Reading Student Writing

I’ve read three essays on how to read and correct student writing. The most helpful, in terms of learning how to teach: Rather than “correct” mistakes, diagnose mistakes. Read for the meaning of the essay, and give feedback based on that meaning. Ask the question, what is the author’s intent?

“I read your college application essay. First of all, college has two L’s.”

Bartholomae, The Study of Error. In this essay Bartholomae suggests student error should be diagnosed. For example, a student writes “I had accummate ten dementic and had to…” If a teacher tells the student they’ve misspelled “accumulate” and “demerit” and goes on to teach the proper spelling through repetitive exercises, they’ve only treated the surface level misspelling and failed to get to the root of the problem, especially if they’ve noticed a lot of other spelling errors in the student’s paper. What would be best would be to have the student read the paper out loud and work from there. This particular student, John, the reads the above sentence, “I had accumulated ten demerits and had to…” So what’s really going on here? John has read the current sentence, as it’s written with the misspellings, the correct way because to him the coding on the page has the correct meaning. Rather than considering the sounds of the letters, he’s considered the shape of the words he’d memorized. To him dementic makes the word demerit. To help the student learn the error, a teacher needs to diagnose the problem, and from there teach the student how to edit on their own.

Pal Kei Matsude, Reading an ESL Writer’s Text. In this essay, I learned how to read ESL writers. Primarily, avoid reading ESL essay as deficient because it doesn’t comply to the norms of English. What’s most important when reading these essays: If I see many errors on the sentence level (such as “dementic” or “childrens”), I should figure out the meaning the writer was going for and work from there, instead of dismissing the writing as unsuccessful and uneducated. Often teachers will want this writer to assimilate to English. Tell them what they’ve done is wrong and they need to fix it this way. But that assimilation practice can make the ESL writer consider their native language as inferior, and so they are inferior. Another option is accommodation, where a teacher helps the student learn the proper discourse patterns without forcing them to lose the their linguistic differences. And then there is the separatist approach, where ESL writing is read “generously” and multicultural writing is better appreciated on its own grounds. For me, After reading this essay, I think it’s important to consider any essay in terms of its meaning, and I worry a separatist approach will not delve into the problems of the essay’s communication. Even if the multicultural aspects are appreciated, the student still needs to revise–it would be wrong to assume every error was because of a language problem, because perhaps the essay still wouldn’t have driven home its purpose–That’s why it’s important to listen to the writer and understand where they are coming from, to see if the writing and their goals are linking up, no matter which language they speak.

Nancy Sommers, Responding to Student Writing. In this essay, Sommers goes through possible pitfalls teachers might fall into when commenting on student papers. Often, teachers will edit sentence level issues, such as word choice and commas, and then make broad points about why the entire essay needs to be revised (so then those sentences will likely not be the same sentence in the end anyway). Overall, the types of comments teachers make appropriate the student essay: Rather than students writing for their own intent, they write for the teacher (Whatever the teacher wants the student to do they’ll do). However, often the comments are contradictory. How can I fix this comma and also do more research? Moreover, the comments aren’t specific enough. “Think about your audience more” doesn’t really help a student to revise an essay. It would be better for a teacher to make specific comments about the text, address the logic of the essays crucial points, and ultimately force the student back into the “chaos” of the essay, to get into the fray of the paragraphs and really rewrite for their intent.

 

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Excerpt from a short story

The train was perverted. Boarding it was like stepping onto a porno set. The aisle carpet and window curtains were the bright red of cabaret lipstick. The seat upholstery featured key-sized flamingos and peacocks without negative space, entangled in accidental sex positions. Each row, without middle armrests, was in essence a loveseat, bent on forcing strangers closer together. I needed to hold my suitcase in front of me and sideways to fit it down the aisle. Every step it tapped my legs while my briefcase ricocheted off my hip and the sides of seats and its strap weighed a blood-flushed impression onto my shoulder.The cart’s final row had two open seats on my right and a couple of little old ladies on my left. I thought the design team had made a mistake; there was enough space to fit another row and then some. I’d have plenty of legroom, but be missing a lunch tray and seatback pocket and facing a blue wall. The little old ladies had white bouffant hairdos that resembled cotton candy, and they chatted about childcare.

