My community college is on the quarter system, and we just finished the winter term. And I always finish a composition class with an essay exam. I went through some of the reasons a couple of years ago, but here’s the short version: I value reflection in writing, and I like to see my students experience that.
This year, one of my community college students turned in his exam essay and, as he leaned across my desk, he grinned wryly at me and challenged me to write an essay of my own, this one about my students.
I accepted the challenge. I even shook on it.
Which is a pleasure, really, because my community college students this winter have been outstanding. This term, I saw students open up to themselves. I saw students realize that they are writers. Even if the writing is hard or uncomfortable — or maybe especially if it’s hard and uncomfortable — they have come to think of themselves as creatures capable of stringing together sentences, painting images with words, conveying ideas in paragraphs. This isn’t just me observing their writing during the term; these are their own revelations, written down in practice exams and the final essay. Many of my students wrote about going through drafts and discovering a knack for descriptive detail they hadn’t realized they possessed, or trying to solve a problem raised in workshop by adding whole paragraphs they hadn’t realized were missing.
Speaking of workshops, those were probably the most commented-on aspect of the course this term. In exam after exam, students remarked how much they came to value or rely on their small workshop groups. Some of these students expressed their esteem for their group or their love of the process in fairly profound language. “I used to think I was a horrible writer,” one student wrote in an exam essay, “but after this term I’ve realized I just need another set of eyes to help point out what I can’t see.” Another student wrote, “My drafts are a finished product until my workshop group gets a hold of it.” These are such beautiful expressions of how communal writing is, of how important workshopping is to the writing process! I want to put that latter phrase on a tshirt or a coffee mug. But I can’t, because it belongs to the student who wrote it. Which, honestly, is all the more wonderful.
Another thing I loved seeing this term was how rapidly some of my students progressed in their writing. Some came into the class struggling terribly. Learning disabilities and years-long gaps between their last writing classroom (in high school) and this one . . . these difficulties made many of my students feel lost coming into the class, worried from the outset that they were starting out in last place and they would never be able to catch up. But I don’t run a competitive classroom — the only race you need to win in my class is against yourself — and the speed and determination with which these students advanced in their writing was astounding. And they themselves were aware of this; at least half the class wrote in their exam essays of their increased confidence or of their surprise that they not only could write but that they even enjoyed writing. My favorite of these comments went like this:
After taking this class I definitely feel more comfortable in my ability to write a better essay. I learned techniques and thought processes to guide me I learned where my weaknesses are and what to look out for. All in all I am able to take away from this class a bit of confidence in myself that I feel will go a long way.
It’s not the most poetic expression of this newfound confidence, but it’s the most thorough, and that last line in particular — “I am able to take away from this class a bit of confidence in myself that I feel will go a long way” — gets at the heart of everything I try to do in this early composition classes: I don’t expect every student to be outstanding, for every essay to be an award-winner. I’m not teaching perfect writing. I’m teaching disciplined writing; I’m teaching the process, and — most importantly — I’m teaching that the process goes with you. It’s not confined to the classroom or the college; it’s not some hoop you jump through on your way to a degree. It’s a practice, it’s a skill and a craft, and it will serve you in myriad ways throughout your life, if only you’re willing to pick it up and carry it with you.
Early in the term, one of my students wrote about a trip she’d taken to Austria and how it rekindled her childhood love of The Sound of Music. I’ve had that soundtrack in my head all term, but because of these students, I haven’t been thinking of the old standards, “Do Re Me” or “Edelweiss” or even my favorite, “The Lonely Goatherd.” Rather, I’ve had Maria’s song about confidence running in the background all term: “With each step I am more certain / Everything will turn out fine / I have confidence the world can all be mine / They’ll have to agree I have confidence in me.”