Veni, Vidi, Docui

So teaching went pretty well, I’d say.

I was predictably nervous before class on Thursday, made more so by the fact that I had a late afternoon class, and all day long in Tompkins Hall I was racing to prepare my notes as my fellow grad students descended the stairs to their first classes, sharply dress and visibly tense and jittery.

Earlier that morning I had been feeling relatively sanguine about it all as I wrote the previous blog post and prepared to head in, confident of my ability and my preparation. Angie meanwhile hasn’t begun her new job yet, and so busily flitted about the kitchen preparing a lunch for me, healthy snacks, a water bottle, a travel mug of coffee, and generally making sure little Zaky was all set for his big debut. On the way out to the car she had me pause so she could take a photo of me in my new gray herringbone twill sportcoat, the one I had bought specifically to mark the occasion of becoming a teacher, complete with—forgive me for the cliché—elbow patches. The added attention only ramped up my nerves, but I was certainly grateful as well.

I had English 624, a teaching practicum, several hours before teaching, during which we went over last minute qualms and concerns. Every one of my peers was looking great, dressed professionally in a way grad students seldom are, and I felt like I was back in my last corporate job, at the Convention and Visitor Bureau, where everyone dressed well as a matter of course. Afterwards, up in my cubicle, I got an email telling me that the computer console in my assigned classroom was broken, as well as the overhead projector, and that I should make alternate arrangements. My lesson plan had involved some pretty intensive use of that machinery, so I nearly panicked. Then the internet went out.

It was the second official day of classes, so naturally the university’s servers were heavily trafficked and groaning under the pressure. Our school has a secured server that requires login; the pop-up window for authentication never materialized and I could access any of the sites necessary to get ready for my class. One hour passed, then another, and I began scribbling notes in a Word doc and then by hand, roughing it to make sure both I and my students had the materials we’d need on our first day. At about three o’clock, half an hour before my class was scheduled to begin, it dawned on me that I hadn’t tried the simplest solution of all, and I restarted my laptop. Voilà—the login screen came up, and I was back in business. I hurriedly printed my notes and transferred some of my materials back into Moodle (the online learning environment for the class), and then dashed off to teach.

My students were all waiting in the hallway outside a locked classroom. I had hoped they’d already be inside and seated: one of the teaching tips I got from the instructor of ENG 624 is to show up on your first day at the very last minute. It’s counter-intuitive advice—I had planned on showing up a few minutes early to get myself situated, but as she reminded me, so would they, and I would be peppered with questions and unable to truly get settled in those first minutes if I came early. Better to breeze in on the stroke of the proverbial bell and start talking that first day. But alas, here they all were, instantly identifying me (was it the jacket?) as the teacher as I walked up to the door and fished for my keys.

We got down to business quickly. I gave anyone who might be in the wrong classroom a chance to escape, and then began my quick intro before launching into a long, one-sided discussion of our syllabus. I tried to punctuate my speaking with asides and apologies for the dry nature of this part, pausing for questions (there were none) and explaining that this was boring, I know, but necessary, and the syllabus was important since they’d all be held to it, that it’s essentially a contract between me and you, and as such—and I’m certainly not required to do this—I offer you the opportunity to read this over and challenge anything in it that you deem unfair or unreasonable, provided you present your argument to me in the next five days (so far no takers).

I had planned to introduce the syllabus as a genre unto itself, as a means of introducing the concept of genre that will factor so heavily in this course, but as I began to talk about genres and conventions and categories of things ranging from the literary genres of sci-fi and romance to the less obvious genres of everyday objects like trees or backpacks, I sensed that I was getting ahead of myself. By a lot.

And I was also running out of steam myself. My mouth was dry, and the water bottle Angie had prepared for me was one of those Camelback kinds that you hold upright, with the nozzle that you pinch with your teeth and then suck on, like a nipple. I stood there, punctuating my talk about attendance and plagiarism policies with awkward pauses to purse my lips around the nozzle and suck water.

So, looking out at the glazed eyes and nodding heads, I reeled it in, and wrapped up my talk on syllabus and policies as quickly as I could. Based on discussions with others, I’d predicted I’d need 45 minutes to go over it all, and that’s exactly what it took. Now, I’ve been assigned one of the less common sections of English 101, which meets two days a week instead of four, and for 100 minutes instead of 50. After nearly losing everyone’s attention over the first half, on the very first day, it was now my job to bring them back.

It was an awkward transition. I had planned to launch right into a discussion of writing processes, and for a moment it felt like such a jarring segue, I had no idea how to get into it. For a moment I couldn’t even recall what it was precisely I had wanted to say about writing processes. I had planned to wing it: that’s usually how I operate best. I just riff on whatever subject I happen to know about. Except there were certain specific things I need to say in English 101, certain key phrases and topics I needed to cover, and I not only had to make sense of them for the students, but for myself as well.

