Every day when our students come to us, whatever is going on inside of them comes too. As an educator, I have worked to adopt what bell hooks calls an “engaged critical pedagogy,” which centers a holistic view of our students at the heart of our teaching practices. I have done this by building a classroom community grounded in student agency, creative freedom, and attention to their emotional well-being, while emphasizing social and political engagement and creating meaningful writing opportunities for my students.
During the first week of my first-year writing course, my class works to situate the often complicated feelings about writing they bring into the classroom by identifying specific writing advice they have received in the past. As a class, we deconstruct how and why the advice was given and its impact, identifying where certain writing rules apply based on rhetorical situation, and when rules can be broken based on the rhetorical power of doing so. This emphasizes that “good” writing is not static, but rather situated by context. Using a blend of academic texts and popular sources, including YouTube videos, social media, and other digital content, we then focus our attention to connection between writing, the world, and individual agency within it.
In my classes, I center student agency in two fundamental ways: 1) freedom of topic selection, and/or freedom of approach, genre, or mode of writing; and 2) freedom to express opinions and explore ideas about the world in a grounded, critically engaged way. One such example of this is in the second unit of my social justice-themed first-year writing course when students complete a multi-genre project. For this assignment, students pick a documentary film covering a social or political issue of significance to them and conduct a rhetorical analysis of the documentary, applying theories discussed in class. Next, they continue their analysis of the film through creative representations of the film’s content or primary argument, utilizing a variety of unique genres including short screenplays, restaurant menus, original songs, short films, and more. This assignment is part of a greater conversation taking place over the course of the semester, which emphasizes the unique importance of their voices as writers and people, evident in class discussions and private, low-stakes journal writing. The aim here is to empower students to learn more about the social and political issues that inform their worlds, while raising their rhetorical awareness and encouraging creative freedom.
With a vested interest in lived experiences as sites of knowledge creation, students in all of my classes are given the opportunity to situate their understanding of the world by reflecting on their own lives. In my intermediate composition/creative nonfiction (CNF) class students do this in three unique units: 1) literary memoir, 2) writing about culture, and 3) creative-critical hybrid writing, with a multimodal option. For their final project, in which students are encouraged to compose in an alternative mode, I’ve had one student construct a PowerPoint essay highlighting the connection between hair, beauty, and race, another record a podcast interviewing an official from a local anti-sex trafficking non-profit, and another film a short documentary telling the unique story of her family history. Because of the personal, often emotional nature of CNF, when offering feedback on student writing I focus on the student’s goals for the work and their emotional safety in composing it, while offering pointed critique of craft. Additionally, peer review is anonymous, allowing space for students to benefit from the workshop process, while honoring their privacy.
In every course I teach, I work to de-center authority in the classroom. For example, in my first-year writing course, students worked in groups to deconstruct Kenneth Burke’s “Terministic Screens,” before teaching sections of the theory to the class through group presentations, and discussion about cultural applications of the text. Similarly, in my intermediate composition course, student groups led discussion on diverse memoir and literary journalism texts, before delivering their own low-stakes writing prompts to the class, inspired by the reading. Throughout each semester I routinely request anonymous feedback on my teaching practices from my students, which I utilize to further mold the classroom experience to their unique needs.
I believe it is imperative that for students to value writing and find freedom and excitement within its practice, they must believe that teachers care not just how they write, but what they write, and how they feel doing it. By merging the goal of writing instruction with an emphasis on holistic student empowerment, grounded in student agency and creative freedom, I hope to serve my students as writers, professionals, and human beings throughout my career.