1. What class or classes do you teach?
I’m in my fourth year of teaching Junior English (American Lit and Composition) and Literature of England. This year I also get to teach Media Literacy for the very first time, which is exciting and horrifying all at once.
2. What type of writing do you deal with most often? Essays? Short answer? Outlines?
A little bit of everything. One of the awesome parts about teaching high school is that we get to experiment with a little of everything. In 11th grade our big focus point is the argumentative essay, but we also write screenplays, short stories, memoirs, poetry, ACT test essays, etc.
3. How important is good grammar and spelling to you?
In a finalized, published piece it’s super important — noticing an error will immediately take your reader out of the piece and stop caring. (Which makes me hope to God I’ve done an alright job proofing this.) In drafts and revisions, though, it’s alright to be a little messy.
It’s also important to know your purpose for a piece of writing. Creative pieces have a lot more leeway for weird grammar and sentence structure than a formal essay does. Personally, the best advice is that, in all walks of life, you need to know the rules and have a purpose for breaking them. Laziness doesn’t count.
4. Which style do you prefer students use in your class (MLA, APA, CMS, etc.)? Why?
Most Humanities teachers still roll with MLA, and I’m just fine with that as I’ve been using it for 10+ years through undergrad and high school. I’m just starting a Master’s of Education program which requires APA for everything and the differences are subtle, so knowing how to switch is also an important skill. Most of the time I’ve found that, since I know MLA pretty well, I can switch between formats with minimal pain. Regardless of your familiarity, resources like Purdue OWL are essential for students. Use them!
5. Do you have any tips for doing research?
Start early, use a system that’s comfortable for you, and dive right in. Many teachers require steps be completed in a certain order (research question, then thesis, then outline, then notecards, etc.) which can really trip up some students. My high school English teacher, for example, required that we take notes on index cards and use a complicated numbering system to keep track of which source the evidence came from. It was a nightmare. I’m just not wired to organize or process things that way. I’m a mental pre-writer — I don’t have notebooks filled with outlines or mind-maps or anything— so I usually start mulling over a topic or two in my head for a week or two before I start researching. After I’ve got my idea, I’ll comb through databases and articles to see what others say about my idea, then posit my own claim, and start writing to see where I end up. A lot of my initial writing is revised to hell by the end, but to me this process makes sense: the end result is the same, I just take a different route.
If your instructor is having you follow a specific research or note-taking process that doesn’t work for you, talk to them! Come up with an alternative. Same thing if you’re having difficulty finding sources or putting an idea into words. Teachers and librarians have been at this stuff a long time, and we’re here to help!
6. What are your biggest pet peeves when it comes to students’ writing in your class?
I have a few, but the biggest one is assuming that I’m too dumb to catch plagiarism. I’ve spent nine months reading everything you’ve written, so when you all of a sudden sound like a completely different person it’s fairly easy to catch. I know how to use Google. Most of the time catching a plagiarist is no more complicated than entering a few key phrases and seeing what pops up.
Also, it’s bad karma. Writing is tough work, but it’s also incredibly rewarding. Passing off someone else’s sweat, pain, and spiritual breakthroughs as your own will catch up with you even if you don’t get caught right away. Don’t be a dick.
7. What are some writing mistakes that you make that you’d like to caution your students against?
Finding the purpose, audience, and tone for a piece of writing is really difficult for a lot of people. Memoir and persuasion should read differently, just like a tweet and a resume will read differently. It’s up to you to ensure that your formal writing stays formal. Over time your voice will grow to a point where you sound like you no matter the genre or format, but even then you have to be very deliberate about the words and phrases you choose to include based on who will be reading the piece and what the expectations are. Knowing when to switch between voices will make your life so much easier.
8. What do you think is the most important thing students should know about writing in your class?
Your first draft will always suck. Probably your second draft, too. Then the third, then fourth, fifth not so much but then you’ll break it again for the sixth. If you keep at it, though, and ask for feedback from instructors and writing groups, read other authors you admire, and revise until your eyes bleed, after a while it will start to grow into something you’re really proud of, then excited about, until finally you’re sitting in front of a piece you can’t believe you had anything to do with. And I will be so pumped to read it.
Thank you to Jake for his shrewd acumen and advice! We hope that you’ve learned something, even if you haven’t seen the inside of a classroom in years.
If you are a teacher and you’d like to be a part of the Ask a Teacher Series, please shoot us a message! We’d love to have you!