I glanced at my typed out notes:

  • INTRODUCTION TO WRITING PROCESS – Prewriting/planning, Researching, Drafting, Critiquing, Revising, Editing. Write to learn. Process not product. Talk about teacher’s role to challenge, stimulate, guide, and review; and student’s role to explore, ask, attempt, revise.
    • Describe how all writing and research is a process, that you don’t just go from 0 to Finished Paper overnight. Or, maybe you did in high school, but that’s not going to fly here. It’ll take some of you longer to learn that than others, but it’s true.
    • It’s not just about pacing yourself, is it. It’s about planning and thinking, in both structured and unstructured ways.
    • Writing process depends on context – the purpose of your writing, as well as your audience and goal or expected outcome.
    • The process changes as you engage in it. As you look things up, you think of new ideas, new questions, and you go back to revise your previous writing.
    • In English 101, we are more concerned with “Process” than with “Product” – we would rather see a messy draft that you are actively revising and getting feedback on than a slick finished draft that shows no hint of having been revised.

I read these bullet points out loud, one by one, half mumbling. FIrst of all, they struck me now as condescending, not just “tough love”. And they came out of a total vacuum: I was talking about writing process without context, without giving them anything to “stick” it to in their experience or understanding. I finished reading these notes and glanced up at the class. I still hadn’t recovered (or ever gained) traction with them. They were listless. I was losing them. I was that teacher, aloof and disconnected.

In a fog, I retreated from my notes and, searching my thoughts, began to extemporize. “So, think about all the papers you wrote in high school.” I looked up and made eye contact with some bored faces. “No, scratch that,” I said. “Think of a single paper you wrote in high school. Your best one. Your most recent one, maybe.” I warmed to my topic. “From the minute you received the assignment to the second you turned it in, finished, out of your hands for good … what were the steps you took? What did you do to get there?”

A few tentative hands went up.

“I wrote a thesis statement.”

“I looked stuff up on Google.”

“I looked in Wikipedia.”

“I read the prompt.”

OK, I thought, now we’re getting somewhere. I explained that this was writing process, and that there was no one universally right way to write, contrary to what they may have been taught in high school.

I then divided the class into two sides for the next activity.

I was inspired by our beginning-of-semester kickoff meeting in the First Year Writing Program, wherein we (all English 101 instructors, about fifty of us I’d say, including both grad student TAs and full-time faculty) were introduced to an online app called Padlet that acts as a kind of real-time bulletin board, much like Google Docs, with contributors able to simultaneously post little messages that appear anonymously on a communal screen.

So one side of the class was given a URL for the Padlet I had set up, and the other side was given a bundle of dry-erase markers for the whiteboard that spans the front of the classroom. No reason other than to try out two different technologies side by side and see what worked better for them.

I told them to get together in their groups and discuss their writing processes, maybe coming up with some common phrases or words for things and then posting them on their respective boards. Anything from where they like to sit when they write to how they revise, if at all: if it gets them to the finish line when writing a paper, include it.

All of a sudden, the class was abuzz with talk and laughter and the sound of engaged students. I couldn’t help but grin.

The result was great, too: the Padlet side had a ball, and wrote some pretty funny things. Frito-Lay™ products were a common feature, as were environmental concerns such as music, food, sleep, and “taking a dump.”

The whiteboard side needed a bit more prodding to come and approach the board. Their responses were a bit less animated and more traditional in scope: brainstorming, drafting, writing a thesis, peer- and teacher- review, editing, etc. (Which isn’t to say the Padlet side didn’t include some of those as well; I’m just describing the tendency of either side.)

Afterward we reviewed the responses. I took them all seriously, despite the snickers from students. “Well, it’s good to be comfortable and not have blockage when you write,” I said, pointing to “taking a dump.”

“And what about Cheetos? Do Cheetos help you write? No, this isn’t a trick question. There’s no right answer. Does it help you write?”

“I guess. It’s just what I do. I suppose I could eat better.”

“Whatever helps, man,” I said. “If Cheetos helps you write better, that’s awesome. I’m no nutritionist,” I said, patting my belly, “but personally that junk food makes me feel nasty. But whatever works for you.” And see what I did just there? I connected food and eating to writing process. Maybe it’ll stick the next time they write a paper. Maybe not. But I planted that little land mine in their brains. Ka-boom.

I asked the Padlet side if they enjoyed using that app. None of them had ever heard of it. They loved it. “We should use that again!” some of them chirped. I asked the dry-erase side what they thought of their technology. “It was fine,” they said. “The other side had more fun.” One girl admitted to feeling a bit more self-conscious about getting out of her seat and approaching the board at the front of the room. Padlet afforded a chat-room style anonymity that was conducive to uninhibited speech. The whiteboard was more formal, and yielded more formal responses.

