where the writers are
learning to unlearn


Of all the classes I teach, teaching writing is my favorite. This probably is not a surprise to anyone. There are two moments that never cease to bring a smile to my face. I have learned as much from my students during these moments as I hope they have learned from me.

The first moment occurs during my opening of when I introduce writing. I announce to them I want them to forget everything they learned about writing. I want them to unlearn everything they have memorized and been tested on. This is met with a lot of laughter. And I let them laugh. And after a couple of minutes I tell them I am serious and I want them to forget everything they learned.  Some do and carefully, if not with a bit of impatience, pay attention as I teach them brain storming and paragraph construction. I go over topic sentences and supporting sentences and some start to see that doing this way , while initially much more cumbersome makes far better papers. Then we go over what to do during each of the three revisions. First revision we edit content, second revision we edit organization and the final edit we go over grammar.

At first they resist. After all they already edited it once and no foreign teachers really grade that hard. But I promise them that I do. I show them my grading matrix during the first revision. I show them how much better there papers if they improve that and tweak this and that tends to be enough encouragement.  But there are still some who insist on doing it their way and refuse to unlearn and usually, but not always, their grades suffer as a result.

So what can I possibly have learned from my students during this whole process. The first thing I learned was the necessity  of  unlearning things in life. There was one point, a little over a decade ago, when I was a political wunderkind. Within the period of six months I had a former Presidential candidate and a future vice presidential candidate from opposing parties tell me I had a great future in politics. Several months after that, a major donor for one of the biggest political action committees pulled a lot of heavy strings to get me an interview for a job that never panned out.  I was making the same mistake time and time again. What was more frustrating was that no one was there to give me advice on how to improve my chances. My friends who were in politics were very confused because I was the one they went to when they got stuck and needed to figure out things and people who were not in politics, well not very useful to say the least.  It did not matter if these people who were not involved in politics were left wing or right wing, their advice, while well meaning and having only my interests in heart, was not very valuable. Much in the way I am not very valuable to anyone when I offer my advice on money or relationships.

This led to a lot of frustration in my life. I kept on failing miserably at many of my endeavors. It was not until circumstances changed greatly for the worse that I was forced to unlearn everything I knew. I had to unlearn the fact I was a political wunderkind. I had to unlearn about how much I could rely on people other than myself. I had to unlearn many of the truths that had up to that point guided my life because they were no longer helping me; they were doing quite the opposite.

My life had gotten better since I unlearned all these bad habits that had me stuck in a rut. But I could not put my finger on why my life had gotten better. Until, about five weeks ago, I was standing in front of a class of eager (if not a bit sleepy) students, explaining why they needed to forget everything.

The next part was even more frustrating for me. I had to build my life again and it was tough.  Many people in my life were disappointed bordering on angry at me that I had changed my attitude and not gotten their approval in advanced.  The understanding ones have not only come to accept the changes but point out how much happier I seem these days and how much more focused I am these days. Focused, of course, is a very relative term when talking about me.  It was hard.

 It was hard asking for advice and finding a personal grading matrix which I could grade my life in. But I saw how I could tweak things here, and change things there, and slowly after many revisions I was able to get a version of Josh that I am happy with, even if others are not.  For those who know me and are wondering, I skipped the organizing step of the editing of my life. This is a blog that is truly lacking in surprises.

Does everyone need to unlearn things in their life to make it better? I can't say. I can give advice on many things such as which baseball teams you should encourage your children to support if you want them to grow up to be well adjusted members of society (The Boston Red Sox). I can also give you advice about which movies should be required viewing starting in primary school and repeated at a minimum of every other month (Star Wars). But the rest  I cannot give advice about.

However as I do enjoy the sound of my own voice I can make a blanket statement about American society as a whole can unlearn. We can unlearn the past twenty years. It was not good and we should not go back to the way things were, because they way things were how we got to where we are today. 

Do I know the answer about what we should do? No, but it will take a lot of time. It will include phrases that whose meanings have been lost, phrases such as "working together" and "sacrificing personal ambition for the greater good" . Basically look at how the modern day robber barons on who dominate wall street in one form or another live life and do business and do opposite. Interestingly this is similar to the advice I give for relationships. See what I do, do opposite. At least three successful marriages have resulted from this advice.

My second favorite moment occurred most recently on Thursday around five in the evening Beijing time. A student who had been struggling with English quite a bit handed me his paper. He was shocked at how few corrections were needed. When I pointed out that these were his words and not mine, I just helped him with the grammar, he smiled in a way that was so genuine and made me believe that his potential was really going to shine in the next paper. I realized how lucky I was because I have had opportunities to see that same expression about forty or fifty times.  For me each of those individual smiles is more valuable than some dinner on Capitol Hill or being sent to European country for a posh and ultimately meaningless diplomatic assignment. In recalling that moment that occurred some thirty hours ago a similar smile appeared on my face.

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What You Learned

Sounds like you aligned your work with your values and sense of purpose. That in itself is satisfying if it's achieved. The smiles on your students' faces sound so great. Thanks for the post.

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Thanks Christine

I think you successfully summarized the whole point I was trying to make.Summarizing is a skill I long ago lost. Your comment was very warmly appreciated. The smiles and the sense of the students being to able to accomplish what they previously thought was impossible is a constant source of motivation for me, now I see why all my teachers not only put up with me but really pushed me when I was a student, and without having my teachers as such good role models I am not so sure I would be able to do what I do.

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teaching and learning

There is a teacher I've heard speak each summer for the past two years, Ward Kranti, who teaches at Mt. Madonna School in Watsonville, California. The quote he repeated has rung in my ears since then: I'm learning my students.

Possibly the teachers who pushed you when you were a student probably learned a lot about themselves by working with you, especially if they put in overtime, committed to getting through to you. It's an amazing thing to teach a willing student, totally amazing.