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Teaching and Writing

In my twenty years of teaching at the college level, I've had some very interesting conversations with students, some not mine.  I've heard wonderful and horrible things about the world, writing, them, and myself.  During the 6 hours I was driving home from the writer's conference, I happened to think about one young man who was standing in the hall waiting for my colleague.  She was busy with another student, and I was sitting at my desk grading some papers.

The conversation opener is vague in my memory, but I remember he was angry about something--maybe his grade.  Why I started talking to him aside from the fact that he was basically sitting in front of my door is unclear.  However, one of the last lines he threw out at me was something like, "Well, you know it's true.  Those who can, do.  Those who can't, teach."

He looked at me, sneering.  He believed that he was doing or would do and I was not doing and never would.

At that, my colleague came to her door, the slight altercation ended, and I went back to my non-doing, the teaching.

Here are some things I know.  I know how to teach.  Teaching is about 30 percent knowledge and 70 the ability to convey it.  I have had the opposite type of teacher, the brilliant genius who can't seem to move his body through the classroom space.  My Shakespeare professor in college was such a man.  Actually, the two Shakespeare teachers I had during college were.  These men knew a ton, but their information couldn't reach us unless we--as I did--sat in the front row with toothpicks in our eyes trying to stay awake long enough to hear anything.

Teaching is kinetic and vibrant and alive.  It involves, of course, knowing what in the hell you are talking about, but it's also about your energy reaching the students' energies.  You are trying to create a synapse and conduit and flicker of flame, and it's hard to do that while mumbling in a deadening monotone like Ferris Buehler's teacher did.

Yes, I can put a few students to sleep even if I am up in front doing the dance of the seven veils, but mostly, they are listening and paying attention. because I am paying attention to them--their reactions and feelings and ideas  I certainly do not know all I should about anything, but I know they mostly get what I am trying to present because the connection is alive.

Back to the angry student in the opening paragraph--the truth is, the doing of what I do helps my teaching.  I think the adage might be, "Those who teach, should."

Writing daily has vastly improved my ability to teach writing.  I am thinking about all the things I am talking to my students about:  hooking the reader in, explaining the ideas, providing examples, using specifics, transitioning between ideas and paragraphs and sentences.  They moan and complain and shake their heads when I give them a writing assignment, and I do know how they feel as I stare down a blank page several times a day.

My professional life as a writer has shown me what the profession actually is, what it involves.  I can talk with authority about editing, revising, submission guidelines, agents, editors, the publication process, conferences.  I know what the shapes and forms of the types of work my students are writing because I've written them too.  The student who chastised me mistakenly didn't know that I did do, and I wasn't going to show him my publications right there at my office door to prove something to him.  And the doing of these two jobs makes me a stronger teacher and writer. 

Teaching brings me to life, for all that I complain about it.  Teaching reminds me constantly about the bones of my work.  On two levels, I see the beginning of everything--of writing and of how we all start on our path to learning.  How we decide to do something and give it a go.  If we are lucky, we find people (as I did) who excite us and make us want to go onward.  They make rafts for us, show us the river, and wish us good luck as we float toward the rapids.

I hope that that angry young man in front of my office, the one with the grade he did not like, found a teacher whohelped him move on past the flat still water of where he was clearly stuck.  May he be doing what he wants.  May he see that teachers do, all the time.

Jessica

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Writing and Teaching

I think he was jealous because you are a prolific writer of novels and also a popular teacher in writing.  Also I noticed that some people say mean things to try to gain our attention.  I hope he reads your message.  He definitely received your attention.

Your former student 

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Keiko!!  How are you?  So

Keiko!!  How are you?  So good to see you on redroom, and I love the photo on your page.  I will have to go back and explore a little more fully.

I don't think this student even knew I wrote a thing.  He saw me as some "old" woman sitting there and he was angry about something and lashed out.  His words, though, have stayed with me, and in a way, I think that what he said has kept me trying to always learn things and to always practice what I preach.

I hope your writing is going very well!  And thank you for your words.

Best,

J

Jessica Barksdale Inclan www.jessicabarksdaleinclan.com

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Great to be in redroom and commenting on your blog

Thank you, Jessica. 

I took two classes by you online.  The first was Novel writing for absolute beginners during my Y2K project at AARP.  I wrote a slap-stick elevator story.  That was fun.  But a sex scene was beyond my English ability.   But I should be ready in a few years.  Watch out.   

It's great to be a participant here.  My dream is coming true little by little.  I love writing more than anything, and talking with other writers.

Keiko

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Teaching Writing Takes a Special Breed

Jessica--

I read your piece above, nodding every few sentences. Not all professors understand the very truth you gave about students: "They are listening and paying attention because I am paying attention to them--their reactions and feelings and ideas."  To be in front of people and be in tune to their needs is mastered by few.  A great teacher is like the sun, spreading energy. 

I first started teaching because I wanted to save other writers time--give them some of my hard-earned knowledge.  I had to overcome my fear of public speaking, which I did for the cause.  I also learned that most teachers mimic their worst professors.  "If old so-and-so got away with droning on while sitting stationary behind a desk, well then so can I" is the rationalization of perhaps too many.  I didn't want to be that way.  I wanted to be like my high school speech teacher who entertained and enlightened and made me look forward to attending.

I've also learned from you, having taken one of your online classes.  You give far more than you receive, which is also evidenced by how devoted you are here to writing your blog.  I try to keep up but can't. 

You "do" by writing professionally and beautifully.  You've also learned to be an outgoing and giving teacher.

If only we could clone you.

--CM

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We need clones of Chris Meeks, too.

I must say something here.  Jessica, I hope you don’t mind using this space to write to Chris.  

 After Jessica's classes, I went on taking more creative writing classes.  And I took the same class by Chris Meeks three times!  Some students asked me what I would learn at the third time.  Well, I learned the things I couldn't absorb the first two times. 

I want readers to know that I wrote my original Beatles story, 'Yesterday' in Chris' class. 

Chris, you are the most generous man.  I know you suffered with my English as all the other people did including my children.   

Thank you so much for your encouragement throughout the years. 

Keiko 

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Sometimes I don't give more

Sometimes I don't give more than I receive, and that's when I realize something is off.  I spent a couple of semesters these past four years recalibrating myself, and I know when I need to tweak things.

But thank you, Chris.  Cloning me would be bad, though.  I'd have to give myself a talking to!  I'd have to read myself the riot act and see what happens next!

Or, then I could really get some stuff done!

From all that I've heard about your teaching, you are just as you say above--interested and interesting. 

You made me think, too, about the teachers I've loved, and there have been fewer than I wish.  But an acting teacher sticks in my mind, as one who really gave of herself to us so we could see through her actions and not just her words.

Best,

J

Jessica Barksdale Inclan www.jessicabarksdaleinclan.com