Guest Post: On Writing a Film Review

Jacob Lusk is a Jacksonville, Florida native, a high school English teacher, and an amateur film critic, who writes about movies on his blog,  The Panned Review. You can follow him on Twitter. Check out his tips and suggestions for composing a film review.

Some Suggestions for Writing a Good Film Review

  1. Watch the film actively. Even if you’re writing about a movie you’ve seen before, watch it again and take notes. Taking notes while watching a movie may seem strange, but it helps. When it comes to note-taking, there are no bad notes. Write down any thoughts that come into your mind as you watch, write down dialogue that stands out, write down observations, no matter how slight: the color of someone’s scarf, the dim lighting in a room and the way that lighting exposes a character’s silhouette; the way a scene goes from sad to funny and back to sad again. These notes may or may not be useful later, but taking them ensures that you’re giving the film your full attention.
  2. Getting Started: Finding a Through-Line. With a review, you may find yourself scrambling to think of something to say other than, “I liked it,” or “I didn’t like it.” So ask yourself, “What about this film jumps out at me as the most interesting or noteworthy element?” Maybe the movie itself was junk, but a particular actor’s performance was so good you didn’t mind; maybe the film was a mess, but you admired that it tried so hard to break from conventions; maybe the writing felt incoherent, and that ruined the whole movie for you. Find the specific thing that speaks to you, and you’ll have a place to start.
  3. Getting Started: Just write something. If you’re struggling to “start” your review, try writing about any aspect of the movie, and remind yourself that you can always re-arrange paragraphs later. Maybe you don’t know how to begin your review, but you can likely write about specific elements of the film that would go in the middle of it. You can worry about the introduction later. And in the process of writing the middle, you may find all kinds of new insights you didn’t know you had.
  4. The review vs. the summary. If you’re putting on the critic hat, remember that plot summary shouldn’t be your primary goal. Yes, a few details about the movie are helpful for readers who haven’t seen the film–or even those of us who have, and might have forgotten them–but the bigger, more important, and more interesting job is making connections and judgments about the movie that are sharp and thoughtful and that give the reader a fresh perspective on the movie. As Pauline Kael says, the job of the critic is to help the reader see something about the work that s/he didn’t see before. And of course, you should try to persuade the reader why the movie is worth seeing (or skipping).
  5. Find fresh, vigorous, specific ways to describe the movie. Cliches like “roller-coaster ride” and “on the edge of my seat” have lost any power that they might have once had. They’re vague and dull anyway, so don’t use them. Instead, be specific. Try to get at the heart of what makes a movie work or not work. If a movie was genuinely suspenseful, talk about a specific scene that exhibits this quality; talk about your own response, and if you saw the film with others, you may even want to write about their reactions: did the audience jump in unison during a terrifying moment? Did everyone jeer at the screen when a character did something stupid (like walk up the stairs of the dark, spooky house, when she ought to know better)? Find a way to make the experience of watching the movie come alive to the reader who wasn’t there in the theater/living room with you.
  6. Don’t read other reviews of the movie you’re reviewing. The opinions of other critics will likely influence you whether you want them to or not, and you want your work to be original.
  7. Exception to #6. One way to write a strong review is to forcefully disagree with another critic. Perhaps you thought Owen Gleiberman’s review of The Martian was all wrong, and you’re here to set the record straight. That could make for a compelling through line.
  8. But what should I write about? How should my review look? There is no one right way to write a film review. There are so many elements in play: your own response will dictate the nature of your review; in addition to that are all the elements of a film: the acting, directing, writing, editing, cinematography, makeup and effects, music, costumes and sets; there’s also the structure of the film, the themes at work in the film, the conversations being had about the film by filmmakers, critics, industry people, and regular moviegoers. If the movie is part of a particular genre, you may want to evaluate it in the context of other horror movies or comedies; if it’s a sequel, you might want to compare it to its predecessor(s); if it’s a comic book movie, you’ll likely be thinking of it within the greater comic book universe. If it’s an adaptation of a book, and you’ve read the book, you may want to compare the two. (Although please avoid saying “the book is always better” because that is a cliche; give specific reasons instead.)
  9. Write to a general, educated movie-going public. No matter what, make sure what you’re saying makes sense and is specific. Using pompous language–especially lots of film jargon–often impedes these two goals. It’s one thing to describe a particular shot of a film, it’s another thing to overuse words and phrases like “tracking shot” or “foley mixing.” (Occasionally a phrase like that might be necessary, but usually it’s not.) Most readers won’t be familiar with these terms, and your goal should be to invite readers into your review rather than alienate them from it. Also, assume your reader is intelligent enough to come along with you for the ride.
  10. Analyze, don’t moralize. You may have been taught that analyzing literature and film is ultimately about identifying the moral of the story. But boiling texts down to a one-sentence bumper sticker statement like “Be careful what you wish for” or “Don’t take anything for granted” is a simplistic reduction. If a movie really is that simplistic, it’s often a sign that the movie has been overly compromised by studio heads wanting to appeal to a global audience. (This happens a lot.) It’s not a cause for celebration when a movie bravely reminds us to “see the glass as half full.” A movie should illuminate something about the human experience, and it certainly might criticize injustice or other social problems, and as a critical writer, you want to discern between trite moral lessons and complicated depictions of real life. Even fantasy films have something to say about reality (calling Doctor Strange). How does a movie speak to us about real life? Is its tone poetic? Angry? Curious? Terrified? Explore these avenues, and resist the urge to oversimplify.

Other Random Tips

  • Use active verbs in the present tense [fashions, jolts, arranges, redeems, scowls, frets, maneuvers, obliterates, renounces].
  • Avoid seems and appears. They tend to weaken our writing. [“Director Sam Mendes seems aware of our culture’s current need to psychoanalyze movie heroes to death.” → “Director Sam Mendes understands our current need to psychoanalyze heroes to death, and he subverts this impulse at every turn.”]
  • Avoid very and extremely and other intensifiers. Very scary? Terrifying. Very slow? Sluggish. Very serious? Morose. Somber. Extremely dark? Dark.
  • Avoid phrases such as “Chris Evans does a good job playing Captain America.” You’re not giving Chris Evans his job evaluation. Instead, describe specific characteristics that stand out about a performance or any other element of the movie.
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My interview with the Eyes On Success podcast!

A few weeks ago, I was interviewed by Nancy and Peter Torpey from the Eyes On Success podcast. Eyes on Success interviews blind people from all over the world about their careers, passions, hobbies, and challenges. I had a blast doing my interview! I was excited to discuss teaching, writing, and publishing!

My interview was released in today’s episode. Listen here. You can also subscribe to Eyes on Success in iTunes.

A Day in the Life

Today an instructor I’ve never met before walked into our shared office. We had the following exchange.

Colleague: Hello. You teach here?

Me: Good morning. Yes. I teach writing.

Colleague: And you’re blind?

Me: Yes.

Colleague: So…do you have any assistance in the classroom?

Me: No, not really.

Colleague: Wow, that’s just incredible! I really admire you!

Me: …

Colleague: I really admire how you don’t let blindness get in your way.

Me: … *looks for the exit*

Despite the fact that the colleague is using words like “admire” and “incredible,” I won’t be pinning this exchange on my wall of treasured compliments. Perhaps I sound churlish or ungrateful, so let me explain why I, and other disabled people, don’t enjoy this kind of attention.

As a teacher of effective communication, I am bothered by this scenario. The colleague expresses admiration as a consequence of my exceptionalism. She assumes that the default position of disability is ineptitude. She is surprised, and thus excited, to learn about a competent and independent blind teacher precisely because she does not consider the competent blind person the norm. In her worldview, all disabled people are marked by the perpetual need for help.

Holding this worldview does not mean she is a nasty, terrible, or unpleasant person. In fact, she seems to be making an effort to converse and be courteous. She cannot help the fact that her world is populated by stories of disability as disaster. She can only try to adopt a new worldview, and perhaps she needs time for such an adoption.

But the change won’t occur if I keep silent. So, let’s adjust her logic.