“She will never be allowed to open a preschool: her house is filled with gluten!”

Stowage was a shelf with a metal rail meant to serve as fencing to keep luggage from falling out. I stood on my tiptoes, trying to push my fat suitcase onto the shelf through the gap between the metal rail and ceiling. Behind me this beautiful eccentric chose to wait rather than shimmy passed me. Her irises were the neon green of colored contacts. She wore a spiked dog collar for a headband, clips of skulls and crossbones in her lavender-dye hair that went straight down her back. On her neck was a tattoo of a naked woman wearing a pirate hat, with a sword in her hand, parrot on her shoulder, and sprinkle of gold coins on her boobs.

She cleared her throat in a comically fake way to get my attention.

“Let me give you a hand.”

Intro to a Short Story

After school whoever was supposed to pick up Harrison was late as usual so he played in the spaceship sandbox, bashing mini dump trucks together, shouting, “Boom, boom, boom…”

Kelton brought out a bridge table and a pair of folding chairs. The folding chairs had to go next to each other so both he and Caroline would have clear views of the parking lot, backyard, playground, and Harrison. From Wolterhan Early Childhood Education Center’s back porch, he heard thwacks scaring birds into flight like gunfire and knew what they were. In the morning he’d found a golf ball, this tiny meteor, which had crashed a tiny crater into the earth between the seesaw and the bronze statue of child angels playing flutes. To land there it must’ve flown over the treetops, must’ve been struck hard but sliced or intentionally aimed at them from the elitist country club on the other side of the woods.

“Don’t blame yourself,” Caroline said. “Certain trouble happens at light speed.”

She served loose-leaf tea with a cinnamon stick. As she poured the wash beat the stick against the teacup much like the long piece of model train track Harrison had used that day to bludgeon another student’s arm.

“Two hands, choked up on the bat,” Kelton said. “I should’ve caught him sooner.”

She picked mint leaves from the raised-bed garden outside the window and dropped one each into their teacups. “Shut up and drink, kid. A little caffeine, warmth, that’s what you need.” Seemed like nothing could surprise her. It was his second year working with her. Since he was an assistant teacher he didn’t have to stay late after school keeping her company. The other teachers had left, the administrative workers had left, even their director, Mary Ellen, had left. Caroline was his mentor, friend, superior, and yogi all wrapped into one. In the game for over twenty-five years, a master of childcare, Peter Singer vegetarianism, holistic remedies, patience. Patchouli followed her like a guardian angel.

Harrison tossed a dump truck and as it flipped through the air he wailed an as-seen-on-TV death cry. After it landed on a mound of sand—“Boom”—he bashed it with the other dump truck. “Mwahaha! I have defeated you,” he growled to play the role of the victor, “and now I eat you! Eat you! Eat you!…”

Caroline stirred her tea with the cinnamon stick.

At last Harrison’s mom’s car, its automatic sliding door opening, drove into the gravel parking lot. Turning around quickly to face-out an inch from the entrance, to position herself for the customary getaway, kicked up gravel and dust clouds. Harrison on cue ran behind the royal castle, and Kelton on cue went to corral him. Their routine appeared to be years in the making. Behind the royal castle, Harrison balled up, stretched his shirt over his legs, squeezed the collar shut over his head, hid in plain sight and began their game of “Where’s Harrison?”

“I just don’t know where he could be,” Kelton said, melodically, “but what is this here that I see? Could it be? Could it be?… A teddy bear is what I see.”

Today Harrison’s shirt featured a teddy bear with a bowtie.

“Hello, Mr. Teddy Bear.” Kelton tickled him. “Do you know where I might find Harrison?”

