– Back to school

At an orientation for students involved in a bridge-to-college program, in which we offer enhanced, personal support to students who, in high school, were academically shaky, we asked them to put their heads together and come up with a list of characteristics delineating the “ideal instructor.”

What Makes a Good Teacher (according to students)

  • likes questions
  • loves what she or he is teaching
  • hardworking
  • dedicated to helping students achieve
  • active
  • could be fun in class
  • engaged in class
  • is like a friend
  • outgoing
  • is into it

Those items are all exact quotes. My favorite, and the most simply profound, is the last one. Personally, I don’t have a dog-and-pony show and, as anyone who knows me can tell you, I can’t tell jokes. I hope I’m a friend to my students, but I’m not a buddy. What I can do is show my students I’m “into it” — whether I’m in class or a tutorial — by engaging in what I want them to engage in. When they read in class, I read. When they puzzle, I puzzle with. When they write, I write. And I’m into it. Interested in an example?

Last spring, I prompted my English 101 students to write what I call the “Ten ‘I Remember’ Sentences” exercise (I learned it years ago in an adult ed poetry class taught by Valerie Duff ) and I wrote too. The students used it as a warm-up to a personal, descriptive essay, and I used it, along with them, to find a way to get back inside an essay-in-progress about gas stations. I ended up writing to and about my grandmother (note: my grandfather was a gas station proprietor), and this has turned out to be vital in figuring out the gaps in my draft. Among their writings, most vividly I recall M.’s description of a long drive he took with his father, from Florida back up to Massachusetts: the inside of the car, the cheerleader convention at a motel they stopped at, the tension between the two men.

To use it with your students, I recommend setting aside about 30-40 minutes of class time to explain, write, and read aloud in a round.

Writing exercise: Ten “I Remember” Sentences

  1. Think about a moment in your life that you shared with another person. You and that person might have been alone; you might have been among 50 others, among 10,000 others. That person may be currently living or dead, close to you or estranged.
  2. To that person, write ten sentences, each beginning with the subject and verb “I remember…,” about that moment.
  3. If you write a few sentences and hit a patch of not being able to remember, well, then start a sentence that begins “I don’t remember…,” still writing to that person.
  4. When you have at least ten sentences, go back and cross out the “I (Don’t) Remember” beginning of each sentence.
  5. Read them all aloud to at least one listener. (Seek no feedback.)
  6. Use these shortened sentences as seedlings for descriptive prose about a moment, place, or even the person you addressed.

Optional: You can further strip down the sentences to elemental material by circling all the concrete or sensory images, and then using those as a starting point for a poem.

Variation: This exercise is great for getting students to do some pre-writing about a story, short novel, or excerpt of a longer creative work. Ask them to write ten “I Remember” sentences, to a particular person of their choosing, about what they remember (even if they misremember) about the book. This brief exercise helps them tap into moments in the text that provoked them somehow (wonderfully or disturbingly, doesn’t matter) and find a small door into a bigger assignment. I’ve even used it in one:one tutorials effectively, sometimes shortening it to five “I Remember” sentences.

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