Here’s the other problem with her line of reasoning: it makes no room for me as a professional or colleague. She compliments me on my ability to defy her stereotypes, but she does not actually know anything about my teaching style. She says it’s incredible that I can teach independently and that she admires me. But she hasn’t seen me in the classroom. How does she know I’m any good? I could be terrible! I could be a train wreck. She is congratulating me for living a life other than the one prescribed by the tragic stories of disability—not for making a difference in the lives of students, as all teachers seek to do.

This dialogue got me thinking about how she must see my life, how she thinks I live each day. So I present you now with two agendas.

A Day in the Life of a Blind Person, as Imagined by Too Many Sighted People:

  • Wake up. Grope for cell phone or extremely large alarm clock. Attempt to turn it off.
  • Enjoy a few blissful moments with my eyes closed.
  • Open my eyes and remember I’m blind.
  • Shed 3-5 tears. Wipe them away.
  • Realize that I can’t see the glittering tears rolling down my face. They glitter with all the possibilities I will never accomplish. Shed 6-10 more.
    • Recommended for Weekends: Shed 6-8 initial tears because weekends are more social and I’m disabled. So I won’t be doing any socializing.
  • Get out of bed. Feel my way to the kitchen.
  • Prepare special Blind Person’s Breakfast: all finger food, nothing messy. Nothing that requires excessive chewing.  No coffee. Tired of spooning in salt instead of sugar. Caffeine withdrawal headache.
  • Get dressed in mismatched sweatpants or other lounge wear. Run fingers through hair. No makeup. Sunglasses.
  • Find favorite chair—any chair—in living room. Sit.
  • Spend the next 3-5 hours contemplating how great life would be if I could see things. Then have lunch. All finger food. No mess.
  • Rinse and repeat until dinner.

A Day in the Life of One Blind Person, as Planned by Me

  • Wake up, Press snooze button. Wake up again.
  • Take dog outside, bring him in, feed him.
  • Do short yoga routine (5-10 minutes, 4-6 poses, I’d like to learn a few more).
  • Eat breakfast: a KIND bar and a string cheese, neither of which is messy. I choose this breakfast because it’s quick, and I don’t have to think about it. I’ll get a cappuccino at work.
  • Check personal emails.
  • Get dressed in outfit I’ve laid out the night before. It’s professional attire: a skirt and blouse or a nice dress.
  • Part hair and put product in. Scrunch curls. Moisturize face. Put on makeup. Put in earrings. Put on braille watch.
  • Take dog outside again. Listen to birds. Wish I’d brought my phone outside so I could record them.
  • Pack bag for work—dog’s lunch, my lunch, graded assignments, books, laptop.
  • Go to work. Teach classes. Challenge students.
  • Come home. Have dinner with family or friends. Plug social appointments into calendar for weekend.

What’s that, colleague? My daily agenda looks like yours? Wild! I wonder why that is…

Access at the Outset

My last few days of calm are dwindling: the summer semester begins next Tuesday. I’ve finished my syllabus and course schedule, plugged in all the links and files on Blackboard, and gathered up the necessary textbooks. I’m putting the finishing touches on my Welcome Letter, a document I email to my students a few days before the course begins.

The Welcome Letter (WL) is a trick I snagged from the realm of online teaching. Many online instructors send out their version of this document to introduce students to the course, tell them where to find readings and assignment prompts, and explain how the course will proceed. Because I will give a face-to-face course introduction on Tuesday, I don’t clutter the WL with info about the course specifics. I just explain how to navigate our Blackboard page, give my contact info, and offer a few tips for getting started with the course readings.

But just before my cheerful signature (“Cordially, Professor Michael”), I’ve added a final clause: Access Needs.

Any students with disabilities are free to contact me with access needs. On the first day of class, we will be dealing with printed handouts and video lectures. If you require large print or other accommodations, just send me an email explaining your needs.

Why did I include this statement in my letter? How likely am I to have a disabled student in my class? Well, based on my own experience, not very likely. I’ve been teaching for four years, and I’ve never had a blind or Deaf student, never had a wheelchair user. I’ve had a handful of students with learning disabilities, but no one has ever asked for large print or other alternate formats.

The statement exists on my WL for a few reasons. I’ve yet to have my First Blind Student, but I was a first for almost every instructor I had. And I remember the reactions: good, bad, awkward, ecstatic, nervous. I want to make sure that disabled students feel acknowledged by my WL. Explicit acknowledgement is so much more powerful than implied acknowledgement.

Another priority is visibility. Even if my access statement doesn’t apply to any of my current students, these nondisabled students get to see what an inclusive space looks like. It’s a place where access is elevated, shown off, bragged about. Begone, dreary legalese of accommodations! I want to make access sparkly and fun!

I plan to build a classroom that welcomes as many different bodies and minds as possible. I want to make space for imagination. I know I can’t physically prepare for every kind of student, but I will make my classroom a space where the dialogue of difference thrives.

A commitment to access needs to envelop the course. It’s not enough to rush through the required disability statement on Day One. Access must be addressed before the course begins. Forethought and imagination are what separates access from accommodation—and they’re qualities I want my students to cultivate.

My first guest post for the BREVITY Blog!

Today my piece “Blackbird Habits: A Letter to Virginia Woolf” went up on BREVITY‘s Nonfiction Blog! Check it out! The piece is beautifully laid out with pictures of Mrs. Woolf and yours truly. I get a thrill from seeing my picture on the same page as hers!

BREVITY‘s blog is connected with BREVITY, a literary magazine that publishes concise nonfiction (under 750 words). Pieces for the blog are allowed to reach 1000 words.

Enjoy the piece, and subscribe to the BREVITY blog. It’s an excellent resource for writers.

“Affluentia Poesis”: Meeting Poetry in the Universe of Possibility

“To let each impression and each germ of a feeling come to completion wholly in itself, in the dark, in the inexpressible, the unconscious, beyond the reach of one’s own intelligence and await with deep humility and patience the birth-hour of a new clarity, that alone is living the artist’s life, in understanding as in creating.”

-Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

The title of this blog comes from one of my former students, a science-minded young man who asked Google Translate for the Latin equivalent of an English phrase: flow of poetry. I know the translation is incorrect, and exchanging several emails with colleagues (whose knowledge of Latin surpasses mine) has not helped me to find the accurate rendering of this idea. The Internet at least tells me that “affluentia” is closer to affluence—an overflow. Nevertheless I build my philosophy of teaching poetry around Affluentia Poesis, poetry as living, incalculable current.

Affluentia Poesis was born on a writing assignment, inspired by Kenneth Goldsmith’s Uncreative Writing course. As a class, we read Goldsmith’s “It’s not Plagiarism. In the Digital Age, It’s ‘Repurposing’” an excerpt that appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education. In describing his methods and motives, Goldsmith (2011) questioned the value of literary originality and praised the general repurposing and imitative practices found in other arts. He relayed the testimonials of students whose most creative work came from a period of strict constraint, a course in which Goldsmith punished their attempts at originality.

After our discussion of Goldsmith’s article, I offered my students an opportunity for uncreative writing. I gave them a handout titled “Plagiarizing Poetry” which included these eleven poems:

I chose these poems for their variety. Some offered classic poetics like St. Vincent Millay’s sonnet and Bishop and Thomas’s villanelles, while others—like Williams and Lopate—scarcely used punctuation or capitalization, resembling a prose paragraph scattered over a sheet of paper. Rich and Owen both offered social critique, one in short, provocative form and the other with rigorous, hypnotic sound repetitions. Heaney and Housman used earthy language to describe domestic conflict, one poet talking to himself and another offering dialogue between a friend and a ghost. Each poem was manageable in some aspect and daunting in another: complex messages offered in short, simple lines or familiar meaning wrapped in elaborate language.

My instructions were straightforward; I asked every student to create two poems using only words or lines from the eleven. Like Goldsmith’s students, mine were piecing together poems rather than writing them in a more traditional way. They could wander through the poems as gardeners or naturalists, picking out the words or phrases that struck their fancy and situating them on a new page.

To make beautiful bouquets, gardeners do not have to invent flowers. To make meaning, my students did not have to invent language; they had to arrange it, place it, shuffle it around. Soon, their playful and determined efforts resulted in a surprising number of interesting poems whose components—wrenched from their original context—hummed together to reveal new depths of meaning.

As my students read their work aloud, some sheepish and others gleeful, I witnessed the collaborative power of creating. Tradition elevates the solitary genius, who labors beneath the light of inspiration, but our creations are more often the work of many voices, both present and faded, some half-remembered and others daily cherished. None of us compose in a vacuum.

