Memories of a Writing Teacher: Vague, Fragmented, and Maybe a Little Muddled

Alsup, Janet

I've struggled with this topic. Describe a representative moment in my life as a writing teacher. Just one? Do I even have such a moment? I always have trouble with such questions. For example, I hate it when people ask me to name my favorite book or movie. I either can't pick just one, or I can't think of any. My mind swims. So much to say or nothing at all—either way, I'm rendered mute. For me it seems it's mental feast or famine.

Consequently, instead of relating one anecdote or memory, I will represent my life as a writing teacher as it feels to me, how it currently exists in my memory as flashes of students' faces and various classrooms, remembered assignments and discussions, and images of late-night and early-morning grading marathons. I have taught writing in both high school and college and to adolescents, undergraduates, and adult practicing teachers. From this range of experience some common themes emerge and some anomalies resonate. My hope is that in their totality these fragmented themes and anomalies will gain meaning that they do not possess individually. At the very least, their structure might reflect how many of us feel as we read our way through countless student papers or struggle to prepare our next writing assignment: muddled and uncertain, but cognizant of unexpected flashes of brilliance. I'll let you determine if I demonstrate mental muddle or exceptional insight here; regardless, I assure you that I have enjoyed traveling back through time and describing that which I have found, or more accurately, that which has re-found me.

Stacy is a wonderful student—every teacher's dream. She has straight brown hair and a long face. She is a little clumsy, and too smart to be very popular in high school. She was a cheerleader once, but that didn't last long. Jumping up and down and shouting silly rhymes wasn't her style. She just looked ridiculous. She doesn't fit into any clique. But she writes amazing stories in my creative writing class. She has a knack for character development and metaphor that seems well beyond her years. I never can give her much feedback on her writing, though. Everything she writes is just so good. I don't feel qualified to critique it. I just write over and over again, "This is so good it should be published." I wish I had more to say.

John wants to write a paper that said the Holocaust didn't happen. It was all a lie. Of course, he says he doesn't really believe that, he just wants to see how the argument might work. He wants to experiment with writing a lie. I don't let him, after all there are other students who might be offended, and he is very angry. Doesn't he have the right to write whatever he wants at the university? Where is his freedom of speech? He writes another paper, something about Hitler, I don't remember exactly. It wasn't that memorable.

Jenny is on the women's softball team at her university, and she chooses to write a paper about date rape. She begins the required research, and discovers that this topic is really a non-topic. Nobody argues for date rape. There is little she can add to the discussion. So she modifies her topic to pornography and its effect on violence against women, a research topic that allows her to make a point, to state an informed opinion. She really thinks about this topic, reads a lot, and decides that her research supports the opinion that pornography does not increase violent acts toward women. This is contrary to what she would have originally believed. The process of writing actually made her think in a new way, even if this way isn't the most empowering for her. Her success is bittersweet.

Me: Questions or comments, anyone?
When is this paper due?
How many pages should it be?
Do we get a grade for this?
I wouldn't have taken this course if I knew we would write so much.
This is my favorite paper.
I worked really hard on this.
I don't know how to fix it.
Can I talk to you about this?

The alarm rings at 4:30 AM. I still have five essays to grade before class. The assignment asked students to write a critical essay about Jane Eyre. I have to be at school by 8:00 to face 35 10th graders eager for their grades, which I will hand out at the very end of class hoping no one will stick around with difficult questions. I hate grading. Where's my coffee?

"This class really made me think critically about what I was writing about," Sarah writes in her portfolio introduction. She liked how the assignments built on each other, moving from simple to more complex, summary to argument. I am so gratified. Could I have actually made her think?

Student papers tacked on bulletin boards, student-created poetry notebooks stacked on back table, piles of journals in colorful spiral notebooks waiting for me to take them home and record wonderful comments on their pages.

The Writing Process: so mysterious and wonderful. Is it steps or stages? Linear or cyclical? Commonly experienced or individually developed? More useful to students or to teachers? I experiment with several models to best instruct my students:

Model #1


Model #2


Model #3. My Personal Favorite (with due credit to Donald Murray)

Revision. Is it for fun or profit? Students don't want to revise because they see it as punishment. Could it be fun? Could it be more than correcting errors? Banish the red pen.

Reformulation (i.e., radical revision): making it different versus making it better. Now this is fun! Turn a story into a poem; a first person narrative into a formal essay. Experiment. Enjoy. Is there a way to think and have fun at the same time?

Writing to Learn versus Writing to Demonstrate: WAC meets the essay exam and wins, hands down.

Writing for critical awareness. After seeing signs around campus proclaiming, "STOP the SOA," Samantha, a freshman fresh out of rural Missouri, decides to write about the School of the Americas and argue for the end of American dollars to support it. She is so inspired she joins a student political organization and marches with them to protest. Before the paper, she didn't even know what the SOA was. And she had never protested anything.

The National Writing Project. A "fellow" in 1996, a "teacher consultant" forever after. Teachers teaching teachers to be better teachers (of writing).

Write a research paper. Write a poem. Write a story. Argue a point. Write about yourself. WRITE ANYTHING. Just write.

Just Write. I think I'll take my own advice.

I have an essay to work on. I have a class to prepare for. I have papers to respond to.

This text was an invited submission reviewed by TWI editors prior to publication.
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