Our Teaching, Ourselves

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This blog was originally posted on February 13th, 2014.

Dear Readers: Here’s a question for you:  How do we reinvent ourselves, semester after semester, to keep our teaching fresh and new?

This is a question I’m pondering as I mentor new teachers, their passions palpable, their enthusiasm unbridled; they can’t imagine a more perfect calling than teaching writing. I ask them to reflect on what brought them to education, and I find myself asking, after thirty-some years of teaching, what has kept me here? How do I find those corners in myself, year after year, that rhyme with my students—and subject matter—and that keep me passionate about teaching?

Flashback to my first teaching experience: I imagined teaching to be nothing more than bringing my love of Walt Whitman to students, eighth graders brimming with the rhythms of Chicago’s urban life. I thought the only way to love Whitman was to read poetry outdoors, to luxuriate in the grass, marveling at the conjugation of the color green.  My students, though, had no desire to celebrate leaves of grass.  They had plenty to say, their bodies electric, but I wasn’t listening to the call of their stories. Looking back, I realize how much of the year was a song of myself, more soliloquy than an exchange of voices, more my performance than theirs.

                                                                                                   Nancy Sommers, circa 1978

It took a decade or more for me to understand that teaching requires both humility and leaps of faith—and, most importantly, the willingness to listen to and learn from students—a back and forth exchange that comes from helping students to give voice to their own ideas, and not impose passions, literary or political, on them.

What I learned from my students, when I started listening, is how to write— a preposterous claim, I suppose, since I’m the one who is supposed to be the teacher.  But their struggles to revise and my difficulties responding to their drafts revealed my own limitations as a writer and provided a subject to write about. It started with revision, watching students sabotage their own best interests as they moved words around, their successive drafts weaker than their first.  I started researching and writing about my students, their questions and challenges, curious about why some prospered as college writers while others lagged.  My students gave me a subject and, in doing so, invited me to join them on the page, not as the critic in the margins of their work, but as a fellow writer, compassionate and less judgmental.

These days I consider myself as much a writer as a teacher, although there are plenty of years in which the balance between teaching and writing is lopsided, the teaching taking precedence, and I need to write my way back to balance the equation. Humility comes from teaching writing as a writer; and a loss of certainty comes, too.  I am less likely to impose my interpretation upon a student’s draft and more likely, as a fellow writer, to recognize vulnerability, especially when students are asked to put their first drafts aside and start anew.

Each semester I am inspired by my students’ stories, their writing struggles and successes as they compose essays about complex subjects that matter to them.  Helping students develop as thinkers and writers is a calling, one that is renewed each semester by students. I can’t imagine work more important than this.

Dear Readers: Whether you’ve been teaching writing for two years or thirty-two, how do you keep teaching fresh and new?  Share your stories and ideas below.

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 hackerhandbooks.com). Her newest instructor resource, Responding to Student Writers, offers a model for thinking about response as a dialogue between students and teachers.