Though most students strictly adhered to the exercise, some could not help but flaunt their originality in titles. The student who weekly professed his loyalty to science and medicine took from “Ars Poetica” a need for Latin: he titled his first poem “Affluentia Poesis.” When I asked him what this phrase meant, he proudly replied, “Flow of poetry.”He was the only student to offer a Latin title for his poem—a touch of creativity that I could never have anticipated.

By harvesting their poems, rather than inventing them, my students realized the pleasure of serendipity—of seeing meaning spring up as words come together on a page. This is the moment when the poem you think you’re writing changes shape, and you’re awash in moments you haven’t remembered in years. The tingle of a sharp perfume, the metallic slam of locker doors, the raucous laugh you heard around the corner—these are memories you could not have forced to the surface. This is your poetry talking back to you, telling you what it wants to become.

Teaching poetry is too often a one-sided conversation. The poem, positioned beneath the glass display case of the printed page, is never allowed to rise up and take part. Teachers cling to the value of moving line-by-line, so that students can understand what the poem “means.”—as if understanding a poem’s meaning is as easy as swallowing a multivitamin. But of course, in these arenas, the meaning of a poem is finite, digestible, and controlled by the instructor.

Students complain about interacting with poetry for a simple reason: they don’t want to be “wrong” about it. Difficult or confusing language wouldn’t be so annoying to them if they felt no pressure to parade their nuanced understanding—smartypants fashion—before the judge who delivers validation in the form of grades. But no one expects a first-time cook to master a complicated French dish right away. No one expects the young musician to play flawlessly with sophisticated interpretation. In these novice stages, we applaud and encourage the heart needed for someone to step forward and expose their inexperience.

Poems may contain finite elements—a certain quantity of syllables and sounds—but their meaning and reception can’t be predicted. When we as teachers remove the capacity for error—and its cohorts of diffidence and exclusion—we take the surest step of bringing students to a love of the arts. Students who can play with poetry will lose their fear, their hesitation to touch and be touched by language.

Essay: “Voices in Error: Counting against Competence”

Today the Disability Rhetoric blog published my essay, “Voices in Error: Counting against Competence.” In this essay, I describe an ongoing conflict in my teaching practices – counting errors and standardizing student voices. Here is how the essay begins:

“Before I begin teaching in any classroom, I must tailor the environment to my specific needs. I secure my guide dog to the sturdy teacher’s desk, turn off three of the four lightswitches, and run my hand along the chalk tray to find the eraser and black dry- erase markers. I shuffle the blue and green markers to the end of the tray where I won’t confuse them with the colors I prefer. I move the desk chair from behind the bulky computer table and place it near the short, unadorned desk – careful not to disturb my dog, who lies underneath with a toy.

After the first course meeting, the novelty of my daily accommodations diminishes. Students welcome the dimmed lighting and rarely forget to submit assignments in large print. Only two features of the routine elicit regular comments – the guide dog and the whiteboard.”

Read the full article here.

Two-Way Teaching

On the first day of every semester, I always carry extra baggage. In spring, summer, and fall, I must replenish my office and bring in all the graded final assignments. As I trace the familiar path past the library and through Starbucks, I sag under the weight of several canvas bags filled with tea, travel mugs, books, air fresheners, and other teaching essentials. Generally I bear the bulk of this gear on the left so that my right hand and arm can manipulate the white cane.

But this fall, my hands serve different purposes: the left wraps around a square harness handle and the right is poised to handle the leather leash. My teaching gear has been crammed into a purple floral backpack, and my fabric lunchbox dangles from my right wrist. Under my right arm, I carry a tightly rolled rectangular carpet – a new necessity. An outside pocket on my backpack holds other items not needed in previous semesters: a collapsable water bowl, a pet first aid kit, a well-loved plastic bone, and several crumpled grocery bags. An inner pocket protects a tupperware container filled with kibbles.

New habits accompany the items in my bag. Now, while I walk, I carry on a quiet conversation with the pup at my side – giving directions and praise as he learns my preferred routes on campus. I stop when he stops, move forward when he moves, and adjust the leash when he buries his nose in the hedges. I receive many more greetings and prepare answers for the three most common questions: “Can I pet him?” “How old is he?” “Is he a full Lab?”

At my office, I ask York to sit while I find the electronic key. I unlock the door, usher him inside, and take off his harness. I clip one end of his tie-down around the leg of my desk and attach the other clip to his training collar. Then I gently push him out of the way so I can set up his space.

I unroll the small rug and tuck it into the far right corner of my office. I lure York to his new spot with a toy, but he doesn’t stay there long. While I unpack my backpack, he crawls under my desk to rest his head on my feet. He watches as I stash his lunch in a lower desk drawer, out of his reach. He sticks his nose in the trash can, noisily searching for my apple core.

Throughout the morning, York and I complete several errands – picking up photocopies, placing my lunch in the breakroom fridge, meeting with colleagues. I consolidate these trips so I won’t have to take York’s harness on and off several thousand times. I want him to have harness-free time in my office, and I have to consider the errands that York needs: busy breaks, water breaks, and meal time. I arrange these activities around my teaching schedule, mentally planning which paths we’ll take to get to each class.

On the way to my first class, I decide to introduce York to the staircase outside my office building. He has already learned the inside hallways I travel most; he can predict when to turn left or right as we walk. Once outside, I tell York “Over right, find the steps,” and he takes me to the staircase, stopping just short of the first step. I place my right foot on the step’s edge, reach for the rail, praise him, and say, “Forward down.”

We slowly descend with York a few steps ahead of me. The harness handle sways as he walks down, and he pauses every few steps to let me catch up. On the landing, he guides me around to the next railing, but he doesn’t step down until I give the command.

At the bottom, we round a corner and find a small triangle of grass. I take York’s harness off and give him time to explore. While York takes his break, a harried student asks me for directions. I answer the student’s questions as York wanders back to me, tail wagging. I slip the harness on and we walk to our first class.

Inside the bright classroom, several students are already seated. York and I enter through the door at the front, striding across the classroom to the large teacher’s desk. I ask York to sit and clip his leash around the desk leg. I present him with another of his favorite toys; hopefully he’ll settle down and chew away while I talk to the class.

The atmosphere changes as I unpack my bag and York snuffles around under the desk. Some students lean forward, whispering excitedly. One student asks Question #2, and I respond, “He’s 18 months, which is young for a guide dog.” I feel myself smiling as I answer – I’ve got the New Parent Glow, the face that says, “Yes, I’m perfectly willing to talk about all my pup’s accomplishments for several hours.”

When the classroom is full, I welcome students to the course. I introduce myself, adding, “And you may have noticed my teaching assistant under the desk.” I explain that York is a working guide dog, that they shouldn’t talk to him or try to pet him while he’s wearing the harness. While I present this solemn speech, York rolls on the floor – snorting, jingling his harness, and kicking his legs. I sigh, “It’s his first semester teaching.” The students laugh, and I promise that York will be free to play if they come by my office.

Two days later, York and I are traveling the same hallway, ready for our second class meeting of the term. York walks calmly beside me, undisturbed by the people rushing on either side. His head doesn’t even turn when a female student coos, “Ooohh he’s so handsome!” He’s aloof, work-focused. I feel a soft breeze across the fingers of my left hand – produced by York’s wagging tail. His tail swings up and out, keeping time with our feet; it’s something I’ve just started to notice when we walk together.

Halfway down the hall, the harness handle jerks upward, and I can feel York leaping in the air. I pull down hard on the handle and grab the leash in my right hand: “Easy, easy!” York halts beside me, panting, while I search for the distraction that got him so riled up. I hear laughing and cooing to my left.

“It’s us,” calls a woman from behind a folding table. “We’re from the Counseling Center. We’re handing out stress balls.”

“Oh, that explains it; he loves balls.” Beside me, York’s tail agrees. Though he is standing still, his whole body leans towards the table. Another woman at the table offers me a ball, and I shake my head. “He would tear it up.”

The table voices chorus: “Awwwww.”

