When teaching feeds the soul

My most moving teaching moment in the past two weeks came when I looked up from the work I was grading at the students in my grammar lab, who were midway through their first high-stakes proficiency test.

For our intro reporting students, moving ahead in the skills courses of our journalism curriculum is dependent on their passing either this test or a second given in the last week of classes. I allow the students to bring any materials they need into the test: books, handouts, printouts, their notes, anything but electronic devices. My rationale is that writers and editors constantly use reference materials; my goal isn’t for these students to memorize every rule for commas or the entire AP stylebook but for them to recognize the grammar and syntax elements that give them trouble and to know where to go for answers — to develop that essential journalistic habit of checking.

So I looked up at my 18 students, immersed in their task. The room was nearly silent. Some were paging through stylebooks that had at last begun to show signs of wear.  Others were leafing through our grammar text (Brooks et al., “Working With Words”), seeking the sections they had marked with bright bristles of Post-It notes. They looked so studious, so intent, these students who had started class nine weeks earlier not knowing a preposition from a pronoun. Now they were parsing phrases and clauses, putting commas around nonrestrictive elements and turning passive verbs into active ones, having mastered the correct names for the tools they employ as writers and having learned to build sentences with them.

Maybe I was projecting, but they almost looked like they were — if not having fun, then at least experiencing a satisfying intellectual challenge. And if not even that, they certainly were absorbed. Their bent heads, their carefully marked books and their hushed concentration stirred me. I felt pride in them and in myself; it was I, their teacher, who had guided them to this new knowledge and competence, who had turned on the light in the darkened room where they  previously had blundered, hitting their shins on the furniture, unable to pick a clear path toward meaning.

I knew that not all of them would pass the test. And, as usually happens, just over half did. The successful 10 were done with the class and cleared to advance in the program. (To be fair, some of these students did come into the class with a pretty fair grasp of the material; I can’t take credit for all of the successes.)

This week, the eight who had failed, the ones for whom the rules still blurred and slipped away, gathered for the first of two review sessions before the final test. And, as usually happens, their mood had shifted. The intensity they had brought to the exam the week before had hardened into determination. Where their attentiveness during previous classes had varied from desultory to involved, now all were absorbed. I rattled through some sentences, marking clauses and infinitives and relative pronouns and antecedents on the board, and they stayed with me. If they got lost, they pulled in the reins and made me slow down instead of letting the lesson blow past them. Their hunger for mastery was almost palpable. Now we’re all in it together.

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