This interview was originally published on Medium’s Bright:
Rusul Alrubail, The Writing Project, Toronto
The art of the essay
Not all exits from the classroom are expected, or desired. Rusul Alrubail, 29, was an English composition and literature teacher at Toronto’s Seneca College for five years when she and her contract faculty colleagues were abruptly informed last year that the school had decided to stop hiring unionized adjuncts. Professors would be faced with either too few hours to support themselves, or too many to teach effectively. Alrubail felt the options would result in compromising students’ education, and reluctantly decided not to return to Seneca.
It wasn’t an easy choice though. “I didn’t know what to do outside of teaching,” she said. “For us teachers, that’s our identity: being in the classroom. I felt lost without it, like I can’t call myself an educator without having those students.”
But classroom instruction wasn’t the only thing Alrubail had worked on. For close to ten years, she and her husband had worked on a digital essay-writing program called The Writing Project, hoping to address what Alrubail said was “a teaching gap between traditional teaching methods and critical thinking applications in students’ writing.” She saw her students at Seneca struggle with the basics of constructing a written argument. “Students would come to us with the critical thinking skills,” she said, “but they didn’t understand how to put their thoughts into a structure, or vice versa.”
Initially, The Writing Project was conceived of as a workbook, walking students through the steps of creating an essay — from topic identification through conclusion — that transcended the standard five-paragraph formula (intro, three body paragraphs, conclusion). Instead, Alrubail’s book asked simple questions that encouraged students to analyze and synthesize information, which could then be compiled into a thoughtful piece of writing. As time went on, students using the materials responded that the program would work well as an interactive computer platform, and Alrubail and her colleagues decided to transform their project into an app. It’s currently in beta, and has been successfully tested both with college-level students and high school students from around Ontario.
Alrubail’s move from the classroom to an educator-at-large is still new, and she said she still struggles at times with feeling like she’s lost a part of her self-identity. “But then I talked with a lot of colleagues and people close to me, and they reminded me that we’re always teachers at heart. If I’m not in the classroom, I’m still an educator, because I think like a teacher. You can still be an educator without having students all around you.”