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Fall 2012

A to B: Karin Cooper, Ed.M.'01

Karin CooperIllustration by Daniel Vasconcellos

I read the opening line of The New York Times restaurant review with the panache of a trained classical actress: "A doughnut was falling and everyone in the restaurant watched." My analytical tone tests the language rhythms of a descriptive paragraph further along in the review: "Caramel-banana and brown sugar grapefruit glazes had already sold out." A simple sentence is read slowly to highlight noun-verb recognition: "The crowd groaned."

Without looking up, I point to the white board each time a sentence represents an impression, an attitude, a detail. All the students have doughnuts and they are instructed to create a descriptive paragraph about their doughnuts before teaming up for a doughnut war.

For this lesson, all my cumulative career and teaching experience is needed to engage a class of diverse learners in this Fundamentals of Composition course. I teach required English composition courses ranging from remedial writing skills to persuasive and expository essays at a California community college. Despite acquired content from earning three graduate degrees — one in dramaturgy, one in creative nonfiction, and one in arts and education — teaching in community college becomes an art of practice and craft separate from content.

I am the daughter of two public school teachers. They were lauded and respected educators teaching in the same town's school system. When I graduated from college, full of the liberal arts and myself, my mother said I possessed the "talent" for teaching. At the time, I found this graduation offering stifling rather than insightful wisdom. A career in teaching seemed static and unchallenging. There were so many paths to experience.

However, whether it was the inside knowledge of the family business or my eventual self-discovered "talent," my mother's insight proved correct. Each path I proceeded down led me back to teaching, eventually to community college after leaving the faculty of the University of California–Santa Barbara's writing program, due to a job relocation for my husband. California Community Colleges is the nation's largest higher education system, opening the college doors to an economically, generationally, academically diverse student population. In this environment, having to use all my experiences trying to meet so many learning needs, I found the love for teaching.

Here, students want to trust that I am supportive of individual circumstances and learning backgrounds while maintaining college-level content. There are motivated students who can and will succeed in any college curriculum but, due to economic and family circumstances, attend community college. There are students who are unsure of themselves as students but believe a college education will guarantee better futures and so attend community college.

Unlike teaching a required course to college students with a common denominator of age and educational preparedness, the challenge at a community college is to create a supportive and active learning environment for the discussion of ideas, writing assessment, and peer reviews among a community of strangers. This begins with my teaching practice.

Back at the doughnut war, a Marine veteran, a shoeless professional boogie boarder, an older ESL student, and a shy, former homeschooled student all represent their teams. The battle of descriptive words begins. If my enthusiasm for a doughnut description in a remedial writing course can motivate the students to learn to write one descriptive paragraph and bond with other students for a collegial discussion of the impressions of words, for that lesson, I have succeeded.

— Karin Cooper, Ed.M.'01, teaches at Saddleback College. She says she hasn't had a doughnut in years but lives vicariously through her students' descriptions.

Send stories to lory_hough@harvard.edu.