I am teaching a writing class to high school sophomores and seniors on Saturdays, and in planning lessons I find myself constantly aware of a three-way tension. I’ve called that tension a matter of rules, truth, and heart in titling this post.
In a high school context, success often means writing to the rule and meeting the expectations of adults and the committees they form to select who receives what and who attends what. It’s unfair to take up our scant time together sharing my critique of the five-paragraph essay. As much as I might long to tell them that it’s not real writing, it is still the writing they’re often assigned to do (and how cruel is it to try to say that’s not real?). Nor is it helpful to share my fear that writing that can be judged by standardized testing autograders or minimum-wage rubric-applyers is dead writing. They have to take and pass those autograded rubric-riddled tests in order to accomplish their goals of AP credit and first-generation college attendance. And as much as I might have harsh things to say about the rules, it is perhaps better that at least we begin with rules, with constraints that make thinking possible. When faced with questions about identity, curiosities, and values, it seems cruel to also leave open the questions of form and structure, as if we might very well expect a prose poem or a short film or a sculpture of beach glass and mashed potatoes.
The truth is that high-schoolers are likely too young to write genuine answers to questions that pull so deeply from an inner world. While profound thinking has been underway since infancy, profound articulation has not. High-potential students learn to sound like they are expected to sound. And so when faced with grandiose topics, there is a strong temptation to meet expectations (rules!). Temptation can lead to falsity, to histrionics, to fooling oneself about the certainty of one’s ideas, plans, and visions. So strong is this temptation, the writer may even fool herself — as I often did — into believing that, backed into a corner of abstract profundity, whatever I came up with, if it sounded good, was somehow also true. The work produced is thus not a fair assessment of their potential to blossom in a given habitat.
The tension of heart speaks to my heart as a teacher — to the kind of education I believe to be most effective in building up thinkers and citizens and parents and leaders and creators. I want to teach durable skills that will sustain these students through following the rules and into a world where rule-following is less valuable — support them through learning their own truths and ambiguities many times over — and speak to their hearts. My desire is to facilitate these students toward thinking critically, creatively, reflectively about their own experiences, about their ideas and interests, about the world they are rapidly becoming independent within. We had only a short time together, and I wanted to speak to their hearts — their adolescent, sometimes eye-rolling, sometimes sentimental, sometimes frustrated, sometimes overwhelmed hearts.
I am sure that the plan I devised falls far short of the vision I had for it, both in planning and execution, but in the end, I felt that I did a good thing — something that met identified criteria instead of veering into muddy fields; something that advanced towards a willingness to face one’s own truth; something that built up a sense of capacity and self-reflection. In the end I find myself grateful — to teach and share these thoughts, to have my intentions become corporeal in the words on their pages, is a gift from student to teacher. And now I find that I’ve reached the word limit that they are allowed, and the fifth paragraph of what is allowed to be written about what is felt and thought, and I end. (650)