As the workday ends, York and I walk downstairs and take the outdoor route around Starbucks and past the library. Near the sign that proclaims, “Brown Rice Sushi” in huge bubbly letters, York stops for some intense sniffing – something he shouldn’t do while he’s guiding me. I correct him, but he won’t pick his head up. This likely means that he’s found something to eat.

Again, I correct him, and he lifts his head. I reach for his mouth and tell him to “leave it,” – though, at this point, I don’t know what “it” is. Without complaint, York lets me run my fingers over his mouth, and I find his jaws clenched around something round and squishy. As I pry the squishy thing out of his mouth, I repeat, “York, drop it,” just for good measure. He doesn’t fight me, and once I’ve got the thing in my hand, I recognize it: a stress ball. I relieve some stress by throwing it away.

Essay: Expecting the Invisible

In Sept. 2014, this essay was published in I Am Subject Stories: Women Awakening, an anthology of women’s writing. I received permission to post it here.

*  *  *

On Monday afternoon, I am standing outside my classroom door, a large blue bag over my shoulder and a white cane in my hand. I’m wearing black pants, a red blouse with white cuffs and collar, and dark sunglasses. My hair is pulled into a high bun.

I step to the side to avoid colliding with exiting students. Some students linger, asking the instructor questions. A guy walks out of the room and leans against the door: “Hey, are you waiting for this room?”

“Yes, I have a class at 3. I’m a few minutes early.”

“What’s the class?”

“It’s an introductory writing course.”

He glances into the classroom and turns back to me. “Would you like help finding a seat?”

“No thanks, I’ll be using the teacher’s desk.”

Once the remaining students have left, I enter the classroom. The teacher’s desk is a narrow table, close to the whiteboard. I set down my bag and begin to unpack. The professor stands at the computer, putting away student papers. “Can I help you find a seat, hun?”

“No, I’m the instructor.”

“Oh!” Like the student who held the door, she cannot hide her surprise.

Despite several semesters of teaching English at the same university, I’ve encountered this reaction countless times. Students, staff, and faculty don’t expect me to be the teacher – even when I start handing out syllabi. There is always a moment of hesitation, a “Really?” hanging in the air.

I attribute this disbelief to my visible identity: I’m a short 26-year-old blind woman. I walk with a white cane and wear dark glasses. Observers – who sometimes assume that the cane helps me with fainting spells – can’t miss these signs of physical difference.

Early in my teaching career, I had to accept that I would be a “first” for most students who have never even had a blind acquaintance. On rare occasions, students shyly approach my desk to share their brushes with disability: a grandmother who lost her vision, the time they volunteered with cognitively impaired teens, or “the blind guy at our church who reads a braille Bible.” I understand that my writing courses are indirect courses in the larger human experience – disability.

During the first class of each semester, I explain that I’ll be recognizing voices, not faces. I discourage hand-raising, because I can’t see raised hands. I ask students to identify themselves by name when they speak, to print their papers in 18-pt font, to tell me when I’m writing near the whiteboard’s edge.

“How will you grade our essays?” one student asks.

I reply with my most serious face: “Very harshly.”

By semester’s end, most students learn to discard their initial reservations. They have watched me diagram sentences and guide class discussions. They’ve received papers with extensive feedback and attended voluntary conferences in my office. They drop off their final papers and utter the highest compliment, “I recommended your class to my friends.”

But the path from incredulity to confidence offers many detours. How I manage each class meeting can encourage or dismantle a student’s growing belief in my abilities.

I recognize these daily tests of my teacher’s authority. The first test comes on Day 1 when I disclose my blindness and its effects on our classroom procedures. I resist my habitual full disclosure – the urge to tell students exactly what I can and cannot see. In the face-to-face classroom, where I choose the role of grammar magician and writing coach, I find such full disclosure irrelevant, even cumbersome. Detailing every aspect of my blindness places me in an overly medical context. On the darker side of disclosure, I feel that my students will find ways to take advantage of my low vision if they understand it fully. I’d rather direct their attention to the course concepts, and away from me.

There are many factors I cannot control in the classroom, where I emphasize discussion in a technology-free environment. I must accept that I cannot tell when a student is silently texting. If students in the back are whispering, I won’t be able to identify their voices. If students have their laptops open, I may not see them.

Even when I can see an open laptop, I can’t find a productive way to address it. If I announce to the room, “Whoever’s using that MacBook should put it away,” I will open a discussion of my precise visual circumstances (“How could she possibly see that laptop when she can’t read size 12?”).

I neutralize disruptive behaviors by redirecting attention to the task at hand. Using my cane, I walk around the room, stopping near the whisperers – whose identities are still a mystery. Sometimes, I casually write snippets of whispered conversations on the board, and students often take several minutes to recognize their private dialogue in our grammar exercise. I want my students to manage their own behavior, to realize that they alone decide how their in-class attitude will affect their learning.

My comfortable classroom dynamic shifts entirely when I teach with Oliver, a nondisabled colleague. We deliver a series of intensive grammar workshops, and my current students are often in attendance. At each workshop, Oliver and I trade duties every few minutes. When I stand to explain a complex linguistic concept, Oliver writes examples on the board.

After our most recent session, Oliver tells me how he silently disciplined some students. “While you were talking, two of your students were passing notes,” he says. “I knew you couldn’t see them, but I could.” He explains how he gestured at the students, pointed to his own eyes, and shook his head – letting them know that their behavior was unacceptable.

Oliver’s revelation awakens an old grief. I feel suddenly inept, insensible. Next to a sighted teacher like Oliver, who can visually manage the class, my own inventive pedagogy seems a cheap substitute. I begrudge Oliver’s intervention because he wields an authority I can never have. Tall, bearded, and broad-shouldered, Oliver easily commands the students’ attention. He towers over me and looks the part of the English professor. No one ever assumes that he’s a student.

When I vent to friends and colleagues, they tell me that I have a different teaching presence. “You’re accessible,” they say. “Friendly. The students like you.” A colleague in his sixties says, “Enjoy being a young teacher. You have a unique kind of influence now.” But I’m tired of “friendly” and “young.” I long for “formidable.”

Others can appreciate my teaching abilities while I am stalled, seeing myself as the inferior model. It’s easy to believe in my passion and pedagogy when I’m the only teacher in the room, but in collaborating with a “more able” teacher, I recognize the ephemeral texture of my confidence.

I notice how swiftly the figure of my colleague is transformed by a cherished teacher’s mythology. For me, Oliver doesn’t embody a typical teacher with unique expertise. The myth casts him as an ideal being whose right to teach is never doubted. Beside him, I am incomplete, unfinished.

I can accept these terms only when I remember the writing I teach. A writer talks on paper until she has nothing more to say. Then she calls the work “final” and gives it to a reader, who completes it in her own head. No writer can operate unquestioned, shaping the text with mythic authority. Immeasurable collaboration between writer and reader, student and teacher, makes all my work unfinished.

Total Revision: Conversations in the Red

This semester, I am living out one of my long-cherished dreams: teaching a series of intensive grammar workshops for multilingual learners and struggling student writers. On Friday afternoons, my colleague and I face a group of students who willingly admit their bad relationship with grammar. So far, we’ve had four sessions, teaching anywhere from 2 to 16 students each time.

In our first class, I introduced the difference between grammar and style—a distinction often conflated even by literature teachers. The principles of grammar describe the inherent structure of a language; they explain how a language behaves and help speakers and listeners understand the text. Style encompasses how we use the language in a given situation—whether we dress it up or dress it down. Where grammar entails certain rules—though not as many as most people think—style is created through a person’s choices.

A few weeks ago, a student came for writing tutoring to improve her grammar. Handing me her essay, she explained, “My professor says my grammar is terrible.” As I looked over her work, I noticed a handful of grammatical mistakes: one issue with pronouns, a forgotten apostrophe, and a typo that Spell Check wouldn’t catch. However, her writing was far from appropriate for the formal assignment; she frequently slipped into second person, using lots of “you” and “your,” and she chose informal words, like “kids,” “guys,” or “great.” I noted, too, that she used contractions, which are usually discouraged in formal academic writing. Her writing displayed stylistic issues, not grammatical mishaps: her paper was trying to wear a bathing suit to the opera.

