Coming to Teaching

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[This was originally posted February 1, 2011.]

Recently I was asked by a group of new writing teachers to give them one single piece of advice about teaching. As I tried to compose myself—just one?—and sifted through the various mantras that seemed possible, I offered up the following: Become a teacher who sees learning through the eyes of students.

I walked into my first classroom some decades ago with equal parts of enthusiasm and terror. I was just a few years older than my students and barely a step or two ahead. To prepare for class, I had spent hours with a mimeograph machine, staining my hands purple, obsessively duplicating a stack of handouts to fill a seventy-five-minute slot, lest my students found me wanting. What strikes me now about those early years of teaching is that all my new-teacher anxieties were focused on my own performance. I never considered adjusting classroom lessons to students’ rhythms and silences, as they practiced the unfamiliar moves of academic writing.

A few years ago, I started yoga classes, seeking to learn something new but also to see learning from the back of the room, from the perspective of a student who doesn’t know how to contort her body into a downward facing dog. I wanted to understand the experiences of students who don’t yet know how to write English sentences or paragraphs or who don’t understand the common language of academic writing. And I wanted to take a page or two of teaching methods from inspiring teachers who could help me reach my own students in the back of the room.

Along the way, I discovered a passion for yoga. At first I was a baffled and frustrated student who looked sideways to copy the postures of others and was clueless when teachers uttered words, especially in Sanskrit, that everyone but me seemed to understand. But I was also fortunate to find compassionate and generous teachers who didn’t bark commands—“Do downward facing dog”—but rather anticipated what was required for students to assume such a posture and devised a progression of small moves and sequences to help us learn the pose. These teachers appreciated the difficulties of being a novice and encouraged students to be patient—to learn by experimenting, approximating, and practicing.

These days I try not to bark commands to my students—“Cite your sources” or “Write clear sentences”—but to respect the challenges they face as novice academic writers. I ask: What do students need to know to cite sources or write clear sentences? And how can a writing assignment be broken down into a series of small steps and sequences to give students sufficient practice with individual skills, one lesson at a time, with opportunities to approximate the skills as they practice them? With so much newness in the classroom, we want students—those who sit in the front as well as those in the back—to learn from one another, especially to understand that learning takes practice, yes, but that it’s also a habit of mind, that each lesson is worth learning to become good college writers.

And teaching is so much more fun without purple-stained hands or a mimeographed stack of handouts. I’ve learned to love the silences in a classroom, even to listen for them, as they guide me—patiently and compassionately—to see learning through the eyes of students.

Whether you’ve been teaching one year, thirty-one years, or longer, please join the conversation. What one brief piece of advice would you offer new writing teachers? Or what advice was offered to you as a new teacher that you want to pass forward?

Share your suggestions, thoughts, or teaching stories in the comments!

About the Author
Nancy Sommers, who has taught composition and directed writing programs for more than thirty years, now teaches in Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. A two-time Braddock Award winner, Sommers is well known for her research and publications on student writing. Her articles “Revision Strategies of Student and Experienced Writers” and “Responding to Student Writing” are two of the most widely read and anthologized articles in the field of composition. She has also created three films—Shaped by Writing, Across the Drafts, and Beyond the Red Ink—to bring the voices of student writers into a larger discussion about writing instruction. Nancy Sommers is currently the coauthor of Diana Hacker’s best-selling handbooks: The Bedford Handbook, A Writer’s Reference, Rules for Writers, A Pocket Style Manual, and Writer’s Help (see Her newest instructor resource, Responding to Student Writers, offers a model for thinking about response as a dialogue between students and teachers.