“Sincerely Yours…”

sneetches

And that’s a wrap. My first year of professional professerin’ is now officially over (though for some reason I agreed to teach a summer class next month).

I have loved it so, and I want to do this forever, growing into my role at the college, and improving in my trade. To teach is to always be a student, learning, reflecting, and sharing with others. To this end, I feel I need to take a moment to reflect on the experience.

At the beginning of this semester, I decided to de-formalize my class. By this, I simply mean that I made it a goal to treat teaching and learning less like a business and more like a relationship. I previously blogged about an early assignment prompt that sought these ends. Many teachers complain about students thinking of themselves primarily as consumers and of education primarily as a product. Yet too often, we design our courses to encourage this very pattern of thought.

A course typically begins with the handing out of a syllabus and an explanation of policies and assignments. This is certainly necessary and we must discuss it at some point, but why begin there? I’ve taken instead to beginning each course with a question of some sort. It’s a little weird for my students, who often want to get straight to business, but for me it establishes that we are there not primarily to fulfill a requirement, but rather to be curious.

This past semester, I began all my composition classes by showing a short film of a Dr. Seuss story, The Sneetches. For 12 minutes, my students watched a cartoon and must have been wondering on some level if their professor was mentally deranged. What I saw, however, was a group of curious people who were immersed in a fantastic world and were adjusting their own worldviews and expectations to accommodate that world. In short, I saw education going on, not the purchase of a product called education.

At the end of the film, I asked each student to state their name, major, year, et cetera, then pose a question that the movie raised in their minds. (Fair warning to other teachers out there reading this: this can be painful and uncomfortable. You must commit to the process and wait for each student to pose some kind of question, then be alright with questions that are mundane). It was difficult and weird and unsettling, but in the end, each class developed its own interesting line of questioning about this adolescent story. Students were engaged and felt like they had accomplished something — all without the aid of a syllabus (yet).

Furthermore, by attaching their names and aspirations to their questions, we began, as a class, a semester-long relationship that served as the catalyst for their learning experience. In short, their learning experience somehow transcended the “business” of institutional learning. There were certainly exceptions, and many students I’m sure did (or didn’t) what they had to do to “please” me as a teacher, but by and large, I felt that my students were engaged with their learning outside the sphere of consumer transaction. Most of them, with varying success, were motivated by their own curiosity, not the mechanical requirements for their degree programs.

If you took the time to click on my previous post, you’d have seen that I began the class with a letter to my students, explaining what I was looking for in their literary analysis papers. I felt, then, that it was entirely appropriate to conclude class with the genre or writing. (A grad school friend posted an article about this on Facebook and gave me the idea for this). For their final exams, students were asked to write a letter to a future student of the class. Here is the prompt:

Final Exam:

Write a 2-3 page response to the following prompt. Your grade will be determined by your thoughtfulness, the detail you incorporate into your response, and your ability to demonstrate that you were paying attention to what we did in class all semester. In other words, show me that you learned something.

Write a letter to a future student of this class, sharing with them what you learned by taking it yourself. At some point in the letter, you should tell the future student what you learned about your own writing process and narrate how that process changed and/or developed throughout the semester.

Your letter should prepare the student for what will be expected of them over the course of the semester. Finally, your letter should reflect on what works well in this course and what could be improved. This will help your hypothetical friend and me as well.

There were some details that I wanted to see. For example, I did insist that they reflect on their own writing process throughout the semester. However, I purposefully left the instructions vague because I wanted my students to be free enough to focus on what they learned in their individual classroom experiences.

I must say that I never enjoyed reading a batch of papers so much. There was the obligatory brown-nosing, but it was not obnoxious; it seemed rather honest and restrained. Instead, their letters were by and large clear explanations of everything I’d dreamed they would take from the class. It was clear to me that they had “gotten it.” They even went so far as to identify specific assignments they were able to apply to their work and narrate how that made them into more confident writers in college. And furthermore, the letters were oh so clever. I did not get permission to share their responses, so I won’t but many of the exams left me laughing aloud in the downtown Athens Jittery Joe’s. I was embarrassed and exhilarated all at the same time.

And finally, I have to congratulate my students for their insight into what didn’t work so well. Much of what they pointed out I agreed with, and on top of that, they gave me fabulous insight into improvements that can be made in the future. But the important part of this element of their exam is that they dared to tell me where I screwed up!

All along, I was hoping to establish and develop a learning relationship with my students, and at this I was successful.

So successful, in fact, that felt comfortable enough with me to teach their own teacher. Pedagogical bliss.

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