What I’ve Learned From Being an English Teacher

When I was in middle school, I loved writing poetry.

It started when a girl I liked invited me to one of her poetry readings. She had been an adolescent virtuoso of sorts, already published in a college textbook at the age of twelve. So I lied and said that I, too, wrote poetry in the hopes that our common interest would blossom into that angsty, hormone-driven love our adult selves now cringe at the thought of.

Though our romance fizzled within the year, my love for the poetic form began and persisted. I loved how I could go to a reading and be immersed in the rhythms and voice of a poem — half the time not fully understanding what the poet was saying. I loved how when I wrote, I wasn’t beholden to the grammar rules my teachers pushed upon me in my ELA classes. I loved how my poems sounded like me, how my voice resonated.

The writing I did in school, however, did not sound like me.

Unrelenting red ink and the substitution of my voice for one that sounded more clinical, more like my teacher, made me dislike writing. I knew I was literate. I knew I could write; however, the way I was being taught did not empower me to use my voice. Instead, I felt it was being muffled. I did as little as possible to get by and it wasn’t until I reached college that writing instructors helped me hone my voice to a point where even essays began to sound like me.

Now that I’m an English teacher myself, I’ve realized that, like my juvenile self, students want to write.

In the past, students have handed me chapters from books they were working on in their spare time. Other students willingly wrote articles for the school paper with the hope of it being published. This year a student, who had trouble completing and turning in an essay during our Hemingway unit, decided to write a three page long ode to his favorite word, “senescence,” which Science Daily tells me is “the combination of processes of deterioration which follow the period of development of an organism.” This assignment had a fifteen-line requirement. For a project on writing in a difficult genre, three students are writing novels, six are writing satirical essays, and even more are writing collections of poetry.

Like a sneeze, students feel the need to write and want to let it out.

The key is to empower them to do so in a way that their voices are encouraged, not stripped away. When educators allow students to experiment and take chances, the results can be inspiring. They will embrace the challenge because it comes from and belongs to them.

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