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Success feeds success

I MET Dale Carnegie years ago, through a book I found tucked away on a shelf in a used-book store. Though that particular book of Carnegie's focused primarily on business relationships, I've found that his advice fits into the scheme of teaching - particularly into the ways of teaching freshman composition. He claims, for example, that beginning a criticism with praise helps lessen the pain of receiving the criticism; that being sympathetic to others' ideas and desires, and showing respect for others' opinions, will get you further than buckets of negative criticism, arguing, or proving you are right. He also advocates praising the slightest improvement and making a fault seem possible to correct.

When teaching writing, it gets too easy for us instructors to red-pencil every error (and I mean every error). That's how I used to correct papers. I saw an error, I corrected it. But what does that do to a student's self-respect? Basically, when a student sees more red than black on a page, he or she does what he or she has always done - crumples it up and throws it away, assuming that he or she will never be good at writing, and aware that the instructor merely reinforced the fact. When you're confronted by too many errors at once, it's simply discouraging.

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Now, as instructors, we have proved ourselves right (we have shown that we are very intelligent in being able to find every error in organization, development, mechanics, etc., and we have corrected the paper), but we have not succeeded in our task of helping the student learn to correct his or her own work. It took me a long time to learn that fact.

But what can we, as teachers of young people, do? Once an instructor friend of mine suggested that I didn't have to correct all the mistakes. I could let some go. I had never thought of that really. I thought the student would be grateful for all the time I put in correcting the paper, and would pore over my comments and advice. I've since learned to be a little more realistic and a little more humble about the whole thing.

I've learned that advice or suggestions on one or two things (the one or two things that would help the paper improve the most), preceded by a comment of something done well or of something that I enjoyed in the student's work, is much more effective than running myself out of red ink. In addition, a feeling of success tends to encourage more success.

I've also tried to use Dale Carnegie's advice about personal relationships in my dealings with students, and I find that what's of primary importance is ``to give the other person a fine reputation to live up to'' by sincerely praising understanding of a concept or improvement, and by taking time to listen and to wait and to expect good results. I think that each individual student is conscious of his or her own worth, and wants to have that worth recognized. When it is, the student is ready to go forward into more challenging areas.

But wait! (I hear a voice from a long corridor shouting at me.) How can a student learn if there are errors on the page that lie blatantly uncorrected? Won't a student assume that an error is acceptable if it's not red-penned?

I've found that most students don't read their papers as critically as we instructors do, and they don't care if every error is red-penned or not. Often, they're so bemused at receiving a positive comment on a basically black-and-white page that they may concentrate instead on what they did right. I've known students to concentrate so much on what they did right that they will come to me, asking for more ways and more information on what else they can do right.

Learning (I'm learning) is discovering something you didn't know was there, and a gained understanding you are willing to let in, instead of crumple up and throw in the trash.

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A student came to my office (which is why I got to thinking in this direction). He wanted advice about attending graduate school. ``Your class really made the difference in my life,'' he said.

I thought back to this student. He was a ``non-traditional'' student: not the typical age, having spent several years in Africa after his high school graduation, and not the typical freshman, having a wife and child to support. His first paper wasn't very wonderful (but it was in this class that I was trying to put aside ``Mrs. Knox thinks'' with my red pen, and was beginning to look for the good in the learners, instead of the mistakes in the papers).

I remember praising his paper for his use of vivid vocabulary and active verbs. The next paper was better. Much better. In fact, he had come to my office voluntarily asking for help with grammar. He started to contribute to the class discussions. He started to self-edit. He started to blossom. He even began to help another student who was having similar trouble. It wasn't long before that student was doing ``B'' work - earning every bit of the grade himself.

Now, I'm more willing to try other things in class. Along with the red pen being consigned to the wastebasket and adopting a grayish ink that is poured sparingly on others' works, I sometimes sit in the back of the class (frightening the persistent back-sitters to no end). I also sometimes move the chairs in a circle. Or just let the chairs move as the students move, as they adjust themselves trying to see or communicate with another student in the room.

Sometimes, I let a difficult question soak up the atmosphere for a full minute before saying anything. After a while, writers start to learn, in the writing workshops especially, that they have an audience around them - a demanding audience with expectations, one that desires to be adequately informed. Students start to see that others care about what they write. Then, often, polish and style and variety of vocabulary start to creep in and take root on formerly unfertile soil.

I'm beginning to see, through my students and through my own attempts, just what it takes to be really educated, and how to start to learn.