Of all the things I do, I think teaching Developmental Writing is the most fun.
That's a bizarre statement to see on the screen, primarily because I would never have thought I'd say (or write) anything like that. First of all, back in 2003 when I was laid off from a high school teaching position, I swore I'd never go back to teaching. The heartache of investing so much of myself in the students and the school, only to be let go because of budget concerns, kind of put a bad taste in my mouth. Plus, I wasn't a fan of the miles of red tape and the ever-shifting politics inherent in the public school system.
Second, of all the classes I ever thought I *might* enjoy teaching, "Developmental Writing" was never on the list. Creative Writing, sure. Survey of 21st Century Literature, OK. Graphic Design or Advertising Essentials, absolutely. But Developmental writing ... no way.
All of that changed after the first time I stepped into the classroom.
I took the gig because it was a way to get a bit more classroom time, and to try out some of the things I have learned and discovered about the way humans learn. It would be my learning laboratory, as it were. I could experiment, compare traditional teaching techniques to some of my fancy new theories. I've mentioned before, I have an interest in education, but I also have an interest in human potential. So I was trying to answer the question, "Can I take even the most basic subject and use it to improve the lives of my students?"
The answer is "Hell yes."
In my Developmental Writing course, I'm going over all those fundamentals you would think were firmly embedded in every kid at around fourth grade. You'd think that, but you'd be wrong. I can draw up a roster of about 60 young adults over a one-year period who would be willing to confirm for you that they did not, in fact, get the essentials of writing early in their academic careers. Forget the complicated stuff, like when or where to use a semicolon (hell, even I have trouble with that one), or whether or not it is OK to end a sentence with a preposition. These folks couldn't define "preposition" to save their lives. In fact, they didn't even have a working definition of "sentence."
Now I'm being a little harsh here, I think. First of all, most people don't have a definition for "sentence" at the ready. We know what a sentence is, when we see it, but if we had to describe it there would be a bit of stumbling as we came up with the right words. Try it. Do you have a definition of your own? Probably not. And if you do, kudos.
But for the purposes of my course, here is the definition I give them:
A sentence is a group of words that expresses a complete thought.
That's it. Simple, right? Elegant, even.
OK, we start there. And believe it or not, that's most of DAY 1 of this course. Defining what a sentence is, and getting that definition stuck in the heads of the students, is a full day's worth of work.
To be fair, I do go a little further than that definition. For example, I will add, "A sentence contains a subject, a verb, and a predicate." At which point, I will have to spend time defining "predicate." And, believe it or not, I will even have to spend some time defining "subject." For some reason, "verb" gives us no trouble.
From subject, verb, and predicate we typically move on to parts of speech. They known "noun," thank God. And, of course, "verb." I give them an "object" lesson, which more or less goes over well. And then we enter Adjective and Adverb country, and the whole thing goes to hell for a day or two.
In fact, by the time we manage our way into adjectives and adverbs, we are already into at least week two of the course. Somehow the mere act of describing nouns or describing adjectives, verbs, or other adverbs is so complex and intimidating, it can't be learned readily.
The first time I came across this roadblock, it really threw me. I couldn't understand what was happening. This was basic stuff, after all. Very basic. Like atomic structure compared to the complexity of the Universe basic. And yet, somehow, these guys not only missed it the first time around they treated it as unfathomable babbling.
I thought about this for a long time, talking it over with my wife, Kara, and some of my friends. And I think I've figured out at least part of the problem here: These people never learned how to learn.
Here's a funny historic note about our education system: It was originally designed by Plato. Well, more or less. Plato put together an education system that consisted of an elementary education, followed by a secondary, and completed with a university education. His position was that students would get the foundations of learning from their elementary education, and then dig deeper into specific subject matter on general subjects during their secondary education. At the university level, they would specialize more, and choose their particular fields of study, in which they would become experts and professionals (as the terms applied in those days). This setup may sound familiar, since it is the basic model of our current education system, and the most logical way to structure that system.
But somewhere along the way, things kind of fell apart.
Suddenly, elementary school became the place where facts were crammed into the brains of young people. Facts, but no system for connecting those facts to each other. Instead of giving students a foundation for later learning, they were suddenly expected to leave foundational schooling with an active and complete education. And then, in secondary school, the process would start all over again. They would get more facts shoved through their ears, nose, and other orifices, and then they were forced to regurgitate those facts (and ONLY those facts) on a test designed to measure how close they could come to the arbitrary "average." In this system, no real attention is paid to exactly how the student learns best. No attempt is made to connect new information to old information in a meaningful and useful way. And absolutely no attempt is made to teach the student how to make up for any gaps in their learning.
