Thursday, March 3, 2016

Needing a Connection

I constantly look for ways to make my lessons more applicable or more understandable for my students, especially my AP students. (Honestly, right now, I’m just trying to get my 10th graders to write more than 5 sentences in a paragraph—we spend a lot of time discussing why they could/would possibly need more than the bare minimum. Sigh. I’m not going to tell them they might also need less than that “magic” 5.)

I adore teaching literature, but I’ll save it for another post; rather, I want to discuss my evolution from a teacher who teaches writing to a writer who encourages (and attempts to teach and make time for) a deeper, more meaningful connection to the process.

I recently began thinking more deeply about why we write and how we communicate as humans. Why do we make movies and write books and design buildings and sculpt and SnapChat and tweet and write songs and tell stories? What is the purpose of all this? To torture students by making them analyze and write essays? Well, that’s only part of the fun.

The entire purpose of everything we do is to communicate and make connections with others. A popular textbook claims, “Everything’s an Argument.” I don’t think that’s true. Just because you can argue anything does not make everything an argument. Rather, everything is an attempt to connect with other humans in the hope someone, somewhere understands and lets you know you are not alone.

All our movies and essays and novels and tweets and pictures and art and architecture and fashion and experiments are simply, sometimes, clumsy attempts at connecting to the human race. We desperately want others to look us in the eyes (not always literally), touch our hand or shoulder, and assert, “I hear you. Yes, I get it. No, you’re not a freak. I feel/think/say that too.” Those three words, “I hear you,” seem to be the most important. We need to be heard—not listened to, but actively, truly, deeply heard. To connect minds and emotions.

I need to continue conveying this to my students. We discuss author’s/creator’s purpose and how authors/creators then make conscious choices to convey a message and achieve that purpose. Authors/creators pick one word over another, they decide on setting and characters, they use imagery and symbols, they create sentences and paragraphs and dialogue—all to convey a message and create a connection between the audience and the medium. I call this the “Hows, Whys, and So whats or Who cares.” How does the author use language? Why does the author use the device? So what or who cares if this was used? How does it help convey the message to the audience? How does it help the audience connect to the work?

I drill this into my students until they begin asking these questions themselves. However, to take our thoughts and work deeper, I need to paint the picture of one human trying to communicate thoughts and emotions to another human.
Let’s focus again on written communication. “Know your audience” continues to be the #1 rule of writing. Once you know your audience, you can tailor your communication for them. Sometimes the simple word is best; sometimes the slang or curse word is the right word; sometimes passive voice is acceptable. Sometimes you can use a fragment. This year, I began explaining the burden of written communication falls on the communicator. The communicator needs to make the message as clear as possible with setting, characters, figurative language, necessary punctuation, diction, etc.

Do not expect your audience to read your mind.

This is when miscommunication happens: we get slothful and sloppily toss out words and images, expecting the audience to chase after and gather up the haphazard fragments and piece together an imperfect and incomplete picture. Then we get angry when our audience can’t interpret our lazy style and misconstrues our incoherent message. We complain about being “misunderstood,” but did we work to make ourselves understood? Probably not, it’s much easier to place blame than to accept responsibility.

Writing and speaking are gifts. Other animals communicate in various ways, but humans have the capacity to create words, give them meaning and nuance, to attach inflection and punctuation, to utilize body language and facial expressions—we have so much at our fingertips; however, we must and should be good stewards with our gifts. The world is chaotic, but words, especially written words, can bring order to that chaos. An essay or novel or tweet is NOT creating something from nothing; they are attempts to bring structure and infuse meaning into the disorder.

I want my students to learn the rules of format and Standard English so they can more effectively communicate with others. Then, I want them to learn how and when to break those rules. I did not truly understand this until I sat down and worked on honing my own skills, which is a never-ending process.

In the beginning of my career, I focused so much on simply getting students to write a “proper” essay, with a thesis and the other requisite pieces. I still must do this because of the restrictions of standardized testing, the AP test, and college expectations; however, in the last 4-5 years (years in which my own writing blossomed and flourished in the form of poetry and example “essays” for students), I found myself entering into discourse of the hows and whys of effective writing. Why do we do what we do? Yes, we need commas, but when and why? Dashes are so lovely—here’s why. Using more than one exclamation point at the end of a sentence doesn’t make your words more exciting; those extraneous marks just make your words louder. How do we make this more interesting, without relying on 20 exclamation points? When should you start a new paragraph? Generally when you start a new topic, but sometimes your reader needs a break…that’s when you can start a new paragraph. Traditionally, teachers/professors like the thesis to be the last sentence of your intro, so when you are writing for them, do that. Now, let’s look at where some other authors placed their thesis statements.

Increasingly more, I quickly review/teach the rules, then I eagerly anticipate conversations with those students ready to spread their wings and try breaking the rules. (This is yet another reason I wish my classes were no larger than about 20-25 students. Sigh….) I even sit in desks next to students or force myself onto the floor beside them so we can discourse on a more equal plane (see those non-verbal cues?) and so I am less of the “expert.”

My next step is maybe for my students to actually watch me struggle through a prompt or a blog post. I’ve done this before with various levels of success. Right now, many of them simply want a formula for how to get an “A.” My dream is to throw out grades for any and all writing assignments. Rather, I would love the time to have conferences with my students and help them wrestle with and fine-tune their work. Unfortunately, I have restrictions to which I must conform…as do my students.

In the mean time, I will try to balance the “bad” writing they must do for the AP and end-of-instruction tests with lessons in revising and editing. I will do my damnedest to help students understand that while writing is a much needed and desired skill, it is also an art form. Writing takes lifeless words, cautiously examines them, then reaches in and chooses that special word. Writing pairs that particular word with other carefully selected gems and strings them together to form sentences, which then form paragraphs. Eventually, when we take the time to judiciously craft our words, we just might reach out and touch someone, thus creating that most beautiful of connections: humans in understanding and harmony.  

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