Monday, December 14, 2009

A Dash of Teaching Philosophy and a Sprinkling of Sandra Cisneros

Two years ago, as I was applying to graduate school, one of the programs requested I submit a teaching philosophy along with the usual materials--writing sample, transcript, GRE, signed waiver forfeiting my soul etc. Understand that, two years ago, I had never taught anyone anything, unless you count that time I showed my family and neighbors how to make their fortune cookie fortunes funnier by adding “in bed” to the end of each. And even that wasn't an original lesson plan.

Recently, an adviser encouraged me to begin developing a statement of my teaching philosophy. Apparently panic-stricken, blind flailing doesn't count. Anyway, even though I now have three semesters of teaching experience and, admittedly, should have some clue of my teacherly intentions, this suggestion has gotten me thinking the exact same things I thought two years ago when confronted with the same request.

When I think about my teaching philosophy, I don't think about my teaching experience. Shameful, right? I think about my student experience, instead. Perhaps this is because I find very few philosophy-inducing epiphanies in my recollections of teaching (note to self: Writing/reading may not necessarily be your students' first priority and you need to be okay with that. Note to self: not everyone will love Annie Dillard and you need to be ready to face that. Note to self: do NOT make fun of Twilight.) Or perhaps this is because I have no way of judging the success of my “lessons” because I am not on the receiving end of them and because I evaluate a classroom's success in strange ways. What matters to me (and what mattered to me as a student) is investment. Interaction. Excitement. The best classes I ever took—the classes that stayed with me—were those in which the teacher nurtured my excitement for the material.

So if writing/reading is not a student's first priority, I want them to write/read a phrase that pierces them, that makes them realize the power of the written form. I want them to write/read a line that gives them sheer pleasure—from the beauty of the language or the sheer loveliness of thought. I want them to be excited. That's the first step to interaction. And interaction produces investment. And investment fosters a desire to extend the class beyond the perimeter of the classroom, past the limit of the semester's end. I don't care whether students love my class, or whether they come to love writing/reading throughout my course. I care that some seed has been planted. That they might grow to love literature. That they might aspire to create it. Wow, I realize as I type: Wow, that is painfully idealistic.

Anyway, probably because I am a young teacher, I have difficulty encouraging excitement about texts/prompts in which I, myself, am not excited. I've heard from many colleagues that it can be incredibly painful to introduce your class to a writer you love, if only because the students may not love him/her (case and point: Ms. Dillard) or, worse yet, may not love him/her as much as they love the Twilight series, and may therefor put you in the very uncomfortable position of informing them just how incredibly wrong they all are. Or, worse yet, they may make you question your devotion to the writer in question. Goodness forbid it!

Regardless, I have recklessly introduced my students to texts that are very dear to me for very personal, illogical reasons—the hardest kind of loyalty to put up to so much scrutiny. Fortunately this shred of bravery has been rewarded. I have had the most success (i.e. my students have been most excited about) those texts in which I am most invested. But my reckless bravery has not stopped there. I have used the same prompt in the classroom (with 18-23 year olds) and in an extracurricular Writers' Group that I help facilitate, and which is made up of 10-14 year olds. Understand that 10-14 year olds are even more willing to admit their disinterest for any particular piece of writing. 10-14 year olds are even more willing to declare how much better Twilight is than all this Literature nonsense.

The prompt (again, not an original—my 9th grade teacher assigned it) is drawn from a chapter of Sandra Cisneros' exquisite little work The House on Mango Street. Composed of what I would call flash fiction vignettes or prose poetry chapters delivered through the voice of Esperanza Cordero, the book tells the story of a young girl's life on run-down Mango Street. It is an exploration of life delivered through a voice so lyric and deceptively simple that it is not easily forgotten. My favorite chapter (and what my teacher once used for a writing prompt and what I now use as a writing prompt) is “My Name.” It's easily available online (but buy the book! You won't regret it.)

I recommend slowly reading this aloud in your session, maybe even bothering to read it twice because of Cisneros' attention to the musicality of language.

Take a few minutes to discuss the sound of the sentences, the voice, and the comparisons Esperanza makes to her own name (e.g “It is the Mexican records my father plays on Sunday mornings when he is shaving, songs like sobbing.”) Talk about how names have stories, how they have meanings, how they fit and do not fit who we are. After this, direct the writers to compose a short piece which emulates Cisneros' style and organization:

For the sake of a prompt, I'd avoid asking this many questions, lest they be too controlling. Just a few questions could be launching points for some incredible writing.

      1. What is your name? What does it mean? What color would it be? What does it sound like to you?

      2. Where did this name come from? Do you own it? Does it own you? Does it have a history? What story does your name tell?

      3. Do you like your name? How does each syllable sound to you?

      4. (Most important part, I think) If you could change your name, what would you change it to? Be imaginative! Explain why this new name is a better fit.

This prompt was very successful in a group of 10-14 year old writers. Partly this is because they already had all the material they needed to have in order to write, and partly because there are so many different ways to emulate Cisneros' style. Each child found a different part to latch onto—for one it was the examination of sounds, for another it was the examination of her name's story, for another the freedom to re-choose a better, wilder name for herself. A name that she could own.

A quote that has stayed with me:

I can remember walking down the street, saying my name over & over, until all of a sudden, it didn't sound like my name anymore. It didn't even sound like a word at all & then I stopped & the silence rushed in & whispered words that sounded more like my real name & I smiled & thought to myself how surprised my parents would be when they found out what a mistake they had made.” - Brian Andreas

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