Methods for Teaching Writing and Literature

Another week in one of the snowiest semesters I can recall, and I am wrestling with the practical issues of several snow days. In my M/W/F First Year Writing courses, I found myself spending the entirety of class Friday giving mini lessons (I presented three), along with going over a handout outlining the genre conventions for the proposal students are working towards in this project. I talked. all. hour.

I was exhausted, and I could tell my students were, too. They were phenomenally good sports about it, but I just had that icky feeling at the end of class that everyone–myself included–couldn’t wait to just get out of there. Now, having taught at the college level for about 7 years, I have developed the performative aspects of my teaching practice. I make jokes, gesture, walk around the room (sometimes I feel like a shark, ever circulating), bring in elements of whole-class discussion and even bits of practice writing to my mini-lessons. I always, always have a visual aid–a Power Point, a Prezi, a video, a handout. Teaching is a performance, and lecturing is perhaps the most intensive aspect of this. Even so, by the end of the hour (for all three sections) I felt like perhaps my words just weren’t magic anymore. No one was really soaking them in. Why was I even still talking? Because I had to get through the material.

So, then, reading Elaine Showalter’s chapter on Teaching Methods, along with a section of James M. Lang’s On Course kind of just made me feel depressed and guilty.

When Lang runs through some bullets on the effectiveness of lecturing–students retain better in the first 10 minutes of class, in a 50-minute lecture, students are attentive about 40% of the time, etc. –my teacher-heart sank. That was exactly what my students were experiencing last week.

Such is the twisted mind of the teacher. All the helpful and practical tips for how to teach without lecturing, or teaching while still making lecturing palatable, only brought me to my recent class of lecture-fail. (at least, it felt like a fail in my mind). The funny thing is, that rationally, if pressed, I would explain my lecturing coherently. And I would do it again. Students needed all the explicit information I was giving them in order to move forward in their projects. We had missed time in the classroom due to snow days, and there was no other way for me to get them up to speed efficiently. This week, we’ll try something different.

For example, today will be a day almost entirely devoted to small group discussion and a problem-solving task. I plan to talk as little as possible to the whole class. In my ideal classroom, every student listens to something, writes something, says something and does something. This is difficult to swing in a 50-minute time frame. Which is why I’ve been thinking more and more about the concept of flipping my classrooms.

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In conversations with colleagues about teaching writing, we have been musing on the aspects of teaching the writing process, teaching craft. This works best in a writing-workshop environment, where students can be practicing concepts in the context of their own work. How can this be budgeted for in an already-packed semester filled with content that must be disseminated? (an issue that looms in both FYW and writing about literature courses…) This is where the idea of the flipped classroom becomes salient for me. In short, flipping the classroom involves moving much of the content-dissemination for a class online, for students to engage with at home, and opens up class time for hands-on workshops, discussion of the material, and other applications. I’m still thinking about how it could be integrated effectively into my classes….but with the winter we’re having, I’m thinking about it more seriously than ever.

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5 thoughts on “Methods for Teaching Writing and Literature

  1. The idea of flipping the classroom is new to me and sounds amazing. What a great way to engage student but also cover material. Lang and Showalter seem to stress the importance of balance, but why not flip it on its head? The workshops and discussion would have to be moderated to ensure the material was covered and understood, but that would leave a lot of space for new and exciting teaching methods!

  2. I feel your pain. I have resisted the lecture so far this semester despite snow days (I actually hate lecturing, largely because I start to ramble and watching students’ eyes glaze over is depressing), but I’m now looking at the current projects and wondering if an extended lecture wouldn’t have been well placed. I tried providing mini lectures in their conferences, thinking a 1-on-1 lecture would be more successful, but that was not the case.

    I like the idea of content-disemination being online, but I seriously question whether students (in particular, first year students) would put forth the extra effort. Reading about writing is difficult and, I must admit, usually rather boring. I strongly suspect a large part of my current genre-analysis issues is due to lack of close reading of the assigned textbook sections. How do you inspire students to take that much responsibility for their learning at a first year level?

  3. I like the idea of flipping the classroom especially as more and more learning will occur on line if present trends continue. You could evaluate whether they are actually doing the readings (or watching the short lecture you have prepared) by a few pertinent questions. After they hand in their responses you could follow it up with discussion on the same topic, about which obviously they’ve already had time to think.
    These days, with the development of long distance learning, there are exciting sites with all kinds of links for further exploration. Of course this would call for computer adept teachers (which I am not) to be able to utilize web learning, but I believe this is the future of education, so who wants to get left behind? Ideally it would be just one more weapon in the arsenal to capture the minds and imagination of the students. And, as has often been reiterated, we need a variety of techniques in order to challenge and to reach as many of the students as possible.

  4. I love any method that gets the students more involved and changes up the monotony of a classroom lecture. Assigning the students to give lectures I feel is a great way to do this. I am all for anything that lets me sit back in the classroom and not do anything, because it means the students are so engaged with the material, they only need me to walk around and answer a few questions. However, I feel you pain with having to try and make up the snow days, there just is not time to always be as engaging as we want to be. Sometimes we have to lecture. It sounds like you have a great rapport with your students, and that can be a great advantage in a time like this. We talked about transparency in the lesson, and I think that taking a few minutes at the beginning of the class to say “Real talk now. Here’s the deal, we have to play catch up. I normally wouldn’t do this to you but we have to get through this lecture to get back on track”. You could get some laughs, and the students might be more inclined to pay attention for the entire lecture if they knew this was a one time thing. Then it also makes the lecture a team effort for both you and the students to overcome.

  5. I totally relate to what you are going through when reading these texts on teaching. Sometimes I feel exposed because I think I am doing my students a disservice if I am not doing exactly what the authors suggest. Other times, I am empowered because my current technique might be validated or I might find a way to try out something new in the classroom.

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