Ethan Joyce is the Appalachian State University beat reporter for the Winston Salem Journal. Ethan is my guest for this week’s Torg Stories podcast Monday, September 2 Labor Day edition.
An Appalachian State graduate, Ethan continued his education and earned a master’s degree in journalism from Syracuse University in New York. Some of my favorite writing by Ethan was a three part series he did on the fate of assistant football coaches when the head coach gets a new job. I started my conversation with Ethan by asking him about a typical work week during football season.
To hear my conversation with Ethan, click the media player under the picture below or check out “Torg Stories” on iTunes via the podcast app on your iPhone or by clicking here .
Ethan and I on the campus of App State University in Boone, North Carolina
Through the experience of some of the education courses I took in graduate school and then during my time teaching at St. John’s University, I accepted the idea that giving a reading quiz was the wrong pedagogical move. For the first time in thirteen years of teaching composition, I have a textbook for the course. I face a question a lot of we teachers face: How will I entice the students to read?
One way I try and get students to read is that I read out loud a part of the text that will be assigned for the next class with hopes this will spark some interest. If I can find the writer online saying something interesting, I show a bit of that to the class. One of the concepts in our textbook is that “texts are people talking.” In prep for reading Anne Lamott’s “Shitty First Drafts,” we watched her TED Talk. I also offer some focusing questions to give the students an idea about why I have assigned the reading. For example, we read Richard Straub’s piece about working in peer groups, and I pointed out Straub asks nine questions related to responding to others’ writing. I ask the students to try and remember two of those questions and apply what he says to what they might do when in a peer review group. Those focusing questions become the material for the reading quiz.
The quizzes are two or three questions. I am not trying to trick anyone with the questions. I have pretty much given the questions before the quiz. I hope the students will try and wrestle with the ideas in the piece. Because I believe writing is thinking and to be more literate is to be more powerful in the world, I don’t think I am wasting the students’ time with the assignments.
In grading the reading quizzes, I see some students still aren’t reading. Sometimes they apologize on the quiz for not reading, and I try to write something positive back to them. I wonder if those students not reading will start. I also learn that many of my students are reading and trying to apply the ideas in the text to their thoughts on writing.
There has been a really fun surprise in my giving of these quizzes. Because my questions require a couple sentences worth of a response, I am starting to feel like I am passing notes with my students about the subject of writing. What I’m doing reminds me a little of high school life in the 80s when classmates used to pass notes. When I respond to the students’ answers and write notes back to them, I see I am in about 90 different mini conversations with writing as the main topic. I thought responding to the quizzes was going to be something boring I did for the purpose of trying to get the students to read so that our time together in class was more interesting. It’s been a nice surprise that the pieces of paper the students and I are passing back and forth are feeling more like conversations about writing.
I had the choice of a couple of different textbooks to use for one of the college writing courses I am teaching. Today, I’m reading in it about narratives and how stories should have a thesis statement. While I do think sometimes I can point to a sentence in some of the stories I love that captures what the writer might have hoped to convey to readers, I can’t support the idea that a story needs a thesis and that’s something that can always be found in a story and marked.
I remember teaching freshman high school students in Charlotte when I thought I was ignorant because I couldn’t find all of the points in the story for a plot diagram. I had to start writing for myself before I realized that all the points on the diagram weren’t in all of the stories that were in our textbook. I hadn’t yet realized that the people who put together the textbooks and wrote the state tests didn’t really understand stories because they weren’t people who tried to write stories anymore.
I also doubt that all writers have a point or purpose to the stories they start. I have talked with a lot of writers who don’t start a story without knowing the theme of it and their reason for writing, but I have also talked to a lot of writers–and usually I’m in this camp–who discover why they are writing during the process of composition. The theme or purpose for the writing is fleshed out while writing.
John Updike’s story “A & P” is the first story I remember reading that seemed like I could have lived. It’s about a kid who works in a grocery store and three girls about his age come in wearing bathing suits. I worked in a grocery store as a teenager. It was a family owned store called Russell’s Old Trading Post, and one of the things I remember about that was almost no one my age ever came in to the store. In Updike’s story the manager tells the girls they aren’t dressed appropriately. The kid in the story tries to stand up for them, a chivalrous move probably intended to impress the girls. The girls don’t seem to notice the kid’s attempt. They leave. The kid gets fired.
Updike’s “A & P” appears in the collection Pigeon Feathers
Having read the C.S. Lewis Narnia series and a bunch of Louis L’Amour Westerns on my own and then stories like Beowulf and “The Monkey’s Paw” in school, those stories didn’t trigger anything inside me from the standpoint of thinking about the sort of story I might tell. Lewis caused me to check the inside of closets for secret passages and Star Wars prompted me to try and move objects in my room with the force. With Updike’s story “A & P,” there was just the start of looking at the world to see what stories could be told and for what reason.
The first story I remember writing was about a dragon that spit out water instead of fire. I remember this being in the 2nd grade, although that could be off a year or two. On the merits of the story, I was selected to go read my story at the high school auditorium in Logansport, Indiana. The dragon was an outcast. No one would play with him. Eventually he saves the town with his freakish ability to spew water. Now, I can see that the story clearly follows the plot structure of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.
Looking back, I can see my elementary story was a version of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
Second grade was also memorable for my teacher identifying what she thought were motor skills problems I had. She said I didn’t swing my arms correctly when I walked. I remember staying after school to draw circles on the board. I’d hold a piece of chalk in each hand and draw circles trying to get my hands to move in synch. Then I’d draw circles with my hands moving in opposite directions. It reminds me of what the mind and body have to do to dribble one basketball high and one basketball low. I just accepted my motor deficiency skills and did what I was told. I don’t know what my mom and dad thought of that teacher, but they mostly were teachers who supported my teachers.
I meant to focus on the story of my reading and writing. Maybe I’ll come back to that soon.