This is my working draft for a preface to a text-in-progress on writing instruction. In the primary manuscript, I will relate stories about working with students and teachers to illustrate lessons for becoming more capable writing teachers. In this preface, I seek to illustrate how a boss’s or a teacher’s disposition can either inspire or demoralize a worker or a writer.
Way back in the twentieth century, before I began teaching, I worked as a hotel desk clerk. In the course of eight months, I had two bosses. I started working the 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. shift at a regional hotel chain in June 1998 and was told by one of the day desk clerks that I’d never have a better boss than “Brock.” She was absolutely correct. I enjoyed nearly every moment working at that hotel. An impulsive young man, though, in December I sought what I thought would be a brighter future at a national chain. No one told me at the time of my hire, but I was about to spend the next few months working for one of the worst bosses, “Derek.” By April 1999, I had decided to return to school to become an English teacher, and unbeknownst to me, I had already lived experienced a lesson for writing instruction through my employment under Brock and Derek.
Brock was the general manager at my first hotel job, and Sherry (his assistant general manager/front desk manager) was my primary on-the-job trainer. She showed me how to negotiate the reservation system, how to check in guests, how to rent rooms to “walk-ins”—the expected duties—and all the behind-the-scenes stuff that desk clerks do when no eager guests are queued up, eager to unload their bags, freshen up, and make dinner plans. Brock quietly observed as he passed by between his office and the front desk.
I recall one time when Brock wanted me to do something differently than what he witnessed. I was selling a room to a potential guest, and after stating the nightly rate, I listed three amenities that the hotel offered. The guest agreed to the rate; I checked him into the hotel. Afterwards, Brock quietly asked for a moment to talk. He told me I was doing well (he had just seen me rent a room to a “walk-in,” after all). Then he asked me to make a small change, to list the amenities before giving the rate. He explained the reasoning behind this protocol, and we both went about our business. He didn’t stand over me. He never asked me if I was doing as he had requested (I suspect Sherry kept him updated on my performance). He allowed me to do the job. In fact, before long, he was comfortable leaving me and another new desk clerk alone after he and Sherry had departed for home at 5 and 8 p.m., respectively.
Within a few months, the assist general manager had resigned, and another new clerk had replaced the one with whom I trained. As a result, I was usually in charge and the face of the hotel from 5 until 11, Brock trusting my best judgment. I grew quickly to that level of responsibility because my superiors had allowed me to do so. And before concluding that Brock was permissive, consider that he was considered a model general manager by his superiors (and was promoted to regional manager) and could capably and humanely discipline inappropriate behavior. A previous employee had performed a brazen, almost unthinkable act that was caught on security cameras. Brock told the employee, “We can’t have that,” and ended his employment—no yelling, no intimidation, no threats. He set common sense rules, and one of them was to use your best judgment. So I felt comfortable talking with guests, sharing light-hearted banter, and, as the company wanted all employees to do, making the travelers feel at home (even if it meant allowing walk-ins to negotiate slightly better rates). And if I had any questions about policies or problems in the course of my work, I could ask for Brock’s guidance, knowing he would not make me feel small or incompetent for asking for advice.
Then I made the error of going to another hotel, thinking that I would have just as much freedom to do my job. Derek, however, was a constant nuisance. He stood directly behind me as I worked, even after proving I could handle the job. His interactions were always negative, condescending, abrasive, or a combination of the three. My co-workers treated each other and me with suspicion, even interrupting conversations between guests and front desk workers for unrelated and petty reasons. The environment was abhorrent, and I loathed every moment of my job. My exchanges with guests were curt and unenthusiastic. There were no rate negotiations, no playful give-and-take, no jocularity. If a potential guest wanted to walk away, the big national hotel chain did not mind—someone else would walk through the door within fifteen minutes and accept impersonal service and an inflated rate. When I had started at this job, I envisioned working my way to a proud career in the hotel industry. I departed after four months and began substitute teaching.