Because this student was writing for a sociology professor, I was unsurprised by the misinformation she received. I don’t expect instructors beyond the realm of composition or linguistics to handle writing feedback with such nerdy precision. Still, I am irritated by this mix-up. I cringe when I hear about comments that are critical and erroneous; I know how damaging professors’ feedback can be. As a writing tutor, I often hear students say, “I’m an awful writer” or “My teacher says I have the worst grammar,” and I hear similar sentiments from my own students.

Even positive feedback reveals students’ lack of confidence: after I praised one of my students for her excellent summary assignment, she said, “I’m just so glad you don’t think I’m dumb!” This student emails me with questions, comes to my office, tries her best on all assignments, but, like countless others, she has been labelled a bad writer. Her years of teacher-centered education have taught her one prevailing lesson: the teacher-authority will always judge you more accurately than you judge yourself. If she believes in herself but her grades don’t confirm this belief, then she defers to the grades. She lets the letters and numbers assess her gifts and learns not to trust herself. Thus, even though she claims to enjoy creative writing and journaling, she insists, “I’ve always been a bad writer.”

Of course, “bad writer” is an umbrella term that catches all kinds of writing struggles: grammatical confusion, misinterpreted assignment instructions, late-night drafting, learning disabilities, the influence of other languages, procrastination from serious writer’s block, lack of coherent grammar instruction. Some of these issues can be handled directly in the classroom while others require special one-on-one attention. In my courses, I address process issues like writer’s block by devoting an entire class session to planning for an upcoming paper. Students claim that they don’t know what to write about, so I design activities that help them gather quotes from their text. Once students have collected enough evidence, they feel empowered to write the essay.

Too many students are intimidated by the challenge of producing “good” writing, so I encourage students to think of grammar and style as “final draft concerns.”* Because of my passion for grammar, I can’t easily suspend my grammatical awareness when drafting. However, I recognize that my best work comes when I have a clear idea of where I want to go—even if all the components of a piece are drifting lazily through my conscious mind like the globules in a lava lamp.

It takes a long time for my students to understand that grammar and style are not priorities of the planning stage. I suspect that their undue apprehensions about these features stem from previous classes, where their grammar errors earned them the label of “bad writer” or “careless student.” I’ve heard of nefarious practices that colleagues use to assess students’ grammar: some calculate individual deductions for every error while others remark on the quality of the grammar without offering advice. These techniques only intensify grammar’s reputation as a fearsome and mysterious power—flaunted by instructors and withheld from students.

I do believe in grammar as a kind of magic. In classical and medieval education, understanding the grammar of an object meant that you could have power over it: if you wanted to fix a broken horseshoe, you had to know the grammar of iron. My students think I’m stretching the truth here, but the etymologies of grammar and glamor are connected.** Therefore, understanding English grammar gives people the ability to weave magic with words—to have an influence. Effective texts can breed empathy and awareness: miracles worthy of sincere faith.

When I think of grammar as a kind of magic, I realize that my expectations change. I don’t expect everyone who picks up a violin to become a world-famous musician. I don’t expect everyone who can walk to have a masterful or confident gait. I realize that my grammatical understanding is a privilege fostered by my personal interest, solid education, and leisure time—which I fill with the reading of grammar books.

If grammar is magical, then the study of grammar cannot be remedial. Like the mastering of any other craft, grammar skills require lifelong dedication and practice. When we free grammar from the realm of the remedial, the slow, the sloppy, we begin to understand that we can all be bad at it, and we can all be good at it. Then we lose the need to punish without empathy those who break grammatical rules—to destroy the confidence of student writers because of a dangling modifier and a misplaced comma.

So my series of workshops are a dream come true. They offer me the chance to teach the magic of effective writing to those who want and need to learn. In these classes, deliberately placed outside courses where students focus on a grade, I can create a safe and mirthful space for exploring the structure of language.

 

* Though I practice this advice regularly, I did not invent it; Peter Elbow and Nancy Sommers articulate higher-order concerns  in their texts on the writing process.
** This discussion of grammar can be found in David Crystal’s The Story of English in 100 Words.

Fear and Form

As a blind woman, I do not court silence. The absence of sound in the presence of other people often makes me apprehensive. With no audible messages, I’m left to wonder what others are thinking and doing. This anxiety intensifies when I stand before my students. Are my students texting? passing notes? sleeping? While they produce no sound, I cannot judge their mood or level of attention to my class.

But as a blind teacher, I must set aside my discomfort and learn to trust in silence, in its power to make students access their own thoughts and voices.  When I pose a question, I force myself to wait, to endure the swell of soundlessness that fills the room. I must be willing to exchange one kind of knowledge—the audible signals of my students’ activities—for the quiet in which ideas percolate. If I wait long enough, a student will speak.

Today’s lesson will put my resolutions to the test. My students are exploring the concept of metaphor through poetry, the genre that renders them mute and uncomfortable. I have given them a packet of eight poems:

My students rarely react positively to poetry. Intimidated, irritated, or apathetic, they resist all kinds of poems—from William Carlos Williams’s “Red Wheelbarrow” to Adrienne Rich’s “What Kind of Times Are These.” So I expect silence today; I pass out the poems, knowing that I’ll hear more groans than anything else.

Despite their resistance, I insist on teaching poetry because poetry uses language beautifully on a budget. The poems I choose are brief, employing metaphors in memorable ways. The nine lines of Plath’s poem each contain at least one metaphor, and Heaney’s “A Drink of Water” weaves metaphorical and narrative language so closely that students have difficulty pulling the strands apart.

In my morning class, I ask for student volunteers to read the poems aloud. We begin with Atwood’s four-line poem, in which she uses each new line to subvert the meaning of the previous one. After a student reads the work aloud, I ask, “So what is this poem about?” The predicted silence occurs, throwing the pen-clicking and paper-shuffling into high relief. I wait. I let the silence grow; I imagine that it fils every corner of the room, snaking around the desks and climbing up the walls. Eventually, a student responds—and the attitude of her comment overshadows its content. She offers half-sentences, stumbles over her words, backs up.

As we move through the poems, I notice the same reticence in other student responses. When we read “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night,” a student says, “I guess it’s about a guy talking to his father…or something…because his father is dying?” The student is right—and it seems like an obvious interpretation to me—but he doesn’t feel right. Something about the text alienates him, and I suspect it’s because we call this text a poem.

When we label these  texts as “poems,” students handle them with certain assumptions. Poems should be difficult. Poems should advance ambiguous meanings—meanings that directly oppose a student’s intuition. Convinced that some phantom authority knows “what the poem is really about,” students learn to distrust their gut reactions to poetry. And where there is no trust, there can be no love. Why should I be surprised that they don’t want to get to know these texts? They’ve been told that Poetry stands aloof: she won’t give you her number, she won’t ask you to dance, you’ll always look foolish when you approach her.

Even if my students aren’t preoccupied with being wrong about the poems, I consider that they may be overwhelmed by the task of interpretation. So I change the plan of action for my afternoon class. I divide the project of engaging with the poem into four key tasks: 1) reading the poem aloud, 2) identifying the prominent metaphors, 3) identifying the genre conventions (what makes this poem a poem), and 4) explaining “what the poem is about. A group of 4-7 students will handle each task, and students can place themselves in the group that best suits their skills. The first three groups fill quickly, but few students want to be in the fourth, where they are most likely to display their lack of interpretive skill.

We approach the poems in the same order, beginning with Atwood. After an eager volunteer  from Group 1 reads the poem aloud, I notice an immediate upsurge in student conversation. Group members are conferring, reacting, forgetting to be self-conscious in the presence of an instructor and an unknowable genre. We discuss Atwood’s four lines in a disorderly fashion, students from each group chiming in before I can call on them. A voice from Group 2, who should be identifying metaphors, goes for the poem’s meaning: “So, this isn’t a love poem! It’s like a hate poem! She’s irritated with this other person, right?” Other voices sound their agreement without waiting for me to verify the student’s interpretation.

After the reading of Plath’s “Metaphors,” where the speaker describes herself as “a riddle in nine syllables…an elephant, a ponderous house,”the room falls silent. Plath’s layered metaphors can be overwhelming, cryptic. But it’s not long before a student from the read-aloud group bursts through the quiet: “She’s writing about being pregnant!” While her peers react with loud disbelief, I ask, “How do you know that?” and the student takes the class through every line of the poem, pointing to Plath’s fruit and body imagery, use of “nines” (it’s a nine-line poem, and each line has nine syllables), and creation metaphors.

