Last week we saw Ratatouille (Pixar 2007) for the first time. Remy is a French rat who loves fine food; his ambition to become a chef is stoked by imaginative visitations from the late Auguste Gusteau, a once-renowned restaurateur who wrote a book titled
Anyone Can Cook.
Yesterday I was sorting through a pile of non-urgent papers that I’ve been hiding, even from myself, in my top desk drawer at home. I came across a document, “NCTE Beliefs about the Teaching of Writing,” that a colleague asked me to read months ago. My eyes fell on the first belief, in bold type:
Everyone has the capacity to write.
These are beliefs. Like the jolly Gusteau, a person can choose to believe that each individual has the capacity to cook (not to become a great chef, but to cook). Like the Writing Study Group of the NCTE, a teacher can choose to believe that each student can write.
What if, however, a chef or a teacher held a similar belief, and yet also maintained an attitude inconsistent with that belief?
How many times have I heard someone grumble about students (especially incoming ones): “They can’t write”? I don’t think that a teacher, whose work is essentially optimistic, believes that college students do not have the capacity to write. What such a teacher is really saying is that her students’ writing does not meet her expectations, or college expectations, and she is daunted by that, and it brings her down. And yet, I wonder, what power does that attitude (“They can’t write”) have on one’s beliefs about one’s own students and, more so, one’s own teaching?
Once in a while I meet a new student in the Writing Center, and, as I read her writing for the first time, I see that it lacks so much in the way of clarity and sense that I do a quick, internal inventory for any teaching skills I might have to offer her as a writer and I come up almost empty. In such an instance, I do feel daunted — it’s like a stone in my chest — and I even set my sights low, not for the student but for the paper at hand. “Jane, just be an attentive audience. Give the student that.” So, I read and I get her to tell me about it. I don’t always understand her reply entirely, but I usually understand enough of it to have a conversation with her about her personal narrative, or reading of a novel, or thoughts about a historical event. I don’t correct or suggest. I listen, ask, nod, smile.
I have been tutoring S., who is such a writing-challenged student, for more than a year. She continues to make sentences that seem more spoken than written, and her grasp of American English idiom is based on what she hears, not what she reads. (For example, in a paper about a high school teacher, she described that person as being “inch arch” of a learning center. She and I figured out that the teacher was “in charge” of a learning center.) Encouragingly, I also see that her sentences are longer and more flowing and that her papers are more fully developed with detail and discussion. She sustains. And that’s a powerful sign of her growth as a writer, but it might be hard to recognize it if I were ticking off her many errors. And there are many; I do see them (and we are just beginning to work on some).
When another teacher, in genuine moments of fatigue or frustration, says to me, “My students can’t write,” I offer, gently, “They’ll get there.” I do not know what my tutee, S., will do in her writing, in school, and in her life beyond my time with her, but I do believe she will get there.