“No, no.” Harrison, laughing, let go of the shirt collar. “I haven’t seen him, I haven’t.” His head came out of his shirt, smiling with those teeth Kelton worried he didn’t brush, both front ones lost, his canines like little Dracula fangs.

Kelton carried him over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes. “Delivery! I’ve got a delivery here!” This carry, and its catchphrase, was a standard he’d used when carrying his younger brother back in the day.

Caroline leaned over the window ledge to talk to Meredith, the mom. As far as Kelton could tell, she constantly had an extra-large thermos in hand and sunglasses on and never stepped foot outside the minivan. Harrison was the youngest of five siblings. His parents had recently divorced. His parents sent Caroline inappropriate, private information about their exes, about universes Harrison existed in only as an object of judicial dispute.

Last night’s email from Paul, the dad, Caroline had forwarded to Kelton: “…Queen Meredith ought to stop inviting every dog in heat stranded at the bar to spend the night …”

Along with Meredith’s email: “…How lovely to have that brainlessdibshit introduce his latest and greatest skankface to my daughter…”

“You must understand,” Meredith said, while Harrison climbed to his safety seat, crawled over food wrappers, knocked empty soda bottles. “My oldest daughter just moved into the basement with her boyfriend.” The automatic door started closing. “They steal food, leave her bras and pipes on the couch—”

“Of course we understand,” Caroline interrupted her. “And you must understand Harrison is at a crucial age and we need—need—to evaluate him this week—this week—either Wednesday or Thursday.”

Kelton had suggested a projective evaluation because he’d found Harrison’s perceptions faulty, his experience of social cues often mistaken. Most of his tantrums committed to a single phrase, unprovoked. Once while they’d played Candy Land, after Kelton had drawn a card and moved to the Peppermint Forest, Harrison had asked him, “Are you mad at me?” latched onto his arm, repeating the question again and again. Another time he started screaming, “Thief! Thief!” as they gave out fresh baked cookies.

“Just email me later.” Meredith’s traditional salutation, she called it out the window while it rolled up. The words caused a familial instinct to seize Kelton. He’d sprint in front of the car, stop them, hop in back and go to their house, cook the family a nice dinner, read Harrison a story or two before bedtime—make sure Harrison brushed his teeth—if it weren’t for Caroline, the gentle hold of his wrist subduing him.

“Maybe they should hire an extra hand,” Kelton said, considering they must be well-off since they sent Harrison to Wolterhan. “I’m sure they’re going through a lot.”

“Have you ever heard of someone going through a little?” She waved pleasantly at the minivan hurrying uphill and turning onto Lakeview Road, which led downtown to the lake harbor with its various tourist attractions, a route Kelton would soon take on his walk to the bus station. “Everyone on the planet is ‘going through a lot.’”

She had told Harrison’s mom what had happened, and she told Kelton what would happen next. Harrison was a detriment to the classroom experience. The girl who Harrison had hit, Liliana, would feel unsafe, as would their other students and the parents of every student, if this assault wasn’t taken seriously.

“It’s early enough. Kid, I’m sorry to say, but we see it already. The best laid plans, the most tactical strategies; every trick in the book will lose to the cards we’re dealt. Better to take care of it before we bury ourselves in sympathy.”

She’d be emailing both those parents the final warning, a promise next time Harrison was violent or overly disruptive he’d be removed from Wolterhan Early Childhood Education Center.

Dissensus and Consensus

I want to discuss dissensus. Trimbur brings up how consensus will, at its best, orchestrate dissensus in the classroom. Create an environment of multiple voices. In a writing classroom, rather than there being some single mind, some Cartesian model of existence, we get many voices from different power structures and different values, coming together to converse–a real conversation of conflict and struggle.

What was most interesting to me in reading the Trimbur and Bruffee was their use of philosophy and philosophers, which helped me understand their work more easily. As someone from a philosophy major, collaboration was the name of the game. Every class was based in discussion. It’s strange–nine people can read the same text and form nine different opinions about it based on our previous biases and value structures. In the end we come away understanding the dialogue, the work itself and our interpretation of it, better, even through the disagreements.

