To be a more effective teacher, I first imagine the student. Then I think of the student in the classroom, sitting quietly, a bit nervous but playing it cool. Statistically, she is female. She may be a traditionally-aged college student, but perhaps she is a little older, returning to the classroom after a few years in the workforce. Her backpack is new, neatly organized with a handful of adhesive tabs, gel ink pens in navy blue, a fistful of highlighters. Perhaps she has children but maybe not. Perhaps she is actually a he, a first-time freshman, a first-generation college student conferred with all the rights and obligations that entails. They are not uniform, not the way they used to be, but almost all of them understand the privilege—and the risk—of higher ed.
And then I walk in with my gray dress slacks, carefully chosen short-sleeved blazer, my edgy asymmetrical haircut, and a wry smile. I look out in the audience and meet their eyes. I smile and introduce myself, and we get to it, my eight-page syllabus, the reading guide, my learning goals. I try to speak slowly because I have a tendency to rush when I get nervous, and for those first few minutes, I’m always nervous.
They don’t realize that I’ve spent weeks preparing for this class, years sitting in those same seats, hundreds of hours working on those course materials. They don’t need to. All they need for the next fifteen weeks is to learn something valuable enough that it will sustain them for the next fifty years or so of their working lives. No pressure.
I started out wanting to break students free from the idea of writing as a chore, writing as a punishment, writing as an anxiety-inducing nightmare. I started out wanting to give students the freedom to explore their own writing process. To break them free from the five-paragraph essay. To get them interested in writing as a tool for learning. To put skill in their toolbox.
Instead, I found that even knowing that my students were less and less likely to be non-traditional hadn’t prepared me for the wide-ranging skillsets of my students. Some of them had had zero writing instruction in high school. Their experiences had been four years of worksheets and standardized tests. Some of my students were homeschooled or went to online schools. Others wrote extremely well but didn’t test well, so a poor score on the ACT doomed them to my intro-level class.
So I start over, every day, revisiting lesson plans that work the way I had hoped, and madly patting myself on the back when those final essays appear in my Inbox. Those final essays are better. After fifteen weeks, my students leave better equipped to handle college-level writing than when they started.
I am consistent with my students. My lesson plans, assignment sheets, and documents have the same format, the same document design, the same structure. I repeat common phrases—use descriptive details, you’ve got the what, now tell me why, what are the rhetorical appeals, again?—to help them develop a vocabulary about writing. I ask for reflection paragraphs, in-class writing assignments, feedback about what worked, and I read it. I listen. I think about their needs. I respond to it. I am polite and professional, firm and fair, and I rarely get frustrated when they fail because that’s not about me. I don’t derive any measure of authority from the university or my clothes or those diplomas sitting in envelopes on my bookshelf at home because, at that moment, in the classroom with those students, there is only me and them and their trust that I have something valuable to them.
In my courses, I focus on the writing and not the writer. My feedback to students is focused on the work—”the audience won’t understand this” over “what were you thinking?” I teach students organization strategies and plans for developing critical thinking and metacognitive skills. Prescriptive error correction in student writing has been shown repeatedly to be an inefficient way of teaching students how to improve their writing skills, and if students haven’t learned grammar rules after practicing an hour a day, five days a week, nine months a year, for thirteen years, three more months of drilling grammar and syntax with me isn’t going to accomplish much. Instead, students in my class will be focused on content, evaluation, criticism, and argumentation.
My students should first identify gaps in their knowledge by free writing on a topic. Then, they research to understand the topic and develop an opinion. They draft. They revise. They reflect. Throughout the unit, students learn about argumentation styles, concepts in rhetoric, and techniques for improving their own writing. Truly, I feel like my students and I are on a journey together. They learn from me how to be successful writers, and I learn from them how to meet their—and my future students’—needs better.
I teach a writing process, though perhaps not rigidly The Writing Process. Students have a right to their own process. We discuss procrastination and methods for overcoming writer’s block. Some mornings, we listen to instrumental jazz or downtempo while we write as a group. Some mornings, I take requests. Often my students will be working in small groups, helping each other do research or understand the materials. I want them to understand writing as an audience facing skill, a rhetorical situation they can influence through practice and good study habits, not an unalterable series of steps to an unalterable conclusion.
My assignments are a mixture of low-risk writing assignments that let students experiment with new genres and techniques and higher-risk, longer writing assignments. Low-risk assignments include narratives, summaries, and reflections that guide them through transitioning to college-level writing. One of my most successful writing assignments is a unit through which students develop their digital media literacy. In the Un/Reliable Sources paper, students locate a terrible source — a Reddit thread, a Youtube video, or an article from a conspiracy theory site — and compare it against both a reliable media and an academic source. Throughout this unit, I teach digital and academic literacy, rhetorical strategies, and analysis. Students pick their topics by writing a narrative paragraph of a significant historical, political, or social event they remember from their lifetimes. I feel that this gives students both connection to and control of their research and writing but allows me to guide them through the process to their learning goals.
Open Education Resources have been invaluable to my teaching strategy. By using an OER textbook and open access materials, students can focus on their studies rather than the financial burden of securing a degree. Open access materials in the classroom also give me the opportunity to teach copyright, explore new technology, and introduce available resources to students. This leaves students with tools they can utilize well into their degree plan and beyond. With the changing demographics of students over the last several decades coupled with the rising costs of student-paid higher education, it is my duty to consider and improve accessibility outcomes for all students, not only the archetypal 18-20-year-old first-time freshman.
I practice that philosophy beyond the classroom. My materials are available online, for free, for any writing teacher anywhere to use, modify, or remix, because I believe in sharing knowledge for knowledge’s sake. I have benefitted from a public education, from an open Internet in its cranky adolescent years, and I have been a brand new instructor cobbling together a portfolio of lesson plans and assignment sheets.
So my philosophy is this: I have hard-won knowledge—let me share it, and most of all, let me learn from others as well.