers astounded me, particularly the way in which those students most interested in social justice (and I mean social justice as a process and life commitment, not a graded school assignment) answered so fundamentally differently.
Those students who I would most call activist and conscious talked about what they learned about the world and themselves; how they had committed to social justice issues more than ever before; why they saw themselves as people who had creative and/or political agency to change the world, help their families, and/or write in a way that reached and impacted people. Some of them even wrote this final reflective essay as a letter to their mothers explaining their gratitude and respect or as a letter to a younger version of themselves explaining all that they would soon become if they could just survive that current, ugly moment.
But then there were those other students: “the good students.” I was bored by them, quite honestly… and disgusted. A large number of them, who had the same teacher the semester before, talked about assignments where the teacher changed every word, gave them a new research topic when the teacher did not like the topic they selected, told them what arguments to make in every sentence, changed a word almost every line, corrected every single mistake, drew arrows all over their papers showing them where each new paragraph and idea should go. For these students, successful writing was when you got your paper back from the teacher and there were no markings on it. No one talked about A SINGLE idea, content area, or disposition they had learned or developed. No one talked about writing as a process other than collecting teachers’ corrections and finally receiving an A after correcting (always called “correcting,” NOT revising). This is no surprise— since ain’t no real learning involved here. The crazy thing is that I have heard other professors call that kind of teaching: providing students with DETAILED FEEDBACK. That’s not feedback. That’s marking up a piece of paper or, in digital/google doc versions, doing someone’s writing for them. When I told my own family about this— family members who have never gone to college and some, not even to high school— they were perplexed: why is it that when high school teachers give students the answers on state tests, they are arrested while college professors can tell students exactly what to say and how to say it and no one even thinks that’s a form of teacher-cheating? It was a good question to me.
I told my students these stories this semester to let them know that if they are expecting a teacher to correct their writing for them, they are in the wrong class! I comment to big ideas and ideals as a reader, not microscopic language units. There will come a time when we write public/digital, edited texts where we will look at the form and the surface issues, but that won’t be the entire driving force of a semester. I certainly learned something very important from those “good students”: a reminder to talk to my students about the pedagogies that they experience, especially when it involves writing, and to be as critical of that as any content they are learning. Of course, the students who I would call activist and conscious, those who talk about what they learn about the world and themselves vs. stray markings on a piece of paper, are well on their way!