Education Opinion

Changing Positions

By Emmet Rosenfeld — May 08, 2008 5 min read
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I just finished teaching freshman comp at the local community college. Getting back two nights a week is welcome, but I will miss the mix of adults that offered such a stark contrast to the technocrats-in-training I teach on the day gig.

At the beginning of the course and at the end I asked students to write a “position paper.” The before and after snapshots let them and me see how far they’ve come. Below are excerpts from a few of the thirty four students’ papers. This is first draft writing, which I’ve reproduced unedited to preserve voice and give an accurate sense of the student population. Each evokes for me a snapshot of its author, and at the same time holds up a mirror to my teaching.

Mercedes is with a nonprofit now; in her past life she was a professional tour guide at an archeological site in Peru. She reflected on writing a personal narrative about the teacher that first made her love history: “My first composition was about my best teacher in high school, made me think a lot about my childhood. Never, before had I thought about it in the way that I did when writing my essay. It was like something sleeping in my unconscious until my new teacher helped me to bring it to the forefront of my mind.” With an archeologists sense of wonder she discovered the power of writing to uncover and interpret the artifacts of our past.

Valentina, one of two Russian au pairs in the class this session, raised her hand to ask questions as if she were chopping the air with military precision. What she took from the class would make Strunk & White forgive her occasional Cyrillic misspelling: “I’ve learned many useful teqcnicks such as “quote sandwich”, “snap shot”, “helicopter”…I’ve learned that in English language verbs are strong. Now I use more verbs, and try to avoid unnecessary adverbs and adjectives. I’ve learned how to be more specific.” In the end, it was the chance to make choices that most appealed to her: “Besides, I’ve been working at my grammar issues a great deal. The instructor gave us freedom to choose aspects grammar we want to work at; it was extremely helpful. I’ve reviewed articles three times; I’ve learned rules about usage semicolon. But one of the best things I’ve learned is how to write fast and enjoy it. I used to think about ever single word I put in my writing; it could take me hours to write a sentence. Now I write easy, but then revise thoroughly.”

Andres, formerly a young ad executive in Colombia, wrote his personal narrative about the harrowing experience of getting kidnapped off the streets of Bogota. In his research paper, he explored a different aspect of Colombian life, the controversy over how the traditional music of his country was being reinterpreted by a contemporary singer: “The best thing I learned was to think critically. While I was writing my papers and reading the essays I was thinking critically. The best example I have to explain this thought is the MLA research paper. I had to present an opposing view or counter-argument for my argument. My topic or my argument was about Carlos Vive and his new style to play Vallenato. In order to be objective my counter-argument was: ‘Many people disagree with Carlos Vives and his new style of music.’ I had to present both positions.” Andres, who had escaped from his kidnappers by engaging with them in conversation and essentially befriending them, explained that he felt critical thinking was “a tool to tolerate and respect those who have a different opinion of your point of view. If you have the information and you process that information in your mind, making it understandable, your opinion could be respected.”

Behind various piercings and tattoos, Annie was a fervent animal rights advocate who wrote about the tragedy of commercial whaling. Take a deep breath before reading this paragraph from her second position paper: “I know now to use commas to separate lists such as I love avocado, tomatoes, oranges, strawberries. Or you use commas to separate thoughts such as I love cake, especially tres leches cake. You can also use commas to express a pause. You also use commas after buts and before yets… About the run on sentences that’s just how I talk I can never stop I’m like Pringles once you pop you can’t stop well that’s how I am when it comes to talking. Although surprisingly I feel as though I’ve gotten better at that too. Only because now I’m always trying to cut myself off (LOL). Sentences have a subject, verb it’s a complete thought. Such as they towed my car. If I wanted to continue that sentence I could but it would be better if I just started a new sentence.” A Yogi Berra of grammar, Annie’s errors make sense. What is clear is an emerging understanding of grammatical ideas that had previously been a mystery to her.

Jamil is a young man who came to class one day with half his face sagging. He persisted in the course despite a scary bout with what turned out to be Bell’s palsy. He had bootstrapped his way from a checkered past into a new job, at the start of this course, and a new sense of his own potential by the end of it: “The most important things I took from this class were an integrated social and hands on learning environment. I had to stimulate my mind, and turn in assignments in a timely manner. In this atmosphere I learned many different techniques of writing, mainly on a research paper. I am now a lot more savy on the internet in doing research, finding credible sources of information, and how to do this in an efficient manner. I learned to write with detail, in a flowing direction which is easy for the reader to follow. I learned to use imagery, keep wording simple, pay attention to tense… and most importantly to just let your initial writing flow to your paper and do revisions later.”

Olivia was a young mom once diagnosed with a learning disability, now returning to the classroom but unsure if she could succeed. She was the last person out the door on the first night of class, painstakingly recopying her first position paper. With fluid confidence she wrote on the last night of the course: “The content of the first position paper is most interesting to me. I find it sad that I had little confidence in my ability to write. I feel now that I’m done with my first English class in almost ten years, that I did very well. I’m very proud of my self and what I have written. It took a lot of work and tears to have completed what I have done. I’m now not afraid of writing. I feel that I can get an internship and move on to get my degree. I can see a little more clearly, that I can complete my goal in life with out the fear of writing to hold me back.”

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