Some of my best lessons have come from my students.
As Wayne C. Booth wrote in The Vocation of a Teacher, my best teaching moments have always been “completely unscheduled…and most important of all, not initiated by me.” While these rewards come from the student and their intelligence, energy, and humor, I understand that they are also the result of hard work and preparation—my own as well as theirs. To teach is to learn. That is why I am continually reflecting on my own pedagogy and practice, updating and revising both content and methodology to find the most effective way to challenge each student, regardless of skill level. Having worked with individuals ages three to thirty, I am continually awed and humbled by the joys and struggles of guiding students through the writing process.
Creating an environment where such lessons can occur is my passion. I still remember my first composition class at Arizona State University. The students had just received their grades for the first assignment, and after reading my marginal notes and end comments, Jason approached me after class. Because I announce that I welcome their thoughts and questions, I assumed he—like many other students—wanted this opportunity to contest his grade. Instead, he looked me in the eye. “I totally agree with you,” he said, referring to the comments I had written. “My thesis was too broad, and I had a hard time structuring my paper around it. What can I do to narrow it into something more manageable next time?”
Those were the most important words Jason spoke that day. Writing is a process. I tell students to treat every assignment as an opportunity to become more skilled at expressing their most treasured beliefs and poignant observations. Although grades and standards, objectives and deadlines matter, I encourage them to view the work we do together as a tool. By becoming more effective communicators, they can better understand and impact their environment and improve their professional and personal lives. Their final drafts are merely part of that process.
In addition, when Jason said “more manageable,” he ultimately meant something more specific and meaningful, which we also discussed. During my office hours, we explored what he most wanted to express through questions stemming from his drafts and research. Guided by his answers to my questions, he discovered what he actually wanted to say, and we worked to match the language of his thesis to the point of his paper. By the time he produced a first draft to the second assignment, Jason’s writing was stronger.
Because Jason’s proactive approach tends to be rare, I center the course around opportunities for risk-taking and shared knowledge. Good writing ultimately takes time, revision, and multiple readers. It also takes many hours spent preparing before and after class, putting forth the effort to make teaching seem effortless. That is why I pore through numerous textbooks when planning a course, selecting relevant readings designed to pique my students’ interests, promote healthy debate, and provide them with opportunities to master critical thinking and analytical skills. I also select readings based on the range of perspectives they offer and their ability to model clear and powerful writing.
I then ask students to respond to these readings, synthesizing various perspectives, recording their reactions, and raising questions, which we then discuss in class. This enables them to see each other—and myself—as fellow teachers and learners. This process also emphasizes what I perceive to be my role as a teacher: a facilitator of students’ natural capacity for growth. Here, my beliefs coincide with Carol Rodgers’ experiences in teaching and learning. Other influences include Bloom’s taxonomy, which I use to design my courses. Not only do students receive a thorough overview of the course and each assignment before they begin, I return to these ideas throughout the semester so students can build on skill sets. I couple readings with written and oral activities that require a variety of rhetorical techniques. Consequently, when students write their first drafts, they are already familiar with not just the material, but with a range of approaches that have the potential to be effective—or ineffective. Both serve as valuable learning experiences.
To continue the process, I follow the first draft of every paper with a week of workshops. This enables students to gather feedback, which they can then use to revise. During these workshops, students practice editing each others’ papers and negotiating the constructive criticism they receive from myself and at least two other students. By discussing each paper and offering their suggestions, students grow from each others’ skill level and experience. In every instance, they practice integrating numerous points-of-view, articulating and supporting their positions, and becoming more versatile communicators. Consequently, students become more confident and capable of writing for multiple purposes and for varying audiences.
Through these types of discussion and workshop sessions, students learn to appreciate difference and use their writing as powerful vehicles for change and knowledge. This cannot happen without an environment of mutual respect and good will. By welcoming their thoughts and suggestions, I demonstrate that everyone’s words and perspectives should be taken seriously, and that every member of the class serves as a potential source of knowledge. In addition, students learn to critically examine every argument—including those made by me.
Throughout my classes, I encourage students to self-evaluate, and to offer feedback on the course itself. Outside of class, I habitually consult colleagues and veteran teachers, as well as professional resources in print and online. Articles such as Amy Lusk and Adam Weinberg’s “Discussing Controversial Topics in the Classroom: Creating a Context for Learning” and Nancy Davis’s “Teaching about Inequality: Student Resistance, Paralysis and Rage,” have already helped me navigate difficult dialogues throughout my time teaching.
I find that when I encourage my students to overcome their fears about writing, I grow bolder in my own teaching and learning. The best moments are indeed the moments when I am the one who is “schooled.” For instance, I have always felt uncertain about incorporating technology into the classroom, and used only the most basic functions of the Blackboard Learning Management System. When my computer-savvy students offered tips on how to enhance the course using other Blackboard features, however, I decided to meet the challenge. After my first year teaching, I taught a successful hybrid-online course in composition. Once I began working in education administration, I pioneered the use of Moodle to communicate vital information for an academic trip to Shanghai and Beijing. Working in international education, the ways in which technology transforms interaction is evident. I couldn’t be more excited about effectively harnessing social media’s many opportunities. People can now engage and learn like ever before.
What I discover over and over is that hard work reaps rewards. My goal is to provide the right conditions for students to care and to achieve more than they ever thought possible, and in a safe and reliable environment where their work and enthusiasm are reflected back at them. In countless evaluations, students have expressed how much they appreciate the freedom and empowerment they discover in knowing their words matter. Such confidence is why I continue to evaluate my own work and why I return year after year to some form of classroom. The risks I encourage my students to take lead to some of their most stunning achievements, and those same risks inspire me to achieve greater heights in my teaching.
I still remember the way some students wander reluctantly into my class the first day, convinced they hate writing, believing themselves terrible at it. And what a pleasure it is to see those same students refer to English as their best subject by the end of the semester. As Paul wrote in his final reflection, “This was by far the best English class I have ever been a part of. Not only did I progress in my writing ability and further my knowledge of MLA format, but I feel like I’ve become a better all-around person. The class made me look at other people’s opinions on issues that were previously concrete in my eyes. Thank you for taking the time and actually making a difference.”
To Paul—and to all of my students—the pleasure is mine.