Teachers should help students become their own teachers. With that goal in mind, I have designed my English 848 course around two principles: learner-centeredness and bridges between everyday and academic literacies.
Learner-centeredness was 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, students must be active participants, rather than passive learners. Over the years, I have seen the value of building courses in cooperation with students. Because of my ability to tailor courses, I was given new courses, for instance a writing course for the GMAT, and assigned important clients, such as a Swiss Senator who wanted to work on his speech-making skills. Now that I teach composition, the learner centered approach is realized in community building and warm-up exercises, frequent pair and group work, interactive classroom activities, peer review sessions, guided discovery, 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 topics they study. Otherwise, how can a learner become an independent scholar? At the beginning of the semester, I give my students a questionnaire asking what they like and dislike about reading and writing, what their strengths and weaknesses are, and what mechanical and structural topics they would like to focus on. After reading their responses, I adapt my syllabus accordingly. I also assign tutorials at the writing center that meet requests and needs, leaving the last two tutorials for the students to pick themselves. When students choose, they become more motivated.
Besides adapting course content and tutorials, I also give occasional mini lessons, addressing requests and common mistakes. Often I ask students at the beginning of a class if they have questions about grammar, punctuation, or writing. When students ask questions, they are ready to learn the answers. Thus, they are more likely to remember.
Whenever possible, I get other students to explain the points. At such times, I become more of a facilitator than a guide.
On WebAccess, the class website, I require students to post questions about the readings about something confusing, interesting, or thought-provoking. Rather than responding to a teacher’s questions, students are finding their own points of entry. I then base class discussions on these online discussions, so students see that they have a voice in academic debate. Of course, I also add my own questions and make sure they understand key points they may have missed. As we progress through the semester, I require that students add a brief summary, paraphrase or quote from the text, so they see academic discussion as a conversation between authors and readers, students and teachers.
On the opening questionnaire, students frequently say that they love to express themselves in writing but hate writing about topics that don’t interest them, so I allow students to choose their topics in writing assignments. Unfortunately, my open assignments were somewhat unfocused in the past, as my evaluater last semester noted. Since then, I have worked hard on maintaining openness, while giving very specific directed tasks.
For example, the first writing assignment, “Finding Your Hidden Intellectualism,” encourages students to explore academic skills they use in a non-academic hobby or interest: “The thesis,” the writing assignment says, “should answer the question ‘How do participants in the hobby or interest you have selected demonstrate academic skills, such as making arguments, supporting an opinion with evidence, summarizing and responding to the views of others, challenging one’s mind, preparing for life and career, developing morality, or building community?’” Besides allowing students to write about topics that interest them, they learn how to see these hobbies “through academic eyes,” as Gerald Graff recommends in his essay “Hidden Intellectualism.” This unit bridges street smarts and book smarts, validating other forms of intellectualism students use in their daily lives, encouraging them to transfer these skills to academic work. In an informal questionnaire one third of the way through the semester, many students expressed excitement at being able to choose their own topics.
The second unit also makes connections between everyday and academic literacies. We read a variety of texts that discuss language, education and identity. For example in “Mother Tongue,” Amy Tan argues that we all use a variety of “Englishes,” depending on context and audience. The underlying message of this unit is that the forms of English students use daily are not wrong, nor is “standard” English the only correct form, but “standard” English is most appropriate in academic and professional contexts and therefore worthwhile.
Students must respond to one of the readings by agreeing or disagreeing in a short 2-3 page paper, then argue the opposing side in another, combining the two in a complex and balanced argument in the longer third paper of the series. The danger here is the vagueness of assigning a task that asks students to “agree” or “disagree,” but referring to the techniques described in “They Say / I Say” and using reading forums and class discussions, I help students identify key issues in each reading, formulate them as questions, respond to their questions in working theses, and then reshape the theses into policy suggestions for a specific group of people. Similarly, for the final research project, students will identify an issue they wish to explore, and I will direct them through the process of formulating questions to building persuasive arguments.
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. Students must post all their papers on writing forums, where all other students may read what they have written. At the end of the course, students give presentations on their research projects. When writing is shared, it has real communicative value.
In short, a classroom centered on students that bridges everyday and academic writing is a classroom where learning is enjoyable and effective.