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Michael Babcock Dr. Jan Reiman English 1101 April 30, 2013 Writing Isn‟t the Enemy In the earliest years of my education, my mother tried to teach me handwriting. In fact, since I was homeschooled, my parents taught me most of what I learned back then. Some of my earliest memories of writing were the times I kept switching hands to write my first letters. My mother would hand a pencil to my right hand and try to help me figure out the lines and loops of letters, and then I would immediately switch the pencil into my left hand. I think she probably just thought I was being stubborn until she realized I really was better with my left hand. This was probably when we first discovered or at least confirmed I was truly left-handed. Since then, my handwriting has always been messy and while I tried to improve the appearance of it, it slowed me down so much I soon abandoned my attempts. After I had figured out the basic letters and could write words and sentences it was time to work on cursive handwriting. I had thought regular handwriting had been difficult enough to learn, but cursive was especially onerous. I‟m not sure you would understand unless you tried to write in a rightslanted flowing way with you left hand; it doesn‟t work out well. My hand actually ached after practicing sometimes. These early encounters with writing certainly didn‟t help me appreciate the usefulness of learning to handwrite in an age where everything seemed to be typed anyway. In many ways, these early experiences also began my somewhat adversarial relationship with writing. I find it can be hard to like and enjoy things I‟m not particularly skilled at and writing seemed to be the epitome of such things within my education. Why spend time and effort

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on writing, or why should I care about writing, I thought, when there were so many other things I was interested in learning and discovering? I‟m certain I did not realize then how important being able to communicate in writing would be for someone with ambitions to be successful in this technology centric world. Fortunately for me, I think our culture has moved away from treating good handwriting as one of the “keys to a secret and wealthier society” like Christiansen talked about regarding the ominous Standard English grammar (37). I don‟t think the way we speak and write holds quite as much weight as it used to. Through all the technological advances that have been made, people have grown more accustomed to communicating outside the confines of traditional Standard English grammar or cursive penmanship. I think we will find that the “accepted” rules and standards of writing, especially handwriting, may not hold much weight as English evolves and as the Internet generation matures. While this may end up being an exaggeration I do think it is helpful to reflect on the usefulness of accepted forms of communication and how they have evolved and will evolve. Communicating in my early years was further confounded by a speech impediment, which probably contributed to my introverted nature and made me avoid talking with people outside my family for fear they wouldn‟t understand me. I‟m thankful that at this point in my development I wasn‟t in a school with students who would have made fun of me. I vividly remember the feeling that the right sound for a word or syllable sounded wrong in my head when I said it. For example, wouldn‟t it be confusing if I said to you, “no, “rat” isn‟t how you say rat, it‟s “wat.” Can you say “wat”?” I wonder if my anxiety over sounding strange held me back from picking up the right sounds in a similar way to the affective filter referenced in Delpit‟s

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essay “No Kinda Sense.” Delpit quotes Stephan Kashen‟s description of his concept of affective filter and explains: “The filter operates „when affective conditions are not optimal, when the student is not motivated, does not identify with the speakers of the second language, or is overanxious about his performance, … [creating] a mental block … [which] will prevent the input from reaching those parts of the brain responsible for language acquisition.‟ In other words, the less stress and the more fun connected to the process, the more easily it is accomplished.” (Delpit 113) I think my experience with not being able to talk the correct way gave me some insight into the struggles for acceptance that people who don‟t speak the accepted dialect of English may have. I‟m not sure I would have realized how many things could be affected by not being able to communicate well. Luckily, by second or third grade I had all but eliminated any evidence I hadn‟t been able to use the right sounds with the help of a wonderful speech therapist who was able to help me talk the right way without feeling dumb. I hope that my own experiences can help me to be understanding and helpful to people who don‟t communicate well. I think these struggles to communicate led me to dive into something I was good at, reading. Reading just seemed to fit my curiosity and fulfill my imagination and creativity in a much greater way than writing had or ever could. I excelled far beyond my grade level in reading skills and comprehension. One particular time, I remember shocking my mother with how fast I had finished a book so much so that she didn‟t believe I had actually read it and she tested me with questions that I easily answered. My affinity for reading and my reading comprehension skill has enabled me to teach myself things I want to learn and not be dependant on someone else to instruct me. Although I did read plenty of books that were assigned for their classic status or

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their traditional station as books you read in school, I found myself further exploring the world opened up in books with a ravenous curiosity; I basically can‟t put down an interesting book. Reading was and is my gateway into the world of learning and I wonder how this might have been different if learning to read had felt as forced or tiresome as learning to write felt. Without my parents, who were very supportive of my reading habits, I don‟t think I would have become the successful student I am today. I am very thankful for the many trips to the library with my mother and for my father who would have us wake up early in the morning and practice reading from the Bible as a family. These times not only exposed me to important vocabulary and reading skills but also formed a close-knit family bound between us. Another interesting facet of my homeschooled upbringing was the general lack of grades and numerical feedback on my writing and other assignments. In a very similar way to this course, the feedback I received was descriptive and qualitative in everything except, perhaps, mathematics where you are basically right or wrong anyway. I hardly completed any assignments just for the grade, and I learned early on the power and value in true learning; by true learning, I mean a deeper understanding of a topic rather than the simple memorization of facts. Alfie Kohn writes in his article “teachers who can give a child a better reason for studying don‟t need grades.” (Kohn) I think I could rant on about this for a while, but I won‟t. Kohn‟s quote simply and accurately represents the heart of how teachers should truly impact their students and inspire them to become lifetime learners. For the most part, my mother embodied this statement and made learning interesting and challenging without numerical standards. She wasn‟t interested in my passing or failing but in whether or not I understood the concepts I needed to learn. Within reason, I could take as much or as little time as I needed, so I was never left behind or bored to tears as I might have been in a class full or students of various abilities.