Though the group exercise does not transform all quiet students into fearless interpreters, I feel that it changes the mood of the classroom. Students are eager to complete their group’s task, to do right by their group members, and this solidarity distracts them from the habitual intimidation that poetry inspires. I hear more excitement in their observations. They are proud of locating obscure metaphors, of understanding that poems use stanzas, repetition, and unconventional word order. As they delight in fanciful interpretations, I enjoy listening to them play with poetry.

I Only Have Eyes for…Grammar: Creating a Multi-Sensory Method for Teaching Writing

As a writing instructor with low vision, I spend my life trading between a large white stick and a small white stick. The large one, of course, is the cane that helps me navigate my work environment. I open my classroom door, cane in hand, and proceed to my desk. At the desk, I fold the cane and it disappears – a quick sleight of hand for the students present. Students who enter the room after me and leave before me will not know I use it. I trade the cane for a small white stick with a black cap, the dry-erase marker that enables me to convey my thoughts in visual language on the large whiteboard behind my desk.

Despite my blindness, vision occupies the central role in my classroom. In each class session, I trade one tool of vision for another—oscillating between the cane that compensates for my low vision and the marker that relies on the sight of my students. Even when I am not using my small white stick, my students complete primarily visual tasks.

In my first class, I guide the students through an exercise called Flash Peer Editing (FPE). FPE is something I created on the way to class, but I’m sure that the idea isn’t really mine. When you study, teach, and tutor writing, you forget who invented which pedagogy. However, I try to put my own spin on this exercise by incorporating aural and visual processes.

Flash Peer Editing works like this. Students bring two copies of their paper to class, keeping one in front of them and passing the other copy to their right. At this point, I use my little white stick to write a series of “rules” on the board, each brief rule corresponding to a round of rapid editing. At the end of each round, students pass the papers to their right. In Round 1, students should mark 3 things that are well executed in the paper, such as graceful sentences, apt word choice, or logical arguments. In Round 2, students should mark 3 sections for improvement—like awkward phrases, misspelled words, ill-defined concepts. They do not have to correct the problem—they just have to draw attention to it.

Round 3, another visual exercise, offers students the chance to search the paper for words from my Banned Words and Phrases list. The list contains 40+ words and phrases that tend to weaken student writing—phrases such as “The writer does a good job of X” or “The writer is just trying to Y.” Words like “very,” “utilize,” “totally,” and “huge”—and phrasal verbs like “talk about,” “back up,” “point out” and “go on to say”—are also on the list. My goal here is not to make students afraid or ashamed of using these words. Rather, I hope to show them that there are more descriptive words out there (and “out there” is also on the list). In Round 3, students readers circle any banned words that catch their eye as they read. They do not have to complete a meticulous search for every banned word in the paper.

Finally, in round 4, students experience their paper in a chiefly aural way. Students pass their papers to the left until each has his or her own work again. Then, they keep the marked copy of their short paper and hand the clean copy to a partner. Turning over the marked copy so that they won’t be tempted to look at the text, they listen to their partners read their work aloud. As the partner reads, students note any observations  they have about the sound of their work. They repeat this process twice, so both partners can hear their work aloud.

This round is undoubtedly my favorite because my classroom suddenly fills with the sound of self-conscious students reading aloud. Sometimes they adopt funny accents or pretentious voices to cover their unwillingness to read another’s work; other times, they read the writing faithfully and seriously, without attempting to alter pronunciation or inflections for comic relief. Invariably, the students listening to their own work begin to giggle and squirm. They seem to say, “Did I really write that?” Occasionally, the listeners express delight and surprise at the sound of their well-constructed sentences.

While this version of peer editing does incorporate aural and tactile elements—students hear their work aloud and mark another’s work—I am disappointed by its primarily visual nature. I want students to understand the importance of hearing their work aloud. Often, we edit as we read visually—our brain runs a sophisticated “autocorrect,” transforming hastily mistyped words until they resemble what we intended to type. Reading aloud thwarts this process, especially if you choose an unsympathetic reader who will stumble and stutter over your awkwardly worded phrases. Even if your reader can guess at your meaning, this guesswork takes some time; it will not occur within the first read-aloud.

I am spoiled by the text-to-speech software on my computer. During all the stages of my writing process, Alex, the obliging voice on the Mac OS, reads my work aloud—and, though he is remarkably expressive, he is also unsympathetic. He stumbles over my misspellings and convoluted sentences just as any human reader would.

In my second class, I again pick up the dry-erase marker to begin a highly visual explanation of sentence parts. I scrawl three sentences on the board:

  1. Today I got an umbrella.
  2. Sandra was driving to the store.
  3. Ms. Michael loves pumpkin spice lattes.

My students are having trouble with be-pattern sentences: sentences that use forms of to be as the main verb. These sentences look like this: Jane is sad, Andrew is in the car, Cecilia was angry, Marvin was the winner. Often, my students confuse these types of sentences with sentences like #2, “Sandra was driving to the store,” calling “driving to the store” an adverbial, a phrase that describes the verb was. I explain the difference in words, gesturing with my hands, but I am met by complete silence or the sound of a student tossing a pen aside in frustration. So I must illustrate the difference visually

I turn back to the board, searching for where I wrote my sentences. It is not always easy to find my own writing on the huge white surface. I ask students for the main verb in the sentence, and some courageous voice says, “Driving!” I draw a squiggly line underneath it. Then I point to “was” and ask, “So what do we call this?” Another brave participant says, “A linking verb!” and a student who has done her reading says calmly, “An auxiliary.”

I illustrate the incorrect labeling of sentence parts by drawing brackets around the sentences. I draw huge swooping arrows to convey which parts modify, or describe, nouns, verbs, or phrases. I draw boxes around subjects and squishy brackets around direct objects. I break up the sentences and write them in passive voice, drawing arrows to show how the subject is no longer doing the action.

As I scribble my version of grammatical geometry, I literally face the highly visual nature of my own grammar knowledge and instruction. I understand grammar in a visual way. Like many of my peers, I was forced through countless hours of diagramming sentences—plotting sentences on long horizontal lines and relegating modifiers and less important phrases to the space beneath the lines.

As I teach these lessons, I cannot help but think, What if I had a totally blind student? What would I do? How can I translate my visual understanding of grammar and my sight-based editing techniques to a nonvisual thinker? I harbor secret dreams of taking a braille essay and cutting out every individual word, so that the words could be plotted and rearranged on a large surface. Perhaps I could teach diagramming sentences in the way that I was taught the basic templates for street crossings. A mobility instructor arranged bright yellow strips of velcro on a large black felt board, making T and plus-shaped intersections and asking me to navigate the “route” with a finger. I felt like I was in kindergarten again, but I enjoyed this tactile approach.

Though my current methods are proving effective, I continue to strive for a multi-sensory approach. I cannot love the sound of poetry and feel of editing without wanting students to experience these sensations for themselves. When I draw complex diagrams on the board, I am visually representing what I believe to be the anatomical structure of living language—a structure that could easily become three-dimensional with the right tools. My task now is to find these tools and implement them. I want to make students take writing into their own hands, to feel their words in their fingers and break and remake sentences at their natural junctures.

Blind Teacher II: The Saga Continues

Just before lunchtime, I receive an urgent call. The colleague, whose class I’ll be taking over in two weeks, needs me to start tomorrow. Tomorrow!? I’d planned to go in and observe tomorrow; I’d given the assigned poems a cursory reading. I wanted to sit in the back and be unobtrusive. I must dispense with these half-plans and begin new ones.  Luckily, I know where the classroom is; another colleague helped me find it when we were activating our electronic keys.

I begin the process of making the materials accessible. I send a series of emails to our department secretary, asking him to enlarge the poems for tomorrow’s class. In their current state, they’re dingy photocopies – not as grungy as some I’ve seen, but far too small to be legible. The photocopies were made in the usual manner of English professors: Open the thick book and mash it, pages down, onto the copier glass. The thicker the book, the more the professor resists copying each page to its own sheet of paper – so the text slips and curves into the graying vortex of the book’s spine and the edges of each page are muddy and dark.

