Reflecting on teaching my first semester of Academic Literacy at California State University, Fresno |
One of my students recently expressed to me that they were disappointed in learning that I would not be teaching the same day and time of English 5B next semester. She said that she was nervous about the other instructor because they were rated as “easy” on myprofessor.com; since she already knew my teaching style and that I was challenging, she wanted to stay with me. I’m sure all teachers get at least one or two of those students every semester—at least I hope we do. Moments like that—and other similar moments—have really given me a sense of validation as a teacher. If a student wants to stay with me because I was challenging, that must mean that they’ve grown as a person and as an intellectual. I feel like if I’ve affected at least a handful of students in such a positive way this semester, I’ve done a good job. Of course, my classes were not all bells and whistles this semester. It took me quite a few weeks to truly discover a variety of important things: discovering my audience and their needs was the first challenge; planning my curriculum—not just in general terms but in terms that were specific and helpful toward my recently discovered audience—was another challenge. I believe that having experienced being a teacher for the first time this semester along with the help of English 270 and English 290 will certainly make it easier to avoid some of those early-semester roadblocks.
A clear benefit to teaching a course is having a full understanding of the curricular trajectory of the course itself. Even after orientation and after having read through the First Year Writing Program Sourcebook, this is not something that I believe any new teaching associate has. We’re certainly given a sense of what the curricular goals for the course are, but the feeling I had in teaching my first unit pales in comparison compared to my comfort level in teaching my third unit; by that time, I had a solid idea of the course’s learning outcomes and how to get there in not just a theoretical sense but a practical sense as well. What this boils down to is that now that I know where the students need to end up, I’ll have a much better idea of what I need to do at the beginning of the semester to get there. All of this in tandem with the pedagogical theory from English 270 and English 290 will definitely help throughout teaching a course in the First Year Writing Program, especially in the beginning of the semester. Where I believe all of this comes together for me is in planning for discussions and activities.
Both micro and macro level planning come down to audience awareness and course learning goals for that audience. I had real issues in planning reading discussions that would bear some intellectual fruit because I lacked overall awareness on these levels. The trouble is that it took me a little while to realize that I was not teaching junior and senior level English majors; it probably was not fair for me to expect freshmen to accept a reading assignment, to actually read it, and then come prepared to discuss it in the next class. Yet this is the learning environment I’m used to as a literature scholar: in that learning community, students do the reading then we discuss the text in class (having come in advance with our own ideas ready to go). So when I began several of my classes asking students what they found interesting or what their thoughts were on the issues that the authors were writing about, it’s no wonder why I was almost always met with silence: they did not know how to do academic reading! Sure, I was teaching them how to take notes, how to paraphrase, and how to summarize, etc. The trouble is that I was not reinforcing those habits through class reading activities and small group discussions. This is an area where I can and will definitely improve. For example, one of the reading activities with which I have found much success in my third unit is what I have been calling the “Divide and Conquer” strategy.
The first step in this strategy is to divide longer readings into smaller, more manageable “chunks”; I usually try to section the reading off in to 3 to 5 sections depending on the article. Sometimes the articles come with their own sections defined, sometimes I will divide them myself in advance, and sometimes I will make the “chunking” part of the class reading activity. It all depends on the article and its level of difficulty. Once the division has been made, it is time to conquer. Typically, I randomly assign a number of groups equal to the number of the “chunks” and give those groups the task of becoming the “masters” of that section. They are generally responsible for presenting a brief summary of their section, highlighting main points and anything they feel is important for the rest of the class to know. This activity has a variety of benefits: it gives students a chance to process their own thinking without being “called out” on the spot; the learning happens in a social context where meaning is negotiated among their peers; and, once we come back to a larger group discussion, students actually have something to say about what they’ve read. Planning reading and discussion activities at the beginning of the semester will definitely help conversations and meaning making occur as opposed the struggle with silence that I was dealing with before.
While the silence may been, in part, the result of classes being in the early AM hours and of the students being first-year college students, not knowing me or anyone else, I’m not beyond admitting that my pedagogy was not entirely appropriate for my audience during the first few weeks of class. I’m certain that I will be a much more effective teacher now that I understand how much more beneficial it is—for this audience—to go in to each class with a specific plan to discuss the major reading assignments for each unit. I am going to continue to look for ways to allow learning to occur in a social context that minimalizes the pressure of students feeling like they have to offer the “correct” response at any given time. This, I am sure, will only help to free the students and myself from stagnant talking points to discussions that flow free from fear.