So what do Brock and Derek have to do with the role of writing instructor? After all, students are not paid employees responsible for turning a profit for the school. They’re kids trying to learn a skill, and a difficult one to master. Considering the stories of the hotel general managers, think about my motivation and the work environment. In the first job, I worked harder and sold more rooms for less pay. I knew the regular guests, and they appreciated my humor. This only occurred because Brock trusted me and gave friendly instruction. While I never saw myself as working to make him look like a great boss (he didn’t need me to do that anyway), I thrived because I understood what was expected and knew he supported my attempts to meet, and exceed, expectations.
A simple fact of motivation/human nature: We like doing things that we are good at. When we like doing something, we do it more willingly and with greater efficacy. Brock let me know I was doing well, provided timely and friendly tips to improve, and let me enjoy the experience. Derek only acknowledged short-comings (which were more frequent because I struggled to work as he lurked and intruded), did not encourage me to be personable with guests (if anything, he wanted automatons at the front desk), and created an environment where creating positive solutions was far less valued than avoiding breaking a rigid protocol. I did not like what I was doing, found reasons to let others greet guests and answer phones, and watched the clock, craving my shift’s end.
Students and writers are subject to the same principles of motivation. Yes, they need monitored training, but they will engage in it less enthusiastically if the teacher creates pressure of a teacher who lacks patience, who stifles their voices, and who looks only to punish mistakes. Under this pressure, writing is less enjoyable AND the students feel less capable of satisfying expectations—a double whammy that causes students to avoid exerting themselves for the sake of a well-written essay or narrative or even a simple paragraph.
This is not to suggest that students can universally excel with a completely Brock-like system of training and evaluation. They need more instruction along the way as a recent WriteLab blog espouses. But teachers should remember how the good boss Brock gave the instruction: he allowed for freedom to make a mistake by a.) keeping instruction simple; b.)maintaining a respectful rapport with his employees; and perhaps most importantly c.) telling his employee what was done well.
I have worked with teachers who would be excellent students at the Derek School of Management. They assign writing, absent adequate training. They litter the students’ work with animadversions regarding their voice (seriously, the kids aren’t writing briefs for the U.S. Supreme Court: give them assignments that allow them to appropriately show their personalities and write something engaging). They “ding” students by taking points from their grades for each minute error whether it is a simple typo or a misunderstanding of a convention that persists throughout an entire paper. It’s a behaviorist approach that is demeaning and ineffective. These teachers claim that the students will learn by making essay “corrections,” the implication being that there is one correct way to fulfill an assignment. If they would just use the term “revisions,” these teachers would be more effective since the word connotes a vital part of the writing process and acknowledges (rightfully so) that the “final drafts” can still be improved. Of course, if the feedback is mainly a litany of ways the writer offended the gatekeepers of the English language, the student will neither want to revise and rewrite nor know HOW to do so.
Lest I emulate the discouraging teacher and simply condemn what fails, here are a few Brock-like tips on how to keep students enthusiastic about writing and how to ensure that they improve as they continue to practice:
- Show them what is expected, piece-by-piece.
When teachers give assignments, they should check that they can and have tended to two crucial tasks. First, teachers need to be capable of completing their own writing assignments at mastery levels. Show the students what can be done with the assignment (but remind them that they are novices and may not have the sense of decorum as a college graduate). Second, the teacher needs to give students practice in mastering the small components of the assignment. Writing a strong introduction, a solid thesis, and a conclusion that provides closure are basics, along with creating sound transitions and unified body paragraphs. Go further and prepare them for the writing mode. For example, if the paper is meant to be an argument, give the students practice with using evidence, informally during discussion or in smaller (one paragraph) written situations. Provide professional examples, too.
- Allow students the freedom to pick their own topics (at least half the time) or take appropriate different approaches to your topic.
