“You have helped me see the world in a totally different way. Before I took this class I never read or wrote anything. Now I write in my diary every day and I actually read books.” -Jessica, English Composition Student
The above quotation was taken from a letter written to me by my former student Jessica. Jessica was a student in the first composition course I ever taught, and though seventeen years have passed since she was my student, she has always stuck out in my memory because, as that semester progressed, I saw Jessica grow. I saw her go from writing timid, bland prose to taking risks with her writing. I saw her explore language. I saw her become a more confident, more skilled writer.
This statement of teaching philosophy was first drafted when I was a graduate teaching assistant in my M.A. program at the very beginning of my teaching career, but the statement you are reading today is the result of dozens of revisions and rewrites since that initial draft. It is the result of the influence of hundreds of students, a handful of institutions for which I worked and gained on-the-job classroom experience, the taking and completion of courses in the Ph.D. program at IUP, and many hours and journal pages of reflection. Through it all, the story of Jessica is the only part of that original philosophy statement that remains. She represents the core of my teaching philosophy: My primary concern is my students and their growth.
Beyond that core, I have more questions than answers. Ten years ago, even two years ago, I was much more certain about what I was doing in my composition courses. Today, certainty is a commodity in scarce supply. My studies in composition, and my growth and development as a composition scholar, have continually pushed me to ask questions about what I do in my courses. For example, recently the issue of student resistance has come to forefront of my thinking, primarily due to a conversation I had with my former student Mike. I was talking to Mike about the journal-writing project we did, and he told me how much he hated it, that he didn’t consider himself a writer, and that, in his view, only writers could like writing in journals. I wonder, how can I help students like Mike become invested in classroom projects? How can I harness their resistance and help them to channel it in productive ways? How can I configure classroom activities so that students like Mike feel like they have something to gain by doing them?
I focus on my students and their literacies. I want my students to grow, to branch out. The literacies they practice can expand and accumulate, “pile up” and “spread out” (Brandt 652). Students can gain experience with the critical discourses of the academy, expanding their rhetorical savvy in the process. They can use writing to learn about themselves and their roles within their communities of practice. They can learn to use language and writing in ways that are new to them. As their teacher, I can guide them, sometimes nudge them, toward those ends.
To teach writing, I’ve found I must play multiple roles, expanding beyond the traditional roles of arbiter of grades and authority figure. Some of those roles include being a “fellow writer, editor, coach, facilitator, good listener, orchestrator of beginnings but rarely controller of outcomes” (Ward 180), among others. I believe in being as hands-off as possible, meaning that the more choices I can provide for my students, the closer they get to putting their hands on, making the choices that all writers must grapple with. I don’t tell my students what to write about beyond the loose guidelines for each assignment. They have to come up with the topic they will investigate; they have to decide how they will approach that topic and they have to wrestle with all of the rhetorical choices that come with that decision. I am always there for them as a guide, as a coach, as a voice of experience, as needed, but I want my students to understand that writing is complex. I would be doing them a disservice if I shielded them from that complexity.
I set guidelines, deadlines, classroom rules, and ultimately, I assign grades. Classrooms need structure. Structure and dialogue are not mutually exclusive. To the contrary, my experience has shown me that the two mesh quite well. When structure is provided and students know what is expected of them, dialogue can flourish. I have witnessed it.
I guide my students. I work with them. I work hard to balance the needs of the classroom community with the needs of each student individually. In striking that balance, I employ collaborative learning and I have talks with my students (conferences) one on one.
I admit, there is one more part of that original statement that still hangs around in this draft in the concluding paragraph, and that is my desire for my students, when the course is complete, to be changed, to take something out of that course that is relevant to their daily lives. Maybe it sounds naïve, but I still cling to that notion, ten years later. It inspires me to continue to ask questions, to continue to find something interesting and challenging in each new group of students I teach. And so, this statement, like me, like my students, continues to evolve, yet it is my desire to reach my students, to put them first, that continues to be the glue that holds my philosophy together.
Brandt, Deborah. “Accumulating Literacy: Writing and Learning to Write in the Twentieth Century.” College English 57 (1995): 649-668.
Ward, Irene. Literacy, Ideology, and Dialogue: Towards a Dialogic Pedagogy. Albany: SUNY UP, 1994.