The English Teacher

Literacy — An Autobiography

I’ve been a reader since I can remember. Loved, loved, loved books. Still do. The best ones, or my favorites – I can concede now that those terms, “best” and “favorite,” are hardly synonymous – I have always read multiple times, and in returning to them, found them ever more satisfying. (I think C. S. Lewis said something about reading books again and again.) Those beloved titles – Bambi, Heidi, The Chronicles of Narnia, Rascal, Katherine, Hamlet, Till We Have Faces, Gone with the Wind, Pride & Prejudice, Gatsby, King Lear, A Tale of Two Cities, The Poisonwood Bible, A Christmas Carol, East of Eden – never fail to provide a sort of comfort, like an old and cherished friend; a sort of challenge, like a tough and inspiring teacher; and a sort of delight, like a satisfying steak with dessert thrown in. I’ve known that by reading, I learn – I explore a world far more vast and variable than my own small, though fascinating, corner. But I have rarely considered that I’ve been engaged in substantive learning by writing. As a teacher (of literature, of course – what else?), I am a bit ashamed to admit that I must have missed the day that they taught us about writing to learn in teacher school. My impression of writing, as presented to me throughout grade school, high school, college, and even through many of my teaching years, has been that we write to demonstrate what we have already learned, not to discover what we think, or even more shocking, to discover what we have yet to learn. As I write, I find some irony, so perhaps all is not as bleak as I fear.

Writing to learn. A unique concept? Decidedly no. When I look back at some of my firmly established habits, I recognize a powerful tool that I have long held in my hands: a pen. I am a note-taker. I can’t listen to someone in a speaking role – teacher, preacher, meeting-organizer, principal – without jotting down the salient points. The more engaged I am as a listener, the more likely I am to attempt a verbatim logging of the entire lecture, sermon, or instruction. Actively participating in listening, and transcribing those words to a separate page ignites something wonderful in my brain. I retain the presentation more accurately and for a longer period of time. Whether the notes are preserved for later review and thoughtful analysis, or they lie forgotten, left to molder in a notebook somewhere, the act of writing those words down on paper changes me. This habit is so well engrained in my ‘list of acceptable and profitable behaviors for highly effective learners,’ that I cannot remember not doing it. So, who was the genius that taught me the value of note-taking as meaningful writing to learn? I confess, I have nary a clue – but to that person, I owe a rather substantial debt of gratitude. Writing to learn does indeed work, and note-taking is writing. For many years I didn’t consider it to be so.

Writing, self-defined, is what other people do. Writing means that significant ideas are under consideration, philosophies are expounded, hearts are stirred, entertainment is underway, delight is making its entrance. Writing matters, of course – in fact, it matters a great good deal – for it has the power to change minds, rouse emotions, start revolutions. I can’t do those things. Those activities are for writers. I’m a reader. Hello?!? I see the difference. And I weep. Because I have discovered that I want to be a writer. I don’t know that my goal is to start a revolution (though I might give it a whirl), but I certainly would entertain the notion of entertaining someone, challenging long-held opinions, or defending Truth. So lately, I write. Oddly, I continue to weep. (Perhaps not literally.) But the frustrations and irritations and blockades and continual return to the same old, tired style I’ve employed for far too many years to count keep knocking at my door, and I, fool that I am, rush to answer it. Writing (even poorly) takes effort. Truth is, I’d rather stop writing badly, and produce something good. But for what purpose? And who is my audience? (See, I wrote those things down in a class a while back, and realize the questions are crucial. The answers to the questions help drive and shape what I am about to write.) Ah. Learning.





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