When students pick their own topics, they are likely to pick something that they care about, know a lot about, and/or are curious to know about. This passion spills into their work. It also keeps them from violating a principle of communication: We write or speak to share what we know that our audience does not. If the students only writes about what the teacher already knows (I’m looking at you literature teachers who exclusively assign literary analysis), it makes no sense as an exercise in communication. Worse, instead of writing their own thoughts, students guess at what thoughts the teacher wants to read. I once tutored a student who was writing an argument based on this question: “Is John Proctor (The Crucible) a tragic hero?” Together, we looked at her teacher’s definition of “tragic hero.” I asked her questions about John Proctor’s status and actions in the play. She concluded he was not and wrote a pretty decent paper arguing as such. The teacher initially gave her a failing grade because the student’s thesis disagreed with her own view. The teacher consulted me, I explained, and the grade was changed. Some teachers struggle when students actually show solid critical thinking.
- Allow the students to use time in class to draft and share.
Monitor, but don’t hover. Accept requests to read introductions or thesis statements or any part of the paper, but train the students to ask specific questions, not merely, “Is this good?” Remind them of their goals in each part of their writing.
- Ask questions about their topics.
Avoid simply correcting; ask them questions that will lead them to provide oral answers that may provide decent verbiage to be included in an initial draft. You want to learn what they know. When they say think about your question and provide an answer, show the student how to communicate that answer in writing.
- Acknowledge their expertise and abilities.
This can be effective during the drafting phase, especially after they have answered one of your questions orally and then crafted the answer into writing. Too many students are strong thinkers, but believe they cannot write—even though the two processes are so closely connected. By asking good questions about the students’ writing goals and topic, the teachers not only give the students a chance for success, but also teach them a metacognitive skill: how to ask good questions about their own thinking when they are writing without a teacher sitting next to them.
- Train each student to revise and talk to peers about their writing.
Most teachers designate days for peer revision prior to the due dates of major papers. Unfortunately, I have seen students who either lacked the ability to help their classmates’ writing or who did not care enough to do so. Consequently, these sessions can devolve into students giving cursory reads of their partners’ work, saying, “Looks good to me,” and rubber-stamping work that will fall short of its potential and my expectations. So emphasize revising—beyond simple grammar—on a daily basis. Help the students diagnose and rewrite unclear verbiage and recognize disorganized paragraphs and suggest strategies for improving them. On peer revision days, provide reminders of key concepts in revision and ask students to put their partners’ writing through a battery of inspections. Ask them to mark unclear sentences and suggest solutions; place check-marks next to paragraphs that stray from their topic sentences; label parts of the paper according to their purpose (e.g., stating a thesis, introducing new evidence or examples, analyzing these examples, reaching conclusions, etc.). This helps them as active readers and teaches them how to thoroughly inspect their own papers before submitting final drafts. Again, the ultimate goal is to help them mold their thoughts into effective writing without a teacher standing over them or correcting them sentence-by-sentence.
These steps not only help the students become better, more confident, more motivated writers, but also they reduce the amount of that teachers write on the students’ papers. They should be able to present a few quality comments or ask questions that use a common language shared by the class. They should be able to reduce the number of hours spent grading.
After returning graded papers teachers can ensure that students read and benefit from their comments and continue to see writing as an ongoing process. For this purpose, I have a last tip: allow the students some time (at least a week) to respond to the comments through the submission of one more draft with revisions and rewrites marked or highlighted. Encourage the students to ask about any remarks that are unclear or to ask for help in rewriting. When they have finished these final revisions, require them to turn in both works so that, as a teacher who has read and evaluated scores of papers, you can more easily appreciate the students’ improvements (and grammar corrections). I like to give grade points back to papers based on the the quality and extent of rewrites/revisions. I’ll add fewer points for simply correcting the grammar errors that I’ve marked and reward more points for the ability of the students to respond to my suggestions and questions.
In the end, our goal should be able to create students who can write independently. Eventually, they should feel confident that, through the drafting process, they can craft strong theses, construct effective sentences, develop coherent paragraphs, and reach reasonable conclusions. Like Brock’s hotel workers, they should feel free to do their jobs, but know that they are supported and have a knowledgeable resource available to help them as needed.