On Decades of Teaching the Female Voice
When I first began teaching at a Catholic all-girls private school in the mid 80’s after seven years in public school, I thought that I would only stay for a few years. But then I fell in love with the girls and the school’s commitment to “the total development of the individual student through spiritual formation, intellectual growth, service to others and building community” and soon realized that I had found a home.
I tell my students that I learned how to write an argumentative essay from my American history teacher, Ms. Flusche, a soft spoken Texan from San Antonio, whose objective tests were challenging, but whose essay assignments were epic. When I finally came to her for tutoring after school and humbled myself, she went to the chalkboard and set up a line of reasoning for an argumentative essay, using a Roman numeral outline that became the basis for all further essay writing experiences. If I had not asked Ms. Flusche to show me how to find my writing voice, how to assert my opinions, how to use evidence and commentary, I would never have made it through college. And college was a rough ride for a lot of young women during the Vietnam War years.
It was this rough ride that motivated me to give my students the knowledge and the skills that they would need to get in the game and stay there; in other words, to find their voices. What was so energizing was the community’s expectation that service was a lifelong commitment and finding their voices to carry out the mission crossed all disciplines.
For the first ten years of my teaching career at this all-girls private school, we wrote all essays on college ruled paper, and of course, there was always that dreaded rough draft on which I would leave big red X’s from the assertion to the sentence right before the conclusion. A side note of mine would suggest that she “Start here.” And since my handwriting was so difficult to decipher, the girls would have to come in to see me so that they would know what it was that they needed to do to improve the essay. When I look back on this painstaking process, now that we have Microsoft Word and all its bells and whistles to revise as we write, I realize that each of my students showed remarkable resilience and tenacity to do four of these five paragraph out-of-class essays a year. Yes. Four. Handwritten-over and over again. These were some tough students.
However, the most effective approach I have found in promoting clear writing is clear thinking, clear thinking that is a result of class discussions. Encouraging students to participate in class discussions was my greatest challenge in helping each of them find their voices: I had to help girls overcome the fear of not being “right.” Oftentimes, I would ask them if any of them had brothers to which many would nod affirmatively.
Do they think everything through before they speak? Did the boys in 8th grade? (laughter). Well, you (freshmen and sophomores) are going to be in college classrooms, seminar classes, and those boys will speak up. Are you just going to sit there? This usually broke the ice. Hence, the fishbowl discussions became a must-have experience, an experience that engaged each and every student.
Another effective technique was the “write-around.” Each girl would be assigned to a group of 3-4 students, and all groups would be given the same prompt. Using loose leaf paper with no name or group number to identify the writer, the student responds, and when time is up, passes the paper to the girl to her right until all members of the group have answered the prompt. The papers are collected by group and passed to the next group. This exercise takes time, but by the end of the 50 minutes, papers are passed to the original group and each student then reads what others have written to her. There are some guidelines: she must respond with a like example if she agrees, pointing out a specific reason why; if she disagrees, she must state a reason why she disagrees and provide a counterexample; if she qualifies, she must state a reason why and provide an example. Examples can come from observation, literature, other disciplines, history, current events, and experience. She can have opinions and she can support with reason and evidence, and she learns that she does not have to agree with others in order to be liked. And, yes, given other evidence, she can alter her view, which is the last response to this exercise after she has read through what others had to say to her initial responses: how has this exercise reinforced, altered, or changed your view?
In the early 90’s, out of curiosity, I began to attend Advanced Placement Language and Composition weekend and week-long conferences just to see, at first, what colleges expected from students as far as writing was concerned. Was I being too tough? Too demanding? No, I was not. The rigor of the advanced placement program reinforced my belief that all students, from freshmen to seniors, need these basic skills since not all students will take AP Lang. I felt a lot better about those big red X’s given in the 80’s and 90’s because they were easier to take as a high school student than a college student. I felt a little bit like The Catcher in the Rye!
But what I also brought back from these conferences was the idea that a girl must assess and reflect on her own writing and have more personal control over the direction of her essay. At first, I found it difficult and even cumbersome evaluating by using a rubric, but the more I worked with it, the more confident I became that my assessment was more objective and impartial, giving clearer direction or pathways to success.
But the real game changer was the introduction of the laptop in the mid 90’s. That was when I realized that the train had left the station and I was not on it. When those freshmen girls brought the laptops into the classroom to sit in desks that slanted, I made everyone sit on the floor. We were in Merici Hall, now just a memory to many of us, and I distinctly remember that my podium, always in the front of the room, filled with sticky notes and lesson plans, was of no use to me. I could not even get to it. What happened next was that the students were collaborating and learning from each other. I sat down and listened and learned and, as I have recounted this anecdote many times, the teacher became the student. We had entered Brave New World.
In early May of this year, I asked my freshmen students to bring college ruled paper to class to write their in class essays.
Student: “College ruled paper? What’s that?”
Me: Wide ruled white paper, not torn out of a notebook. No ragged edges.
Another student: “You mean we have to write it by hand? But I haven’t had to write an essay on paper since early 7th grade! (Lots of affirmatives from classmates). I don’t think I can do that! Will spelling count?”
Another student: “Do we write on the line or in the space? Can we print? I can’t do cursive.”
As the anxiety level grew to a fevered pitch, I reflected on that first day back in the mid 90’s with my brand new freshmen and their brand new computers and all the anxiety and angst from how do I turn it on to the real fear of deleting a document to not knowing how to save to a file. But I was unflappable, and they wrote their essays on Macbeth on college ruled paper (all but 2 out of 70--not bad) with no notes, using only their major assertions, and they survived.
And now that I turn in the red pen and the Microsoft Word review comments and the stylus, I realize that helping young women find their place at the table is a matter of helping them find the confidence within so that they can figure the problem out even if it is how to put pen to paper.
Patricia Mendina retired in May 2021 after teaching for over 40 years, including 35 years of teaching all girls. After returning from a tour of duty with the American Red Cross in South Korea from 1967-1968, Pat began her teaching career in 1969 in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, where she taught till 1976. In 1985, she moved to Dallas, Texas, where she began teaching at an independent, all girl Catholic school from 1986 to 2021. Most recently, Pat has taught 9th grade as well as AP Language and Composition, and throughout her career was a Department Chair, Teacher of the Year, creator of a Teacher Mentor Program, as well as moderator for the National Honor Society.