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Why I believe in a pedagogy of charity #nwp #engchat

May 25, 2011

 In addition to my first-year writing classes this year, I tutored a group of high school students. It took me a while to get used to teaching high schoolers, but they sure grew on me as time went by.

Last week I took up portfolios, and one very unique young man handed me the one pictured. I smiled and said something like “wow,” but inside I was thinking really, you spelled “Portfolio” with duct tape?! (That reminds me of a joke… Q: What statement will you never hear in Arkansas? A: Duct tape won’t fix that.)

Well, when I got home and opened it up, things went from bad to worse. His front sheet in his binder was a short reflection that he had done on Mark Twain’s essay “Corn Pone Opinions.”

There were several problems with that front sheet:

1) It was the original with my response written on it. Essays in the portfolio are supposed to be clean, polished copies.

2) It was not an essay. The front of the portfolio was supposed to feature their best essays, not a 300 word reflection.

3) It looked like it had been wadded up. It was terribly wrinkled and had a hole torn in it.

4) He didn’t three-hole punch the sheets. He just stuck them through the prongs of the three-ring binder.

So there was really nothing right with this front sheet. It was probably the worst front sheet of any portfolio I’ve ever received. Then I turned the page and saw a note of reflection duct taped to the back of it. Part of the portfolio assignment was to reflect on each piece of writing. I gave them liberty to do it creatively, but never imagined the approach this student took. Here is his reflection…

     In case you can’t read it, the note says “I wanted to put the original of this one because it was the one that really got me into it. It means the most [to] me out of all of them.” He chose that piece with my response written on it for the front of his portfolio because he wanted it to serve as an artifact documenting a turning point in his literacy story! And so, there I am, teary-eyed, realizing why I love to teach, why I spend hours upon hours reading and responding to students’ writing. It’s for those golden breakthroughs in a student’s life, where the light of literacy comes on for them just as it did for me under Ms. Randolph’s watchful eye in the fourth grade.

You see, in his rough response to Twain’s essay, I had been impressed with his concise summary of Twain’s thinking and his final thought that offered hope in response to Twain’s cynicism. I affirmed the strong critical thinking and insight he had demonstrated, going so far as to call his little reflection “brilliant” (a word I might use once or twice a semester). You never know how important those responses can be in a student’s life, what kind of switch might be flipped for him or her.

I can tell you for sure that this student grew tremendously as a writer this year, producing some fascinating writing. His final reflection noted that he had always been flustered by writing teachers because of the rules and regulations; his inability to work within those confines routinely earned him negative marks. This common complaint is why I’m a big believer that Porter’s “Pedagogy of Charity” trumps a pedagogy of severity every time. As Porter points out, a pedagogy of charity requires more work than a pedagogy of severity, and there are risks involved, but given the choice, I’ll choose a pedagogy that believes the best about my students every time.


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  1. Great story! I’m passing this along to our Creative Writing program!

  2. Juliet permalink

    Sometimes when you expect the best of your students you get it. Every time you expect the worst you get it.

  3. Juliet permalink

    PS Gosh I love duct tape! Do you know it comes in colors and prints now? We’ve come a long way. I remember a guy that once scrap-booked his portfolio. He was a brilliant writer too.

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