English 101 – most college students have to take it, and most instructors have to teach it. Here’s an honest way to approach the first day.

First day of class

Teaching writing is hard, because writing is an utterly personal act of creation. Here is a first-day letter one teacher presents to her college freshman English composition students on the first day of class.

All You Need is Your Head

“I’m repeatedly asked how I write, what my “process” is. My answer is simple: I think patiently, trying out sentences in my head. That is the root of it. What happens on paper or at the keyboard is only distantly connected. The virtue of working this way is that circumstances — time, place, tools — make no difference whatsoever. All I need is my head. All I need is the moments I have.” (VERLYN KLINKENBORG, NY Times, August 13, 2012)

I’m Going to Try to Teach You to Write

Dear New Students of Mine:

I am going to try to “teach” you to write this semester, or to write better than you do already. This is no easy task.

I can’t really teach you to write. Writing comes out of each person’s “deep cavernous place,” their mind. And I would not presume to go into your mind.

This is more accurate and honest: I am going to provide for you stimuli for your mind. I am going to try to evoke from you responses to what other people think, say, write, do. I am even going to try to evoke from you responses to your own thoughts, observations, behaviors.

But only you can produce the words that encapsulate your thoughts. Of course, first you have to have thought. And to think you have to observe, take note, react, register your reactions to your environment –both interior and exterior.

I am also going to ask you to “do” things. Sometimes I will ask you to read something. Sometimes I will ask you to copy down passages from what you read. Sometimes I may even ask you to memorize what you read. Or recite what you read. Sometimes I will be very pedantic and ask you to demonstrate to me that you actually read what I asked you to read. Sometimes I will ask you to demonstrate that you comprehend what you read. These demonstrations are called quizzes or tests.

No Credit for Practice

But sometimes you will receive no “credit,” no recognition from me that you did what I asked. And that will frustrate you. And you may even feel some resentment and think, “why should I do that stupid assignment if she’s not even going to ‘collect’ it?”

If you ask that, you miss the point. I don’t need to see your exercises and practice. What do I gain from that? You need to practice and exercise. I provide you with ways to do that. A good half of what I will ask you to do is exercise your brain, and practice your language input and output.

Does your coach give you credit for doing push-ups? Showing up for practice? Did the Olympians receive medals for every time they worked out and conditioned themselves for years before their try-outs? Does a musician receive applause every time she practices a piece before a recital or concert? Of course not!

Same here. Do not expect applause, credit, medals, or even recognition for exercising your linguistic muscle: your brain. These will be exercises on handling language – in your brain, on paper, through pressing keys on a keyboard. You will practice handling the rhythms, cadences, structures, forms, and word-arrangements of someone else. That’s the exercise and practice.

But the final performance – producing and arranging words in a form that clearly conveys your thoughts – that is all yours. And for that, you will get the credit and recognition you have earned.

Very truly yours,

______________, Instructor of English