I can especially see where Dewey comes into play with Trimbur. Collaboration and pragmatism in the classroom is crucial in understanding how we can learn–grow and change. Rather than entering an established law and way of thinking, entering the classroom to learn the single-mind, digest it and regurgitate it, the classroom is always changing, as the conversation is always changing, as there is dissensus–useful conflict–and consensus–a certain coming to terms. To put it in perspective, before Dewey much of philosophy was bent on the established order. From Descartes to Kant to Hume to Spinoza, all came into the conversation from the basis of metaphysics–what was in the air, the question of ultimate experience, itself in terms of religion, ideals, the universe versus the self. And Dewey argues they all were really going back to the church in certain respects. The established order of biblical order. For Dewey, he wanted philosophy to ground itself into the practical. How can we use our reasoning capability to consider what a a specific thing, like the classroom, should function. Rather than asking, “What is education?” Dewey asked, “How should we teach the given class, the given students, the given society?”

What language do I speak?

A translingual approach entails respecting multilingual writing, not making foreign languages “secondary,” and ultimately a classroom where difference is respected. Makes sense to me. From what I’ve read on the subject from Trimbur, Lu, Anzaldua, and others, a translingual approach has much to do with the self: students who speak English as a second, or third, language might tend to find their home language less viable academically–Less important. It disadvantages them. While they should be rewarded for speaking multiple languages, instead their identity seems banished from the classroom.

When I was an undergraduate, I was all about English. And not just English–American. A standard for me was to say I spoke American, to scoff at the idea I spoke English. I was, without a doubt, one of those students who saw the foreign language requirement at school to be unnecessary and annoying (Probably because my older brother, Dan, spoke Spanish fluently and went to college for it, and so I distanced myself from that type of study as much as humanly possible; perhaps from a fear of not excelling as well as he did–but this isn’t a psychoanalytical post).

At the same time, I very much relate to the idea that “virtually all students who are monolingual in the sense that they speak only English are nonetheless multilingual in the varieties of English they use and in their ability to adapt English to their needs and desires.”  Because in the end, because of my fast way of speaking, my addiction to old-fashioned comedies and every musician this side of the solar system, I have arrived at my own jumbled language. Particularly in the way I communicate with my friends. Other than a select few, no one else has a clue what I mean by “GG,” “It’s niara,” “oomama,” “Oh my Lantan… Although I don’t think that’s particularly what they were referring to in their paper. Also, coming from a Jewish upbringing, I use boychik, oy gavolt, and have a particular inflection to my accent… Coming from a childcare background, my exclamations have been replaced by poopyhead, fudge, Timbuktu, and I avoid phrases like I hate, I can’t… When something is completed well, I’ll say coo coo cachoo; having been raised with Dan, I’ll say mi madre, instead of my mom, and vamanos when I want things to get a move on…
Do these things belong in Academic writing? The point is, I think, that no one on the planet really speaks one language. Depending on the situation, whether I’m with my friends from elementary school, my college friends, my family, or talking to a strange, I’ll use a different language to serve the situation. And to say my own language isn’t as valuable as Standard English, would be an attack on me personally; just like to say Spanish or French isn’t as valuable is disrespectful.

Climbing Up

Eric is long gone now, but Eddy remains.

Eddy and his friend Eric climbed a hill of wet rocks near the pier. The pier was just a walkway, without amusements or fishing, just benches and a railing going around it. They climbed the rocks and sat at the top overlooking the waves of the ocean thrashing the rocks beneath them. They talked and then roughhoused. Eddy stood up, slipped, and fell, his head first against the rock hill, tumbling into the salt water on the side of the hill opposite the pier.

The waves thrashed Eddy against the rocks, and Eric slid down the other side, scraping the back of his legs and arms and back before landing in the wet sand and then ran toward the lifeguard down the beach, who was running toward him already and a minute or two away. Eric stopped and started screaming and pointing, his feet sinking in the sand as he fell to his knees and pointed, not following or watching the lifeguard running by, the image of Eddy’s face smacking that ridged rock above the waves before entering, splitting his face, comatose body and foaming waves.

