As a teacher-scholar of rhetoric and composition, my students are always at the center of everything I do. Their learning is at the core of my lesson plans, our class discussions, my research, and my writing. I am always thinking of the next thing that I can do to help them become more effective communicators and more confident writers. Because of them, I am excited to teach, to innovate in the classroom, and to adjust my plans to their needs. I believe that my students teach me more than I will ever teach them—and I don’t want to stop learning. To establish this relationship, I believe it is my responsibility to honor my students, their writing, and their voices in discussions. I welcome and encourage every voice to speak and share. Because my students will use this course, and their knowledge of writing and revision, in their workplaces, my pedagogical goals as an instructor are geared towards their success beyond my classroom and the walls of academia. Giving them an opportunity to build experiential knowledge through self-directed, authentic learning and through service learning in their community, my students will be prepared to produce quality professional documents.
So, at the beginning of every semester, when I push the classroom desks into a circle and invite my students to take a seat, I focus on them and their experiences. I ask them to personalize their learning in my course with one simple phrase: You are the writer. Their education begins with my facilitation of their identity as a purposeful, rhetorical communicator. The discussion circle explodes as most students begin to articulate for the first time why writing is difficult for them, or why they have disliked it in the past. Their answers reveal key problems they have with writing that my teaching can, and often does, solve. I can help students improve as writers—but to do so I must help them self-identify the road blocks that keep them from being successful writers. I tell my students: “You are the writer” on that first day so they integrate their personal experience with writing and classroom assignments, which is not only to produce rhetorically-motivated projects, but to analyze and apply the concepts learned to any writing situation they may be in. My objective as their teacher is to shift the focus to their autonomy as a writer and teach them the various tools of writing that they will use throughout their academic, professional, and personal lives.
This objective requires a multi-layered approach to my pedagogy. I employ the following strategies and concepts in my lesson preparation, teaching style, classroom management, and assignment criteria to maximize the potential of my students and encourage stronger student engagement: authentic learning, active learning, and inquiry-based learning. I include many chances for application, analysis, and evaluation in assignments and discussions. My primary goal as a teacher is to facilitate learning in as natural a way as possible for students—to meet them where they are—and the above strategies have proven effective in providing that environment. This increases student retention of knowledge and encourages them to use that knowledge beyond the four walls of the classroom.
To begin, I foster authentic learning for my students. In my classroom and assignments, students use their own experiences and apply course objectives in a meaningful way. To these freshman students, my composition course may appear to be another box to check off on their way to getting a degree, a better job, or breaking economic cycles for their family, but positioning their learning into their own world motivates them to use writing in a more effective way: as a rhetorical tool that they can use to do things, make things, and be something in that world. One major example of this in my course assignments is choice of topic. My students can choose any topic to explore in any of their assignments. This helps them personalize their writing to what they care about and they work to identify real situations and audiences to address. Recently, I had an entrepreneurial student research the fashion industry as she built her business. She authentically applied all concepts of writing in our classroom in her exploratory research paper and gained knowledge about writing as she researched what she loved. This kind of personalization is valuable because it builds stronger engagement between students and their education and promotes autonomy in their academic work.
The next concept that I use often in my classroom is active learning, where students
practice what they learn. I turn them to examine and evaluate their own writing process, specifically using tiered assignments to accomplish this, from facilitated class activities, such as group analysis workshops and peer brainstorming sessions, to drafting assignments. Typically, a major assignment will require several pre-writing assignments such as topic lists, drafted thesis statements, audience and genre analyses, before a student ever begins drafting the full assignment. These tiered assignments give students the space to actively work on their writing well before the deadline and teaches them that writing is a process and takes thought and preparation to do well. As part of this active learning, I allow students to choose from a “cafeteria-style” of choices, ranging from audience to genre. This encourages students to think actively about the situation their writing is in and make rhetorical choices.
The final strategy I use in my teaching is inquiry-based learning. I challenge students to find real questions and problems that they can write about and potentially solve with their writing, or at the very least make a small difference. This approach supports the work of rhetoric as it requires them to identify the issues, audience, situation, and purpose for their writing and asks them to draw on previous assignments to do so. I have found that students are more engaged in learning when they come up with their own questions and will often excel at creating a meaningful project because they lead the inquiry. For example, in my English 110 class last semester, I assigned students to identify a problem in their community and use writing to solve that problem. Their “Community Projects” varied from informing students about campus resources available to them through pamphlets, suggesting campus security projects to University administrators, and handing out resource flyers and blankets to the Albuquerque homeless. I believe that this inquiry-based learning gives students a chance to apply their knowledge of writing in a way that they will not forget quickly.
There are just as many teachers in my classroom as there are students, which means that each student brings valuable contributions to the room from their own experience as writers, and we can all learn from them. My position in the classroom is one of facilitator, and as such it is my responsibility to decolonize the space, working with students to create open dialogue and engagement. Students create this through discussions and workshopping, while I am simply there to provide the framework they need to do this in. I am just a facilitator—my students are the real stars of the classroom. They are the ones who rise to my expectations and write more than they ever thought possible. As their instructor I fulfill my responsibility to show them additional tools to do that.