Every year I rewatch Taylor Mali’s passionate defense of “What Teachers Make.” As part of a sequence of assignments designed to help students write a more engaging personal literacy narrative, I use Mali’s speech.
Yes, it’s my job to teach composition, but composition is a term that applies to music, photography, choreography, athletics, etc. Students already have an intuitive sense of what makes a good Vine, what makes a good selfie, what makes a good photobomb, etc. They have a media literacy that comes from their familiarity with the tools. Most college composition courses are incorporating multimedia, hoping to capitalize on the formidable multimedia strengths students often bring into the classroom.
Students who are new to college naturally have little exposure to the scholarly essay, which they’ll need to read and write in order to get through college. A freshman writing course must give students those fundamentals.
We no longer offer a “freshman comp” course that focuses on sentences and paragraphs and personal essays. We found students who aced that class had a rough time transitioning to the academic writing we expect them to produce in the followup class, Seminar in Thinking and Writing. We are still teaching sentences and paragraphs, but we do so organically — helping them see how composing good sentences and paragraphs are not ends in themselves but part of a coherent strategy for reaching long term goals.
It’s a challenging class to teach.
Even the students who think of themselves as good writers or speakers have been praised by their teachers for their ability to write personal essays or, fiction, or poetry. The STEM students ask for models to copy and step-by-step guides to follow, when sometimes my prompt is simply “Demonstrate that you can write an academic paragraph that responds to the assigned essay at the college level.” There is no worksheet that will tell them how to come up with evidence to defend an original idea. Both groups face the daunting task of having to stretch themselves beyond “not making mistakes” and beyond “getting the right answer.”
If they have been conditioned to think that only the weak students have to work hard, it’s a difficult transition. They simply have to do the work, and learn from their own efforts.
I just finished a sequence of assignments that started with me conjuring up a bland essay about the value of being a teacher. It’s meandering and vague, but it’s earnest and free of surface level errors. Here’s a sample:
There are many things I love about being a teacher. I always have to remind people that it is hard work, but it’s also very rewarding. Of course, different people have different ways of measuring what counts as a reward. Some people, when they think of what makes a person valuable, they just think of how much money they make. Whenever I’m at a social gathering, and people hint that there must be something wrong with me because I like being a teacher — it’s not something I’m doing because I can’t do anything else, or until something better comes along.
In truth, there isn’t much to praise about the writing in the above sample, so students, looking for something positive to say, tended to praise the author’s viewpoint.
The second assignment in the sequence includes the text of Mali’s “What Teachers Make” speech, which I presented as if it were a revision of the first sample. Here’s a sample:
He reminds the other dinner guests that it’s true what they say about teachers: “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.”
I decide to bite my tongue instead of his and resist the temptation to remind the dinner guests that it’s also true what they say about lawyers. Because we’re eating, after all, and this is polite conversation.
“I mean, you’re a teacher, Taylor. Be honest. What do you make?”
And I wish he hadn’t done that— asked me to be honest— because, you see, I have this policy about honesty and ass-‐kicking: if you ask for it, then I have to let you have it.
The students all preferred this version. They praised the immediate start, the specific setting, the examples that SHOW what teaching is like, and the humor. One student didn’t like the direct quotations and another questioned the vulgarity, but universally the students praised what I had told them was a revision of the first sample.
As soon as the deadline for that second assignment passed, I told them that they had actually read the (lightly edited) text of Taylor Mali’s “What Teachers Make,” and for the third assignment in the sequence I asked them to watch his masterful performance.
I ask them to consider how the multimedia component affects their response to the author’s message. Several mentioned the applause of the audience, the sweat on the speaker’s forehead, and his evident red-faced passion.
We’re going to have a discussion about the video when class meets later today. I will ask students whether Mali’s speech would have been as effective if he had walked out on stage, grabbed the microphone, and started with the text I presented as a first draft: “There are many things I love about being a teacher. I always have to remind people that it is hard work, but it’s also very rewarding. Of course, different people have different ways of measuring what counts as a reward. [Comical seal-bark laugh.]”
All this is designed to get them to think about revision as part of the writing process, since it simply will not be possible for student to produce an acceptable essay in one caffeine-fueled marathon (a strategy many of them mastered when in high school).
Mali’s speech is so effective not because he was born a great speaker, but because he carefully crafted the words he spoke. That’s a composition task, and it’s what we’ll be working on all term.