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I Can Teach Writing, But Attitude … ?

Sat., Jan. 31, 1998


Coming Sunday: There’s enough guilt to go around, but maybe it’s Johnny’s fault.

“Why are you wasting my son’s time with all those essays? What does writing have to do with English anyway?”

It’s parent-teacher conference night. This is the first time I’ve ever seen Johnny’s mother around the schoolhouse and she explains, not too happily, that she wouldn’t be having to “bother with it” now if I hadn’t failed her son. “I’m too busy to waste my time running to school,” is her terse observation.

I thank her for coming and wonder what’s taken her so long. I wonder what she has to do that is more important than her son’s education and why she hasn’t responded to the letters I’ve mailed home letting her know that Johnny was liable to fail if he didn’t make an effort.

“Johnny’s father thinks what’s going on in this classroom is a waste of time and money, all of these essays and stuff. When we were in school, we learned real English, not writing.”

As odd as this argument might sound, I’ve heard it all before. But my problem is not with the grammar vs. reading-writing methods of teaching high school English, it’s with the “You failed my son.”

Somebody failed her son, that’s for sure. But who?

Is Johnny’s failure my fault?

I don’t think so, but it never hurts a teacher to re-evaluate her methods.

What do I do for Johnny? With Johnny? To Johnny? And, whatever am I going to do about Johnny?

There are 15 students in Johnny’s fourth period class. Plenty of time for individual instruction. We have time to talk about writing, to study the format for a three-point, five-paragraph essay, and from time to time, as a class, to create one together, writing it on the board, and arguing (literally) points of grammar and usage as we go. Lively student-vs.-student debates are always a first-class learning device.

What else have I done for Johnny?

Occasionally, I read aloud to the class; sometimes from the classics and frequently from a classmate’s latest creation. More often, the students ask to do the reading themselves - Johnny included. There’s no question about it; Johnny can read.

So why is Johnny failing?

All of our writing is accomplished in the classroom, so there’s no need for Johnny to burn the midnight oil in order to come up with “just five more sentences” or a concluding paragraph. The whole idea is to do it now and here, where budding writers can yell for help when they suddenly find themselves fresh out of ideas or drawing a blank on transitions. “That’s why I’m here,” I remind them as I encourage them to ask me. Or better yet, ask a classmate for advice; that way two people are learning instead of only one.

Throughout the school year we write everything from letters to the state board of education complaining of the limitations inherent in the state proficiency program, to one-liners for skits. We compare and contrast, we describe, inform and enter magazine and newspaper contests. No form of writing is overlooked. If they can think it up, we write it.

Recently, Johnny’s class was in the mood to cop a Poe attitude and create a mystery. A couple of independent spirits nixed the sleuthing and opted for metaphor-heavy Hemingway-style adventures.

But Johnny’s not having any.

Our grading system is pretty straightforward. The students write and I correct and comment on their efforts. Papers are returned with a grade and a circled “rewrite by” date in the upper left corner. Rewrites are unlimited, which means any and every student has infinite opportunity to earn the 10/10, a perfect score, if he or she is willing to work at it.

I explain to Johnny’s mom that her son comes to class daily with neither supplies nor intent and that no amount of encouragement seems to divert him from his self-destructive, non-participatory stance. “Just don’t wanna’ do it,” he admits with a smile.

Johnny is not a discipline problem. He is respectful, even when he is refusing to raise a ballpoint to the attack position. I check with Johnny’s other teachers and sure enough, he’s consistent in his “Right not to work” policy. Same song, different verse.

Now what?

Have society and the system failed Johnny?


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