my best learning has happened everywhere except the classroom

Mural on the side of a building, showing a person holding a book in front of their face; their eyes are visible over the book and look out at the viewer. Hair is blue like a river and filled with symbols. Behind the person is a forest of decorated tree trunks and tropical foliage. Above the person are the words Good morning, good morning.

Outside the sun is up the no the light is up but the day is still grey the morning is still all grey fog. I can’t see the bay, can’t even see to the edge of the water.

This morning the birds didn’t get me out of bed right away. They told me about the secrets at dawn, but I was already sleeping again. Second alarm, snooze, ok, fine, I’m up, I’m up.

Each day I type the date at the header of these  morning writes, and for most of this week, I’ve wanted to type 15 instead of 17 for the year. What is that telling me? That I want to go back to the beginning, back to the start of school, back to before school started?

I’m not sure what school is teaching me. I’m two-thirds of my way through my MFA program, and coming out of a year which ended with me feeling completely demoralized, disconnected from writing and from writing community. This is the opposite of what an MFA program is supposed to do, I think. Isn’t it? The faculty in our program keep going off to other opportunities — fellowships, sabbaticals — which makes for not a terribly stable academic home. I make a connection with someone and then they’re gone for a semester or a year or for good…what’s going on here?

And then last year I did a lot of work toward a certificate proclaiming me qualified to teach composition to college students, four courses in composition theory and practice. Something about these classes left me numb and despondent. Something left me feeling like I didn’t belong. I’m still trying to figure out exactly what that something is.

(It wasn’t just that these classes were all group work all the time, which is a thing I want to talk about: this trend now to have all students work together, assuming that we are all extroverts who do our best learning when we’re processing things aloud with someone else; the introverts among us, who were happy with the working alone at our desks and thinking things to ourselves happy to listen to lectures (well, maybe not all introverts were happy listening to lectures — myself, I am mostly glad to listen to the most educated-in-the-subject-in-the-room speak for awhile during class about this subject they’ve studied enough to be able to teach), but lectures are out of favor now, and individual classwork is out of favor. What’s in favor is having students work together, jigsaw reading assignments, group projects, and, I dunno — are you a big fan of group projects in class? I’m not. It’s not that I dislike my classmates or that I dislike talking about what it is we’re studying, but that I don’t think as well, or create as well, when I have to sit in a room full of ongoing conversation — not just the conversation in my little small group, my pair or triad or whatever, but all the rest in the class going on simultaneously as well — and come up with innovative ideas or responses to a question or problem. This way of asking students to think under constant distraction, it doesn’t work for me as a student. As a professor, of course, it makes for a lot less work — I don’t have to lead lecture, I don’t have to lead discussion, I don’t have to do nearly as much to prepare for class or to keep the class running.

Maye I’m too old-school. Maybe if you’re raised doing school this way, you get good at it. Maybe this is an old-dog-new-tricks situation.)

Anyway — there’s something else that I’ve been trying to understand, trying to get my finger on. What it was about these classes, the teahing-composition classes, that left me feeling sick and sad? There was something about how we talked about writing and writers in these classes, a hostile, even adversarial, tone around student writers and student writing — even though I was working with professors who are all progressive in their thinking about teaching college/academic writing to students, who don’t come from the get-the-grammar-right-make-sure-the-surface-is-pretty-I-don’t-want-to-see-any-errors school of thought, who make fun of the five paragraph essay as hopelessly regressive and useless, who are open to different forms and ways of learning but who, of course, still want to see “good” writing from their students, but cannot say what “good” writing is.

It was a weird and subtle sense of superiority I sensed in a number of my classes — something about the vibe was the opposite of what I felt when I was training to become a workshop facilitator with Pat Schneider, and maybe this goes to why Pat’s work, the AWA method, is so revolutionary. In that training, we were all encouraged to think of ourselves as entering into a relationship and deep connection with the writers in our groups. We learned how to co-create a space in which powerful writing could emerge, in which new writing could flow; we learned how to hold a container, a way of being and thinking about writing. And we facilitators were meant to be a part of the space, a writer among writers, not separate, not “the teacher,” not better or other.

