Many years ago, I taught college composition at a small art and illustration college in Chicago. The students in my classes were a diverse and irrepressibly creative bunch with an intimidating range of writing confidence and experience—a true challenge for a relatively inexperienced writing instructor. My attempts to make them love and appreciate writing as much as I did were clunky and artificial at best in the earliest years of my career, but over time, as I got comfortable with my own insecurities and fears, I stopped trying to tell them how to feel about and experience writing and started listening to how they already felt about and experienced writing.
Writing is hard, even for those who love doing it. It is often solitary work, and even when it isn’t, it requires great bravery to put your words out into the world and open yourself up to criticism and rejection. If your primary experience of writing for most of your life has been only criticism, correction, and rejection, as was the experience for many of my students, it becomes almost impossibly difficult to see why it is worth it to try again, to put more words on the page, to offer yourself up for another round of potential humiliation. And if English is not the language you are most comfortable with communicating in to begin with, the social, emotional, and academic stakes become even higher.
As I began to understand the writing wounds my students had endured over the years, my empathy for their pain grew, and I wanted to find new ways to affirm their courage and to celebrate their accomplishments—great and small—in my classroom. I wanted to model for them the reality that writing, like life, is a process. It is never truly finished or complete or perfect; there is always room to keep growing, evolving, and developing our skills. I read an excerpt of Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones at the beginning of each class, and we would practice writing for a minute to strengthen our writing muscles. At one point, I was working on writing a thesis for a program I was enrolled in, and I would show them drafts of my own writing, all marked up with red ink from my own editing or a peer-editing session or edits my professors had made, to show that even as their instructor, I was still a work in process when it came to writing.
At the end of the semester, when it was time to conclude the community that we had built together through this writing experience, I wanted to offer a meaningful way for my students to process what they had learned and perhaps most importantly, I wanted to provide a means for processing any emotions that had come up throughout the course. So, on the last day of class, I arranged the tables in the room in a circle and I gave each student two strips of paper. I started by asking them to reflect on the work they had done in the class throughout the semester and write on one strip of paper an accomplishment that made them feel happy or proud. I emphasized that this was only for themselves and that they would not share it with anyone else in the room. After a few minutes of thinking and writing, I passed around a shoebox with a slit cut in the lid and asked them all to put that strip of paper in the box. Then, I asked them to think carefully about something that happened during the class that they regretted or wished they had done differently and to write that on the other strip of paper. After a few minutes of thinking and writing, I passed the box around again and asked them to put that strip of paper in the box. I would then place the box in the middle of the circle.
“Both these things that you have written down—your memory of something positive and your memory of something you wish you had done differently in this class—are now in the past. They are a part of you and a part of what you learned here, but you can now let them go and move on from this class to whatever your future holds in your next classes in the next semester,” I would say. I would thank my students for sharing all these experiences together throughout the class and encourage them to continue to practice their writing and to grow their skills in whatever way best fit their future goals and plans.
You may not have a class size or the kind of furniture you can arrange to reproduce this kind of ending experience exactly, but consider ways to make a meaningful end to your classes that acknowledges not only the cognitive challenges but also the social and emotional challenges and growth that students may have encountered in the weeks they have spent together. Perhaps your shoebox is a digital dropbox or a Google Jamboard or a collage of images rather than words.
Over the past few years, we have all had to navigate some painful and ambiguous transitions in our work and our personal lives. Developing the skills to recognize, appreciate, and let go of both the good and the bad in our experiences as we end one thing and move on to the next is a gift we can give to ourselves and our students. Some simple tools and an understated course conclusion, while not revolutionary, can provide a starting point for essential skills inside and outside the classroom.
Goldberg, N. (2005) Writing down the bones: Freeing the writer within. Shambala Publishing.
Jaime O’Connor serves as assistant director of the Washington Center for Improving Undergraduate Education at the Evergreen State College. Her higher ed experience spans instructional and administrative roles from general education to program assessment and institutional accreditation. Jaime’s teaching practice is based on contemplative practices gained through her MA in contemplative education from Naropa University.