My primary goal as a teacher of writing can be articulated in a brief phrase borrowed from Nancy Sommer’s classic essay on responding to student writing: I hope to help my students develop control over their writing. This goal of empowering students aligns with the anti-racist and critical pedagogies that inform my teaching, and it has significance in both broad and specific senses. Broadly-speaking, I want my students to exercise control over what and how they write, to step into their own voice, and to use their writing in ways that benefit themselves and their communities. More specifically, I want my students to have functional command of their expression so that their writing, at the paragraph and sentence level, performs the work they want it to do.
I believe a genre-informed approach to teaching is the most effective way to advance this goal of student empowerment in writing. Therefore my teaching aims to 1) help students understand how audiences interact with texts in various settings; 2) show students the range of rhetorical tools at their disposal within each genre; and 3) coach them toward making confident writing decisions that will be effective in a given writing situation. To this end, students in my classes read and analyze a wide variety of texts, including album covers, movie posters, blog posts, and tweets, as well as more traditional classroom texts like journalistic essays and academic articles. We discuss the expectations of each genre and then transfer that understanding to the writing tasks students encounter most often in an academic context: professional emails, academic summaries, analyses, and researched essays.
In keeping with my goal of student empowerment, I plan every class period as an active-learning experience and an opportunity to build on what students already know about a topic. I minimize lecture in favor of student-led discussion, using structured discussion techniques like think/pair/share or (a personal favorite) “TQE,” in which small groups of students each generate a Thought, Question, and Epiphany inspired by a class reading. These techniques help students externalize the understanding they have developed about a topic before I intervene with teaching. I find that when students actively contribute to knowledge-building in the classroom, they feel a greater sense of ownership and consequently write on those ideas with enhanced confidence and power.
Careful scaffolding of assignments followed by focused assessment are essential components of my course planning and, I believe, essential tools to empower students and combat inequity in the classroom. For example, before a major project, I assign a sequence of low-stakes assignments that demonstrate the “moves” necessary to complete the large project successfully. So in an English 101 class, students preparing to write a textual analysis will first turn in a paragraph of summary, then one of close reading, and then one that uses textual evidence to support a claim. Students perform these small assignments and receive meaningful feedback from me on each skill. They then approach the larger project with the confidence of knowing what is being asked of them and the assurance that their writing will be assessed on visible criteria, not impressionistic issues of style. To further ensure equity in grading and to reinforce the rhetorical nature of writing, I ask students to provide a “letter to the reader” along with each essay draft so that in my assessment of their writing, I understand and honor what the student wants their work to accomplish.