Say Something Beautiful: How a Student's First Language Can Enrich Standard Compositional Technique
Presented 11 March, 2006
at the College English Association, Mid-Atlantic Group
by Lisa Schamess
Adjunct Lecturer, English Composition
Montgomery College, Rockville
The title of this talk comes from a quote by writer and teacher Grace Paley: "If you say what's on your mind in the language that comes from your parents and your street and your friends, you'll probably say something beautiful."
I take this statement very much to heart in teaching my early composition students, both at Montgomery College where I am an adjunct lecturer, and at a private high school in downtown Washington, D.C., where I prepare students for college comp courses.
I also take to heart a quote by Richard Rodriguez which I have heard more recently--actually by reading it in an essay assigned to my students. In his groundbreaking 1980 essay and 1982 book, Hunger of Memory, Rodriguez cautions that efforts to bring together the intimate world of family language with the formal world of education, especially across languages, “misunderstand the public uses of schooling and trivialize the nature of intimate life.” He claims--though this was written twenty-five years ago and he has softened his position, he still holds the line--that to overemphasize the home language at the expense of public, standard language is to deprive students of the “assimilation [that] makes possible the achievement of public individuality.”
Okay. Well and good. But nu? As someone in my family might say. You have to start with what you have.
Is it possible--and even if it is possible, is it desireable--to invite a students’ informal, private, family and neighborhood language into the freshman or basic English Composition classroom? To let that be not just a part but the core and center of a students’ developing narrative and expository voice? To trust that as Paley claims, sooner or later this student will say something beautiful?
Further, is it possible--is it desireable-- to invite students in as colleagues and experts in the endless task of reinventing composition and, by association, human discourse and thought?
I know that it is possible, and I believe that it is desireable, to do both of these things, and to do them right away, in so-called Basic English and in English Composition.
At Montgomery College, I teach traditionally college-age students along with a wide variety of adult learners--mid-career and studying at night, or recently graduated from high school after protracted struggles to do so, or returning triumphant but scarred after being sidelined by life’s unexpected upsets, or retired, returning to school for personal enrichment. These are the students whom Howard B. Tinberg--in Border Talk: Writing and Knowing in the Two Year College --describes as being “in translation,” in the sense that they are between worlds: the work world and the world of the student, the world of high school and the world of the four-year university, the world of having raised a family or pursued a career for decades and the world of rediscovering what really interests them right now. Even native English speakers are negotiating different levels of discourse and “languages.”
At least 50 percent of my students in an English 101 classroom are quite literally in translation, with as many as eight different languages—plus dialects of several of these—in a room of 25 students. I also have native English speakers from a variety of countries other than the United States, or from neighborhoods within the same city that are psychologically as distant from one another as Alaska is from Hawaii (in fact, in subsequent semesters, I had a student from Alaska and a student from Hawaii, though not in the same class).
Most of my students have a pragmatic orientation no matter their age and background. They see writing as a skill to be mastered so they can get ahead in the working world. They also come to the community college classroom believing that their written English is “broken” and needs repair. Having tested poorly, received harsh comments on their papers, or been told by “helpful” family members and friends that they cannot write, many students are intimidated and disempowered. A few have tested beautifully, excelled, won contests, and done well. These students, too, are hard to teach, for they have an overwhelming sense that writing is best tackled with a clear mind and an airtight outline. Any element of surprise, of uncertainty, of unclear language in their drafts is to be excised as quickly as possible, like a cancer, before it spreads.
The pervasive models for teaching English Comp reinforces this "medical, curative" stance toward English Composition by emphasizing correction and improvement over innovation and development, even in multilingual, culturally diverse settings that otherwise honor and respect students’ backgrounds. The view of English Comp as a corrective activity is so deeply rooted in our praxis that we speak in pathological terms when describing our work: assigning “diagnostic” essays, for example, at the beginning of each term; or “norming” when grading portfolios at the end. Too often missing from our English instruction is any sense in which our students are bringing value to the composition process by the very fact that they speak or have learned English in a nonstandard way.
The closest approach to teaching English composition from this perspective springs from the conventions of creative writing instruction. But because creative writing focuses so exclusively on personal, even idiosyncratic or experimental, expression, these techniques fall short of moving students toward the goals they most often express: to learn and write standard American English. My own goal for my students is two-fold: that they learn standard American English composition and that their compositional style be infused with the particular voices they have developed over years of using language--all language--with a facility and expertise all their own.
