THE VOICE

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Teaching writing was the highlight of Van Gilst's career

By Sally Jongsma

Lorna Van Gilst could have taught English and writing to junior high students “forever.” She loved it. But she has also enjoyed teaching college students—and adults in Ukraine and Venezuela and Sioux Center—who want to learn to speak and write English.

“I’ve had a blessed life,” says Van Gilst as she looks back and prepares to retire from teaching in the Dordt College English department.

Lorna Van Gilst

Lorna Van Gilst

She never expected to teach in college, although as long as she can remember, she knew she’d be a teacher. First it was elementary school, probably because she served as a second grade teacher’s helper already in junior high. Then in high school, her teacher urged her to consider high school teaching. She ended up teaching in junior high after she graduated from Dordt in 1967.

The move to college came in 1987 several years after she had taken on the job of editing the Christian Educator’s Journal (CEJ) in addition to her junior high teaching. Being editor of CEJ forced her to think about broader issues in education and helped give her the experience to teach journalism and writing courses at Dordt. Being at Dordt College has forced her to think more concretely about how her Christian perspective shapes her teaching, she says.

“Teaching writing has probably been the most satisfying part of my career,” she says. She enjoys the opportunity it gives her to help people grow in their ability to express themselves. That’s as true for the college English students that she coaches to find their voice as it was for her reluctant seventh and eighth graders. She still recalls the eighth grade student who so disliked writing poetry until she commended and published a poem he had written that captured a mood so effectively.

“I enjoy working with people who struggle with learning,” Van Gilst says. It’s a challenge to find out what it is that is blocking a particular student from learning. She credits a graduate course she took titled “Organic Causes of Learning Disabilities” with helping her realize that nearly all students have some reason why they act up or resist learning. Finding that reason is a bit like detective work, but it is worth doing.

“I care about my students and want them to learn,” Van Gilst says. She also cares about writing generally, which she says is changing today.

“We do so much instant messaging today and we’re so busy that our writing is often limited to quick responses rather than framing a thoughtful question or argument,” she says. While writing will change with the times and the technology, she continues to do what she can to help it be a way for people to develop their own voice.

In the past several years, Van Gilst’s teaching has expanded to include the teaching of English as a second language. It began when she joined several Dordt-sponsored trips to Ukraine, in which she taught English to adults, and became more focused following a Fulbright year in Venezuela. Back in Sioux Center, she drew on what she’d learned teaching Spanish-speakers in Venezuela and had her grammar students tutor some of the growing number of Hispanic people in the local community.

Teaching non-native speakers is different from teaching native speakers, but in both cases she is helping them find their voice.

“In Venezuela and Ukraine my students were not used to telling their own stories. They usually copied speeches. Telling their stories was refreshing and new.”

Van Gilst, who struggles with eye problems, will not miss grading the numbers of papers that teaching writing requires, but says that teaching at Dordt has given her opportunities—especially international ones—that she never anticipated. And she doesn’t plan to stop just yet. She’s currently exploring possibilities for teaching in Latin America following her retirement from Dordt—although at a less grading-intensive pace.