Slice of Life 8: This I Believe

My students and I are in the midst of an argument unit, and this week we’re talking organization. When I think about where I was when I first started my career regarding teaching writing versus where I am now, I’m amazed at the difference.

When I first started teaching, the only explicit writing instruction I ever gave was the five-paragraph essay. There were more creative writing assignments, too, but I didn’t instruct students on how to write. Instead, I simply assigned the writing.

There were many reasons for this approach, not least of which my own lack of training in teaching writing. While my graduate coursework was excellent, much of it had to do with the teaching of reading. Far less was focused on the teaching of writing. Looking back, I can see why the five-paragraph essay appealed to my young teacher self so much. The form was clear, structured—teachable. Unfortunately, the form’s teachability shouldn’t be the primary reason we teach it.  Our instructional decisions about writing should be about what’s best for students and not necessarily for the teacher.

That said, it’s not like I was aware of any of these things back then. In my mind, everything I was doing was always for students. It wasn’t until I really allowed myself to look critically at my practice that I began to see that I could do better, be better. It’s no coincident that getting involved with my local writing project site at the same time only pushed me further.

I was thinking about how far I’d come when I decided to share my own writing with students. I’ve been making a more concerted effort to write beside them—something my younger teacher self didn’t know I should to. But here I was, allowing myself to open up let my students see my own writing.

The essay below is one that I actually wrote and submitted to the This I Believe program. Though my essay wasn’t read on the program, it was published on the website (which students often think is very cool until I tell them that there are thousands on that site).

When I was in second grade, I took a career test. From this very scientific test—I had to fill out electronic bubbles, after all—it was determined that I would be best suited for a “service/helping profession.” This was the first time that I ever heard a job described as a “service.” When I asked my mom, she said that a “service profession” was one in which your job was to serve others, like being a teacher or doctor or counselor. That’s weird, I thought. I thought you had a job to make money. In other words, to serve yourself.

Later in a college, I sat next to a guy who had a tattoo on his ankle. It was a large tattoo, 4-5 inches in diameter, of (presumably) a Chinese character. At one point during the course, another student sitting in front of me asked my desk neighbor about his tattoo. “What does it say?” he asked. My neighbor replied that it read “Servant.”  The student in front of me gasped, almost laughing. “Servant? Why would you get the word ‘servant’ tattooed on your leg?” Matter-of-factly, my neighbor replied, “So that I’m always reminded that I’m a servant of God.” The student in front of me managed an awkward “oh, uh, that’s cool.” An uncomfortable silence followed.

Given the culture we live in, I admire my desk neighbor’s tattoo. Companies are always looking for ways to make us spend money, and often that means reminding us about how much we deserve. Have it your way, Burger King tell us, because you’re worth it, L’Oreal adds. And don’t worry, Visa is everywhere you want to beYou’ve worked hard, buy this product, the message goes. Over and over, the consumer is trained to see himself at the center of every purchase, of every experience.

So I admired by desk neighbor’s tattoo. Not because of its religious overtones, but because it expressed a kind of humility—it was a symbol of dedication to someone or something other than himself. It reminds him that his existence isn’t the most important one; it helps buffer against the impulse we all have to look out for Number One.

My neighbor’s tattoo also answers one question I think we all ask ourselves at some point—whether you’re a 16-year-old up late doing calculus problems, a 45-year-old manager answering another email, or a 87-year-old retiree spending your final days in convalescent care—Why am I here? And related, Why am I doing this? You’ll look around and wonder why any of what you’re doing—why anything you’ve done—matters. When you work to serve others, the answer to that question is easy. There’s no justification involved; it just is. Even on the days when things couldn’t possibly get worse but they do just to spite you, you can take solace in knowing that you’re fulfilling a greater good. I believe that life is best spent in the service of others.

“It is hard work,” he tells his son, “to fill one’s life with meaning. . . . A life filled with meaning is worthy of rest. I want to be worthy of rest when I am no longer here.”I didn’t know it then, but that 2nd grade career test turned out to be right. I became a teacher. The first novel I ever taught was Chaim Potok’s The Chosen. In the novel, the father’s health is failing, and his son is worried. He wants his father to stop working so hard; he urges him to rest. The father, however, tells his son that he can’t. He explains that although his life span is short, he “can fill that span with meaning, so its quality is immeasurable though its quantity may be insignificant.”

In our carpe diem world, we sometimes forget that it’s not about doing what you want because life is short. If life is short, then all the more reason we need to make it matter. And think, then, how wonderful it would be to be worthy, finally, of rest.

Reconnecting with this piece made me think about what other beliefs I have now regarding teaching. Here’s three beliefs about writing:

  • I believe that whenever possible, we should write beside our students, to struggle with the writing process in the same way that they do.
  • I believe that the writing we ask students to do in school—and the writing skills we teach them—should be easily transferable to authentic, real world writing.
  • I believe that we need to use authentic, real world writing (professional and amateur) as mentor texts so that students can see the varied purposes for writing (beyond my English teacher told me to write an essay on Lord of the Flies).

There are more, I think. But it’s a start.

slice of life

This post is part of the “Slice of Life” series, organized by the teachers at Two Writing Teachers, whose goal is to give teachers a place to write and reflect. This March, more than 300 teachers have committed to daily writing. If you’d like to read more “slices” (from other teachers and even some students), visit