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A master's graduate shares love of writing with 8th graders

| Kelsey Gierach

Kelsey Gierach, M.A., English-Writing
25 May 2016


Days before I graduated from UW-Eau Claire with a Masters in English-Writing, I lead a “Writing Center class” for 8th Grade Days, a 3-day event where local 8th graders get to see what a normal college day looks like. I briefly explained to the energetic students that at the Writing Center (Center for Writing Excellence), we helped students, graduate students, and professors on various kinds of writing: essays, journal articles, final papers, presentations, speeches, bibliographies, etc.

But the 8th graders were eager to begin on the hands-on writing we had planned. First, we were going to write haikus. On a white board, I explained that haikus originated from Japan, and that this poem form had only one rule: have the right number of syllables. For those who have forgotten, haikus have 5 syllables in the first line, 7 in the second, and 5 again in the last line. While haikus are traditionally about nature, I encouraged these students to write theirs on whatever they wanted.

The results were interesting, to say the least. There were haikus about Dumbledore, “dabbing” (a dance move, I later learned), Hades, the Packers and other sports teams, horses, video games, and so much more. One of my favorites had to do with dinosaurs, and how they were awesome, but dead.

While I ran from table to table, helping students decide on a topic or count syllables, I could gauge pretty quickly the student’s attitude towards writing. Though there were plenty of students who were eager to write as many haikus as possible on their favorite subjects, there were proportionally more who experienced writers block, apprehension, or harshly condemned their own writing. Some were fearful of spelling mistakes, and one student asked me if he had commas in the right places.

In 1981, Joseph M. Williams published a landmark text in Composition studies, “The Phenomenology of Error,” wherein he discusses how harmful an error-driven mindset can have on developing writers. He found that we regard students’ texts more harshly than we look at other pieces of writing. In other words, if we looked at more “professional” texts, such as periodicals and books, we’d find many of the same mistakes (Williams 159).

Even though these are beginning writers, and that writing is a skill one develops (rather than a gift given only to a few carefully selected individuals), we hold students to greater expectations than published authors.  Williams then reveals at the end of the article that he has intentionally included “about 100” grammatical errors in his article, but very much doubts his readers ever noticed a one (165).

Since reading Williams’ article on how we perceive writing errors, I have been more aware in how I phrase and deliver constructive criticism, and always include more positive comments than negative. With the 8th graders, I wanted them to leave the Writing Center class having a positive memory of writing, having shared their writing with others, and maybe even having dispensed their own advice to peers.

My own journey from furious error marker, with red pen in hand, to consciously giving more positive than negative comments has been long, but immeasurably rewarding. Here at UW-Eau Claire, I have taken graduate classes on teaching College Composition and Surrealism theory with professors and colleagues who have challenged and guided me. I have worked with professors to showcase plays, researched film adaptations of classic British novels, and proofread drafts for publication. But one of the most influential experiences of my time here was working at the Center for Writing Excellence as a graduate assistant director.

At the writing center, I worked each day with students and professors on their writing. We talked about how they felt about writing, what they do well and what they still need to work on, how to format to certain style guidelines, and how to brainstorm among others. Never did I have a repetitive session. During each session I wanted the student to cultivate their own writing process, whether that was improving their attitude on writing or giving guidance on how to generate and organize their own ideas. Because of these students and the experiences I have had here, I feel prepared to help other writers in their writing process, and maybe we’ll even write a few haikus about Dumbledore and dinosaurs along the way…