I am illiterate

I currently live with two friends from grad school: a Turkish girl, Esra, and an American guy, Stephen, both of whom were in the English department with me. The Turkish girl and I lived together in the States as well and we all now live together in Istanbul. While Esra’s English is almost native, neither Stephen nor I knew Turkish before we moved here.

This past weekend, we all went out with friends of Esra’s and a friend of mine from work. Though my friend is Canadian, her family is Turkish and therefore she speaks the language fluently. She asked me and Stephen what it was like to move to a foreign country and not know the language. Stephen said he’s had a difficult time articulating exactly how it feels or what it’s like. Together, we decided that it is frustrating, exciting, alienating, and rewarding. All those words are fitting, yes, but still do not accurately describe the sensation. I stopped listening to the conversation for a minute and looked around the restaurant we were in. There were signs and menus and containers and lots of people talking or messing with their phones and that’s when it hit me and I rejoined the conversation:

“It’s like being illiterate, well, because technically we are.”

I cannot read the signs. Sure, I can recognize certain things: thank you, good morning, hello, one, three, fish sandwich. But the rest is a mystery. I can’t read the newspapers or books. I don’t understand many of my colleagues, the baker, the cashier, the tailor, the hairdresser, the nurse, the radio DJ. I can’t ask directions, discuss the news, or tell my waiter that I didn’t order the cheeseburger. I wouldn’t be able to carry on a conversation with a kindergartener. And even worse, that kindergartener would have a much better language acquisition than me. Imagine that you are living where you do currently and suddenly you can no longer do any of these things. As I said, it is incredibly frustrating and alienating.

But once you catch on, it’s also incredibly rewarding and exciting. Continue reading

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The answers lie in the questions

I’ve wanted to be a teacher since Ms. King’s fourth grade class at Bill Hefner elementary. Ms. King, if you’re reading this, you were the shit and I thank you for helping realize that I was that kid.

I was that kid who asked my teachers for leftover worksheets or overheads so I could go home and teach my stuffed animals all about sentences. I would line them up, each with a pencil in hand, in front of the chalkboard my stepdad made me.  I was that kid who would lend out my books to friends, fake glasses posed on my nose as I cataloged which book they’d borrowed. I was that kid who wanted to get in front of the class and show everyone that I knew how to do things. I still am that kid, but I have found that that kid has more ideas and passion than I originally gave her credit for.

It is no secret that there are problems within the school system, but it seems to be a secret to the administration on just how to fix those problems. After receiving my BS in English Education and learning just how I was supposed to impart knowledge to the future administration, I decided that public school was not going to be where I made change happen. There were simply too many papers and tests and board members in the way of everything I wanted to try and everything I thought was useful for my students. So I tried a new route and realized that I wasn’t the only teacher having this problem.

When I taught Composition at ECU, I found that a majority of my students were not only intimidated, but often confused by the idea of creative license. What a novel thought for an instructor to not only genuinely ask for your opinion, but allow you to structure it in more than one way.  At the beginning of a new semester, my students would repeat similar questions and sentiments:

“This needs to be five paragraphs, right?”

“I’m not really sure how to write a thesis.”

“You can start a sentence with ‘and’?”

“I thought you should never begin or end on a quote.”

“I was always told that you can’t use ‘I’ in your papers.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever actually written a research paper.”

“What’s analytical writing?”

These students were in college—many of them even took AP English. And through no major fault of their own, they were victims of American public school narrow-mindedness. Now before I go any farther, let me qualify that statement: I am in no way placing complete blame on the public school teacher. I have been there and understand how hard it is to be creative and demonstrate variety when you have objectives and deadlines and supervisors to deal with. That being said, I have encountered too many teachers and too many of their students who are stuck in conventional ways and rules when it comes to language and writing. Language is ever evolving; the instruction of it should reflect that.

So when faced with those questions and statements of rules and regulations, I would smile and shake my head slightly. Forget it, I would respond. Forget everything you have ever learned in high school about writing. Here, you are not writing for an end of year test. In my class, you will not receive a zero on your paper if you repeatedly make the same grammatical mistake. (I won’t be happy, but you won’t get a zero.) Here, your content and conventions will be weighed equally.  When you leave my class, if you forget everything else, remember at least these three things:

1. Always ask questions

I could not stress this enough. Always, always, always ask questions. No questions, no answers. At the heart of every great piece of writing lie questions. Questions about the world and how we respond to it. Even if you think you already know the answer, it is vital to know what question you are answering. The answer to life may be 42, but what is the question??

2. What’s not there is just as important as what is there

Say I give you a picture of a house with a girl in front of it. You describe it to me in great detail—the girl and her dress, the house and its faded curtains and open, empty garage, the overgrown yard and what appears to be a broken tractor in the background.  But what’s missing? Where are her shoes? Why is the garage empty? Why is no one else in the picture? No other houses? There lies the story.

3. The best of writers were the ones who challenged the rules

What I teach my students is not set in stone. The rules I tell them are more guidelines than anything else. I give them tools to help them and show them how to best use those tools in various situations.  If they figure out how to use those tools in new ways and apply them to new situations, then I have done my job. If they decide to acknowledge what I’ve given them, but change the way things are done, then maybe I can learn something new from them.

It takes me at least whole semester to convince my students that I don’t know everything and that’s ok, but that I will share what I do know and that writing isn’t such a horrible thing once you’re allowed some wiggle room.

So all this rambling leads me to my questions (for it is imperative to always ask questions):

  1. How can we change the system when the system won’t acknowledge what it’s doing wrong?
  2. How can we convince teachers that variety is essential to learning and that what we teach today might not apply tomorrow?
  3. How do we help our students keep that excitement for learning that many of them had when they first started school?
  4. How do we know that what we are teaching them is what they really need to know?

I have opinions for each of these questions, but not necessarily answers. I’m a teacher—I don’t always have all the answers. But I’ll be damned if I don’t keep asking questions.

Short Story Site

Just rediscovered this in my favorites. It’s a link to a site containing story samples from students in a grad class of mine last Spring. These writers are excellent story tellers and each sample is less than 800 words–definitely worth a look:

http://core.ecu.edu/engl/whisnantl/inspirations/default.html