Thursday, March 29, 2007

Chickens and Eggs

In the essay “Redefining the Legacy of Mina Shaughnessy” by Min-Zhan Lu, the following discussion was given:

The image of someone using words to coax meaning ‘to the surface’ suggests that meaning exists separately from and ‘at some subterranean level of language.’ Meaning is thus seen as a kind of essence which the writer carries in his or her mind prior to writing, although the writer might not always be fully conscious of it. Writing merely serves to make this essence communicable to oneself and others. (107)

I have never really had to occasion to think about this too much, but found it thought-provoking. The argument kind of reminds me of the debate about which came first: the chicken or the egg. Lu argues that perhaps Shaughnessy’s thought that meaning is already inside and is given a voice through writing is only one-sided. Lu suggests that a particular meaning can take on new forms and shift into new meanings while the student tries to fit that one meaning into a variety of discourses. This is interesting as well. What it sounds like Lu is saying is that, even though a student has a particular meaning in mind, that meaning will change within different sets of discourse. I’m pondering on this even as I type. Does that mean that meaning adapts to the form it’s written in? That the meaning we so clearly have in our head doesn’t always come out the same way?

I definitely agree that meaning is not always inside first waiting to be “coaxed” to the surface through writing. As I type this very blog, I am creating my meaning, my thoughts. They were not perfectly clear when I began, but I knew that I wanted to discuss that quote because it was interesting to me. There have been times when I had a clear vision of what I wanted to write, a thesis, let’s say. It was only a matter of sitting down at my computer and letting the meaning that was already inside flow out of me. Those papers are usually my best! However, I also have papers where the actual act of writing helps me create meaning. For these papers I often have to go back and change many things. It is the writing that allows me to form my thoughts and draw conclusions that weren’t previously inside of me. It’s like those illusion pictures, which I can never see! You look at the picture normally and see one thing, but when you focus your attention on one point, the picture changes and becomes something completely different. That’s how these papers are when the meaning is inside me to begin with. So… I think I’ve answered my own question! Both can occur. Perhaps in the beginning there were both chickens and eggs!

Friday, March 16, 2007

To Negotiate or Not?

Bruce Horner ends his chapter "Re-Thinking the 'Sociality' of Error" by saying, "But we can encourage our students to make such attempts by teaching all aspects of writing, including editing, as negotiations in which they can play a role and in which they have a stake (165). I've always like the idea of negotiation in the classroom because, after all, it is the student's education. Shouldn't they have some say in it? On the other hand, I'm the teacher, the "expert," to use that term VERY lightly, and hopefully know what's best for my students. Wow, that sounds pretentious! However, I have a good example to back me up! Just yesterday in my Level 1 Speaking and Listening class at the English Language Institute, one of my students, who often tries to “negotiate” with me, argued about the way I wanted them to take notes. Now, this is level 1, which means they’re at the very beginning of the program at ELI. Having taught other levels, I know what’s in front of my students if they stay in this program and therefore am trying to prepare them for future levels by giving them foundational tools. This student didn’t like that I wanted them to take notes WHILE they were listening to a monologue. He said that he lost focus while writing and so couldn’t hear what came next. This is a perfectly legitimate argument and makes perfect sense. However, when he gets to level four and the lectures they listen to are fifteen minutes long, it will be impossible for this student to wait until the end and then write down everything he’s heard. Knowing this, I tried to explain to him, but he didn’t want to listen. Now, taking this even further, if this student eventually goes to MSU and is sitting in a lecture hall with 100 students listening to a professor speak for an hour and fifteen minutes, how in the world does he plan to take notes then? So you see, my intention is to prepare him for what’s ahead. Maybe right now listening to a simple two minute monologue is easy to remember, but later that won’t be the case. My point… yes, sometimes negotiation is good, but sometimes teacher knows best.

Friday, March 9, 2007


In Chapter five of Representing the "Other," Bruce Horner seems intent on discussing all the labels basic writing students have been given since the beginning of time. I have a hard time reading labels. I don't understand why there have to be labels. Can't we just teach the students we're given without putting them into a category? Who cares about whether it's the "Frontier Field" or the "Border Country?" It's a classroom of people, human beings, who are struggling with writing and need some help. It seems simple to me, but everyone must make their mark on the world and so must come up with a new title for every group that ever existed. The fact is, people are continously trying to come up the "right" label or the "politically correct" label, when in reality, any label is harmful because in some way or another it's a stereotype. (How many more times can I possibly say the word "label" in this blog!) I just wish people would focus more on the PEOPLE instead of what's write or wrong or this or that. How about we write books that explain how to help these particular students, like Mina Shaughnessy has done? I would much rather read helpful, practical advice, examples, ideas, teaching methods... than someones philosophical idea about the label needed. I realize this class is called "Theory of Basic Writing" and therefore THEORY must be discussed, and in ways is important. It is especially important to see what kinds of labels (there it is again!) are being placed on students, because more than likely they will know about that label and resent it, live up to it, etc. Well, I don't think I can say anymore about this topic. My point has been made and I'm now very tired of the word label!

Friday, March 2, 2007

Expectations - 03.02.07

After reading the very first sentence of the first reading assignment for this week, I had to immediately stop while my mind started rolling. In the chapter “Expectations,” Shaughnessy says, “The expectations of learners and teachers powerfully influence what happens in school” (275). Wow! What a simple, yet incredibly powerful and true statement. I have struggled with this issue continuously while teaching at the high school and college level. In every class, whether with native or non-native speakers, this is an issue. Not only is it an issue for teachers, but for students as well. After all, how can we get frustrated with our students when they seem to be so far below our expectations when that is the level that was set for them during the previous year(s)?

So what do we do? I think theory is great… when it can be applied in a practical manner. Therefore my questions all revolve around what the answer, solution, or method to the “problem” is. In a way, it’s almost like we have to start from scratch each year. I know some teachers who actually teach their expectations during the first week of classes. From the simplest things like saying “thank you” when the teacher returns a paper to the more complex expectations of the level of achievement the student will reach. Do we continue to push our students to greater heights? How far beyond the limits of the previous teachers’ expectations can we go? How do we challenge our students without scaring them or causing them to feel like failures? How do we change the mindset of our students so that they WANT to do better and grow in their academic abilities? ANY ANSWERS OR OPINIONS OUT THERE!? I think these are serious issues that must be explored and tested before we can become great teachers. As a fairly new teacher, I don’t know how to raise the bar yet, but I know I want to try.

Shaughnessy goes on to talk about the fact that writers are always learning to write (276). Just as in any task or profession there is always room for growth. Perhaps if this is the focus with our students, the task will not seem so daunting to them. I’ve heard of teachers who never give a final grade for a paper, but keep it in a folder for the whole year where the student can pull it out at various times and keep improving it. They are graded progress instead of final product. I like the idea of this. After all, isn’t this the way the rest of the world operates to some degree? When we begin a job, we know that we are at the bottom of the pay scale and that we have to work a little harder and LONGER to keep getting raises. At some point, we reach the salary cap for that position and either happily remain there, or we begin to work towards the next rung in the ladder where we will again be at the bottom of the pay scale in that new position. Perhaps the focus is wrong and we need to shift.