So, after 12 years of inadequate education, paid for by our tax dollars, those students with enough gaul and ambition to actually enter the university level will often do so with a woefully inefficient and inadequate educational foundation. They end up having to spend a great deal of money to learn those things that should have been built into their brains before they ever left elementary school.
And that's when I get them.
You're asking yourself, "When is he going to get to the 'life changing' part?"
When I first started teaching Developmental Writing, I figured it would be best if I stuck with the basics of writing. My goal was to get the students from choppy, poor sentences and paragraphs to semi-polished prose. When I discovered that I couldn't even start working with sentences and paragraphs, because the students had no concept of parts of speech much less a working definition of a sentence, I had to change tactics. I started giving them the foundation they were missing, from all those years ago.
And then I thought, "I have this wealth of knowledge about how people learn, and how to streamline learning. It's a shame I can't use that here."
Why not? Why couldn't I? After all, these guys were so far behind, they couldn't possibly be worse off if they left my class with more knowledge about how to learn than how to structure a paragraph, right?
But I felt too guilty about it. I couldn't focus on learning foundations when they had paid for Developmental Writing. They needed to know how to write a sentence, a paragraph, and an essay.
So why not combine Developmental Writing with Learning Foundations?
The class I teach is typically two to four hours in length. The two-hour classes are broken up over two days in the week. The four-hour classes happen on a single day. Both give me more than enough time to talk about the basics of writing, with room to spare. So, I broke each class up into two components. For the first half, I would teach Developmental Writing. For the second, Learning Foundations. And I would bridge the two by showing the students how to use the second half to better understand and remember the first.
I started with memory techniques. I taught them about "location memory," and helped them to learn and use "memory palaces" to remember long lists of things in order. I also taught them how to encode abstract information so it would be easier to store. All of this came in handy for remembering terms and definitions that they would need in order to move beyond the developmental level.
I taught them basic logic and reasoning skills for problem analysis and problem solving. I started with basic concepts, such as "If all subjects are nouns, and all adjectives describe nouns, then what do we call these terms that are describing our subject?" It sounds rudimentary, right? That's because it is. It was also completely lacking for these guys up until now.
Slowly but surely, my students were starting to get the hang of these things. I taught them how the brain works when it stores information. I talked to them about working memory versus long-term memory. I taught them about synapses and the physical connections formed in the brain during learning. I taught them about the power of visualization to help you encode and remember facts. And in the end, all of these things led to some pretty interesting results.
There are three types of questions I will ask any given student at any random time. These three questions are based on the memory exercises and the definitions that we have worked on together. For the first memory exercise, I gave them a list of 20 random items that included terms like "goal post" or "cigarettes" or even "voting booth", and taught them to recall all 20 in order (or even out of sequence) even weeks after they first saw the list. For the second memory exercise, I taught them how to remember a list of 10 random items on a "shopping" list (which could include items such as "gorilla fingers" or "flesh-colored body suit," as well as "peanut butter" or "banana peppers"). And finally, I taught them the vocabulary of developmental writing, with terms such as "adjective," "adverb," and "predicate, as well as their definitions.
Then, at random times during class I might ask questions like the following:
"What is number six?" (The answer is "gun")
"What is on the couch?" ("gorilla fingers")
"What describes a noun?" ("adjective")
And the funny thing is, this group of students who couldn't get into English 1301 because of their placement test scores can quote back to me, word for word and in order, every single term, item, and definition without once referring to their notes or their books. They can also tell me how the various parts of speech interact in a sentence, and that a sentence should always be "simple and clear." They can tell me how to determine something as abstract as the "main idea" of a sentence or paragraph. They can reason out that a sentence is logically incorrect, and the best way to fix it.
For many of these students, this is the first time they've been able to do something that made them feel "smart." And I praise the hell out of them for doing it. They feel so accomplished, so brilliant, that when they leave my class they go and use these same techniques in their other classes. They are quoting from memory the bones of the body and the list of U.S. Presidents. They are figuring out how to determine whether X is equal to Y. They are relating new facts to what they already know, and making them memorable through visualization. They are, essentially, building on their foundation.
It's such a small thing. It's a semester's worth of teaching, for four hours per week. And yet, I honestly believe it will take them places in their lives that they might never have suspected they could go.
So, I admit it. This is a fun experience. I may not teach this course forever, but I am really glad I did have the chance to teach it. I learned as much from it as they've learned, I believe. And maybe I can take what I've learned and help shape how our education system works. Or maybe not. Who can really say? The whole thing is a mess. But at least I can be sure of one thing:
There are 60 brilliant people who are preparing to start moving about in the world.