Maher’s account of her experiences working with inmates at Bedford (and we all thought it was a publishing house!) is a reminder that “Basic Writing” is often more about the writer than the writing. I’ve never worked with inmates, but I have worked with highly motivated adults who, like the women at Bedford, had “learned” that they couldn’t learn or couldn’t be successful. The anecdotes reveal the importance of identity/ies and the role they play in the writing process (which could then be considered the “writer process”). Realizing that “I can learn something” opens a lot of doors and changes a life.
What the students write is inspiring and demonstrates the difference between learning and being taught (I’ve never had a student who didn’t love learning but I’ve had plenty who didn’t like being taught):
“I am learning at this moment. I am, for the first time, actively and knowingly dialoging with myself for the purpose of truly figuring out who I am. I like sharing this with you, whoever you are. I am intellectualizing my experience. The fact that I could not have done this before is a revelation popping into my head as I write. I never had a reason to ask myself who I am, never thought my mind could check itself out .” (Maher, p. 71)
The readings also make me think about how pedagogy and practice construct writers as well as writing. We always need to be aware that the students will read us and figure out what “game” we’re playing. A classroom/class is a rhetorical situation with an audience and a purpose. The situation is powerful and constructs the audience and purpose in ways we can’t control. Even if we manage to alter the immediate context, the students will bring in perspectives and assumptions that transform the situation. As teachers, can we ever avoid constructing the students? We write texts, and texts write us: the fictional think-aloud comments (Canagarajah, an L2 writing researcher, actually did a study on real “undercurrent writing” that occurs in the classroom) in Green’s “My Uncle’s Guns” shows how the writer is consciously re-creating the text that the teacher has “taught:” most writing models would consider the resulting writing successful, but the “undercurrent” reveals that the superficial act of writing hides another, quite different act:
“The assignment sheet said that this narrative should contain reflections, reveal something about ourselves and how we were changed by an event. But how should I be changed by finding a couple of bodies on a strip of two lane a couple of miles from home? Should I have a moral about how guns are dangerous and bad and nobody should have them anymore? Should I lie and tell you that I’ll never be around guns anymore, that I’ll be a good girl now and stay away from violent people and places?” (Green, p. 81)
The student has an exceptionally good understanding of all the good stuff we teach: audience, purpose, techniques, genres, etc., yet she still doesn’t seem to be writing—at least not the way she sees it: “Is this the language of “the oppressed” that you’ve been talking about in class? Like that guy who taught those peasants, those peasants probably said “fuck” in Spanish a lot, too, but that probably wasn’t included in their essays, right?” (Green, p. 78)
If we attempt to engage in critical pedagogy, or to empower students, we should be aware that when we do, we construct the “oppressed” and define the scope of their “empowerment.” We should also question our own role: if we place ourselves as not the oppressor and not the oppressed, what exactly are we? As educators and/or “English people,” what have we done, besides possibly reading Anzaldua and Freire, that prepares us for understanding this situation and determine roles and outcomes? Are we enacting a perverted “Pedagogy of the Liberators,” or are we responding to the ideals and heroics we read into narratives of liberating teaching (see, for example, this teacher’s comments on “Freedom Writers” http://www.nytimes.com/2007/01/19/opinion/19moore.html?pagewanted=1 and the responses http://www.nytimes.com/2007/01/22/opinion/l22teach.html)? What could/should we do?
“Education begins…” is an article that I’ve read in many different versions: the teacher, new or experienced, who realizes the difference between learning and being taught, or between engaging and simply going through the motions, wants to do things differently, wants to let the students and their learning, not the curriculum, the test, or the textbook, shape the learning experience:
“If we want students to think and make decisions for themselves, we have to trust ourselves as teachers—trust that although we’re doing things differently in our classrooms, our definition of learning and teaching is based on solid research and best practice…[and] trust students as well as ourselves, risk giving up control of the curriculum, risk giving up precious time to try new approaches and to give students time to discover, without constantly worrying about grading and testing” (“Education,” p. 1)
I think it is important to recognize that “our beliefs inform our behavior” (p. 3) and, more importantly, that our perception and construction of what the classroom is and what happens in it inform our interpretation of what we see.
Kirk and Brittany are perhaps more alike than they seem; sure, Brittany does a better job getting the students engaged, but both teachers use the same basic pattern: stimulate interest, introduce “target material,” and develop. Better, more creative teaching? Yes. More risk-taking?
How do we determine the “authenticity” of an assignment or its purpose?
“Language learning is not sequential” (11) Is a basic writing class a language-learning class?