After I published my third novel I was asked to be the opening act for mystery writer Sara Paretsky, a best-selling writer of fame, while I was a solid mid-list literary fiction author. The occasion was a fund-raiser for a non-profit literacy organization so I thought to reflect on how I learned to read and write. This was a rather unusual process as I was the youngest child of an English professor who was spending a sabbatical year in Dun Laoghrie, a seaside town about two miles south of Dublin. Here is a link to that essayIn a nutshell, I was punished for not knowing how to read in an Irish school by being struck repeatedly with a ruler across my knuckles by my enraged, elderly teacher who was not happy to have a non-literate American student in her class. I learned to read over a weekend. Ironically, perhaps, I became an avid reader, a writer and a teacher of English who treated her students with loving kindness.

Fast forward, oh, fifty plus years and I am an adjunct WRD 103 instructor at a Chicago University called DePaul. Needing a diagnostic writing sample from my new students, I came up with the idea of asking them to write a narrative essay about their literacy journey. I resist the idea of “diagnosis” because it implies illness or the possibility of failure and I believe writers tend to live up to expectations. Did I expect all my students to be strong, imaginative, disciplined writers? I did not. But I knew that they had all learned to read and write at some point in their lives and maybe they would enjoy reviewing that process. I liked this assignment for several reasons. First, it provided me with a writing sample, which would guide my instruction. Second it was personal without being invasive. I would gain some insight into the lives of my students, which I feel is a crucial part of all teaching, especially writing instruction. But asking students to get personal with a teacher they have just met is a risky proposition so the assignment focused on process.

Here is part of the assignment:

How did you learn to read and write? Was it a positive experience, a tough one, something that happened naturally? Was there a certain favorite book you read as a child, which was read to you, that made you cry or laugh or have new ideas? Did you visit the library? Were there lots of books in your house, only a few, maybe none? This is a narrative essay about your journey towards literacy. You can tell an entire story, focus on one teacher or friend or book that changed your life. Please go beyond Harry Potter (not that anything’s wrong with Harry Potter) and include your family’s tradition of literacy, a book that changed your life, or anything else that seems significant. You have two mentor texts to peruse, one in your textbook Everyone’s An Author and one that I have published called Beaten Into Literacy. These are assigned readings chosen to help you do well on this paper. Above all, sound like yourself. Consider your rhetorical situation: audience, purpose, stance, context.

In sharing part of my story and using my own essay as a mentor text I feel I am modeling two important elements, one, I too am a writer and sharing part of the history of my literacy background and two, by using Melanie Luken’s text, “Literacy: A Lineage”, I used a reading from our text Everyone’s An Author I provided a different sort of modeling, a piece that is more focused on a relationship but also one that helps deepen and extend the definition of literacy.

My student’s essays were, on the whole, strong, honest, well written and revealing. Several students had difficult family situations with problems issues including alcoholism, domestic violence and depression. One student’s relationship with books, was based on homelessness and leaving a shelter before returning a book to the local library. An international student wrote about his struggles with English until graphic novels entered the picture and another student described his experience with dyslexia and how that challenge made reading and writing challenging.

Another good strategy with this assignment is introducing the genre of narrative. From this creative assignment we moved to structured rhetorical analysis, which demanded a fair amount of specific instructions. Having a number of STEM students, this was a chance for those more linear thinkers to shine. It also prepared them for a rigorous exploration of the choices writer’s make using ethos, pathos and logos and other rhetorical strategies. Students peer edited their essays, which helped establish relationships outside of the classroom.

After reading my student’s literacy essays I felt I knew them far better, an often less emphasized but very important element in any classroom. I also saw patterns of errors in their writing whether it was wordiness or a lack of details, I had a clear idea how each student might benefit from specific feedback. Finally, the grades were largely good, which starts the quarter off in a positive way. This assignment produces connected, vivid writing even with grammar and structural issues which can be addressed in subsequent classes.

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