Next we were going to move into the first freewrite of the class. But looking at the time, I noted that there were only twenty minutes left. If I left the homework assignments to the last minutes of class, I might lose their attention. So I switched it up.

“Before we move into the next activity, I just want to go over the reading and assignments for next Tuesday,” I said by way of segue. Instantly I heard the rustling of backpacks and papers. Instantly and without thinking I heard myself say, “Class ain’t over yet, we still got twenty minutes left.” The rustling stopped. I know the sound of getting ready to leave. I’ve been a student a long time, too. That sound is a deeply worn groove in my subconscious.

I went over the assignments. Then I briefly introduced the idea of freewriting, as a practice that helps loosen the creative juices and is meant in part just to get uninhibited words down on paper quickly, and in part to explore a topic through the very act of writing about it. A thesis doesn’t come out of nowhere, and if all you do is look things up in Google and Wikipedia—which are fine sources for some things, make no mistake—then you’ll just end up aping someone else’s thoughts and words. Freewriting is a great way to jog one’s curiosity and start formulating ideas and questions in one’s own head. A straw poll revealed that only a few of my students had ever engaged in freewriting before.

Their inaugural freewriting topic?

“Fresh vegetables,” I said. “That’s your prompt. Whatever you want to say about fresh vegetables. It can be anecdotal. It can be informative. It can be prescriptive, descriptive, humorous, or jaded. You can describe how to cook them, eat them, grow them, or throw them. You can write about alien robots on Mars, if your brain takes you there, just keep writing and don’t stop. And if you can link alien robots on Mars back to fresh vegetables, so much the better! And if you can’t think of anything to say, just write exactly that: ‘I can’t think of anything I can’t think of anything I can’t think of anything,’ until you bore yourself and begin to actually write something. Ready? Go.”

And lo and behold, they did. There was no sound for the next five minutes but the sound of keyboards clicking away furiously.

My only mistake during this time? I couldn’t keep quiet myself. Two minutes in, I walked around the room and started talking, thinking myself a coach issuing an inspiring background chatter. “Just keep writing, don’t stop,” I said. “Write through the pauses, don’t worry about spelling or grammar or syntax or whether or not it sounds good. Just keep writing,” I said.

Later, reading some of the responses, I’d discover that my chatter was actually distracting. My students were just writing, and I was getting in the way. And the responses were great! A few had difficulty with it, and were annoyed by the prompt. Several were hungry and made more so by the prompt. Others really got into it, and shared personal stories or lessons about vegetables. The majority reflected on how much crap they eat, and how much they dislike vegetables despite knowing better. One student used the time to describe a drinking game revolving around the naming of vegetables.

All in all, it was a success, and when the end of class came, I found myself having to signal to the students—who were all still busy typing—that it was indeed time to go, alas, alas.

So overall, a successful first day of teaching. I don’t imagine I’ll go into such detail describing future days, at least not on this blog. But I felt it was important to keep a record of my first day, a learning experience and, proud to say, a teaching experience.

TWO SIDE NOTES, EACH WORTHY OF SEPARATE BLOG POSTS:

  1. The following day was Wilton Barnhardt’s launch event and reading for his new novel, Lookaway, Lookaway, at Quail Ridge Books, followed by the MFA welcome party at Dorianne Laux‘s house. A great day. I’ve been to hundreds of author readings as a book publicist, and I can proudly say, Wilton killed it. This is one funny man, and one very arch satire. Pick it up now from your local library or independent bookseller.
  2. The day after that—Saturday—yesterday—was my father’s 78th birthday. It was a tough day. I wish I could have shared my first day of teaching with him. He’d have been proud. Okay.

Until next time, folks.

2 Comments

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  1. I am also sorry you couldn’t share your teaching day with your dad but, for what it’s worth, I am proud of you. I have shared your first blog post with a new faculty member. I think she is going through the same thing.

    Love Jim

    Sent from my iPad

  2. I visualized you up in front of that class SO clearly! I like to think I was your first student. Sometimes you really helped me and sometimes you got really frustrated with me (mostly with math I think). But I do remember many times you tried to teach me something or help me with homework. And hey…I turned out to fairly intelligent!

    Also This reminds me that I enjoyed writing too when I was younger and love that you are passing along your knowledge and good humor. I think if there is any way to incorporate your amazing ability to illustrate your ideas you will get a very positive response. I love your doodles, maps, characters as much as your writing and always retained those ideas and images much better than words on the page alone (but that’s just me).

    I am glad this went well for you and definitely understand the difficulty of having new milestones that can’t be shared with dad.

    Love you Z!

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