Sunday, November 17, 2019

On Writing, and Writing Recommendations

Unlike some of my colleagues, I don't write many recommendations. It's not that I don't want to--it's that I'm not frequently asked. This is largely because I teach beginning English language learners. Most of them are freshmen when they come to me, and three years later they have other teachers and other priorities.

It's too bad, because I'm pretty good at writing recommendations. Sometimes colleagues give me recommendations to edit. A few weeks ago I got one written about a student I know well. I was a little disappointed he didn't ask me directly, but I made his a little better anyway. I absolutely understand that students might not want to place it front and center that they are (or were) ELLs.

I've seen some overly flowery recommendations that were not altogether persuasive. I particularly recall one that commented on a student's perspicacity, and then went on to praise her perspicuity. This, among other things, led me to believe the teacher was sitting with a thesaurus when he wrote the thing. I'm not ashamed to admit that I didn't know what perspicuity was, and I had to look it up. (Of course, everyone's heard of Perspicacity and the Sundance Kid, so that was no issue.)

Last week I was very pleased to write two recommendations. The first one was for a girl who was in my class three years ago. This girl, however, spent a year revisiting my class one period a day. She was a great help. For one thing, she spoke Chinese. which I do not. She was able to make a few new arrivals feel much more comfortable.

I think this girl's school grades are not reflective of who she is. She's very clever and intuitive. She gets along well with everyone, peers and teachers, and is well-liked. A lot of my students tend to flock only to people who speak their native language. I'm always more impressed by students who get along with everyone, regardless of language. Personally, if I had to work with someone, I'd rather be with someone like that than the student who aced all the exams without those qualities.

I also believe that she, and a lot of people like her, will do better in a college environment. I believe that pretty deeply because I was not a good high school student at all. Despite that, I was a voracious reader in high school, always in the middle of a book or two. In my English classes, we sat and read books one page at a time. Only when the girl in front of me was reading page 152 did I have to scramble to read aloud page 153. In stark contrast to college, there was no discussion, no analysis, and the only benefit was to the English teacher, who got to sit on her ass and reflect on whatever actually interested her. Certainly it wasn't the book in question, which interested no one. My time would have been better spent alone with a book I'd chosen myself.

Nowadays there's not so much of that, but English classes have been seriously degraded by Common Core. I've written extensively about how crappy the tests are.  Students who've spent years on the Common Core hamster wheel tend to be seriously lacking in reading and writing skills. Last year I taught an advanced class of ELLs, most of whom had tested out of ESL and passed the English Regents exam. The last time I'd taught that level, we did novels. I tried to do that last year, and it failed utterly. I had students mystified at the idea of actual reading, and handing me college entrance essays that were utterly incoherent.

Some kids fall through the cracks somehow. I had several who'd somehow transcended the curse of David Coleman, the Common Core architect who decided no one gives a crap what you think or feel, and that you should write with no regard to it whatsoever. What Coleman failed to anticipate, or didn't care about, or didn't know about, was that writing without feeling or passion is crap. I read quite a bit of it last year.

Though I was mandated to teach the English Regents, I started to create my own topics. My students wrote about contemporary topics, e.g. whether teachers should carry guns to school. While I followed the same crappy Regents pattern, at least we were speaking on topics that related to their lives. I alternated those pattern essays with things from my students' experiences, the things Coleman thought they should never bother with. This was very tough for some, but came naturally to others.

One young woman wrote of a near-death experience, and concluded her essay saying you have to really go for what you want now, because tomorrow isn't guaranteed. You don't see teenagers making points like that frequently. Not only that, but she consistently wrote with great precision and clarity, the kind you don't see from a lot of adults. I took her out in the hall one day and told her she was a writer, and that this was something very special, a gift to be treasured.

Yesterday I was very pleased to find, in my DOE email, a request from her for a recommendation. I wrote it immediately. Any college with the foresight to admit her will have made a great decision. I'm very happy if I play any small part in helping her. Of course, students like her are easy to support. It's the ones who don't come to you with natural talent, full of Common Core Crap, who are challenging.

It's a tragedy that New York State, via its abysmal pointless exams that value writer voice not at all, compels English teachers to practice precisely the opposite of what good writers need. If we keep moving in this direction, teachers themselves will mistake this crap for writing. That's when we're really going to be lost.
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