I suggest an approach to English Composition instruction that uses students’ knowledge of other languages or English idioms as an enhancement to composition, a means for enriching their usage of Standard American English rather than a barrier to learning it. This approach benefits me, too: each semester I have taught in this way, I have greatly enlarged my own understanding of English and composition by asking my students to educate me and one another from their knowledge base.
In the Classroom
It may be refreshing to know that my method sprang from necessity, first in a multilingual high school class at Emerson Preparatory School, then in a multilingual and multigenerational college class at Montgomery College Rockville. With an MFA in creative writing and no formal training in ESL or Basic English, I had to rely on my students to educate me about their knowledge and needs. Drawing on my background as a creative writer and teacher of creative writing, I already had an eye for fresh insights and coinages introduced by my students' atypical usage, intuitive spelling, and serendipitous phrasing.
My method draws its power in part from its playfulness: we keep our dictionaries out and look up words for fun, or read favorite children’s stories at the beginning of the semester to glean their underlying rhetorical structure, or read poetry aloud just for the sake of hearing the words, then we write to mimic the music and structure of the language instead of analyzing its meaning. The element of surprise works in my favor, as I bring the tools and philosophy of creative writing and the endless inventiveness of spoken language to bear in the normally more formal, less intimate setting of the freshman composition classroom.
We work hard: exploring rhetorical devices, their origin and use; defining and redefining and refining our topics and arguments, questions and conclusions. We debate, discuss, explore, and delve. We speak so we can really hear our voices, and we try to capture those distinctive cadences on paper in clear, crisp sentences. We exchange writing and read for sense and syntax.
We share our stories and what we have learned from them: stories from family and childhood, stories of being new in a new world, or of returning home only to find home changed. From these stories we develop strong opinions, conduct research, create stances, articulate and defend our deepest values. We live within our manifold language and permit it to live in us.
When a student tells a story out loud, I take notes and afterward call attention to interesting turns of phrase or unusual words. When we are reading one another’s writing, I ask that we give a non-standard usage the benefit of the doubt, that we do not look at its pathology without first looking at its biology. We do not treat departures from standard English as symptoms of illness but as signs of life. We examine the possibilities and reasons for a nonstandard usage before discarding it out of hand. We ask about the original language of the speaker, or family expressions, the grammar and rules of usage the writer has internalized. We examine whether the nonstandard use in English was a choice or an accident. Often, in beginning writers, it was an accident, a habit, a tic that the student wishes to correct. Before we proceed to correction, however, we explore the implications of correction. If a student then chooses to preserve a nonstandard usage, we accommodate it, finding ways to strengthen the standard language around it so the element of choice—of voice—is unmistakable.
What happens when we do this? First and foremost, we empower the student--all the students--as experts. We enrich the instructor’s experience and that of the entire class by introducing the complexities of other grammars and language traditions into the standard English language classroom. We place the student in charge of his or her learning. We also--and here is both the most beautiful and the most difficult part to negotiate in our goal-oriented, task-laden semester--take our time with the intricacies of language and thought.
Here are just a few “errors” of usage that deserve to be heard and appreciated as language before they are summarily corrected:
§ A student striving to describe an abundance of feeling calls it “many enough.”
§ A student describing her bedroom says, “you will first see the huge green window-door from the roof down to the floor which gives the room a nice sunshine all day long.”
§ A student struggling in a timed in-class writing exercise to articulate what a writer is offers a series of correct parallel sentences beginning “A writer is...” that call to mind the call-and-response prayers of church traditions, then breaks through to beauty in an “incorrect” sentence fragment: “A builder of life through word written on paper.”
From one perspective, these are inadequacies of language, problems with predictable and reassuring solutions: the word “enough” is enough; sunshine is everywhere, and it is “words” a writer uses, not “word.” And no fragments, please, this is English. Insert active verb here.
But from another perspective entirely, these phrases constitute the encounter of an already-educated mind with a condition or quality that defies words. These phrases, seen and heard the way I am suggesting, represent a sophisticated, concurrent learning of standard sentence structure and the elevated poetic of metaphor.
