Counter Friction

Thoreau said, “Let your life be a counter friction to stop the machine.” In some ways, our educational system perpetuates the very things it struggles against. This post is for the teachers who are getting it right. They are many.

(Page numbers refer to The Norton Book of Composition Studies unless otherwise noted.)

Slackers to the Core (Curriculum)

It’s (very) late, and I’m in what my children call the bat cave that is my room, sitting on my bed grading the first essays of the new school term. It goes without saying that I have a large dose of caffeine and a not-so-small dish of candy corn at my side to get through all fifty-five papers. I’ve downloaded the papers to my flash drive, so I’m not surrounded by the physical reminder of what I consider my failure, but the change in traditional format does not change the content. The papers stink on ice. As my students’ first attempt at literary analysis for me, I did expect the essays to be rough, and experience has taught me to expect them to be late, but…really? I feel myself slip into that grumble I hear from veteran teachers who never really wanted to teach: “Those kids just don’t listen. They can’t learn. AND they’re lazy.” The writing sure does back that argument, but I fight against the Dark Side. How much of these essays do I own, and how much belongs to the students? Are the papers the result of students lacking work ethic or students lacking the cultural capital to perform as the traditional curriculum expects? How do I walk the tightrope between getting them to tune in or drop out?

My students are not the Honors Kids. They are everyone else, and I wouldn’t trade them for any group of students with the label “Gifted and Talented.” I’m teaching at a school in the county where I grew up, a daughter of parents who got GEDs, not high school diplomas, and where I returned after twenty years of being away. It means that my life has been more like my students’ than not, but there are things that have changed. Even though it’s late September, my ride to school doesn’t include passing one farm truck pulling what should be the last load of tobacco for the year, and when I go through town, the warehouses are closed—not auctioning, just accepting the contracted amounts. The smell of the golden leaves is gone. It’s the smell of the late summer days of my childhood, and the people who live here used to call it the smell of money. There isn’t much of that around here anymore either. There is an unemployment rate of almost twenty-five percent, and last year that same percentage of my students did not pass the HSAP exam.

            The first reluctant student I taught was Joe.

            Joe didn’t want to be a writer; he wanted to be a police officer. Poetry was not on his agenda, and neither was its analysis. After jumping through almost every conceivable (back then) hoop only to hear Joe say, every day, “I hate poetry,” I surprised Joe by telling him he was entitled to his opinion. I also told him that I’d like for him to make me a list of ten reasons why he hated poetry, expecting that to be the end of our conflict. The next day, as Joe left the class, he handed me a folded list on his way out of the door:

My Top 10 Reasons

  • Doesn’t make sense
  • Its boring
  • Makes me want to leave
  • Stupid
  • Really stupid
  • Not many people like it
  • Its not interesting
  • Makes you sleepy
  • Makes you fail
  • Has nothing to do with English


And just like magic, I had almost everything Ken Macrorie calls “good writing” in his list of eight criteria (313). It was one of the best pieces of writing I’ve ever gotten. Joe clearly did not waste words or pull any punches with his list; he spoke authentically and from the heart. I believed every word on his list, and felt his frustration with my approach to poetry that had obviously left him looking for relevance. The list was loaded with meaning in a way I didn’t want to see; for weeks I felt like I was hindering instead of helping my students. In The Discovery of Competence, the case of Alison clearly mirrors that of Joe. Alison, the basic writer, writes in a style that is brief, unelaborated, and prone to erratic mechanics (39). Kutz et al. argue that form and correctness are “internalized through communication in a meaningful context and that they are acquired in the attempt to express clear meaning rather than learned through conventional construction…” (40). They chose to look at the work produced by Alison by focusing “not on error, but on what it could tell us about the way she was thinking” (40). The authors say the “classroom should be a place where more real conversations take place” (89). Joe’s conversation was certainly real.

            I stripped my lesson plans to the core, literally, and started over. I was on the search for relevance and reality.

            Joe and my other students, I have found, do not lack opinions or the ability to express them. They do lack the academic, privileged language and the cultural capital demanded by the canonical core curriculum. Gere, in “Kitchen Tables and Rented Rooms,” maintains that for students like mine, “writing development occurs outside formal education” (1083). Kutz et al. examine the disconnect as well: “Although they [forms of language] are interwoven in our lives in natural discourse communities, these uses of language are typically separated” in classrooms (121).  If the reality of school is that it carries an ideology that serves to perpetuate the society, how do I change what Berlin says is “simply not possible” for my students of poverty? (669).  Is it possible to make my students what Elbow calls “’less helpless, both personally and politically’ by enabling them to get ‘control over words’?” (675).  Is it possible to give them at least enough power to pass the state’s own form of standardized ideology—the HSAP? Like Elbow, “I end up torn” (939).

            Many of my students mirror those studied by Gere. They have been told they “cannot write” and have had “negative experiences” with learning (1083). Our school is often the victim of negative generalizations, and the students feel the weight of that. But when I take the curriculum to them, they have power. According to Berlin, power is what it’s all about, and Elbow says, “If I want power, I’ve got to use my voice” (675). My new lessons would have to do what is suggested in The Discovery of Competence; they would have to connect, “again, what students know with what they learn in our classrooms” (124).

The students write well about what they know—they just don’t know what I think they do. We talk and write about sonnets by looking at rap lyrics that fit the conventions; we cut up Shakespearean ones into lines and reassemble them according to rhyme scheme to get a better idea of the art of their construction. An innocent comment in class can uncover that I’m trying to activate prior knowledge that doesn’t exist, and I have to backtrack often. An introduction to graphic novels, for example, has shown they’ve never read a comic strip, leading us to research those first. When I explained to Joshua (another student) that “composition is nothing more than conversation on paper” (1086), he could not believe that I had given him permission to “write like I talk at home.”

            So I take a deep breath. I grade a few more papers. I remind myself it’s just the beginning of the term, and my “slacker” students will gain their voices as we go, if I meet them where they are. I will keep reminding them that their work can be powerful, and that we need to practice working in academic registers when appropriate. I remind them that rules are nothing more than social constructs to be learned and negotiated. I want to see what is “constructed by desire, by the aspirations and imaginations” of my students (1085). I want them to feel, like Ardell, that they have the “freedom to try” and the chance to feel “brave” (1082) as I try to convince myself and other teachers to follow the advice of The Discovery of Competence “to resee our students’ writing, redefine our role as teachers, and reinvent the curriculum” (139).


1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. vannishafloyd
    Oct 01, 2010 @ 09:04:53

    Welll That’s Nice !! :))


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