Teachable Moments Revisited (When You Are the Person Your Student is Writing about . . . Incorrectly)

20 Aug

To prepare to write this blog post I thought I would read through some of last year’s entries. One post that stood out to me while reading was Jeanine Rauch’s post focused on teachable moments, and I thought that I would continue that thread from a different angle, especially after a recent summer teaching experience.

As a writing teacher, I know that many of my students think of grammar and mechanics first when they prepare to turn in a piece of writing to me for feedback and a grade, and often at the start of the semester students will tell me that they are bad writers due specifically to their struggles with grammar and mechanics (their prior experiences with “bleeding papers” are proof of this for them). I admit that yes, I do consider the technical correctness of a paper when reading it, but for me the content is what I value above all else. This may be because of my research interest in basic writing or my recognition that the students I teach come from so many different backgrounds that do not always prepare them well for college writing, but regardless of the reason why, it’s just how I have always approached assessment of student writing.

In writing this post I’m not trying to initiate any debate about the preparedness of students for college writing, or about whether a paper with grammar and mechanics errors but excellent content is better or worse than a paper with excellent grammar and mechanics but lackluster content. Rather, I want to draw attention to the fact that part of our responsibility as writing teachers is to address “teachable moments” that pertain to the ideas of a student’s writing as well as to the correctness of it (*please note that I know Jeanine also focuses on ideas in her feedback to students, so this post is just continuing the thread she started last year that focused on correctness).

This summer I taught an online advanced composition course that has a Writing in the Disciplines focus, and one of my students chose to write her papers throughout the session on the subject of breastfeeding and development of allergies in children. As a new mother to a daughter who just recently turned 6 months old, I was particularly interested in the topic since I had done quite a bit of reading on my own about health and nutrition for both mothers and infants. While reading the student’s paper, I came across a paragraph promoting nursing infants until they are at least 6 months old, and within that paragraph a sentence about how families should be educated on the benefits of breastfeeding, including that it is “easy” and “free.”

I think my initial reaction to that comment was surprise, which was quickly followed by disappointment and frustration. I know many mothers who struggled with this supposedly “easy” process, some to the point that nursing just was not an option for them, and I thought about how this faulty perception can lead women to feel even more inadequate because they are unable to do what they are “supposed” to be able to do. I acknowledged that my student was not a mother herself and probably did not discuss her topic with mothers before writing her paper, so her statement was the product of being uninformed and unfamiliar with the issue rather than any deliberate disregard of the difficulties of nursing. I didn’t think that I would be helping the student, though, particularly in terms of calling her attention to audience awareness, by just ignoring the comment and continuing to read the rest of her paper.

So, I wrote feedback in her essay as well as in the rubric that I returned to her calling attention to her comment, highlighting the realities that surround nursing that make it incredibly difficult despite the (I think) common perception that if a woman wants to be able to nurse then it will easily happen. I pointed out to her that some mothers and/or their infants experience medical issues that prohibit nursing, for example, and that even if no such issues are present that it requires significant commitment to be able to nurse, especially to at least 6 months. I tried as much as possible to frame my comments within the positive context of trying to help her be more aware of her audience so that she didn’t risk offending any reader, assuring her that I was offering my feedback from a distanced, “think-about-your-hypothetical-reader” viewpoint rather than just my own. I then waited to see how my comments would be received.

For the students’ ePortfolio reflections that week I asked them to read the comments I had written on their papers and in their rubrics and to then write back to me, addressing those comments with any questions, concerns, and/or other thoughts that they had. I was excited to see that the student chose the feedback I wrote about audience as one of the comments to reflect on, and in her response she stated that she didn’t intend to appear to ignore the challenges of nursing and potentially offend her audience in doing so. In the future she would make sure to more carefully think through how the way she expresses her ideas affects how they may be received, and I found that in her remaining assignments after that paper that audience was not an issue. Am I saying that the student will never again write a sentence that could offend her real or hypothetical reader? No. But what I am saying is that I had a teachable moment that I took advantage of and that in doing so gave that student a better understanding of her reader and what it’s like to be a mother such as the one she was writing about.

I debated on whether to share this example here for a couple of reasons. One is that I don’t want all that I do to be connected to my status as a mother, and the other is that I worried about this post seeming too personal. I decided to write as I did, though, because I think the experience I had relates well to a lot of other teachers’ experiences reading students’ papers, whether the topics focus on gender, race, sexual orientation, etc. It’s difficult for any writer to understand what it’s like to be a person different from himself/herself and all too easy then to repeat stereotypes and uninformed ideas. As writing teachers, though, when we see our students demonstrating questionable authorial ethos we can use that as an opportunity to help them become not only better writers, but I hope also better people, people with a greater understanding and appreciation of others who are different from them. It may just be that our guidance helps them become more informed about their fellow students in the writing classroom, or even their teacher reading papers after a 3:00 a.m. wake-up call from a crying infant.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.