Jenny, in “Mr. Miyagi Style” (Working It Out in the Virtual World, 9/22/13), captures the art of teaching composition.
She begins with an understanding that many teachers, even after many years, fail to grasp. Writing is a skill, a performance, an art — something that one does, not something that one knows. It’s more a running stream than a block of ice. Furthermore, it’s a communication skill, it’s interactive, it’s done with others. It’s rhetorical.
When we begin with this assumption, the implications re pedagogy become clear:
Students need a lot of practice learning how to write in a logical fashion. They need practice working with sources; they need practice presenting the works of others and practice responding to those ideas. They don’t show up with these skills, and why should I expect them to? (Jenny)
Jenny’s Mr. Miyagi (The Karate Kid, 1984) clip captures, in a fun and engaging way, the oneness of learning and teaching: practice, practice, practice; coaching, coaching, coaching. This is teaching as shaping rather than teaching as judging. Writing is a performing art, and through constant practice and feedback over a lifetime — not just a semester or even throughout college — one gradually grows.
In Asia, the arts are called “do” (pronounced dough) or “dao” (or “tao”) — the way. One can follow the way, but one can never own it or master it. Everyone is perpetually a student. But it doesn’t stop there. The path is defined by the travelers, the pilgrims. Those behind (kohai in Japanese) seek guidance from those ahead (senpai), and those ahead guide those behind. Thus, everyone is also perpetually a teacher, like yin and yang.
Like yin and yang, teaching is not separate from learning but an essential part. Teaching a skill reinforces, refines, and expands one’s learning. If a person doesn’t learn something new every time s/he teaches a skill, then he’s not growing as a teacher or a student.
In learning any art, failure and ignorance are givens. No one knows everything, and everyone fails at one point or another. The quest for perfection, not the perfection itself, is the way. From this perspective:
Confusion is okay. Students aren’t just allowed to get frustrated and confused- confusion is encouraged. As a matter of fact, I remind them repeatedly that when they get to a point when they’re about to pull out their hair and quit, they’re right where they’re supposed to be- this is where learning happens. Just as a body builder lifts weights to tear muscles apart to make them stronger, we too must tear our old ways of thinking apart so that we can learn, build empathy, and discover solutions to real world problems. (Jenny)
Ignorance, failure, confusion are the doors to learning, and as Jenny says, “When they get to a point when they’re about to pull out their hair and quit, they’re right where they’re supposed to be — this is where learning happens.” And this is the confluence of learning and teaching, the epiphanic moment when authentic question grasps meaningful answer.
The dao defines presence. As writing teachers, our students are fellow travelers. Thus:
Mutual respect is important. I call them by their first names, so I ask them to call me by mine. . . . I think that in today’s student/teacher climate, going out of my way to let students know it’s okay to call me by my first name will help them speak to me more easily. I hope it makes them more comfortable shooting me an email and asking questions. I think it’s working. (Jenny)
Teachers have to be accessible and respectful. In a word, they need “aloha.”
Teachers also have to love the dao. Jenny says, “I lucked out and get to teach composition.” This is a path she chose. Some of the writing teachers I know treat their courses as punishment to endure or hurdles to overcome to get to their first love, teaching Literature. The proof is in the doing. Jenny’s obviously a writer. She writes. And she loves doing it.
Students “get it” in her words — her enthusiasm for the way, the art of writing:
I want them to have communication skills. I want them to be able to listen to others closely, and I want them to have ways to respond. I want them to know that their ideas matter. I want them to have techniques for dealing with people they don’t necessarily agree with when they still have to find a solution to a problem. I want them to be eloquent, just as I want them to understand the beauty of clarity and brevity. (Jenny)
They also get it in her patience:
There’s a lot of repetition of skills on different topics. I have to repeat myself a lot. Some of them get it the first time, some of them might get it after 16 weeks. I hold on. I try not to get frustrated. We repeat. I think of it like building muscle memory so that when they go into other classes, or go to work, or even have to work out disagreements with their families, friends and neighbors . . . . So we repeat and wax on and wax off and wax on and wax off. (Jenny)
We can establish our presence in online classes with a photo or a video, but we can also do it with our words. Our words are who we are. They aren’t just words, but style, and, paraphrasing Buffon, style is the person. Katherine Anne Porter defines it this way: “You do not create a style. You work, and develop yourself; your style is an emanation from your own being.”
Students read our words, and through our words, they know who we are, they sense our presence. We and our words are one and the same, inseparable, and getting to know one means getting to know the other.