Today’s post is inspired by Two Writing Teachers, specifically Deb’s post No More Cookie Cutter Teaching. In it, she says:
As educators, we need to take ownership of our teaching. If you think your tried and true lessons are lackluster, then change them. Start by looking at your students and asking, what do my students need?
I teach college composition, so I actually take a more selfish approach and ask, “What types of assignments do I want to read?” and then build student choice into that. I mean, yes, obviously, I care about what they need but since I typically have to read over 100 essays at any given time, I have learned that the best thing for me is to consider what interests me.
For example, I am in love with my poetry assignment. But when I mentioned it to a colleague who is currently teaching poetry, she recoiled. “Oh no,” she said. “I don’t want to read their poetry.” To which I said, “See? So you wouldn’t assign that.” And she readily agreed. So even though I find that a great way to teach analysis, form, and making connections, doing that would lead to lackluster lessons and teaching on her part because she would hate it.
That’s how I felt all last semester. Since I was new to my institution, I did the assignments they told me were required and even struggled to find a way to make the research paper interesting to me because I hate reading traditional research papers. (This is mostly because I hate writing them, to be fair.) So over break, I threw out everything I did last semester (except summary, which I consider a necessary evil) (I only call it evil because everybody struggles with it and even though they’re short, they take forever to grade) and thought about what I wanted to read and how to get students invested in their research projects.
So this semester, instead of writing a theme paper (“What is the theme of x?”), I’m having my students do a newsletter for survivors of the Station Eleven pandemic that will be followed by an explanation (rhetorical analysis, basically) that explains their choices and why those choices would work for their audience. At the beginning of the semester, I had them write two summaries and then synthesize those readings by writing a literacy narrative. They’ll end the semester with a research project, of course, but instead of a traditional research essay, I’m having them write a Twitter thread instead. Why? Because I love when people do Twitter threads about their research interests or history.
It’s the same reason I have my students write missing scene fanfic or reconsider a portion of a story from a different point of view or create a soundtrack or write their own one-act play and then explain their choices: the papers may be terrible but at least I’ll have fun reading them.
So, basically, I prefer to have the vast majority of my assignments right there in the create section of Bloom’s Taxonomy.
My problem, of course, is that all assignments can’t be creative assignments. Well, that, and I have too many ideas to do all of them in a sixteen-week course.
It is true, though, that I keep what my students need in mind. Last semester, the students in my developmental course said they wish we had done more longer essays, so this semester, we did a soundtrack paper. We’re still doing a ton of summary since they need to practice reading and writing skills, but I also explained to them that we’re ending our semester where my first-year class begins: reading the same essay and doing the same assignment. Why? Because some of them are scared they’re not ready for the transfer-level course, but when I told them how I set up the course, they were like “Oh.” To which I said, “See? I know you can do it. That’s why I end the class that way.”
(It also has the added bonus of making them think I’m absolutely brilliant. Or at least that’s what I like to tell myself.)
Anyway, my favorite part of being an instructor is making up assignments (you know, second to opening young minds) and that’s what I missed most when I was away from teaching: the creativity.
So, yes, I consider my students’ needs. But I also think it’s important for me to remember what interests and engages me because then it’s easier for me to engage my students.