By Catherine Hedge
I’ve always admired experts. I’m one of those who sit in the front seats of a lecture hall. I hold my breath at the introduction and stare adoringly at the speaker. Then with a fat notebook and quick pen, I try to capture the moments of inspiration. At the end, I sigh as if a beautiful symphony has just ended.
So, I trained to be an expert. An English teacher. I assumed that I would waltz into the classroom, raise my pen like a baton, and direct my students to become incredible writers. They would swoon at my brilliant poems and beg me to read more! More! MORE!
That’s not how it happened at all. No Sirree! The biggest revelation in my career sounds like a cliché, but it’s true. I really did learn more from my students about writing than all of my college coursework. And I had excellent professors for the most part! (Thank you Dr. Gilbert and Dr. Bushman!)
My initial premise was wrong. My middle school students weren’t just empty vessels waiting for me to fill them. Instead, they were already rich in background knowledge, the books they had read, the stories they’d heard or seen, and the dramatic experiences of their young lives. They had valuable writing instincts. With some training in critique, they could express those thoughts to support others and to hone their own pieces.
I recently found an example of their helpful criticism while cleaning out my old files. Back in the mid 1980’s, we were working on a Greek God unit. I was taking a Whole Language class taught by Dr. JoBeth Allen that was based on a novel idea: If you want to teach students to write, let them write and talk about writing. For my college assignment, I had my children spend 10 minutes creating a quick origin story. I wrote along with them. Then we passed our papers around for comments. (This was after instruction and modeling of appropriate feedback.) When I was done with my little piece, I was proud. Not too bad for a rough draft. Succinct. Clever end. I hoped my 7th graders would be impressed.
The following is a transcript of my initial story, their comments, and my response thirty years later.
10 Minute Quick Write: How People Fall In Love by Catherine Rintoul (at the time)
Long ago and far away, life was incredibly dull. No one fought or cried or laughed with glee. Zeus became quite bored with his creations and was ready to squash them into homogenized humans.
Venus, who had always been fond of the weak beings, decided to spice up their lives. She let loose a cloud of azure butterflies. These flew through the dark and into the mouths of the young who were forced to sleep under the stars.
When a young male human awoke with a start, he snapped his mouth closed and trapped the fluttering butterflies inside. Looking for the cause of his distress within himself, he spied a young beautiful maiden asleep under the nearest tree. He blamed her, woke her up, and the world has never been the same since.
(Argh! On rereading this, I ask myself, did I really say “Laugh with glee” Or “Awoke with a start”? I’m so sorry! C.H.)
Student comments: (My observations)
“The people should have went (sic) through some emotions.” Theodonte (Dang! He’s right!)
“Why not make the butter thing taste like anything?” J.C. (Yes. A great place for sense detail. Now, would it be bitter or sweet?)
“Why don’t you add other gods in the story?” C.G. (Too many names in a short piece)
“Why didn’t they fight?” K.O.G. (again, I didn’t describe the lack of emotions. I just assumed the statement was enough.)
“I think they should have awoke and ran to each other and kissed.” K.B. (Hmmm…probably the scene young readers would have liked to have seen most and I left it out. I presumed they’d make the connection or imagine the moment, but I was giving up my author’s control)
“You could have one of the bullerflies fly in Zeus’s mouth and he falls in love.” (Brilliant! No name, but I wish I knew who wrote this. He or she is probably a successful screenwriter now. )
“This is good. I think you should change the butterflies and have flies.” C. W. (Good yuck factor.)
“ I think you should have lots of people getting off the ground and running toward each other.” C.B. (I agree…and have Zeus respond to the pandemonium. Much more active ending. Could be panoramic.)
“I think you should have it the same.” N.Y. (Sometimes we need one of these, too!)
“I think you should have something like raining peppermint drops, melting at the touch of lips or tongue instead of butterflies.” S.O. (Hmmm….more specific descriptive detail in this sentence than my whole piece.)
“Why were they force to sleep under the stars?” A.M. (Ahh, a cry for conflict. Tension. Injustice. Dang. Right again. )
These students are now nearing forty. I wonder if any of them, and the students who followed, realize how much they transformed my life. I was an intelligent, somewhat pompous instructor who excelled in creating reports, research papers, and lesson plans. However, inside I was a suffocated storyteller. A creative writing professor told me I had no talent. I stopped writing that day. I was secretly terrified that my students would discover the truth about me.
I am a fortunate woman. My students made me write, revise, share…they insisted I follow the same processes I made them use. Together, we used the techniques that turn bland work into something memorable. Later that semester, I met Leonard Bishop. He asked me, “Are you working on anything?” By that time, I had enough courage to say, “Yes!”
The truth did finally come out, but it wasn’t what I had feared. “Talent” didn’t write. I did.
What a weird moment of pride and embarrassment when your students find flaws in your writing using tools you gave them 🙂 You’re a great teacher, Cathy!
Thank you, Marie! Actually, this realization transformed my teaching, not just my writing. I am so glad I paid attention to them!