To make these texts accessible, someone – usually our meticulous secretary – will have to apply OCR (Optical Character Recognition) software to the existing PDFs. OCR will change the way that the computer interacts with the PDF. Instead of treating the PDF as a giant picture, OCR will allow the computer to recognize individual letters. Then using the text-to-speech function, my computer will read the texts aloud to me. This accounts for half of the ideal accessible text.

The other half of accessibility is visual; I must be able to visually interact with texts. Here is where I usually clasp my hands and stare woefully at the ceiling – Why oh why did I choose a profession that demands such intense interaction with texts? – but it can’t be helped. I know that any career I choose will present its own challenges.

Because I will thoroughly annotate each text and later read it silently or aloud under the variable lighting of a classroom, I require a larger font than I would use at home or in my office, beneath the cozy mood lighting I like best. This means that the dreadful 2-pages-per-sheet photocopies must be printed so that one book page covers one 8.5×11 sheet of paper. Occasionally people take it upon themselves to enforce “bigger is better,” enlarging my work to fit on 11×14 paper, but this measure begins a textual misadventure. Because my visual fields are limited, I work better with smaller areas, like the 13-inch screen on my laptop. To work with a larger screen up close, I would have to scan it more frequently. If I stand a few feet away, my central vision can accommodate larger areas.

My use of text in class is intimate and specific. I need a clear font with serifs, like Times New Roman or Cambria, and I need the text printed on a manageable area – standard letter-size paper. For longer texts, I need clear (enlarged) page numbers and a solid system for organization, whether it’s staples, binders, or tabs. Fortunately, for this class, I am dealing with two short packets of poems – each packet is about 15 pages long.

Because of the short notice, I worry that I will end up teaching without accessible copies of the poems. I am unfamiliar with the two poets, and I can only reason that I’ll ask students to read some of the text aloud. This will be my first time teaching these students, and I know the need to appear confident and capable.

Just hours before my class begins, my colleague and I briefly discuss the poems. She describes major themes, and I suggest possible directions for the class. Our secretary manages to enlarge them in the nick of time, and I shove the two packets in my bag on my way to another meeting.

All too soon, I stand before a low table at the front of my new classroom. Though I have folded my white cane, I have not removed my burgundy-framed sunglasses – the overhead lights are intense. My colleague introduces me briefly and asks the students to introduce themselves. My hands slide idly along the edge of the table. I feel my fingers start to tap the table, and I stop myself. I remember that, though I can only see parts of them – fuzzy heads, colorful blurs of clothing, dark lumps that must be schoolbags – they can all see me. I refuse to think about the loose bow on my shirt (is it straight?) or the shine that a warm classroom and two pairs of glasses add to my face. I smile, grateful that I remembered to apply lip balm.

Even before I’ve given the blind professor spiel, introductions flow smoothly. All the students speak clearly, and most speak cheerfully, giving me their name, major, and an interesting fact about themselves. Once my colleague has fielded a handful of questions about past assignments, she leaves me alone with the new class. I take a breath and begin The Talk.

I explain that I’ll be identifying them by their voices: “If I don’t hear you, you’re not here. So you’ll want to speak up often.” I say that I’ll be asking them whether the whiteboard is clean before I write on it. “It’s a pain to write over some previous math class,” I intone seriously. When I am greeted with silence, I grin, “That’s a joke. You can laugh.” They oblige – my first clue that they’ll be a fun and cooperative group. Lastly I ask, “Where’s the lightswitch in here?” A male student leaps to his feet, offering to turn off the lights for me, but I resist.  “No, I’ll do it – just direct me.” I explain that this is an informal test of their ability to communicate clearly and use direction-specific words. That gets a genuine laugh. Several voices chime in with succinct and accurate directions, and I flip off three of the four switches. Lastly, I add that they’ll need to submit their assignments in 18-point font. “And if your printer is running out of ink,” I pause dramatically. “Do us both a favor and print from the library. Faded ink is not fun to read.”

The students receive this information stoically, though they chuckle in all the right places. There are no questions or complaints; they seem to digest what I’ve said without a problem. I can’t believe I’m at the end of my “this is how your professor is different” talk already. Don’t I have more to say? DId I forget anything?

After my introduction, I lay out the plan for that day’s class – a length of 3.5 hours with three 10-minute breaks. As we move through collective and individual peer review, an informal lecture on poetics, and an interactive annotation exercise, we subtly amend the course plan. The students readily answer my questions about the course procedures and the day’s material. At one point, they can’t remember the criteria for individual peer review, so we invent a new procedure. During the final break, students chat about the feedback they’ve received. “We don’t get a lot,” they tell me. “We don’t get graded.”

“Do you know why?” I ask, knowing full well that my colleague has explained her methodology to them. But because it’s so new and foreign, they don’t remember it.

I offer them an explanation, and they indulge me, letting me pontificate for ten minutes on the value of the teacherless writing class. I scrawl Peter Elbow’s name on the board and explain, with more zeal than eloquence, the need to make writing a daily habit, the virtues of freewriting, and the growing confidence and command of words that accompanies such a pedagogy. I finish by saying that they’ll always read more willingly the material that interests them – but there is also value in learning to read texts that don’t interest them. Like the daily practice of musicians and athletes, writing takes rigor and commitment before you can expect to perform, to produce something of value.

I doubt my speech pleases them, but I can sense that they are happier knowing what philosophies structure this course. I am excited to watch them grow as writers, curious how much they will choose to develop. And I feel I’ve accomplished something for myself. I expected the class to be chaotic: I imagined myself stumbling through unfamiliar poems, trying to articulate someone else’s theories, while students unaccustomed to the quirks of my instruction gave stilted responses or none at all. I feel an intense gratitude for the cooperation that brought us all success – a powerful appreciation for my colleague’s guidance, my secretary’s resourcefulness with the myriad and confusing features of Adobe Acrobat, and my students’ willingness to help me settle into the new rhythm of our course. Yet again, I find myself amazed at how quickly challenges disappear when people decide to work together.

Music Lessons

Eleven years ago, I sat in a cold, hard folding chair, ready to meet my high school chorus director and fellow singers for the first time. Arranged in three concentric semicircles, the chairs faced a creaky metal music stand, a sturdy conducting platform, and a white board, designed to resemble a giant sheet of staff paper. Though I could not distinguish the neat black lines on the board, I knew they were there. My mobility instructor had described them when she oriented me to the room.

With two resounding thuds, a petite, compact person stepped onto the conducting platform. I could distinguish a dark blouse, and black pants. White cuffs and collar helped me find her hands and face. Her mouth resided somewhere beneath a head of bobbed gray-blond hair, but her voice could not be confined to that petite frame. It was huge, powerful, with a touch of gravel.

In a friendly, no-nonsense manner, she introduced herself as Mrs. B. She was prepared to teach us how to sing and read music. She was adamant to correct the school myth that her chorus class was an “easy A.”

“This may be an elective,” she declared, her voice intense and serious. “But you will work hard.”

Then she asked us about our previous musical experience. We were instructed to raise our hands if we’d had piano or voice lessons or played in a middle school band. At the mention of piano, my hand shot up. I was excited to prove myself, to show her that I was one step ahead of my peers.

“Well, forget all of that,” she insisted, waving a dismissive hand at our collective experience. “We’re all equals in this room. You may have had previous training, but your present dedication will earn my respect.”

In the next weeks, Mrs. B. introduced us to the basics of singing – posture, breathing, resonance, placement – all new concepts for me. Though I had years of experience singing in church and school choirs and performing in school musicals, I had never received formal training. Mrs. B. taught us to identify our vocal registers: head voice, mid-voice, and chest voice. She guided us through the dizzying stage of using our head voice for the first time. Because the head voice is a region of the voice where the air you breathe meets no resistance, your first tentative notes will make you lightheaded. It’s a new frontier for the novice singer.

Alongside vocal training, Mrs. B. led us through the rudiments of musical literacy. With my nose pressed against the pages of my thick chorus textbook, I learned to identify lines, spaces, measure lines, time signatures, and the other elements of musical notation. Mrs. B promised that we would become excellent sight-readers – able to glance at a piece of music and sing it with surprising accuracy.

