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On Teaching and Writing

As an undergraduate many years ago, I signed up to be a tutor at a local middle school. I was only somewhat interested in the work itself; my main objective was to supplement my other part-time jobs. I was a fine arts major struggling to afford oil paints and canvas. But once I began tutoring those curious, funny, and incredibly creative students, my vision of an ideal career shifted dramatically—from a vague, romantic notion of starving artist to a more concrete, purposeful job working with young people. I felt so confident in this change that, by the end of the semester, I had changed my academic plans.

In the decades since making that major life decision, I have had the privilege to witness hundreds of young people set out on their own paths. I’ve enjoyed working with students at all levels, from elementary school to adult continuing education, but it is the journey of the adolescent/young adult learner that I’ve found most compelling. For the majority of my career in education, I have been an English professor at community colleges, where this transition from childhood to adulthood takes center stage against the very real and often messy balancing act of daily commutes, full-time jobs, parenting, and the pressures of time and money.

It’s no wonder that many young people suffer anxiety when making choices about colleges, majors, and careers.

Expectations on young adults are immense, and this pressure intensifies once a person receives their high school diploma. My debut novel, “Camper Girl” (Fitzroy Books, 2020) is inspired by the students who struggle with the question, “What do you want to do with your life?” Never mind that few people stick with the career interests they have at age sixteen, or that the average adult changes careers several times; this heavy question is asked repeatedly. It’s no wonder that many young people suffer anxiety when making choices about colleges, majors, and careers. Society warns that if you don’t decide quickly, you’ll lose out and be left to flounder forever. This is, of course, ridiculous. There is no one-size-fits-all progression through adulthood.

Upon her high school graduation, Shannon Burke, the eighteen-year-old narrator of “Camper Girl,” faces similar expectations and questions. Most of her classmates head off to college while her mother pressures her to stay at home. The weight of major life decisions has Shannon feeling paralyzed until her path is forever altered by a single moment: the sudden death of her beloved aunt. This inciting incident sets in motion a series of adventures that allows Shannon to explore new opportunities and new ideas about what it means to live a life on one’s own terms.

A hallmark of children’s literature and of childhood itself is the journey one takes toward discovering their voice. Respecting this arc—the essential character’s journey—has become the basis for the courses I plan, the assignments I create, and the feedback I give. To say that every student is unique may sound corny, but in an educational system full of standardization and statistics, this truth can get overlooked.

Writing about and for young people has deepened my understanding that every character and every reader brings a complex history to the table. With this in mind, I try to design my coursework so that each student has maximum opportunity to explore and express themselves, no matter their background, personality, or learning style. The keys, I’ve found, are connection and expression.

When students realize the extent of this connectedness, they will have found the motivation to exercise their voice.

The process often begins with explorative writing. When I introduce a new unit, I like to pose questions that get students thinking about their connection to topics ranging from sustainability, technology, prejudice, power, and love. Through informal free-writing exercises and relaxed discussions in which all are welcomed and celebrated, students tease out the connective threads that appear. As they listen to others, these threads strengthen, grounded in a chorus of their peers’ experiences.

When students realize the extent of this connectedness, they will have found the motivation to exercise their voice. Without a link to the topic or to one another, a student writer’s only motivation is to earn a good grade. Perhaps this was enough once upon a time, but today’s students, like their contemporary fictional counterparts, expect and demand more. In a world in which they are bombarded by a mind-numbing amount of information and messaging, they crave relevancy and meaning.

As an example, I ask students to relate to a theme before I introduce a work in my literature course. For one particular reading, prompts include, “Describe a time you’ve felt out of place.” “When has your opinion about a person changed?” “Have you ever found the need to be alone and to ‘think things through?’” On a seemingly unrelated note, I then ask students to list/draw items in their homes that could be symbolic.

With connections established, and the excitement of expressing one’s voice brewing, I introduce Toni Cade Bambara’s short story “The Lesson.” In it, a young girl, Sylvia, reluctantly travels from her Harlem neighborhood to New York City’s ritzy Fifth Avenue. A few hours (and several symbolic objects) later, she returns home, forever changed by her encounters. Though the story’s final lines are open-ended, it’s clear that Sylvia has resolved to create a life for herself that is personal, meaningful, and wholly self-determined.

Like Bambara’s Sylvia, Shannon Burke transforms from a passive character to a protagonist who acts with fortitude to forge her own path. “Camper Girl” ends with the line, “This is page one,” a nod to the belief that adolescence and young adulthood should not be looked at as an ending. Nor should it be something to rush through. Instead, each experience is a chance for the individual to write their next chapter and to do so at a pace of their own choosing.

As when writing fictional characters, the more space we writers and teachers give students, the more likely they are to discover their true selves. Eventually, characters like Sylvia and Shannon Burke—and students like yours and mine—will discover their voice as well as the confidence to let it be heard.

This article originally appeared on the Teaching Books website.


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