My teaching goals are driven by two fundamental tenets: 1) learning is a risky, vulnerable endeavor and best cultivated in a safe community and 2) collaborative, active classrooms foster challenging, productive learning spaces. More than dictating, my job is to prod, spur, and, when necessary, usher my students into thought-provoking learning experiences. In a sentence, my goal is to cultivate learning environments where my students feel supported enough to practice new skills, interact with unfamiliar knowledge, test their opinions, expand their perspectives, and learn the craft of clearly communicating ideas to others.
When I ask my students to learn something new, I am asking them to take a risk. Few will allow themselves to be seen struggling with a new idea or trying out a new skill unless they have a supportive community to encourage this kind of exploration. In every class that I teach, I consistently discuss the vital role respect, for ourselves and others, plays in our success as learners. It is not enough for the teacher to be the sole source of support, however; the entire classroom community must be committed to this pedagogical ideal for it to succeed. I have found that as I model respect and regularly assign students to work with each other, I foster a supportive classroom community. In addition, I regularly provide feedback on low-stakes activities students complete individually and collaboratively before they are ever assessed on larger projects. For example, I often provide students the opportunity to free-write about a discussion question and share their responses with a peer or two before ever sharing the idea with the whole class. Especially earlier in the semester, when students are still learning to trust the safety of our classroom space, I often utilize online polling tools that allow students to contribute to the discussion by texting messages that appear on our projector. In my experience, groundbreaking, lasting learning cannot occur when students are incapacitated by the fear of losing points or looking foolish. I work hard from the first day of class to reduce the inherent anxiety surrounding the process of trying something new, making mistakes, and looking a little clumsy in front of peers so we can get to the real work of learning.
Collaborative work not only cultivates safe classroom communities, but it provides opportunities for more active, engaged learning experiences. When students dialogue with each other, they sharpen their own understanding of our course concepts and hear diverse perspectives and ways of understanding the subject matter. My English 102 assignment, “A Controversial Dialogue,” illustrates this collaborative dynamic. Instead of asking students to write an academic argument paper that only I read, it requires students to research a controversial subject and engage in a series of emails discussing these ideas with a group of peers who represent an alternative perspective. Often, when I create opportunities for these types of collaboration, they are attached to a specific, hands-on task or goal students must tackle together, from rewriting a scene of Pride and Prejudice using the voice of a teenager in 2016 to creating a visual representation of a complicated concept for an audience of ten-year-olds. These types of exercises require students stand up, move their bodies, use crayons and scissors, and talk with each other, challenging them to engage course material from multiple angles with a diverse set of voices. My English 209 assignment, “Adaptation of a Story,” illustrates this interactive, hands-on engagement with course content. In this assignment students work in groups to create thought-provoking adaptations of a story we read in class and are given limitless options of how to creatively reimagine the themes of their chosen piece. In previous classes students have created, among other things, videos, sets of on-line dating profiles, interactive plays and gameshows, children’s books, and guidebooks that illuminate, challenge, and interpret the original text. These types of activities and assignments invite play and pleasure into the learning experience while challenging students to think critically and originally about course material.
My pedagogy is student-driven and social. I am here to ask questions, provoke new ways of thinking, and hold my students accountable for grappling to find the best answers. My goal as an instructor of literature, composition, and creative writing is to equip my students to engage productively and meaningfully in their communities; to accomplish this I provide them with the space to safely practice these acts, allowing them the chance to contribute to our small classroom community through interactive, collaborative learning experiences.