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I suck at golf. When I hit the ball at the driving range, it might fly straight up and land ten feet away, or hook meanly to the left. Sometimes it’s a grass cutter, burning along just off the ground. Every now and then I whack the thing just right and it feels like the heavens have parted. The little orb describes a beautiful arc lit by a shaft of heavenly light.

I haven’t been at the sport long-- just took it up this summer. Nor am I “avid.” Having two young boys pretty much prevents me from being avid at anything, except falling asleep by nine every night. “Piqued” might be a better word for the way I feel about golf right now.

The high school jock in me relishes the challenge of a new sport, while at the same time, the dad I’ve become is okay with my utter lack of skill. It takes the pressure off when par is a goal rather than an expectation. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the reason why I like golf is because I suck at it.

For one thing, there’s nothing but upside. Every time I go out, infrequently as that may be, I get better. A neighbor I ran into at the block party told me to stand with my feet in a “v” instead of parallel like a batter up to plate. One little tip, and the ball started to go straighter. Second, I’m a beginner again. Which makes me a better teacher.

This week, I had tenth graders start writing groups. Some had done it before, but most don’t get it. They’re programmed to correct grammar mistakes and say, “Good job,” even if they don’t mean it. They need to learn how to help each other’s writing without hurting each other’s feelings, but right now they’re scared to do one or the other. Much less both.

I want my writing groups to soar, like they did for me and my colleagues in the summer institute. But I have to remind myself that they might not, at first. A bunch of teachers who love their job enough to devote a summer to reading and writing about it are going to generate a different dynamic than kids wondering when this touchy-feely stuff is going to stop and the red pen will come out. Even though some of these kids are brilliant and all are smart, they’re beginners at this.

Like I am at golf, but not much else. Because, let’s face it, there comes a point in life when we know what we’re good at. And that tends to be what we stick with. We get rewarded, become accomplished. A lot of TJ kids are at this point already in life, maybe prematurely. They’re good at school, of course, and also playing the piano, programming a computer, or whatever. Whatever it is... is safe.

Conversely, we learn what not to do. “I can’t draw,” a lot of people decide, or, “Snowboarding isn’t for me.” While I can see the wisdom in not taking up a sport in which you fall on you hip over and over, where’s the danger in art? Getting a paper cut? A paintbrush in the eye?

No, the danger isn’t physical. It’s failure, or the fear of it. That’s what keeps us from trying new things. Rediscovering risk-- even if it’s only on the golf course-- puts me in touch with what some of my students, many of whom are not accomplished writers, might feel in the writing circle.

There’s a nine-hole golf course near TJ that I’m going to try to get to after school one day. I’ll leave a stack of ungraded papers in my briefcase in the car. Maybe I’ll make par on one hole. And maybe one of those essays, when I do get around to reading it, will surprise me with language that’s fresh and not scared of the red pen. Or maybe not, this time out. Let’s take a swing and see.

4 Comments

Like your blog. I too, am a lousy golfer and a much better teacher. We'll all make many bogeys but do we have enough balls to stay the course ?

For me it was the alto sax, in my 40s. I'd exited an overachiever's state dept of ed career to be home with young children and wound up learning enough to play in a beginner's jazz ensemble (with 12-year-old boys who while more nimble and energetic than I, and more technically knowledgeable, couldn't "feel" the rhythms of A Train and In the Mood as I did.)

Plus my um -mother's chest-was always in my way, and neither the boys nor the male instructor could help me with that. They couldn't relate. I had to adapt my own clumsy, uncomfortable stance.

Being an educator, of course I had to read and think about the experience -- read John Holt's "Never Too Late" about taking up the cello in middle age. Awesome insights! I don't play the sax anymore but my kids and I play ensemble rhythms all the time: we've been happily unschooling with those insights ever since.

One URL that will help in the peer review students do on each others' essays is from University of North Carolina writing center. It's
http://www.unc.edu/depts/wcweb/handouts/

for the entire page with links: use the one on feedback. Bookmark this link, because it's extremely valuable. Xerox the download feedback pages or web-post that specific link. Distribute to students, have them discuss in small groups, and then have a class-wide discussion about their experiences with feedback and what they think of the UNC ideas.

Depending on the essay or article you want your kids to be writing, develop your own peer-editing form for each major piece (I have four a semester...I'm teaching Eng. 101 at the community college at the moment). Mine deal with the three big ones of content, clarity, and organization - and I've tried to include generic-worded questions that relate to that particular assignment. For instance, on remembering-a-person, did the student author use the strategies (St. Martin's Guide to Writing, 7th ed.) of naming, detailing, and/or comparing/contrasting? Or (yesterday) for explaining a concept, did the student peer-editor learn more about the concept than he or she knew before reading the student essay? What? What writing strategies did the student author use that made this essay effective in helping reader understanding?

When you downplay (but never ignore) the grammar/mechanics/etc. stuff, and concentrate on how writers work, with the stated goal of building a supportive community of writers, the classroom climate changes. Have fun! I've been in the adult ed/university/college classroom 35 years, I'm 75 years old, and I can't wait to go to work every teaching day!

You can also talk about implications of language. My Eng. 102 class (university) is writing argument papers about immigration, and we have been discussing the inferences readers make on "illegal immigrants" vs. "undocumented workers" in their own papers, as well as news stories.

I have found that by eating a little before bedtime I can fall asleep better. WBR LeoP

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