Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Stop the Bleeding with Words

In the Beginning…
by Kathy Belby

His name is Professor BJ Ward and I met him through a cold call to Warren County Community College in Washington, NJ. I hadn’t done my homework - hadn’t researched the English department at the small (1500 students) local two year college or googled the faculty. I knew I wanted some experience teaching; but Western’s vague course description of ENG 569 wasn’t much help:

"The program requires students to share their understandings as writers with others who want or need to write. The students will work as a teacher or coach of writing under the tutelage of a qualified mentor. The student will be required to keep a journal of his or her experience and to write a substantial evaluation of the experience. "

Frankly, I wasn’t even sure exactly what kind of teaching experience I should be asking for, but it was late November and the deadline to set up a practicum was at hand.

“My name is Kathy Belby,” I began. “I’m an MFA student from Western Connecticut University and I…” I paraphrased the course description of ENG 569 into something equally hazy.

BJ Ward listened patiently on the phone.

“I think we can work with you,” he said. “But just so you know, we’re not grooming Pulitzer prize winners here. It’s a war and we’re just trying to stop the bleeding.”

“That’s OK,” I assured him. (I’m a nurse after all).

We arranged to meet at a poetry reading a few days later.

As frequently happens in life – a brand new word pops up unexpectedly three times in the day after you learn it – or - without prompting, two people on separate occasions mention the obscure film you’ve picked up at Blockbuster – BJ Ward’s name came up at random right after our phone conversation.

“Hey, Devin, what’s up?” I said to my friend’s son as he stocked yogurt in the A & P. He tucked his hair behind his ear; his sideburns met his beard and made a complete loop around his angular face.

“I got finals at WCCC tomorrow,” he said as he ripped open a box of Land of Lakes unsalted butter. “English. I got this guy – BJ Ward. He’s really good.”

I stopped the slow motion of my cart. “Oh, yeah?” I said.

“Yeah, he’s probably the best teacher I’ve ever had.” He carefully lined up the edges of the butter boxes. “Yeah, it’s so much better than high school English.”

“That’s cool,” I said. “Hey, Dev, could you hand me one of those butters?”

“Sure,” he said and gave me a crooked smile. “See ya, Mrs. Belby.”

A few days later I was at a Christmas party, talking to Sarah, a 20 something daughter of a friend of mine. She’s now living in California, working with Americorp, helping to reforest a state park by planting seedlings. She loves Americorp - loves having the opportunity to travel and meet new friends – something that would be impossible without this agency, given the resources of her family. Americorp will help pay for the rest of college, too, she tells me. She did one year of school at WCCC and had decided to drop out, until one of the professors – BJ Ward – convinced her she should keep plugging away at it.

“BJ Ward?” I asked.

“Yeah, he’s the best,” she said. “Whenever I go back there, I always stop in to see him.”

“I’m going to be working with him…” I explained to her.

“Oh, you’ll like him,” she assured me. “He’s a really picky teacher, too. There are writing tutors that we can take our papers to for help. If those tutor people miss something, Professor Ward will make sure they’re fired.”

Through emails and one face to face meeting, BJ Ward and I hammered out a description of what my practicum will look like. I’ll attend his freshmen comp I class 2 days a week for an hour and a half each session. The book he uses,
Patterns for a Purpose, by Barbara Fine Clouse, presents different approaches (patterns) to writing essays through didactic material and example. Prof Ward focuses on four of these patterns in this course: narration, exemplification, process analysis, and comparison /contrast. I selected four essays which I wanted to discuss and will teach four complete classes. Along the way, I will also teach segments of lessons as we decide. The syllabus for this composition class requires that the students write four short papers of at least 500 words and one research paper of at least 2000 words. I will observe how Professor Ward grades the first three papers and then will grade the fourth set of papers (comparison and contrast) on my own, with a subsequent review by him before they are returned to the students. The students are graded on their four papers (10% each), class participation and quizzes (20%), the research paper (20%), and a final exam (20%).

Most of the 22 students in this class are 18-21 years old and many are taking Comp I second semester because they have had to take remedial writing or reading in the fall semester. Many work and all commute as there are no dormitories at WCCC.

What I know about teaching is mostly from observing the many teachers I have had throughout my life. I believe that a teacher’s chief job is to motivate students to think, and more pointedly, to think about a specific field – in this case, writing/reading. In order to achieve this, a teacher must care about his (or her) students and I suspect from those two random and unsolicited student comments that BJ Ward may be such a teacher. A good teacher must also be passionate about his field and ideally be practicing it outside the classroom. A Google search after I set up my practicum, revealed that Professor Ward has won the Pushcart Prize for Poetry and two Distinguished Artist Fellowships from the NJ State Council on the Arts. His poetry has been read on NPR and New Jersey Network’s “State of the Arts” and published in TriQuarterly, Poetry, Painted Bride Quarterly, and Mid -American Review, to name a few. He’s also had essays published in the New York Times, The Worcester Review, and Teaching Artist of New Jersey. This spring on April 4 in New Orleans, he will deliver a paper, “Blue Collar Poetry from my Working-Class Students’ Perspectives” at the National Conference on College Composition and Communication, hosted by the National Council of Teachers of English. Somehow I have inadvertently stumbled on a mentor who seems to embody what I consider the two most essential qualities of a good teacher – one who is passionate about his students and passionate about his work.

There are many things I don’t know about teaching, things which I hope find out about during this practicum – how to grade essays fairly, how to set up lesson plans, how to manage a class. But I know I will care about the students. Already I am wondering about the boy in the third row, front seat (one of three Matts) who says he spent the last six months living in NYC sleeping “wherever” (to include a dumpster) and the girl who sits in the back, and was “kicked out of the Army for anorexia” and now has a new baby. How can I get them to care – even a little, given their circumstances – about the passion I feel for writing?

From this practicum, I want to discern whether or not I could be an effective Composition teacher at the community college level. BJ Ward tells me that Warren County Community College is setting up the first AFA in Writing – Associates in Fine Arts – in the state of New Jersey (and the seventh in the nation.) Armed with an MFA in Professional Writing from Western, I would like to see myself as part of this new program – as an adjunct professor in Warren County Community College’s AFA for writers.

References cited:
Clouse, Barbara Fine. Patterns for a Purpose. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2006.


Kir said...

Hi Kathy, I was just breezing through the MFA blog...don't really know why, and I'd love to hear how your practicum goes. Please keep me posted and ask me questions if any arise, although it sounds like Prof Ward is going to be more than useful. Kirstin

Prof. Clements said...

Kathy, you forgot to mention the Charles Rafferty connection with BJ Ward!

Laura H said...

Hi Kathy
Your practicum sounds as if it is going wonderfully. I knew you would be a natural in the classroom. Put your mother's and nurse's intuition together and your writers will do fine.
Any more thoughts on that Sending YOur Kid to College book? I'll be back this summer.
Laura H