Maybe that’s the sickness I felt, a cognitive dissonance, coming as I am from an embodied understanding of writing, of how writing can be facilitated and “taught,” when I returned to the classroom with the idea that I’d learn how to teach (academic) writing the “right” way. Something in me still believed that the other way, the way in front of the classroom with chalkboard and sentence diagrams (I can’t help it, I loved sentence diagrams), was the right way to teach writing, that it was better for folks who wanted to learn how to write in and for The Academy. Something in me still privileged classroom learning over anything else — even though my best learning has happened everywhere except the classroom.

As an AWA-trained writing group facilitator, I had learned another way, a different way of conceiving of the practice of writing and the product of writing, than what we were learning in school. In my composition classes, there’s a lot of talk, and I think authentic talk, about wanting students to focus more on writing as a process, of learning that the process of writing is multi-stage, multi-phasic, of being not an orderly progression from idea to brainstorming to writing introduction body conclusion revise to correct grammar errors done, but instead something much wilder, something that flows from idea to jotting down thoughts to revising some of thoughts to more brainstorming to sketching out a possible outline and writing some body paragraphs and revising those and then coming up with a good conclusion and only after all that’s done getting the idea for the introduction to having to revise one of the core ideas and having to begin again — my instructors want us to convey this idea of writing to our students, but still we had to come back to the end product, the thing that needs to be graded and show improvement.

By the end of my year of composition classes, I was sure that I didn’t have what it takes to teach composition to undergraduates, if the sort of classroom I experienced was the sort of classroom I was expected to lead. I still don’t know what a fucking PIE paragraph is, and I certainly don’t want to learn how to teach someone else what it was. Here I thought I could have been helpful in the classroom, inviting new college students to explore their many writing voices, the many ways they might communicate a thought or idea, inviting us into reading together and alone. But the classroom that I learned about in my teaching-composition classes is one fraught with demands, the demands on the teacher to produce students who produce “good work.” The process of teaching isn’t really what we discussed. Maybe that’s some of the disconnect I felt. We were so focused on helping students to understand the process of writing, but we didn’t talk or think or practice or feel our way into the practice of teaching. We focused on the product — the student writing— that is, the piece of writing produced by the student, not the student in the process/practice of writing.

I learned to write by reading and emulating what I read, by reading widely and discovering all the different ways that writing could look, the different forms writing could take. Gloria Anzaldúa, for instance, blew my mind and writing right open, taught me about the lyric/hybrid essay, taught me about multi-linguistic writing, taught me about writing that could contain multiple genres, poetic academic essay. Frankly, if I ever get the chance to teach academic writing in the classroom, that’s the sort of thing I’d like to see the students take on. I want to see mess and play, critical thinking in all its many creative manifestations.

How can we create learning spaces, especially around writing, that students don’t have to spend the rest of their lives trying to forget or unlearn, that don’t leave students feeling less-than or fundamentally bad or wrong?

There’s more to this thinking, more that I’m trying to unravel after this last year in school. I’m grateful for the break, grateful to have this space to try and figure things out, grateful that you’re there and reading, grateful for all the writing you do, too, the ways you teach and learn, the ways you model and construct.

And, of course, I’m always grateful for your words.  

3 thoughts on “my best learning has happened everywhere except the classroom

  1. Jen says:

    So grateful for this, Jan, and for all the ways you bring a different kind of teaching to the writing classroom! <3

  2. Jan Haag says:

    Oh, Jen… I sosososo relate to this in every way. And as a longtime writing teacher (not just of comp but journalism and creative writing), I can tell you that you should teach the way teaching feels best to you–forget the group work (I hate that, too), and yes, keep lectures short, but do lecture. And in every writing class I teach (even journalism) I give them the AWA method and a free comp book to write whatever they want in… without worries about grammar or punctuation or spelling. You are a wonderful teacher/mentor. Trust that about yourself and do it the way your heart tells you to… the way you’ve been doing it for years, my friend!

  3. Kris says:

    Hi Jen, I see you as a guide, forging a path that leads to so many places – truth, wholeness, process, release and that works for me. Even one workshop you facilitated gave me enough confidence to register at school. I don’t know that I had learned anything that needed to be unlearned from a teacher, but in my head, I was highly critical of myself. You created the space for me to learn much more about the gift I *receive* by writing; and I am grateful to continue to connect and learn from your blog. Good to read your posts this summer. Always good for my soul to read your words.

Comments are closed.