Graduating from my own writing “school”

Graduating from my own writing “school” March 19, 2012

“Mrs. Van Loon, I couldn’t do my assignment for you because I was too busy doing my work for Mrs. Stewart’s class.

Three or four other kids sang back-up to that excuse: “Me either…Too busy….Mrs. Stewart.”

I was teaching a writing class for a home school co-op, and had asked the middle-school group to pull out the short writing assignment I’d given them the week before so we could work on them together. A third of the kids in the group were also enrolled in an expensive public speaking class run by a local pastor’s wife in her home. Apparently, this Mrs. Stewart really piled on the assignments every week. I took a deep breath and improvised a Plan B for the day…again.

Having Mrs. Stewart’s students claim that they couldn’t do anything for my classes was getting to be a pattern. When I griped about this situation with a another home school mom, she offered a simple explanation for the phenomenon. “Mrs. Stewart charges an arm and a leg for her classes. Your class is free. If you want the kids to do the work, you’re going to have to charge the parents for your services.”

I got involved in facilitating a class for the local home school co-op because I’d hoped to help my kids connect with some new friends after our recent relocation. I was doing some free-lance writing on the side, and told the parents in the group that I’d be happy to share what I’d learned about the writing process by running a couple of classes on co-op day. No one mentioned that many of the kids in the co-op were also enrolled in Mrs. Stewart’s boutique classes. The thought of charging for my services seemed ludicrous. It seemed to challenge the D-I-Y spirit of homeschooling somehow, and I wasn’t all that sure that what I had to offer to others was worth much more than the price of a Happy Meal.

I soldiered on for a year or so, teaching for free and helping a number of kids with Mrs. Stewart’s assignments on the side. (What? Why was I helping these kids do their homework for this woman’s classes?) It seemed that Mrs. S gave some pretty heady assignments without giving the kids any idea how to complete them. Every time a kid came asking for help with one of these assignments, it put another burr under my proverbial saddle. Every time I complained to a home school friend, they each said the same thing: You’re going to have to charge for your services.

Really, I just wanted the kids in my classes to come prepared to work during our time together. I finally bit the bullet and started charging a small amount, just enough to make the parents of my students take my assignments seriously, but not so much that anyone would be left out. I was pretty generous with the “scholarships”, continuing to teach some kids for free or for a greatly reduced cost.

That was in 1998. I facilitated writing classes and did some individual tutoring for the next few years, and then took the courses I’d created online and continued to tutor students via email until recently. I still have a few families with whom I’m working, but decided to close up shop a couple of weeks ago. I have a lot of other freelance work, and am no longer connected to the home school community in any significant way.

I am grateful for every single child I’ve had an opportunity to coach. I would emphasize to parents that I didn’t have a degree, but that I was overjoyed to have the privilege of sharing what I’d learned about the writing process as an adult freelancer and home school mom. And I have been.

Most teachers will tell you that they’ve learned more from their students than they’ve taught them. Teaching has made me a much better writer. Here are a few other lessons I’ve learned from these years of tutoring:

(1) If a student can walk into the kitchen and tell their mom the answer to an essay question in a textbook, they will probably lack a little motivation to put much energy into writing the answer. They would step it up for me because I was NOT their mom.

(2) A simple line edit (notes, not actual changes) and a few targeted questions on a kid’s first draft would guarantee not only an improved second draft but a far better next assignment about 85% of the time.

(3) The other 15% of the time, there were other issues at play. One student once handed me a 9-page, single-spaced research paper draft that was two paragraphs (and about 5 sentences) long. He got a near-perfect math score on his SAT, but the world of words was completely alien to him. Other kids had processing disabilities or funky things going on at home that made the hard work of writing even more difficult.

(4) A few precocious kids insisted on launching every impressive vocabulary word in their arsenal into every assignment. It was not an easy task to convince them that they’d actually sound smarter if they used fewer of these words. I get that this verbal msucle-flexing is an important part of maturing as a communicator, but I felt duty-bound to try to modify these tendencies a bit before they ended up in an English 101 class at college.

(5) I was told by a number of students that I was a very tough “grader”. I wondered if maybe I was a little too tough until I received a packet of reading material from the father of one of my brightest students. He was a professor at a nearby private four-year college, and had made copies of some of the assignments he received in one of his 100-level classes. He blacked out the students names, but wanted me to see the kind of work he was getting from his students. It was pretty terrible stuff, replete with spelling errors, grammar issues and half-baked thoughts. He told me that I needed to stay the course, and that he thought I was a really, really good teacher – good enough to entrust me to prep his own daughter for the rigors of a college classroom.

(6) Everyone has something valuable to say. Everyone! Even if they struggle to get their words onto a piece of paper, there is always something of worth to celebrate in the effort if only we have ears to hear.

Thanks, writing students.

And uh…thanks to you, too, Mrs. Stewart.

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