Poetry and Progress

So I’ve been doing this Mellon fellowship where I’m working with a local two year college. I spent some time this past Friday working with my mentor teacher, Mike, getting involved in his classes, mid-term progress meetings with students, and even getting to attend a departmental meeting. A few experiences this day really made me start to see some key differences between the students I teach at a top research institution and the students at this community college. What struck me about these students, in general, was how willing they were to take the time to set themselves, and each other, up for success, even if (or maybe because) they didn’t believe in themselves.

During the mid-term reviews for Mike’s pre-college level writing course, I was amazed how many students, given the option to skip a class and move ahead more quickly through their required writing coursework (based on their current performance), chose to take the slow approach and move ahead to the next level. The fact that these students 1) recognized the benefits they were getting from a slow and comprehensive introduction to composition and 2) wanted to stay with this approach as opposed to speed through required coursework as quickly as possible struck me as mature, deliberate, and free of ego. Four students were performing well enough to skip a class; all four rejected that offer. All of these students were taken aback by the praise and success they were receiving.

Thinking about my own students, I can’t say as many would recognize the long-term benefits of being patient with coursework. I can think of a handful of students who would have absolutely made the same choice, but most would not. My students are some of the highest performers in the state; most have been top performers their entire academic lives, and this can sometimes bring with it an “I already know how to write” attitude. For other students, they’re hyper-focused on getting ahead in their desired majors and don’t want to waste time, or credits, on classes not directly related to their chosen degree. Yet for others, with the time and money they are spending on their education, they would simply rather be taking something they’re interested in as opposed to something required of them. Granted, by the time students get to the portfolio, most often realize the value of a college-level composition class. But given the option to skip over a writing requirement (even after such an experience), I believe there aren’t many who would pass up that opportunity. But Mike’s students, even when told they have the skill and ability to skip ahead a level, want to keep chipping away at their foundational writing skills. The foresight shown by such a decision is something I think, in many ways, can give community college students an advantage over students like my own; instead of thinking in the short term, they’re thinking about the long term benefits of their education.

Another thing that struck me this day was the vulnerability and support shown by Mike’s poetry students. They were working in small groups (3 people) workshopping their Hurts-So-Good poems, a poem in which the student confronts the topic they least want to write about. As expected, this assignment asks students to be quite vulnerable with and respectful of one another as many choose to confront issues such as rape or abuse. I spent the first 10-15 minutes floating around the room, just taking in both students’ poetry and the conversations they were having with one another about their work. One group of young women invited me to join their group and give feedback on their poems. Again, I was struck with a realization about these students — they has such a desire to help one another, to build one another up, as writers, as students, as people. They were critical of each others’ poems as writers, but each piece of feedback was delivered with careful attention and framing. They were genuinely invested in helping each other get better; they were open and eager to not only receive feedback, but to give feedback as well. The buzz around the room in general, both what I heard before I sat in with this particular group and the continued energy and conversations I caught snippets of while working with these ladies, suggested that this was not unique to this particular group.

While I’ve absolutely witnessed these types of conversations and dispositions in my classroom, but I can’t say every student is as willing to be as open to, as vulnerable with, and as invested in each other as Mike’s poetry students. Now, of course I have to acknowledge that, since this is an elective and not a required course, everyone in the class wants to be there (at least in theory). It would be foolish not to consider this as a contributing factor. But I also can’t help but think that the same maturity and purposefulness that motivated Mike’s ENGL 097 students to want to take the slow and steady path also motivates his poetry students to take the time and energy to build up each other as writers, students, and people. Additionally, since these students may not be used to being top performers or having strong educational support systems prior to college, they recognize the value of having someone in your corner believing in you.

When thinking about what two year schools and tier one research institutions can learn from each other, I think Mike’s students demonstrate foresight and a commitment to building a classroom community that 1) may not be inherently valuable or favorable to students like my own and 2) teachers at institutions like mine should (and do, to be fair) deliberately work to foster within our own classrooms, departments, and campuses. I’m not sure exactly where to go beyond these initial thoughts, but I wanted to take a moment and reflect while the experience was still fresh.