I had my doubts about sight-reading. When I was learning piano, I was unable to visually track the musical line. If the music rested on the piano, I couldn’t read it. If I held the music close enough to read, I could only play piano one-handed. Luckily for me, using the voice left both hands free to hold the music – an inch from my face. I squinted at the bright white paper, where dark squat ovals of melody curved along the staff like tendrils of jasmine.

After months of sight-reading drills in class and furtive annotations at home, I began to parse the visual elements of written music with ease. I no longer had to count lines and spaces with a tentative finger or guess whether I was staring at a half rest or whole rest. I could not only read music – I could understand its theory, its rules of composition.

The musical instruction that Mrs. B. provided grew more valuable with time. I moved on to other choruses: an a cappella group (where I was required to read the bass line) and a fast-paced university chorale (where several soprano lines and foreign languages complicated the musical landscape). Her rigorous preparations ensured my success in these groups.

However, the most meaningful lessons I took from Mrs. B. were not related to music, though they occurred in a musician’s environment. They stand as bookends to my high school experience.

The first occurred within the early months of my freshman year. Our school was holding auditions for the musical Godspell, and, like any eager, hopeful freshman, I wanted to try out. With a few other friends from chorus, I practiced excerpts from the musical. I filled out the small audition form with my contact information and selected what kind of part I’d prefer. I stepped onstage in the cafeteria (this was well before my high school received a fully functioning theatre) and sang my excerpt.

After all the participants had done a little singing, the judging committee taught us a brief choreography routine. We were placed onstage in lines while a female teacher demonstrated the routine before us. I fumbled terribly, listening hard for my friends’ instructions. I felt ashamed and inadequate. Without individual instruction, I would never master a routine like this.

We took a short break before small groups of potential stars went onstage to perform the dance routine. During the break, I sat at a round cafeteria table with friends, feeling low. The judges – Mrs. B. and two other faculty – sat nearby, a few tables away, just within earshot. Hearing my name, I tuned in to their conversation.

“Are you sure Emily can do this?” asked one of the judges – her voice was unfamiliar to me.

Mrs. B. replied, “I’m sure she can, if we teach her the routine one-on-one. She just needs someone to show it to her.”

The third judge disagreed, “I don’t know. That seems like a lot of work. And she might not get it.”

Here, Mrs. B. said a line that I have often replayed in my head: “I have total confidence in her.”

When I think back on this scenario, I ask myself, How did she know I was worth it? Mrs. B. had only known me for a month or so, only seen me for a few hours each week. What made her believe in me?

I’ve never quizzed her about it. At the time, the line was too good to be true, but it was also exactly what I needed. I learned the routine. I did my best. I didn’t get a part in Godspell, but I felt empowered.

Mrs. B’s other lesson came three years later, when I was a senior. On my way to chorus, I had to walk down a crowded hallway in Building 3. With high ceilings and metal lockers along the walls, Building 3 was a loud, echoing space – amplifying all hallway conversations, especially the ones about me.

As the only blind girl at a school whose visibly disabled students could be counted on the fingers of one hand, I was often the target of unfriendly gossip. Since I had gone to elementary and middle school with the same group of classmates – a group who felt that mocking my poor vision was taboo – I wasn’t prepared for this negative reaction to my blindness. I walked into our chorus room, blinking back tears.

Mrs. B called her usual friendly greeting as I found my seat. I was the only student in the room, and she came to stand by me. I told her how hard it was to be the subject of constant gossip, to be around people who always underestimated and judged me. I said that I wished I couldn’t hear what others were saying as I walked to class.

She responded with practical wisdom: You don’t judge yourself by their opinion of you. You are so much more than they can understand. They don’t get to decide who you are. You decide that.

And she walked away, presumably to prepare for class. Maybe to give me a few moments to collect myself and process her words.

When I measure my experience of Mrs. B against other conductors, I find that the others always fall short. I think it’s because Mrs. B believed in something more than a power struggle between one person holding a baton and a group of musicians. Mrs. B wanted us to be empowered individuals and hardworking musicians. She stepped off the platform to check on us, and her reassurances were filled with strength and passionate belief.

Mrs. B was tough and honest. She didn’t sugarcoat the truth – she freely expressed her disappointment as readily as her joy. When she believed in us, we could believe in ourselves.

With her actions, Mrs. B. defined the teaching role for me.

A teacher believes in the subject and the students.

Blind Teacher

On final exam day, I sit at the front of a quiet classroom, listening attentively for the sound of my students writing. Pens are a lot quieter than they used to be; I can barely hear them marking their papers. The test, four pages of literary terms and grammar exercises, is free response, so I should be able to hear something—maybe a student loudly tossing his pen onto the desk in frustration, another sighing heavily, or a third compulsively clicking her retractable pen as she ponders the difference between active and passive voice.

As I sit at the low table at the front of the room, I think about the many silences that have occurred across the semester. They usually represented a discussion in the making, a classroom of students waiting for me to answer my own questions or afraid to venture their own opinions. On the first day, the silence was unique—pregnant with nervous energy. I remember sitting behind the large teacher’s desk, checking the time on my phone, not wanting to start class too early. I could barely see over that desk; I felt small and inadequate behind it. Soon I started dragging one of the student tables toward the dry erase board and positioning the large teacher chair behind it.

Sitting at this shorter table, I can see my students as a collective group. I can distinguish body shapes but not individual features. I can observe posture. I watch them taking their exam and realize that their backs are straight. None of them hunch over the desk, their noses inches from the paper, as I would have done—as I still do when I write at a desk. Up until now, I’ve equated that hunched posture with concentration. The more intensely I concentrated, the lower I bent over the desk. I only leaned away, only sat up straight, when I had finished reading or writing. I sat, back straight, when I discussed course material or answered questions—these behaviors were a breeze for me.

Watching my students, I can’t help but wonder how I looked as a student, bent over my paper in ardent concentration. What did my teachers think seeing me doubled over the desk? What changed when I sat up? Did they think, “Oh that’s just how she has to do it?” Could they see what that posture meant for me?

Twenty minutes pass in relative silence, with the occasional sound of a student scratching out his answer and rewriting it. Finally, the quiet breaks as a student flips her exam over, stands, gathers her things, and zips her bag. My ears place her on the right side of the room, and I hear her traveling toward me. She calmly offers me her test paper, and I track the flash of white, extending my hand to take it. She wishes me a relaxing winter break and leaves the room.

These sounds repeat as other students finish the exam and bring me their papers. At my desk, some pause awkwardly, unsure which of us will speak first. A student says, “Here,” and hands me her paper. I thank her and smile. She waits half a second and then blurts out, “I’ve had an amazing semester—you’re a great teacher!”

I am stunned. I stammer a grateful reply and she hurries away. Other students repeat similar remarks as they drop off their exams.

“I really enjoyed your class.”

“I hope we can keep in touch.”

“I learned a lot from you.”

“I appreciate all you’ve done to make me a better writer.”
I am shocked, not because I feel diffident about my abilities, but because I don’t remember making declarations like these as a freshman. I remember turning in exams and getting out of there, desperate for a coffee and some holiday shopping. I don’t remember thinking to compliment my instructors until I reached my upper level courses.

I think about all the things that worried me—not seeing their hands in the air, writing over my own writing on the board, being unable to find what I’d written, not seeing them texting or using their computers during class, being unable to read their body language and facial expressions—an endless list of incompetencies. I was sure that these things would make me a bad teacher, one that students would mock. A teacher they would ignore. A teacher they wouldn’t take seriously. I was afraid that all my individual struggles would amount to a pathetic reputation—that I wouldn’t be able to demonstrate my skills because I regularly made gaffes in small, everyday ways.

Then students stopped at my desk. One student gave me a loaf of pumpkin bread and a handwritten letter of appreciation. Another lingered, even after turning in his exam. He said that I was different from the instructors at his previous school, that I cared. The handwritten letter, which I read later in my office, reiterated this gem; the student said that she was touched by my enthusiasm. She was amazed that I wanted to share my love of the material with students. She said that’s what mattered.

So many of my first-semester concerns can be laid to rest now. My students don’t mind printing their work in size 18. They have learned to tell me when I’m writing close to the board’s edge. My inability to detect their raised hands doesn’t make me a bad instructor. In my classroom, students were willing to suspend the conventions that have been a part of their education since kindergarten—Don’t interrupt! Raise your hand! Be quiet!—and respect my unconventional space.