Composing a Class for Freshmen (Rather Than the Teacher)

These main principles are fundamental to the Freshman Composition course I teach: learner-centeredness, high expectations, flexibility, and, most importantly, authentic audience and purpose. Learner-centeredness is an idea that made immediate sense to me when I was getting a certificate to teach English as a Second Language. If learning is to happen, then the student must be an active participant. Throughout the years, I have seen the effectiveness of this approach. In the composition classroom, the learner centered approach is realized in community building and warm-up exercises, frequent pair and group work, classroom activities, peer review sessions, and the Socratic method of teaching through questioning.

Not only must students engage actively and regularly with the materials, but they must have some say in the materials they read and the topics they write about. Otherwise, how can a learner become self-motivated enough to become an independent scholar, which is, in my opinion, the goal of a university education? The first step in becoming an active reader, after all, selecting that material.

Similarly, I leave most writing assignments open enough to allow students to find their own angle of interest. Encouraging students to locate themselves within the subject is a primary aim of the class. In the introductory paper, many students complained that typical writing topics are so boring that they could not get interested in writing. In contrast, in midterm evaluations, many expressed excitement at being allowed to explore their own approach and choose their own topics. Allowing choice, however, means extra work, as I must make parameters and expectations extra clear and go over proposals with students, yet it is a welcome challenge.

For me, student focus also means bridging in-class and out-of-class literacies. Most young people are reading and writing more than ever before (emails, text messages, social networks, video games and blogs) and yet educators complain of a drop in basic literacy. Instead of invalidating the writing many young people are producing daily, teachers should help students identify and develop skills they already have:  techniques of description, narration and persuasion, awareness of audience and purpose, ability to write in a range of tones and registers, familiarity with various forms and genres. By drawing on new literacies and referring to them in a positive way, a teacher can help students become aware that the skills they are developing are applicable to many modes of writing, within, as well as outside, the academy. Tone, for example, is just as important in a text message as in a college paper, and details matter as much in an email invitation as in a business report.

Sometimes a learner-centered approach can leave too much up to the students, asking them somehow to divine the forms and genres we expect them to produce, so I include extensive modeling in my class. When I was struggling to learn the essay form in junior high and high school, I was given formulas for writing, but had to imagine the final product myself, and so for several years I did poorly. With this in mind, I ask students to carefully analyze readings to see what makes the writing effective. I also complete many of the smaller assignments myself  to model writing. Teachers usually hide their own writing. By doing so, they miss the opportunity of showing how writing is difficult for everyone. I welcome suggestions on how to improve, reversing the traditional roles of students and teacher. Student texts themselves often become the material of the class, both strong examples and others that demonstrate how a simple technique, like sentence focus, can turn wandering prose into clear, strong writing.

No matter where a student is in their development as a writer, I expect significant growth. At the beginning of the writing course, my expectations are low, but as the course progresses my requirements slowly accumulate with each topic covered. Because my demands are very high, especially toward the end of the course, I want to offer students maximum flexibility, allowing them to make up past work and reset deadlines (although it is best to keep this policy somewhat hidden so that students do not think they can let the work slide until the end). My job, I feel, is to teach reading, critical thinking, and writing, not how to jump hoops to a beat.

Concerning flexibility, the most significant policy is that I now allow students to turn in as many revisions as they want. This semester I had one student (who had flunked 106) turn in a paper which did not answer the task and was nearly incomprehensible and so he got a 1.5 out of 10. We discussed the misconceptions he had about academic writing; he revised his paper and received a 7, a second revision only raised it to a 7.5, but the next paper he was able to improve from a 4 to a 9.5! He is learning how to write and who would I be if I blocked that process by telling him he had simply failed on both papers, but he should try to do better on the next? He was not the only success of this policy; another student who had gotten a 9.5 also chose to revise and produced a paper I was inclined to call an 11. Again, wherever the writers are in their development, my job is to push them further, much further.

Finally, providing students with an authentic audience gives writing the purpose that it should have: the communication of information and ideas. “Considering audience”  takes on real meaning when writers are not writing exclusively for the teacher, in an exercise to demonstrate that they can accomplish a particular task in a particular way.  So, students must post all their papers on a public forum where all other students may read what they have written. Also I require that students engage in peer review and comment on each others’ papers. At the end of the course, students give presentations on their research projects. When research is shared, writing has real value.

In short, a classroom centered on the students that bridges everyday and academic writing, with flexible policies coupled with high demands, openness to multiple revisions and an authentic audience and purpose, is a classroom where learning is enjoyable and effective.

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