As I prepared to give my final student teaching presentation, my friend — there for moral support — came up to my cooperating teacher’s desk where I stood fixing the dongle, tapped the wooden sign there that said “I’m silently correcting your grammar,” and whispered, “I hate this.”
I gave her a tight smile, muttering back that it was the worst. We had had previous conversations about how grammar instruction and the mythos of standard English oppressed native languages and dialects, and this knick knack suddenly represented all that was wrong with traditional instruction.
First-Year Composition put this idea into concrete terms: native languages and dialects need to be valued and validated in the educational system, and, when they are not, this is a contribution to the promotion of cultural assimilation (xviii) This is especially important in composition classes where the focus is primarily on how we write and use language.
(SAE is a language of privilege, but that’s a conversation for another day. My friend mentioned in the anecdote, Rachel Wright-Márquez, presented at a conference on Navigating Linguistic Hegemony in the Writing Center: The Mythos of Standard American English and its Implications, and her best practices information can be found here.)
As my undergraduate education was in English education, I have the advantage of entering graduate school with methods, content, and pedagogy courses under my belt, as well as practicum experiences and an entire semester spent student teaching high school freshmen. That said, I know that helping high school students understand Romeo and Juliet will be much different than helping college students understand how to write a rhetorical analysis. This previous teaching experience was very traditional in that the curriculum that needed to be followed was primarily crafted in order to prepare students for NWEA testing, even if that meant emphasizing standard American English (SAE, sometimes referred to as Edited American English).
I had my phase, as have most English majors, where I declared myself to be a “grammar Nazi” (and given our current political climate, I hope even more fervently that this phrase has died out), but as I began running a classroom, I realized that a lot of my students didn’t understand the importance of reading and writing skills beyond school’s emphasis of SAE; the importance of NWEA for their high school careers was not something that mattered to them, and quite a few of my students thought “English was dumb.” They didn’t care whether they were engaging with the ideas we were talking about, as “First Time Up” says this is the “help” students need most (and this is probably the help we should provide most frequently in our classes), but instead just cared about doing the bare minimum to get by (16).
My experience with rhetoric and composition as fields of study are limited in comparison to what I feel I know about the field of education; I can whip out phrases like “scaffolding,” “ZPD,” and “pseudo-concepts” like they’re no big deal, but my understanding of tools like the rhetorical triangle is shaky at best (and as such, a lot of my primary questions about composition come down to what define it as a discipline).
The common ground between my educational background and composition, however, comes down to Adler-Kassner and Wardle’s metaconcept that “Writing Is an Activity and a Subject of Study” (4).
This was something a lot of my freshmen didn’t understand — how was writing important outside of helping them to earn a good grade in English 9? They didn’t want to be English majors or authors, and they didn’t revise, just as Teller argued of his students, although I loathe to say something similar to Teller.
As a had a one-on-one moment with a student, praising him for his use of simile in a paragraph response, he seemed stunned that I was proud of him for that, and I tried to use the opportunity as best I could to emphasize that strong writing like that would get him far in life, as writing is something we’re always doing, even if it’s not scholarly writing.
Of course, writing is hard, and many students will always struggle with it, whether that’s because their brains are better wired for math or because English isn’t their first language and they have to write in English as their teachers don’t speak Bulgarian or Spanish or Pushto (three of the languages some of my freshmen spoke). Writing and communication are important outside of the classroom, though, and it is our duty as teachers to help students strengthen these skills.
What’s important and what will always be a concern to me in both teaching and in composition is that students be able to communicate their ideas in ways that are easily understandable but in ways that respect their identities.
This is what I want for my students, whether they’re studying English as a discipline or whether they want to be construction workers or go into the military or be stay-at-home parents. Composition may have started as remediation, but it can be so much more than that.
Adler-Kassner, L., & Wardle, E. (2015). Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies (1 edition). Logan: Utah State University Press.
Coxwell-Teague, D., & Lunsford, R. F. (Eds.). (2014). First-Year Composition: From Theory to Practice. Anderson, South Carolina: Parlor Press.