Then there are the students who don’t know what they know. Like the young student from Cameroon who claimed to speak poor “Pidgin” English and was not aware that in addition to English and French there are 279 living languages in his home country (Grimes). Or the newcomer to the big city, who urgently wishes to shed the soft Carolina dialect that threatens to label him as a “bama,” and who earnestly writes perfectly constructed, grammatically correct, and dead-on-arrival five paragraph essays. Who, once he permits his home language to infuse his formal prose, develops a relaxed, individual style that is both correct and alive. These students, too--the ones who are already “writing well,” need a lifeline back to their core, community languages.
I promote frequent discussion and peer review in the classroom to reinforce my role as a facilitator with specialized knowledge rather than as an expert and arbitrator. I try to cast my students as teachers of one another. Parallel readings of poetry, translations, and conventional essays demonstrate that even native speakers must constantly confront the broken frontiers at which language falters and meaning escapes the writer. At this point of struggle, non-native and idiomatic speakers actually have a slight advantage over “proficient” native speakers, bringing their own syntax and meanings to bear on the task of breaking through to clarity.
I realize that the key to this teaching method is not precisely in any one assignment or set of assignments, nor even in a particular stance--teacher as facilitator, student as owner of his or her own language, etc. These are approaches and techniques I feel sure all of us take in our teaching. No, I think the heart of what I am doing lies in what I call my “constructive ignorance”: my utter and absolute faith in the intrinsic logic of virtually every human expression that comes across my desk, if only I or another student of life will have the eyes to see it. This blissful ignorance is not imbued with a certainty that there is no better way to say what is to be said, merely that the first way of saying has its reasons that the reasons of standard American English know not. I have watched my students under the influence of this ignorance of mine, as they blossom toward semester’s end, moving confidently among many levels of language usage in their writing, from personal and idiomatic to formal and standardized.
The most important element is to consistently come back to the source and sensation of coinage and innovation, always asking ourselves if a variation enriches our language and can stand as it is, or if it can be clarified in a way to preserve its unique vibrancy.
On the Ground: Closing Thoughts
I have described how students can be instructed toward correct formal composition using techniques that concurrently strengthen their unique voices and natural talents. By semester’s end, students are writing formal, documented essays that provide a framework for their subsequent college coursework. Their compositional technique and possibly even their approach to research is founded in the richness of their original languages, as well as their growing knowledge of Standard American English.
In resisting the fusion of the intimate with the formal, Richard Rodriguez was writing to protect students’ rights to public identity and to prevent a misguided, patronizing approach to language learning. He was writing primarily of spoken language and of early childhood learning, the parameters of which are dramatically different from those of written language in the context of college-level learning. But assumptions and—I should say—presumptions about writing and teaching begin with early language acquisition. So I come to you today with a message about college writing instruction that I consider urgent:
Certainly, let us not invite the private voice into the public classroom at the expense of the student’s public identity. But let us not overcompensate, nor permit the education of the public self to proceed at the expense of the private self. Let us not only approach a student’s original language—and I define “original” as broadly as Grace Paley does, to include both other languages and regional or ethnic dialects—as if it were a n interesting sideline or, worse, a hurdle to be overcome, rather than an enrichment from which all English speakers potentially benefit. Our students are helping to shape tomorrow’s standard English through their decisions about writing and speaking it today. Through them speak the echoes of generations, cultures, and ways of life that are rich in metaphor and too precious to lose.
Grimes, Barbara F. Cameroon Ethnologue, 13th Ed. Summer Institute of Linguistics, Inc. 1996. Online at , Accessed 11 Mar. 2006.
Paley, Grace. “Some Notes on Teaching: Probably Spoken.” Just As I Thought. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 1999.
Rodriguez, Richard. Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez. New York: Bantam Books. 1983.
Tinberg, Howard B. Border Talk: Writing and Knowing in the Two Year College. Urbana, Ill.: National Council of Teachers of English, 1997.
Lisa Schamess is an Adjunct Professor of English Composition at Montgomery College-Rockville, and also teaches Advanced Composition and Creative Writing at Emerson Preparatory Institute in Washington, D.C. She holds an MFA in creative writing from American University (2005) and is an award-winning nonfiction writer and novelist (Borrowed Light, Southern Methodist UP 2002).