By Xavia Dryden
Last week, I held conferences with my students so I could work with them individually and get a glimpse of their thought process in a more nuanced way before we workshop our next paper. Many of these meetings surprised me–pleasantly so. This unit, we are writing Definition essays over communities we identify with, and so many of my learners lead absolutely fascinating lives–much more so than you might expect in a group of mostly-traditional-aged college freshmen. I’ve joked with several people that teaching might be the closest I ever get to my lifelong dream of becoming Terri Gross–getting to learn from exciting, nuanced conversations with people from a wide range of backgrounds and abilities has always seemed like a dream job to me, and this week, I realized that that describes so much of teaching in a nutshell.
I tell my learners that writing is 90% thinking and 10% physical composition, and I really do believe that, so our conferences were structured as simple conversations–I just asked learners to walk me through their chosen community and do their best to tackle my questions as they came up. Generally, by the end of our 15 (or, in some cases, 45-minute) conversations, the learner realized how much of an expert they are on their community, and I realized how absolutely clueless I am about almost everything that isn’t literature–this, of course, was one of my favorite parts of the process.
A few snapshots: one of my learners is writing poignantly about her grief group for children who’ve lost a parent. Another is writing about his membership in the 14ers (a Colorado-based group whose members pride themselves on climbing mountains 14,000 feet and higher)–a personal triumph after a lifelong battle with Crohn’s disease. Yet another is writing about his hilarious and often maddening journey to becoming a part of the ukelele community (this particular learner actually brought his favorite uke to the conference and played us out with the theme song of The Office–a mutual favorite). Still another learner is writing about her recent foray into the natural hair community (one of my relatively few students of color, she was thrilled to find out that I would not only allow her to explore this particular community in her paper, but also that we follow many of the same natural hair bloggers online).
There were, of course, challenging moments–one student,for example, needed gentle, repeated reminders that words like “ghetto” and “gang” and “hood” are not accurate descriptors of all, or even most, African Americans. While these conversations can be frustrating, this is the nature of the work, and these, too, are teachable moments–often ones that take the form of universal questions and lessons like, “unpack that” or “where do those connotations come from?” or, most simply in terms of trying to unveil the broader power of language beyond the classroom, “word choice matters quite a bit when defining communities”.
All in all, I came away from last week’s conferences with a renewed faith in my learners’ individual and collective abilities, and an energized perspective on teaching when I needed it most.