Media came.

Eric is long gone now, but Eddy remains. Eric’s parents filed suit in the town, not for money but awareness. They forced a lifeguard station nearer to the pier rather than a football field and sprint away. More people began swimming by the rock hill, which they tapered off and buoyed. Teens made bonfires at night under the pier and dared each other to climb the rock hill. Some did. The town hired a night watchman to keep the teens at bay and alive. They considered loading the rocks away but figured it too expensive, and Eric told them to keep the rock hill as a symbol. To keep it in the town, they put a plaque dedicating Eddy on it. First came food stands on the beach. Couples sat on the benches of the pier overlooking the fatal ocean and listened to the thrashing of waves against rocks. The food stands moved onto the pier. Bikers rode down and back and gave extra landscape and distance to their route. With a connection, Adventure Park Group saw the pier and its location as an untapped resource. With a promise not to remove the rock hill, they built four rides, game stands, and various other carnival stands on the pier. Families there on vacations remember Eddy when the older kids tell the younger ones the ghost story. But Eric is long gone.

Intro to a short story I’m writing

Once upon a New Year’s Eve, he and I were naïve, attractive freshmen at an invitation-only house party. Bouncers guarded the front and back doors. Tuxedoed frat brothers hurried in and out of the kitchen like cocktail waiters, divvying out bottles of champagne and gallon jugs of spiked punch. Blunt roaches, red cups, condoms, and cigarettes bobbed around skinny dippers who cheered for me to loosen up. I undressed to the music of their wolf-whistles. I went cannonball into the suspiciously warm pool. I kept up with their drinking pace, shots served to us from the diving board, unknown flavors I forced down like bad medicine. I stayed in until I was ready to vomit.

With my dress on inside out and soaking up the water that stank of latex, I stumbled to a place where nobody would find me unless they were searching for me. At the edge of the woods in the backyard, behind the broken jacuzzi filled with empty liquor bottles, I was bracing against a tree, calculating the positives and negatives of lying facedown on the ground, when he fell hard nearby. I only heard the collapse and saw the aftermath. He rolled onto his back so that his head rested on one of my tree’s massive roots. He had a pretty boy face made for the silver screen, and the heels of his hands were scraped and dirty. He introduced himself as Don Corleone, questioned my motives, why I hadn’t offered him my friendship or invited him over for coffee, why I dared to disrespect him on his daughter’s wedding. He’d been stalking me, I think, waiting for me to lose track of my friends, like a wolf pouncing on prey separated from its herd.

To Discourse or to Talk?

Elbow’s essay,  “Reflections on Academic Discourse: How it Relates to Freshmen and Colleagues,” and Bartholomae’s essay, “Inventing the University,” at first appear to come at college writing from opposite sides of the field. For Bartholomae, the college class ought to teach academic discourse in the mode of communication that universities give students access to. Students must appropriate the language of the subject to better suit their writing, to learn the audience and manipulate them “or accommodate her motives to her reader’s expectations.” Whereas Elbow argues that writing classes should teach nonacademic writing, and by adopting a specific, high level discourse a writer is detaching from the audience. College is short and life is long. Plus,different subjects, such as history and psychoanalysis, use different types of jargon and modes of communication. So in that way, B and E are juxtaposed. However, Bartholomae is often referring to being an “insider,” which I think can fall in line with metacognition. According to Elbow, if students always use ordinary language, their own thinking about a discourse will come much easier, and they will be more frank, rather than trying to dazzle with unnecessary academic riffraff. Bartholomae wants students to be able to see any discourse, recognize it, and adapt to it, so that they can write well and communicate their ideas. So there is something similar in that idea of playing multiple roles through what we know.

