Every teacher knows their what. It is often part of our contract or presented in some other formal document before the school year or semester begins. Maybe formal might be a bit of a stretch as it has sometimes arrived as a slip of paper placed in my mailbox or a few lines delivered via email, but either way it is a clear statement of my teaching responsibilities. This semester I am teaching Eng 200: Writing II and Eng 390: Professional Writing. Both classes come with catalog descriptions and a set of student learner outcomes. But as my professional writing students work on elevator pitches I was struck by the idea that we teachers often focus too much on the what and not the why and the who. I suspect that bad teaching practices (including my own) arise from this tendency to focus only on what we are teaching and forgetting the why and who. When was the last time you asked yourself what problem your class solved for your students?
Who Are You Doing It For?
One of my mentors, Director of the Louisville Writing Project Jean Wolph, led me through a reflective writing activity years ago that I often think about when preparing my classes. She asked us to think and write about one student whose struggles and challenges would guide our thinking and planning. It is too easy for us to teach to a mythical student, our ideal student. I have some colleagues who seem to teach to the lowest common denominator – or at least some version they have created in their mind. And all too often we teach toward another mythical student, the average student. Our institutions give us lots of statistics about our students and often we gather still more information during our preparation or the early days of classes. Of course, those of us who have been doing this for a while also have a lot of information about the students filling our classes. The truth is it is easy to become overwhelmed by this information and there is always the danger of confirmation bias. But if we spend some time thinking about one student it is a lot easier to focus. Not our brightest student or the one who struggled, possibly failed, but one specific student who falls in-between those extremes then it becomes real because you can picture that student in your mind and remember words they wrote, their expression when you discussed those words, and how your gut felt when you looked at their final deliverable. I always try to practice this reflection when I am planning my semester. Once I am in the thick of teaching each semester my focus is on the students before me, but before those students are real people with real baggage, hopes, and dreams, it anchors me to think about that one former student and what I would do if I had a second chance with them.
What Do They Need?
Anyone who has ever written an elevator pitch knows that it is essential to focus on the problems of your intended audience. What do they need? What challenges are they currently facing? So many failed lessons were the result of times that I forgot this simple lesson. It is so easy to focus on what I need to accomplish during a specific class or week to get us to the goal posts assigned by our department or institution. Worse, it is extremely easy (for me anyway) to be seduced by interesting lessons we want to share with our students. I have so many talented peers doing really interesting work with their students that I am always susceptible to the shiny object. That’s why I now work to keep this question in mind when planning. My less is more strategy led to my four-square writing plan and both came out of asking myself and my students what they need. My exploration of #ungrading and #hyperdocs were also the result of asking my students what they need and studying how/where they struggle with learning to write. Solutions are born out of necessity, but before you can begin your search for answers you must know the right questions to ask. For me the first question always has to be why: why am I doing this?
Do you know your why?
One simple strategy that has helped me a lot as I reflect on my teaching is to think about my classes as ecosystems where every part of the whole needs to be in balance and too much or too little attention on one aspect can throw the whole system out of whack. My why is always supporting the growth and development of writers. The writer is my goal and my bottom line and that is why authentic writing is so important to me as a writer, reader, and teacher. I have spent a lot of time thinking about my endgame and it should be evident to even the casual readers of this blog as well as my students. My goal has never been for my students to craft the perfect deliverable, but to see themselves as writers with an expanding toolbox. My hope is to prepare them to continue their journey after they leave my class.
My why is always focused on supporting the writer whether I am working with K-12 writers, undergraduate writers, or professionals. I have learned over the course of my career that writers are writers are writers and that as long as I remember my why I can support their journey. When was the last time you considered your why?