Old Connections Made New

Photo via Marvin Meyer on Unsplash

Despite all that the pandemic has stolen from us, it has given us a few things too.

I’m sure that over the course of the last thirteen months, everyone can relate a story of a connection they have restored thanks to the speed of technology and the slowdown that coping with COVID has imposed. Through FaceTime or Zoom, maybe you have had the chance to chat with that aunt in San Diego, the friend who has been living in South Africa, that colleague working at a school in UAE that you otherwise would have struggled to connect with due to the time and expense such a conversation would entail.

For me, the pandemic has restored some old connections with former students who are now finishing up college or well into their careers. And it all started when two former students popped up requesting to connect on LinkedIn.

I’m pretty sure — in retrospect — a professor urged them to do this. These two attend the same college with the same major, and reach out to me within a week of each other. But once I connected with them, the algorithm did its magic and all sorts of former students started popping up as suggested connections.

There are numerous joys in coming across your grown former students: their change in appearance, their career paths, their maturity, the way they still call me “Mr. Vogelsinger” when I haven’t been their teacher in a decade. (I still do this with my own teachers when I happen to meet them!)

As I began networking with these graduates, I reached out with a simple pair of questions via direct message: “Looking back on your years in English class 7-12, what do you feel was a strength of the English program in our district? What could have been better?” In the perpetual loop of meeting students who are fourteen-going-on-fifteen at the start of their freshman year, I wanted some perspective from the adults they become about what sticks, what doesn’t, and what needs to stick more. In this post, I’ll share three recurring threads I pulled from these conversations.

Thread 1: The Value of Writing

Several graduates expressed how they arrived at college and were underwhelmed by the writing of their fellow students. They felt prepared and pleased with their own writing to meet the demands of freshman composition classes. They perceived writing well as a key element to differentiate oneself not only in college, but in the workplace as well.

Neel, who worked to design contact tracing technology people have used to navigate the pandemic, remembers some specific guidance from his high school years: “Easily the most important thing that I learned in English class is “Show, don’t tell”. . . . Whenever I want to pitch a product to somebody (such as the contact tracing app), I don’t just mention its benefits. Rather, I show how it can be beneficial, with demonstrations etc.” Drew emphasized in his comments the importance of making sure students get in the habit of crafting some longer papers in high school, and “countless papers which can sometimes range up to 10 pages, so learning how to really continue an essay” for a span longer than the typical high school essay matters.

Nousha reminded me of the important role teachers play in helping students live literate lives. She wrote, “The love a teacher has behind their lessons is far more important than the information itself. It made me really grow fond of writing as much as reading, and it’s now become one of my favorite hobbies and has set me apart from many candidates within interviews.”

Thread 2: The Absence of Presentation Practice

The other key skill students identified as critical in their chosen career paths was presenting ideas and speaking for an audience. Many felt that we did not spend enough time on this during their school years.

Michael had this to say: “I can’t stress enough, learn how to present. For the professional world and college. Learning things like: pace, tone, hand gestures, presentation structure, body language, etc. Starting early will only set you apart to land a internship after freshman year. That freshman year internship will lead to the next one and by the time your a senior you will most likely have a job secured and multiple internships before graduation. . . . Those skills will enhance over time and by the time you are a senior in college, you will be highly advanced compared to the competition and put you in the bracket of top companies.” He sees presentation skills as fundamental to this professional trajectory.

Neel’s comments, from a completely different career path, resonate with Michael’s: “Public speaking is an important tool for college, jobs, interviews, and clubs. I feel like people can be super brilliant; however, when they present their work, it seems as if their final presentations don’t reflect the actual work put in/excellence of the actual findings. [The school system] might be able to implement more mandatory in-class presentations and public speaking activities which can help get students gain experience and get out of their comfort zone a little earlier on in their life.”

As I began to grapple with this thinking, I thought about how time consuming it is to help an entire class of students prepare to present something well and then to watch all of them present it for the class. I can’t argue with my students’ forceful observations, so how can I look to the future and build in more public speaking experience?

Frequent, brief, even impromptu opportunities would provide more frequent practice, and remembering that not all projects need have the same deadline for all students (translation: days of kids watching each other present) may give me the room to incorporate more presentation practice in my classes. Flipgrid gives us the chance to present a speech for a camera without forcing everyone to sit through every moment of all the speeches. And writing an outline or script for a speech, preparing a visual that is not too word-heavy, and tuning in to the sound and flow of the language we craft are small elements of presenting that can be broken into manageable parts, lessons, and assessments to prepare these students for the challenges that await them.

Thread 3: The Importance of Brevity and Clarity

My former students who went on to major in business and engineering fields united behind the idea that brevity and clarity –writing in a simple, factual, and direct manner — is critical for many professions.

Gavin, who is working on a degree in Architecture Facilities Management, says, “You need to be able to communicate your thoughts in a comprehensive and concise way so others can see inside your mind.” I love that image he includes . . . writing lets others see inside our mind.

Raised as English majors, most of their writing teachers preferred to teach and reward a style of writing that is more ornate than this, rich in figurative language and rare words, and a few mentioned having to learn a more severe type of revision. Eric, coming from an engineer’s perspective, notes that we need to motivate “students to ‘get to the point’. As engineers, we are keen on removing unnecessary sentences and ‘bulk’ from our writing. If possible, if you can consolidate two or three sentences into one, you’re set.” Technical writing is not something teachers are trained to incorporate into the mainstream English classroom, and some felt that this would have been helpful.

Finding out more about the adults our students become can be rewarding, and listening to their feedback about their own education only makes this experience more meaningful. This “happy accident” of restored connections with a few of people I who once sat in my classroom makes me think about what other questions we might ask that push our practice as English teachers closer to what students value and need after they leave high school. Who knows . . . perhaps this will even become a new “beat” for me on Moving Writers next season!

What questions does this post make you ponder? What would you ask graduates about their experience with English class? You can connect with me on Twitter @theVogelman or engage on Facebook at facebook.com/movingwriters to continue the conversation.  

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