The readings for me raise a few questions:

A first-year writing class ought to prepare a student for the subject they ultimately choose to major in, so why even teach it in a separate department? By that I mean, perhaps a student who knows they want to be a psychology major should have their first-year writing class with the psychology department. It may be true what Elbow says about life being long and college being short, but if a student’s profession is completely based on their major (e.g. psychology) isn’t that discourse and jargon something they will take with them throughout life? And by that I mean, is there really a “college” language? Aren’t academic journals separated by their subject matter? Engineering, American history, 19th century Russian literature? Perhaps then the first-year writing program should aim at helping students decide where they want to be within all the possible choices of discourse and how to quickly adapt to the vast assortment of them; and it should help them come to terms with this new thing in their life: college, scholarly articles, being an adult, being a member of politics and the world–which I think Emerson’s first-year writing program does.

The Call to Write

For me, the call to write is a ghost.

“The Choices Writer’s Make”—more so, Jerald Walker’s essay on Michael Jackson, “Before Grief,” and also June Jordan’s essay “Nobody Mean More to Me than You and the Future Life of Willie Jordan”—got me thinking: why do I write? What is the rhetorical situation of my fiction? For me, it’s different from a societal need. Not to pigeonhole the “rhetorical situation,” but it does tend to demonstrate that the reason to write ought to be based on a necessity of action. Action in the sense of external. What the people, or planet, needs. Michael Jackson dies, people wonder why they should care—they call him a freak show, they question his legacy—which compels Walker to write his essay, in a sort of defense. Sure, it’s not always a defense—someone might want to forward a new idea, like Jordan’s essay on Black English versus Standard English, because they foresee a benefit to interested parties, or they aspire to interest more parties. Still, in that, it seems to be a question of benefitting society. The exigence, often referred to in our literature, seems to be that of the external requirement.

That is not why I write fiction. However, there is a “rhetorical situation.” My need to write is far more physical, as I’m sure it was, in part, for Jordan and Walker. After the cop killed Willie Jordan’s brother, after Walker read a post about how his idol had been called a freak show, a deep, guttural necessity forced them to their notebook or computer. My reason for writing happens constantly, from that feeling. I’m walking down the street, I’m working in a preschool, I’m riding the train. I see something, I hear something, which creates something, which I can’t put my finger on yet. At night, it comes back to me: What is that? I hear it, I see it, that image, that moment. What do I do with it? Nothing for now. It’s hard for me to come to terms with it. Wait, there it is again. It’s clearer. It spurs other images, other ideas. Why do I write it down, though? What compels me to stop everything and put the words into a notebook, then bring the notebook to the computer? The answer is simple: whatever it is that’s creating the story is following me around like a haunting ghost. And I’m Whoopi Goldberg. The reluctant psychic, who ought to interpret it. Or else it might keep lingering. That’s the situation.

Train Tale

I got on a train last Wednesday. When it picked up speed, the headwind blew me. I fell on the dirt, but it’s all right because I wore my helmet.

With two broken legs, I headed for a bar. When I reached the bar, I used it as a cane to drag myself across the grass. I found another bar and decided to remove both my legs and use the bars instead. They couldn’t bend at the knees, which was all right, but I couldn’t sit down in the bar.

I stood at the counter and ordered a Scotch. When he came over, I couldn’t understand what he was saying because of his accent. I ended up with a new pair of shoes, but I wanted a beer. So I went behind the counter and poured myself one. I realized I was using the same glass as the guy across from me when I saw his dentures floating on the froth. Good thing too because I needed dentures. My teeth had fallen out after I’d fallen off the train.

The guy didn’t want me taking them. They were a gift from his nephew and sentimental. We decided to fight to the death over them. We tied ropes to the ceiling so that we could swing around. I used one of my bars, and he used my other bar. This gave me an advantage because I was a smaller target without legs. The bars clanged together, while we swung around. Before we knew it, each bar was broken at the center yet still one piece. I halted the fight. The guy had done me a favor. Now my bars had knees. I thanked him and presented him with the dentures. We both sat at the bar and shared a chocolate sundae. I told him about the train, and he called me a liar. No train ran near that town.