Sunday, September 30, 2007

The 20-Percent Rule of Teaching

One of the classes I teach is a required writing course full of college freshmen. It's difficult because America's high schools (in the main) have failed to impart some of the most fundamental skills that students should have, writing high among them. So it's very tough, especially when my mandate has little to do with teaching the mechanics of writing. Rather, my calling (in this class) is to teach various genres of academic writing. The majority of papers I read, however, are filled with mechanical problems: grammar, word usage, sentence structures, and punctuation stuff. I then recommend that they go to the "Writing Center," a service staffed by volunteers who help students with the basics of writing. Most of my students, however, do not avail themselves of the service and hand into me terrible papers, which I then hand back with shocking results. The first paper I hand back invariably hushes things down in class. Faces are sullen, ashen, solid, ... some in disbelief. They look at the paper and then back up at me. They're not mad at me, but surprised at the red-ink, the grade, and their crappy writing. Things then change.

At this point, the class suddenly becomes important to them, and it's the portal I wait for, the invitation to begin the 20-percent rule. It's not about failing or grades in general. From that point onward in the semester, I spend about 20 percent of the classroom time about the importance of writing in their lives. Even if they want to become pilots, nurses, psychologists, or whatever, they can never be counted as educated unless they know how to write. I must stress this, and remind them of the stress, about the embarrassment of not knowing how to communicate effectively in their own language. When I do that, I notice a sharp increase in attention. The students are far more aware of the class (meta-awareness) and self-aware of where they should be in four years. I'm not mean about it, but totally serious and committed to having them know with certitude that it's a lie to reckon themselves educated while not knowing how to make a cogent, logical, and literate argument on paper.

I do this, like I said, often, and the results are gratifying. I get more yellow notices from the Writing Center in my mailbox about students coming in. Finally, they're taking the class and themselves more seriously. Now THAT is what makes teaching fun: good response from the students.


Blogger Daughter of Adam said...


Nice read.

It's when students find something relevant that they begin to take it seriously..

In England red is no longer the colour for marking.. try green instead. Some research suggested that red was a negative colour to use as opposed to green.
Recall traffic signals:


9/30/2007 12:33 PM  
Anonymous irving said...

Lovely post. I'll bet you are a great teacher, and I wouldn't mind taking the class myself :)

Ya Haqq!

10/01/2007 12:21 PM  
Anonymous Baraka said...

Salaam -

They're lucky to have an inspiring teacher, a rarity these days.

How is the spiritual writing course going?


10/03/2007 1:23 PM  
Blogger fromclay said...

D.of.A: I've never used green ink, not sure if it would soften the comments. But I may try it. TY

Irving: Thanks. If you join the class, can you look around and see who's surfing the Web? The whole building is Wi-Fi and the students use laptops.

Baraka: Thanks for the comments. The spiritual writing class has to wait a semester to UP the enrolment.

10/04/2007 10:42 AM  
Anonymous irving said...

Eid Mubarak, dear Brother, to you and your family :) May the day be filled with love and joy!

Ya Haqq!

10/11/2007 9:59 PM  
Anonymous ABD said...

as-salam alaykum,

great piece. but that response you're grinning about is fear :)

as a teacher (formerly high school, transitioning toward college) myself, i have definitely come across the shift in color: to purple, blue, green, etc. but i'd still say that red is appropriate because comments are critical. there's really no way around that fact. we can change colors to protect our students' esteem, but who is going to protect them from their ignorance?

10/17/2007 4:42 PM  
Blogger UmmFarouq said...

Assalamu Alaikum
I was just thinking today about how I would not want to be an English 101 instructor. Actually, most students these days get sent back to the 098 classes because they do not know how to correctly construct a paragraph, much less a coherent essay. While technology is great and has a definite place in education, I blame the Internet on many of the problems kids have today with creative writing and critical thinking skills.

Here in the Middle East it's even worse; students only want to regurgitate what they have memorized and avoid original thought at all costs.

Hats off to all of the Freshmen English Instructors!

10/22/2007 11:45 AM  

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