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Perhaps, the largest strength of this free structured learning system was also its greatest weakness. Since I had some amount of freedom to choose how and what I learned or spent time on, I could avoid practicing subjects, like writing, that I disliked. Interestingly, I did actually enjoy the grammar and mechanics of English and I remember discovering and mastering the principles right alongside my “teacher”. From gerunds to infinitives and word usage to diagramming, my mother and I discussed and explored the intricacies of the English language through a book called Our Mother Tongue: A Guide to English Grammar. Something about the ordered rules and functions of words in sentences appealed to my analytical engineering nature. I felt like I learned a lot about how to say things the way I wanted and could actually portray the messages in an effective way. While I learned from and applied myself to the study of grammar and usage, I avoided larger writing assignments like the plague. In the last few years before I went to a “real” school, I don‟t think I had enough writing practice or experience and I was the only one to blame for it. In the end though, this realization and ownership of my own learning lead me to be a much better student once there were grades involved. Sadly, in the same way we code switch our language to fit the situation we‟re in, I found myself pulled toward switching to a grade-centric focus when I went to my local high school in tenth grade. I stressed over and strived for the best numbers I could produce, with less regard to how much I actually learned. Conversely, this more rigid structure and numerical way to force me to do work actually benefitted my writing at the time. I tackled the larger and more involved written assignments for the sake of scoring well. For a time anyway, the graded structure helped my less disciplined self to work hard, if only for fear of failure. Eventually, I learned the system and became proficient at the game of weighing assignments by their point value and gauging my effort accordingly. Except for having a more rigid structure and less free time in a day, public

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school actually became easier and I hardly spent time outside of school doing work. I may sound overly critical and dismissive of public school here, as I do think it helped prepare me for what to expect in college, but as an outsider it was hard not to notice all it‟s problems. While I disliked the new and different feel of jumping into a public school, my younger brother embraced it. Something about not having to listen to our mother nearly as much appealed greatly to his roguish nature. He loved the social aspects of learning in a large school and really excelled through his time in high school. This exemplifies the idea that every learner is different and what works for one may not work for another. Having choices and the freedom my parents and I had to change the way I learned was a critical facet in my development. I hope people realize that they don‟t have to settle for good enough in their education and should seek out a demand the things that are effective for them. It would be really interesting to see how the learning environment in schools would change without a rigid grading structure. It could spell disaster and a large scale shirking of responsibility and hard work in schools, but from my experience on the small scale we should at least consider the possibilities that could open up from a constructive feedback based education system. I think classes that teach writing could especially benefit from this radical style of teaching, since writing has always been a subjective expressive beast rather than a quantitative gradable one. In particular, I remember working most of my first semester in college researching, writing, editing and perfecting a research paper only to receive a 192 out of 200. She also added that since I already had an A in the course I didn‟t need to revise or fix the errors that she had found. I guess that must mean I could write, right? While I did learn a lot in that class, I‟m not convinced I learned as much as I could have, since all a number grade told me was that I was good enough to get through and made no mention of what I could have done to improve. This

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has continued to be the case in my writing intensive engineering lab courses, which emphasize a completely different form and function than typical prose. For our technical writing, we were handed a thirty-page manual on the required format, which included everything from requiring the use of passive voice verbs to the exact font and size of labels for images. Since they don‟t take the time to teach this format to the students, the first few assignments I completed were full of my guesses and interpretations of what they wanted. After receiving a few grades and making corrections, I was able to puzzle out what was expected and did well. Despite having never fully grown out of my childhood disinterest in all things writing, I have at least grown to understand and appreciate the creative process involved in composition. My journey through varying learning environments, graded and ungraded, has taught me a great deal about English and how I learn best. Looking back, I have a much larger appreciation for the work my mother put in to give me a solid foundation to build my education and literacy skills on. Her example has given me an admiration for the role of teachers, so much so I may even try to become one someday. At the very least, I hope to be able to pass on the things I have learned and my experience to benefit my own children‟s education and adventures into learning. What does all this have to say about me? I‟m not sure, but I‟ll never stop learning or striving to improve myself. At its core then, writing has become a tool for me to expand my understanding and knowledge as well as a way to effectively communicate whatever I want. I hope you realize, like I did, that writing is not the enemy!

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Works Cited Christiansen, Linda M. "Teaching Standard English: Whose Standard?" English Journal Vol. 79, No. 2 (Feb., 1990): 36-40. JSTOR. Web. 10 Feb. 2013. Delpit, Lisa D., and Joanne Kilgour. Dowdy. The Skin That We Speak: Thoughts on Language and Culture in the Classroom. New York: New, 2002. Print. Kohn, Alfie. "From Degrading to De-Grading." AlfieKohn.org. High School Magazine, Mar. 1999. Web. 10 Feb. 2013.