My first writing class with 16 new students, all bright, all with some form of ADD, all but one separated from their first college because of academic difficulties. What struck me most was how much they know about themselves–about the nature of their struggles–and how little they understand. Or at least, how little they understand in terms that might actually be useful, rather than terms of moral judgment and self-blame.
I always like to ask this question–I think it is the very best diagnostic question in the world, far superior to the Stroop or the Tower of Hanoi: “Do you often find that you have raised your hand in class because you have a good point to make, but forget what you were going to say by the time the teacher calls on you?” They all raised their hands, and we laughed; it is fun to be in a room where everyone shares the same rather comical experience.
What this is about, of course, is that they all share a more permeable filter, a less dogmatic and insistent ability to inhibit new information and stimuli–mostly internal information or novel things in the auditory and visual fields–from displacing whatever it was they were holding in working memory, “concentrating on,” in order to deliver a statement. I love it when students forget what they are about to say in my classes. It provides the best illustration I know of the challenges that working memory and weak inhibition of prepotent response, in Russell Barkley’s phrase, present to those of us who share these neurodevelopmental variations.
What I find most interesting, in a way, is that no one has ever taught a class like this before. I mean, I have been teaching this selected group of students in a specific Landmark College curriculum for a long time now, but this class is the most homogeneous, the most precisely selected, the brightest and most capable, I have ever encountered. I wrote elsewhere about teaching writing to gifted students with ADD, and I am realizing now that I am starting to blog this class. I don’t know if it makes sense to continue with this or not, but tonight I am.
My starting point for the group was this. Still’s first notice (1902, look it up) of what we call ADD resulted in the label of “A Failure of Moral Development.” Lazy, bad, procrastinating, failing to live up to their potential, acting out, rebellious, incorrigable–or dull, absent-minded, spacy, light’s on and no one’s home. So: no moral judgment in this baliwick, just the most accurate and supportive accounts I can give of what I see, and then the best questions I can ask about what to do next. Maybe some advice, certainly some teaching–some information. But no one ever died because someone failed to hand in an English paper. Let’s get that straight, at least. It’s a practical issue, not a moral one.
Second, I gave them Anne Lamont’s riff on “Shitty First Drafts,” from Bird by Bird (1994). Shitty first draft is a technical term in the class. I assign students to write shitty first drafts, and grade them down if their work is too polished. I always like the way students laugh when I introduce the concept–a kind of glee. “This week you are going to be required to write a shitty first draft on this topic.” They like it. I like it. A place to start.