A lot has happened since my last post. One of the students removed himself from the program for personal reasons and has since asked to be readmitted. Another student was removed from the program for disciplinary reasons. They also received their first graded essay. I think they were generally happy with their grades, but it is always nerve wrecking to watch them reviewing my comments while I'm still standing there.
We're left the narrative and moved on to the definition essay, which has gone over relatively well until we got to Kafka's "Before the Law". Discussing their interpretations of his parable was definitely a challenge. I think they have a difficult time understanding that everyone has their own interpretation of a word or text and that interpretation does not necessarily mean a person is wrong. One student was not shy about expressing his somewhat aggressive opinion about an example in class last week. The situation was mostly uncomfortable due to his defensive behavior--he's been one of those student who isn't afraid to voice his opinion since the beginning--and we had a difficult time understanding each other. I'm still not sure if he truly understood the point of the example, which was essay structure, or if I was misunderstanding what he was confused about. The atmosphere is certainly different than a normal classroom. I wonder if it has to do with a lack of respect for authority because of my age. The important thing is I am learning as much as they are.
After finish the next definition essay I am giving them a break from formal writing to work on some poetry. I think the majority of the class will be excited about that.
After reading their first assignments, I discovered a couple of students had neglected to turn their personal statements in. Ensuring the students actually complete their work is a challenge in this environment because they aren't receiving a grade for this class. It is simply to help them enhance their skills so they can enter the college program later in the year. Then again, if they don't complete assignments they can--and will--be removed from the class. My supervisor suggested I ask each of the students separately if anything is going on outside of class that might be hindering their ability to complete the work on time. I intended to do just that, but teaching in a prison is all about going with the flow. Especially when that means class starts an hour late because there was a situation on the grounds and as a result the inmates are being carefully monitored between programs.
I had to alter my syllabus once again, but I'd rather push material back than rush through it. We discussed David Sedaris's piece "Letting Go" on Friday, and the students started an interesting debate about audience. I just wish we had more time to really explore their observations. I had the students go around the room and say one thing they liked or didn't like about the story. One student had a suspiciously difficult time thinking of something. And when I came back to him at the end he admitted that he hadn't read it. In hindsight I should have been more severe in how I handled that. I wish I had told him he was now responsible for writing a one page explanation on why he did not read it. Maybe that seems harsh, but I can't let these students start to think they can get away with not doing the work.
That realization was even more apparent when more students had not completed the second assignment. One in particular was extremely disappointing because I believe he has such a strong narrative voice and I was looking forward to reading his essay openings. So this Friday I will be playing the good cop/bad cop game. I will be letting them know that if they miss three assignments without a legitimate excuse then they are out of the class. And even if it breaks my heart to do it, I can't back down. I don't want anyone kicked out of the program, but I also don't want them taking advantage of the time and effort I am putting into their education.
After reading the second assignment I've also been considering if I need to give clearer directions. Only two students seem to have misinterpreted the directions. So maybe my communication abilities are fine. Regardless, I will be reiterating my expectations for the narrative essay, which will be their first major graded assignment in the class.
Class is back in session! After a snow day and a week off it feels like we are starting over, but I'm finally getting to know the men in my class. I can see their personalities coming through and there are the handful who are always volunteering to read out loud (even when they don't know some of the bigger words) and make very astute observations about the texts we read. I guess I can't expect everyone to be enthusiastic. Every class has those students who participate daily, those who raise their hand on a good day and then those who are happy if you never know their name. I hope I can find a way to make sure the students who are speaking up know how much I appreciate it.
Today's lesson began addressing the narrative essay and specifically how to start writing one. I gave them plenty of ideas for brainstorming along with examples that utilize various approaches for engaging the reader. I know most of these students prefer creative writing so I'm hoping they can have some fun with this essay assignment. Next week we'll continue discissing how to organize the action of their narrative, give vivid descriptions and use concrete language. Before then I have their first assignment in my folder to read: their personal statements. I think I'm hesitant to read them for some strange reason. At least I'm starting to feel comfortable teaching and figuring out who I am as an educator.
I've decided my official pedagogical philosophy is education through exposure. So I'll be using that as I start applying for teaching positions in the fall.
Also, our classroom at the correctional facility is boiling hot (which I guess is better than my freezing cold apartment). We even had to open the windows so we wouldn't die and I still had sweat dripping down my back. It gave a whole new meaning to "hot for teacher".
Well, we had to cancel class on Friday because of the insane amount of snow and the city of Albany's completely lack of concern for removing it. The only thing that can make me miss Syracuse is at least in the 315 they know how to clear the roads. I'm not too concerned. We still have six months together, which is plenty of time to talk essays. And I'm revamping my syllabus to make sure I'm providing them with enough examples.
When we resume in a couple of weeks--they also have next week off--it's back to the personal essay, but taking a look at how to get started. With a creatively inclined assignment it might be more difficult to begin writing because there's no question to answer or claim to argue. They just have to tell me a story. And sometimes picking the right story is half the challenge. So we'll be looking at the first paragraphs of some essays that show various narrative leads and different attitudes they can take once they discover what their message is. After that we will examine a story by David Sedaris and one by E.B. White to look at plot structure and descriptions. Hopefully, they'll start to get an idea of how to approach their own narrative.
As we move into the definition essay, and eventually the persuasive essay, I'm thinking of introducing the "On" approach to writing. I need to do a little more research to determine if it will be productive. As always, suggestions are always welcome!
Today went surprisingly well. I got to the classroom all by myself only to discover students had already been turned away because no one was at the classroom at exactly 12:30. Once three different waves of students arrived-- after I had already began lecturing-- I think the class maintained a steady course. I had a little trouble gauging the engagement of the students. A handful were very enthusiastic, asking questions and offering answers, while another handful seemed genuinely uninterested in anything that wasn't a comfy bed. The majority of the class varied on the spectrum of attentiveness. I was relieved to discover, after prompting the class with a selfishly motivated "are you semi-excited for this class?", that their disinterest was more a result of fatigue on a Friday afternoon than anything else.
I feel like I may have overwhelmed them with information that seems useless until they actually have something to apply it to. But a few students wasted no time asking questions, specifically requesting more examples of the principles I was scribbling on the dry erase board. I was left fumbling for a sufficient answer. I learned today that I need to provide more concrete examples for these students. I also learned that I need to stop being such a spaz and maybe I'm not as funny as I thought.
Now it's on to planning how to write a narrative essay...
Tomorrow is the day I walk into a medium security prison and teach my very first pre-college essay writing class. I am two parts excited and one part nervous. There are a lot of procedures to follow, which doesn't make this the most easy teaching experience to jump start my educational career with. But if I can teach convicted felons, I can teach anyone.
The course will began with some basic concepts of effective composition along with exploring the fundamentals of the rhetorical situation and the relationship between author-text-audience. Their assignment will be a brief personal statement outlining their goals for the course. This will allow me to gauge the skill level of the students and better prepare the course curriculum. They will also be reading the essay "Letting Go" by David Sedaris to prepare them for their next assignment: the narrative essay.
I'll be keeping track of my experience over the next eight months and would appreciate any advice from current educators. The curriculum will reference the classic text The Elements of Style and Ben Yagoda's How to Not Write Bad along with a variety of other instructional material. Wish me luck!