In-your-face fluency

21st March 2014 at 00:00

Community colleges in the US are full of surprising students, either more patient or far more impatient than the students at the Ivy League school where my wife works. Some know what it will take for them to succeed and others have absolutely no idea. Some have seen the world and others only a neighbourhood or two in Brooklyn. Helping a student who knows where she wants to go is rewarding and inspiring, but it's even more rewarding to help a student who has no idea which way is up.

In the developmental reading and writing classes (courses required for students who have not yet passed college proficiency exams), we're all knocking heads. I forget, as a teacher, how much students learn from each other and how occupied they are with one another. We teachers are forging ahead but the troops are wrangling. They're dreading fidgety unpleasant classmate Arthur or anxious Elma who always asks questions. I look out at the class and see a united front against me or with me; I usually can't tell when the students are fussing among themselves.

The surface of textbook writing is so polished, so smooth in its lack of voice and texture that even my native English speakers in more advanced classes run into it and then, like cartoon characters hitting a wall, slide down. There's nothing to hold on to. Inexperienced readers of English do better with texts that have strong voices, that sound like people rather than faceless, assured information-spouters.

From the first moment they are introduced to a piece by Mark Twain or D H Lawrence, or by living writers such as Junot Daz or Vivian Gornick, the students can't simply shrug. The voice is not one of authority, of committee-approval, but an electric, particular mind. There's a human being right there, grabbing them from the page, shaking them, rudely refusing any pretence that this isn't personal.

Take this quote from Daz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao: "And right there he learned something about his friends he'd never known (or at least never admitted to himself). Right there he had an epiphany that echoed through his fat self. He realised his fucked-up comic-book-reading, role-playing-game-loving, nosports-playing friends were embarrassed by him."

Texts like this help the students to realise that their own voices, however grammatically shaky, can be completely expressive. First I try to find the student's own voice, then we work on the grammar that can hold that voice together through thick and thin.

"Professor," asks one of my mature immigrant students, "please to say: this walluble author?"

"Yes, very valuable."

"Because I was to notice he use bad words."

"But you understand everything the narrator says?"

"Yes." She shakes her head ruefully. "Unfortunately."


"You want for us to use bad words also, perhaps?"

"If they help you say exactly what you mean, Irina, I'm all for it."

She almost smiles. "Ve shall see."

Bob Blaisdell teaches English at Kingsborough Community College in New York City, US

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