When people ask me what I do, I always say “I’m a writing teacher.” I say “writing teacher” for the same reason that when I was a kid and people asked me what my father did, I’d say “He’s in the garment industry.” Like the garment industry for my father, the classrooms, colleagues, and students involved in the business of teaching and learning writing make up a culture built around a purpose: teaching and learning writing. I’ve taught freshman composition and basic writing classes, GED classes, adult education in “welfare to work” programs, and English as a Second Language classes in a jobs program for recent immigrants. I’ve taught adults to read and helped dissertation writers get started (or finish). In the last ten years, I’ve taught academic writing and workplace writing. I’ve also trained teachers. I’ve taught writing in large and small colleges, four-year and community colleges, private and public institutions. “Writing” hasn’t always meant the same thing. It could mean a grocery list, a letter home, a book report, a college essay, or a dissertation. Or at least that’s what writing means when classes begin. If the work goes well, by the end of class, “writing” will become a way: “a way to say what I what I want to say in the words I want to use” and “a way to discover what I think and feel” and “a way to know and remember.” Whether the student is a seventy-year old woman making her first written sentence into her first story, an adult returning to college after struggling to write her first paper, an eighteen-year-old in freshman writing class, or a stumped dissertation writer, it’s always the same: “writing” begins as a thing and ends as a way.
From Teaching Writing While Standing on One Foot
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Sometimes I write on the blackboard:
I ask the class, “What is this?”
The students respond, “A grocery list.”
Except for the one who cooks, who says, “It’s a recipe.”
The others reply, “But you already have to know what to do.”
They’re right, of course. If you know what to do, a list can be a recipe. When you look at that list with everything you know, everything you know acts like a hidden commentary. After a certain point in any cook’s education, some oregano, a can of tomatoes, a few cloves of garlic, and bottle of olive oil set on the table is already a sauce.
From “Enfolded Knowledge,” Teaching and Writing While Standing on One Foot
My inability to perceive my differences as gifts stood in my way. By the time I learned to think of my struggles not as “inability” but “disability,” the effects of that inability were woven into me like fibers into a rope. For me just to write some little thing, paper would be spread out everywhere, as if a giant paper snake had shed its skin. Putting my thoughts in coherent order on paper for an audience seemed like one long pratfall. Now, I see the advantage my gift for getting lost gives me, but that insight is new. G.’s parents already know his gifts. G’s mother tells me of his intricate drawings of battles and machines, how he listens to stories while he makes things out of Legos. I imagine he sees as he goes, one thing after the next, and if one thing doesn’t work, another will until he is sure; and if he is not sure, then he does it differently. No one taught him how to do this. He’s lucky that this comes to him without effort, unlike some of the things school asks of him. My best wish for G. is that he knows that it is always within his grasp to be the happy genius of his own life. What I would say to G., except that it would only sound like blah blah blah to a boy his age, is that there are people waiting for his gift. Those people are already out there waiting to receive it, the way we wait for apples up at Littletree every year, because apple trees make apples, and there are so many kinds, and we love apples. And G. will make what he makes, and we will be waiting to receive it.
From “This Ability,” Teaching Writing While Standing on One Foot