Saturday, January 31, 2009

San Pedro AP English Teacher Goes the Extra Mile for her Students to Help Them Write;
This Teacher Comes Up High on My Ratings as She Understood Exactly the Extra Push Needed to Improve Her Student’s Writing; Writing Tips for You and Your Child

“Where to begin…I hate writing…To most people, it comes easy and it’s a way to vent and express yourself, but as for me, it’s much different. There are so many thoughts running through my head, but as soon as I see that blank white paper, they all evaporate and I don’t know where….

“After a couple of paragraphs of writing, I get lost and end up not having anything to write about. (Like right now…) – San Pedro Student, 11th grade

By Diana L. Chapman

The high school English teacher, towing her niece in hand, showed up at the Boys and Girls Club one dusty-orange evening in December.

She was on a hunt.

She was on a hunt for me.

What drove Heidie Hoffman, an English instructor at San Pedro High, to show up was the next-to-overnight change she spotted in one of her students when it came to his writing. She was explaining this to me as her niece clung to her wrist in the backdrop of the teen center where hip-hop blares and teenagers shout loudly.

This student, she said, was writing as he never had before. He told her some volunteer woman at the club had taught him how to wrap his mind around writing. “So I had to find you,” she rounded off succinctly.

Wow! I was looking at Ms. Hoffman and thinking, here is a teacher who has gone out of her way to find other avenues to supplement her student’s writing skills. It’s after school hours. We’re into the early night time and here she stood taking her personal time to find me.

I was so glad she did! Over the past 30 years, I’ve learned so much about writing and all it’s pitfalls – not to mention the times it seemed like I endured an absolute torturous, roller coaster ride. From that a mission arrived.

I wanted to rid myself of my love-and-hate relationship with writing and come to cherish it.

And still…be creative.

And still be a good writer.

Discovering the joy –instead of the pain of writing -- took me a long, long time. I had to come up with my bag of tricks to embrace writing fully and once I realized my discovery, it seemed this sense of liberation needed to be shared – especially with students who I watched slave away at the skill – many coming sadly to despise it.

Once, students visited my workshop, many left with a sense of freedom that they too can write, not a bad tool to have as its one of the most powerful on Earth. It’s sparked revolutions and taken us to worlds that don’t even exist. And at times, it’s changed society’s behavior.

So why can we not give this remarkable tool to all students?

Because it’s hard.

The English language is difficult at best.

Learning grammar, punctuation, spelling and sentence structure can be a jumble for some students. Now add in, adverbs, declarative sentences, imperative sentences, interjections, adverbial conjunctions, interrogative pronouns, indefinite pronouns, subjects, predicates, simple sentences, compound sentences.

Feel overwhelmed yet? Feel less than creative? Feel lost?

Even though I’ve learned all this in the past, I’ve forgotten much of it myself and where do I go as a writer to double check? Of course to an English teacher. This is exactly what I ask all my students do when they are finished with their first or second drafts.

My job is to “supplement” their writing tools and encourage them to learn the joy of writing. Here are some simple writing tips that I’m currently compiling in a book, The Seven Golden Secrets to Writing That Your Teacher Never Taught You:

--Writing can’t be perfect on the first round, second round or even the third.

We strive for it after we get the ideas down on paper. To this day, I’ve never seen an example of perfect writing. The best writers can often be sloppy and have glitches. They go back and refine, polish and massage their writing. One of my students wrote how much she loved art, because “it starts with a single line.” So does writing. Start with one line and go from there.

--To write, tapping into your creative brain must happen.

Your mind – your very own computer – will do all the work for you – that is, if you let it. If you feel tortured when you write, I can assure you, your poor reader on the other end will be too. So get comfortable and let it flow. Quit thinking. Stop worrying about spelling and grammar. That can come later. Let whatever comes to mind flow out and then go back and look for the gems you’ve unearthed.

--Writing is subjective.

Where one reader won’t enjoy a book, thousands of others out there will. The voice appeals to them. This recently happened in my own family. Our son wrote a remarkable piece for his English class at the Port of Los Angeles High School. As seasoned writers, we both were so impressed we gushed all over it and told him how proud we were. This apparently made him feel good about his writing, he said, because we rarely complimented him on it.

But he got a C on the paper. Does it matter? Not really. Other readers will like it and he’s still developing writing skills.

There are so many ways to turn on the joy of writing and I can’t possibly share them all here. But just start with this: Sit down, take out a pen and write. Start with a single line as this 11th grade student did at the top of this story: “Where to begin…

After speaking to the above student’s class – due to the English teacher’s visit – I believe that she learned something extremely important that day. She can write.