Don Rothman's Learning Story


Crossing Guard on a Dead-end Street: Why and How I Teach Writing By Don RothmanSenior Lecturer Emeritus in Writing and Director Emeritus, Central California Writing ProjectUniversity of California Santa Cruzrothman@ucsc.eduAn experience I had in sixth grade illuminates my decision over thirty years ago to teach composition. I was a crossing guard on a dead-end street in Brooklyn. If you can, put aside your negative associations with dead-ends.I recall this humbling service job when faculty who do not teach writing suggest that devoting a career to first year students is admirable but odd, even incomprehensible. In 1973, just days before I first began teaching at College Seven (now Oakes College) at the University of California Santa Cruz, an art historian asked me whether I could possibly ‘be serious about Shakespeare’ having chosen to teach basic level writing courses. Someone I met on the bus a few years ago was thrilled that I taught something as useful as riding and asked how many horses UCSC owned. There are plenty of reminders that devoting myself to beginning writers is suspect.But for three decades I have dreamed that through an empowering literacy our students will learn to work in their own ways for social and political change. On the first day of my Oakes Core and my Writing 1 classes, I propose that we write to avoid the humiliation of silence in the face of cruelty and injustice. Paulo Freire, the visionary Brazilian literacy educator, and Myles Horton, the founder of the Highlander Center in New Market, Tennessee, are among my guides. I suggest to my students that writing offers us a nonviolent way to negotiate difference, to sustain dialogue, and to honor our capacity to persuade without coercion. I listen for the unexpected, the hints of insight and imagination that need nurturing. My classes build on student-led discussions, reading of students’ work aloud, and sustained inquiry into how writing can help us get smarter together.But why do I trace my professional origins to the corner post I occupied as a crossing guard on a dead-end street? On that quiet corner I began to learn the sort of patience and timing that make teaching writing possible. I also learned that in working off the main street one can still be useful. One morning I grabbed a six year old who’d run ahead of his mom from in front of a speeding car that suddenly came careening around the corner. ‘Et in arcadia ego,’ says Death in medieval iconography. ‘Even here, I am,’ he smirks. I was in the right place at the right time. In my 30th year of teaching composition at UCSC, neither burned out nor bored, I find profound meaning in helping my beginning students give birth to new ideas. I am constantly surprised by what I learn working in the margins of young people’s prose, where the right question asked in the right way can provoke the next, better written paper, and a stimulating conversation about revision in my office reminds us why universities exist. I teach writing as an invitation to students to join a dialogue about injustice, oppression and change. I ask them to honor the stories, cultures, and languages that they bring from home, and to place them next to others’ very different stories and experiences. I invite them to use writing to build a community that pays attention to detail, honors respectful curiosity about diversity, and prompts discomfort with what must be transformed. I imagine that even in their first timid silences, they want to tell something about their lives and to make sense of the contradictions that schools often mute. We try to understand, for instance, how our nation can pride itself on almost universal literacy but produce generations who hate to write. I suggest that what we do in a writing class, by paying attention to each other and to humane persuasion, recognizing that we cannot get much smarter without one another, can help us imagine and create a healthier society. I close the door to my classroom and, for a moment, imagine that I am alone with my students. But I quickly realize that one of the profound rewards of teaching writing at UCSC are colleagues who accompany me into every class. Among these are the lecturers in writing who honor students’ intelligence and generously and shrewdly offer more than instruction in skills. Their support makes my course on the connection between beauty and justice possible. They remind me, by their own remarkable teaching practices, that UCSC students thrive on intellectual challenges. Because of these courageous, imaginative colleagues, I can ask my students to analyze why they welcome the arrival of a stranger as they stand admiring a deer or the sunset, and to wonder with me if that desire to share beauty awakens an appetite to create justice. My colleagues show interest in my courses on censorship, political correctness, and work, and they have helped me understand how to sequence writing assignments, make good use of tutors, and honor students’ capacity to take increasing ownership of their learning. Because my colleagues are passionate and generous about teaching beginners, I can be too.When students and I come to know each other through dialogue and through sharing tentative, strenuous efforts in prose, something very powerful can be born. It resembles, at best, a work of art, collectively wrought, sometimes rough around the edges and predictably unpredictable. It is often of considerable beauty. I am drawn, year after year, back to beginners who are ready to change the world, in small increments, on small quiet corners, because our lives depend on it.