Sunday, 15 February 2009

Write Stuff

Tufan is sweating blood, huddled miserably over his answer sheet, scribbling and erasing, chewing the end of his pencil. Tufan hates writing. He chews his lower lip and wipes eraser rubbings off his desk, then casts a look of pure agony heavenward. Sighing deeply, he bunches up his lips, then tries again. And erases. And starts afresh.

Write to your good friend Barbara and tell her about the things you did during your first term, the directions state.

I slide on my glasses and unobtrusively read what Tufan has written over his shoulder: To My good friend Barbara, I am Tufan, Turkish boy goes to university and studying English. I has have twenty years old. I am like first term too much.

I try not to sigh. How many times have I told him that if you're writing to a friend, you don't have to introduce yourself? And we've covered simple present for habitual actions versus present continuous for current ones time after time, and yet look at what he went and wrote! Why in God's name can't he learn?

Two rows behind him, Esra is squirming in her seat, her forehead creased in concentration. She has finished her e-mail and moved on to the mock job application she is supposed to fill out. Her writing is nice and bold, so I can easily read what she has written. I almost wish I couldn't.

In the space marked Occupation, Esra has clearly written Yes.

We've covered what occupation means more times than I can count. She knows it's supposed to be student. Will she ever learn?

After Describe a person you know very well, I am heartened to see that Unsal has already written an entire paragraph; normally it takes her ages just to come up with an idea. On closer inspection, however, I find that she has written the following: My best friend Fatma and I have known each other from earliest girlhood. She is a kind and generous person and I consider myself very fortunate in having her as a friend.

This is beautiful English and if Unsal produced it herself then my name is Fyodor Dostoyevsky. I don't have to read much further to find the limits of her memory: I like my best friend, Fatma, too much. My best friend talk many times to me. We visit together and share. We go harbor. We eat somethings.

And yes, she knows exactly how I feel about plagiarism. She's done it before and she has been read the Riot Act. Clearly, she doesn't think I'll be able to tell the difference between the two styles.

There are times I feel like I'm beating my head against a brick wall. Will they ever learn?

So I go home and I spend hours revising my own endless manuscript. I sweat blood, I scribble and erase, metaphorically speaking, and sometimes I find it utter torture. I write, I erase, and I write again. And a week later, I go back and read what I've labored over, hoping against hope...and I find telling instead of showing. Long, drawn-out yawn-worthy scenes. Redundancies. Inconsistent characters. Information dumps. Embarrassingly obvious plot devices. Non sequiturs.

But I have every intention of learning...


Robin said...

I'll bet you'd be about a zillion times better a student than Fatma!

Oh, that was too funny. She is so silly that she thinks her sentences sound the same as the plagiarized ones. I can't stop giggling.

Angela said...

Do they know that you're a writer as well as a teacher? I wonder what they would think to know of your aspirations!

Nandini said...

Funny and frustrating! Probably both for you and your students ... any idea how they write in Turkish? I am bilingual, having studied Hindi and English since elementary school, but it's been very hard trying to teach my kids Hindi in the U.S. Wish I could do a Vulcan mind-meld ... Though, like you say, the learning never stops!

Chris Eldin said...

Hi Mary,

Sorry I'm not reading your post right now....will come back. I'm trying to collect email addys...

This is a copy and paste message:


I wanted to ask you if you could take a moment and send me an email at my new email address:

(You don’t have to write anything, I just want your email address for my new contact list, if that’s okay).
The hotmail server where I am has been locked up for over a week, and I can’t access my contact list. I’m sorry I’m posting this on your blog. And I’m also sorry this is a copy and paste letter. Will be back around….
Thanks!! And if you can’t, no worries!

Kim Ayres said...

How long before I get an email from you saying, To My good friend Kim, I am Mary, American girl goes to university and teaching English. I has have ******* years old. I am like first term too much?

Bish Denham said...

On the bright side (surely there's a bright side?) at least they are writing something down, and it's English, even if it is mangled. I wonder how well I'd do speaking/learning their language.

Mary Witzl said...

Robin -- I think it's funny now, but at the time I was so angry I could have kicked a fence in. And three of her friends obviously had the same idea because they produced virtually the same piece of writing.

And yes, I'm smarter! Nothing to do with English, of course, but if I had to plagiarize, I could do it better.

