Teach : Tim Koppang

Classroom Challenges: Reflecting on English 600

The nature and scope of the challenges I have faced in the classroom have changed since Fall 2012, when I stepped into the classroom. I was confident yet inexperienced. The whirlwind that was the first week of NIU’s English 600 program had passed, but I was still trying to firmly plant my feet on the ground. Looking back at the reflection I wrote after that first week of teaching is fascinating to me. I was concerned with the day-to-day details of planning a lesson, and making sure that I was on schedule. Those small details are still important to me, but I am much less concerned with whether each specific detail is exactly as it should be.

5 Sep 2012

As best as I can tell, my first week went well. Day One found me memorizing names, talking about why we write, and briefly introducing the books. The class warmed up as we completed the “name game” icebreaker. Although I had one student who flat out refused to participate, everyone else managed to laugh at least once as we all stumbled to remember names. Day One was a bit of a blur, which is a theme I will be returning to. Filling up the class period has proven much easier than I had anticipated.

The second day was smoother than the first, but equally busy. We reviewed the syllabus, and I introduced the This I Believe assignment. I try my best to keep my lectures interactive, but some of the students nonetheless nod off a bit. However, the pressure of an assignment kept them at least mildly engaged. I am beginning to suss out who likes to participate, and who prefers to keep quiet.

Day Three was spent introducing the class to Writer’s Help and Google Docs. I wanted to make sure the students all had the resources to begin work on the resume assignment. I also wanted them to learn about Google Docs so that, eventually, introducing the e-portfolio assignment will seem less daunting. We finished the class with peer review and reflection. Peer review was somewhat productive, but brief. In the future, I will need to give better instruction on how to review other students’ work.

What I’m trying to focus on now is the slightly larger picture. I want to know whether or not my students understand what is expected of them. I want to know if they are struggling with any specific skills. I also want to track their level of enthusiasm. Intraclass disengages with what I am presenting to them, I run the risk of moving on to the next topic before they are prepared. One of the most challenging things about the spring semester as compared to the fall semester was the different personalities of each class. What worked for one class did not always work for another. So while the small details of planning a lesson are important, the more nuanced challenge of adapting quickly to the needs of a particular class is now more daunting to me. It is a challenge I look forward to, but a challenge nonetheless.

One area in which I have developed an interest is that of pre-writing and what Irene Clarke labels “invention” (54). In the past semester, especially while working with my students on longer research related papers, I realize that the more thinking and brainstorming my students did I had of time, the better they performed under final papers. I believe part of this has to do with procrastination. Many students wait until the night before to complete a paper. With such a short period for generation, their work is often below their actual writing level. Clark list additional challenges associated with the invention stage of writing that inhibit studnet work. Among her challenges are the fear of taking a risk, a lack of appetite for chaos, a preference for judging rather than generating ideas, an inability to incubate ideas, and a lack of motivation (56). As my students are still young writers, I think it is appropriate to design a course that strongly encourages, if not requires, the students to generate pre-writing. My hope is that a formalized process will help them to overcome some of Clark’s challenges. This line of thinking let me to the following observation:

8 Apr 2013

For 103 next semester, I do want to put more emphasis on the writing process, including by assigning points to each step in the process. What I hadn’t considered, and what I think is a good idea in general, is evaluating the quality of the pre-writing materials generated by students. How I evaluate those assignments is something I am going to have to think about. I want to give the students the opportunity to flounder, or even fail in the pre-writing stage.

I cannot say for sure whether or not my idea will be a success, but I feel as though I need to experiment. Teaching is, after all, about a process of learning both for my students and also for myself. Longer-term, if I can convince my students that the writing process is useful, then they may be more willing to take risks with their writing. When they take risks, and find success, I believe they will also find a confidence that may have been missing.

Finally, I need to find ways to overcome the preconceptions that many of my students have about writing. Only then will they find a way to better engage with the written word. Much of what Erika Lindemann writes about it her book, A Rhetoric For Writing Teachers, is about changing attitudes. For example, she rightly observes that many students find rewriting to be “a punishment, a penalty for writing poorly” (189). She goes on to say that this attitude is often reinforce when teachers “insist that students correct mistakes in papers already graded” (189). To add to what she has already said, I find that my students will come to see revision as a tedious chore instead of a productive opportunity if I focus my comments to much on small-scale issues of grammar and spelling. By changing the way I comment on papers, and focusing on larger issues such as organization and what the student is actually trying to say, I can often send an encouraging rather than disheartening message. I have already seen that this can have a positive effect in the classroom. Even students who struggle with writing, come to understand that one of writing’s primary purposes is to communication what they have to say (a powerful message).

Works Cited

Clark, Irene L. Concepts in Composition: Theory and Practice in the Teaching of Writing. New York: Routledge, 2012. Print.

Lindemann, Erika. A Rhetoric for Writing Teachers. New York: Oxford UP, 2001. Print.