Photo by Alexandre Perotto
Tomorrow afternoon is my last day of teaching a group of wonderful students this semester. I’m resisting sadness as much as possible right now as I’ll likely never see these eighteen faces again; instead, I’m embracing excitement for their success, for their future as writers (no matter how disproportionate that writing might be in my students’ careers and life), and for my own pedagogy.
As I prepare to put together a ten-minute review presentation for my students, I want reflect on how my position as gatekeeper has changed–that dreaded word that seems to encapsulate what freshman composition is. Thanks to my department’s own philosophy, I allowed something to happen in my classroom that I had not really emphasized before: I allowed my students to speak for their writing and learning.
To demonstrate what I mean, I briefly reflect on three things that my students said about their writing. I list these phrases or sentences not for their frequency but for their power in helping me realize what exactly I was doing without even knowing it.
Can I revise my portfolio?
This semester I encouraged revision. I sometimes would tell my students in class and in one-on-one conferences that real writing is re-writing. Most writers don’t get their first draft right the first time around. They need to develop the skill to sift through their work, cutting and adding where rhetorically and aesthetically necessary. This principle applies as much to print-based writing as it does to multimodal projects.
The point of my class was to provide a playground where students could become better writers, and I knew that would never happen if I closed the books on each writing project with a “final grade.” They would miss out on conversations professional writers have with their editors and trusted readers about revision. To help them experience those conversations, I kept the first two writing projects open. Thus, no grade was ever really final; every project could get an A if my students worked at it. And many of them took that option without hesitation, even if the difference between an AB and an A was pretty darn negligible.
I admit that my revision process wasn’t as solid as I would have liked it to be. This part of my teaching I would like to refine in the spring semester. But for a trial run, this option worked well; I was happy with my students’ grades, I didn’t feel guilty that I had failed to teach them something so crucial to writing, and I think my students were even more motivated to do well. One student told me at the beginning of the semester that he would do whatever necessary to get an A. He took every opportunity to improve. And that’s what I wanted from my students. I really didn’t care too much about the A. I cared more about their ability to show progression over multiple drafts.
I would like to argue for a better grade . . .
Very much related to the first sentence above. Taking note from one of my colleagues, I also asked my students to give me feedback on my feedback. Often in English courses the instructor’s word is the final. Students’ agency is stripped away; they must remain silent about their grade, and it’s awkward, embarrassing, and frustrating for both parties when that one student breaks his or her silence.
This semester at the end of every rubric I ask my students to come talk to me about my comments. Did I miss something? Am I off somewhere? Let me know and let’s talk. Only one student approached me to argue for her grade but with guidelines. I asked her to explain to me why she thought she had made sound rhetorical choices in her writing project.
This question grounds the student in the concepts of the course. They have to talk about how their rhetorical choices might impact their audience. They have to talk about the affordances and constraints of their choices and what they had hoped would be the outcome. Thus, the “I deserve a better grade because I worked so hard on it” turns into “I actually think an A better reflects my thinking and writing than a B because in the course of my writing I realized that if I had followed your suggestion to do this, I would end up losing this.” Of course, I can push back but I can’t say, “Well you should try harder. There’s no privilege in my classroom.” No, my argument is rooted in the same language as my students’.
In this way we’re on equal standing; we share the same authority because we’re both (conceivably) “experts” in the field. My student made a compelling argument for her rhetorical choices and I granted her the grade without any qualms.
Is this what you want?
This final statement came up often during conferences. In response I clearly articulate my pedagogy. I tell my students that I’m in the business of giving them more control over their work. I give the assignment and within those constraints and affordances, they come up with the topic and what they want to say about that topic.
In turn, I help my students say what they want to say as clearly and as intelligently as possible. I often pose questions peppered with phrases like “as a reader” and “I love this but I was wondering if you could explain a bit more because I was confused here.” Statements like these, I hope, should have students think clearly not so much as what I want to hear or see, but to ask themselves, “Why have I not said this clearly? What can I do to make this easy to understand? How do I address this part of my article that actually hurts my credibility, because my reader doesn’t buy into what I’m arguing at the moment?
This is another area of my pedagogy that I would like to further refine. I noticed that I didn’t work hard on checking for understanding, so in the Spring I want to pay close attention in the drafts if students really are using my questions productively to improve their message.
These three statements indicate student agency, I think. Next week I’ll get their evaluations of my teaching and of my course. I used to be terrified of these things. This year, for the first time in my short career, I’m actually looking forward to reading their comments. Not because I expect them to say I did a great job. I’m really interested in seeing if I really did give them agency or if I just imagined it this semester.