Angela -- They have no idea, (I fervently hope). I'm sure most of my students would be thoroughly mystified by anyone who wanted to spend MORE time writing.

Nandini -- I envy the Turkish teachers because they know what the students can do in their own language. My students certainly speak Turkish just fine; stopping them is the trick.

I'm bilingual too, and on the first day of class, I told the students about this, assuring them I knew how tough learning a language could be. Three months later, half a dozen of them were astonished to find me reading a book in Japanese in the student union. They swore I'd never told them I could do this.

Chris -- I'll send you an e-mail! I had to take my e-mail address off my blog; too many agents were plaguing me with offers.

Kim -- I just hope that I'm not a gibbering idiot by the time I'm done teaching here. I'm already having a tough time remembering the past participles of irregular verbs, and how to use the more difficult modals.

Bish -- Their English is certainly way ahead of my Turkish, but I have a greater desire to learn. Sometimes I'm tempted to ask a few of the more reluctant students to step up to the lectern and teach me Turkish. At least some learning would take place then.

Katie Alender said...

Mary, I must confess that I love posts like this; it's kind of like the lists of fraudulent insurance claims. I hope you have at least a couple of star students who make it easier and more rewarding at the end of the day.

Marcia said...

I guess we're all learning, just at different levels! I admire how you can sniff out their ploys. I'm afraid I'd be too naive for your job.

Charlie said...

May I call you Fyodor, or would you prefer Ms. Dostoyevsky?

Charles Gramlich said...

Well, sometimes it doesn't seem much better here. I was telling students, out of the goodness of my heart, what the essay question on the test was going to be about. One student raises a hand and asks if it is on blackboard, our online classroom connection. I say, "no." She asks, well can you put it on blackboard? I say, "no, I'm not putting the test on blackboard." Sigh!

Mary Witzl said...

Katie -- I've got a whole new bunch of students this term, and so far they're a big improvement on last term's batch. They appear to want to learn English, for one thing -- I was almost bowled over when I found that out!

Marcia -- Actually, I blush to remember how naive I was last term. For instance, I only took roll once, at the beginning of class. During the breaks, one third of the class would then disappear. You'd be surprised how quickly I've wisened up. Or at least in terms of teaching; I've still got a long way to go in the writing department.

Charlie -- You could use both names if Unsal had really managed to produce a whole sentence in English, with or without mistakes. But I'd be unconscious.

Charles -- Guaranteed if you wrote it on the board, a couple of your students would find themselves wondering why you didn't just write it on their answer sheets. I've had students whine about doing the simplest, easiest homework. I find myself fantasizing about those boring, no-nonsense, old-fashioned teachers who assigned wheelbarrows full of nasty homework and kept canes at the ready.

Carole said...

Delightful. Well not for you as the teacher...but for me as the reader/fly on the wall. Thanks for the chuckles.

Kappa no He said...

Isn't it scary how you forget your English? (referring to your comment to Kim). It really is a catch twenty-two living in a non-English speaking culture--you have all these amazing experiences and yet...your English goes kaput. Okay, maybe I'm being overly dramatic.

Tabitha said...

Great post! :) I think everyone goes through that...often more than once. :)

angryparsnip said...

I have been reading your blog and enjoy it very much, but have never commented before.

I have a Son who teaches English in Japan and his stories are very funny and sweet. He teaches all ages and the younger ones are the best. Right now he is teaching Jr. High School and they seem to want to learn English.

Mary Witzl said...

Carole -- You are so kind and appreciative that it is a pleasure to write for you.

I keep thinking I'll get to the end of these stories, but my kids keep doing daft things, thus forcing me to write more.

Kappa -- No, you are not being dramatic! On my second trip to Japan, I noticed that after a year my past participles were going and I was having real word finding problems. It's much worse if you're not living among English speaking people -- I suspect you aren't, right? When I started struggling to remember words like 'thumb' and 'post office', I figured it was time to go back to the States.

Tabitha -- I tell myself that the reason I'm noticing so many of my writing infelicities is that I've finally learned how to write -- I've just about arrived. And boy, how I want to believe that.

AP -- I'm glad your son is enjoying his teaching experiences in Japan. My husband and I both taught middle school students there and we loved it: they're still so sweet and enthusiastic about learning. Once they're in high school, they feel the full burden of their examinations bearing down on them, and they lose some of that enthusiasm.