Legacies

While a lot of people are just getting into the swing of their semester, in my K12 world, our second trimester of the school year just concluded. It’s always strange to say that, or maybe it just feels that way because saying “It’s the end of the trimester!” has made people ask me if I’m pregnant (more than once).

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 No, it’s just how we do things. On the one hand, being on trimesters is great because of the way it breaks up the year. On the other, end-of-trimester is always a busy, stressful time. To offset that, in November, we get a three-day weekend between trimesters. In February, we get a four-day weekend (thank you, Presidents Day!). In both cases, students tend to get a lot of assessments and faculty get the opportunity to give students feedback on their work (also known as grading).

It feels like I’ve had a lot of chances to give students feedback recently, and it’s in those moments that I realize just how much I’m still using from grad school.

I believe this is actual footage of my friend’s creative process, and I’m still jealous.

Remember in school when you would get feedback on a paper you worked really hard to write, only to find it wasn’t up to snuff? I have a fabulous friend from college who could stay up the night before a paper was due, pound the thing out in a couple of hours, then spend another couple of hours line editing and revising it, turn it in, and walk away with an A.

I’ve never been that person, although grad school made it possible for me to pound something out fairly quickly, then spend a thousand days taking it through new variations. And being able to take feedback? That’s an ongoing effort – one that I think I’m getting better at doing, but that’s for another post.

When I’m in the depths of giving feedback to students, though, I’m constantly struck by how much I’ve started to sound like my graduate school teachers. All those things that they kept hassling me about year after year, the things that drove me nuts because I thought I’d never get it right.

I’ve heard that old saying that we often become our parents (or maybe we marry our parents? or both?), but I didn’t know I’d become my grad school professors. Case in point: my top 3 comments on student work include these things my professors harped on me about when i was a grad student:

  • Defining terms
  • Topic sentences
  • “So what?”

(There’s a fourth that pertains to semi-colons, but I have to be careful with that because my English colleagues are apparently trying to teach the students that there are appropriate times and places for semi-colons. I’ll let them have that one…for now.)

Growing up, I always heard “write what you know,” and that reading would make me a better writer. Those may be true, but I think grading makes me a more self-aware – and I suspect, better – writer. When I spend hours reading student paper after student paper, I learn more about writing and how we progress as writers. I get better at understanding the importance of topic sentences and expressing what an ideal topic sentence should look like. When I press my students to define their terms, I help them develop clarity in their writing, and their ability to take ownership of what they’re claiming: there’s a big difference, for example, in assuming we all share the same sense of “democracy”, and it’s much more powerful if you can define that term clearly for your reader.

Thesis statements, in particular, are tricky, no matter whether you’re in your first year of high school or – I would guess – writing your fifteenth book (I’m not at that point, so I’m speculating). They take time and practice, and even with both, you don’t always get it right. But asking a student to think about the “so what?” – why something matters – well, it turns out that’s both a very frustrating comment and a very useful one.

I learned a lot in graduate school; I learned many things about myself, I grew as a writer, I learned lots of history, I had conversations that were both great and not-so-great (and sometimes frustrating). But I think the best thing I’ve taken away are these legacies from my professors, who gave me their patience and their ears and steered me toward hard questions and good books.

With their help, I hope to make better writers and thinkers of the students who come to my classroom over the years.

What sorts of legacies did you get from your teachers over the years?

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