I love to teach, but find it uncomfortable to stand in front of a classroom. I’m not a big personality. Nor am I a Socrates, adept at formulating incisive questions on the spot.
When I started teaching freshman composition a few years ago, I hadn’t taught in many years. Afraid of failing, I prepared zealously. That included searching for wise and inspiring ideas about teaching.
I’ve kept up that search, semester after semester, and have collected many strategies and principles that have helped me handle the job. These ideas may help you, too—especially if you’re new to teaching.
- John Wooden, UCLA’s legendary basketball coach, once pointed out that there’s a big difference between “I taught it” and “They learned it.” (Doug Lemov shares this insight in his book Teach Like a Champion.) Whenever I find myself annoyed at students for not getting it, I remind myself of this, and try to figure out a better way to teach the same concept.
- It doesn’t help to groan at their mistakes. Meet your students where they are. The whole point of the job is to help them improve. (Of course, I still wince at some of their sentences. I’m trying to wince less.)
- Create a comfortable, friendly environment in the classroom. As much as possible, eliminate anxiety.
- Students will only learn what you’re teaching if they believe they can learn it. That requires breaking each lesson down to the simplest elements: concepts that everyone in the room can understand, and skills they can master. Let them succeed in every class, instead of feeling like they don’t get it and never will.
- Here’s the challenge, though: there’s a wide range of ability in every classroom. If you aim at the middle, some will roll their eyes (“We learned this in 5th grade!”), while others will be baffled and give up.
- My solution: explain to the class that not everyone has learned these skills, and ask for their patience. I also tell them that many of the best writers I’ve taught have needed to re-learn these lessons.
- For the struggling students, I post handouts that explain each concept I teach, in simple terms. I also post links to interactive exercises. (This seems especially useful when teaching basic mechanical skills, e.g., where to put the comma when punctuating a quotation.)
- Recognize the obstacles. Although some of my students enjoy writing fiction, poetry, and personal narratives, few of them like the academic work they’re expected to do in my class. I can see two possible ways to overcome these obstacles:
- Let them read and write about things that matter to them. Overlook most of the errors. Let them begin to feel engaged.
- Teach them writing strategies and skills they’ve never learned before.
The first of these sounds promising, but there are two problems. Freshman writing classes are supposed to prepare students to write analytically about academic subjects. I know it’s important to engage students—but with only 28 class sessions, and three required essays to write (three drafts apiece!), there isn’t enough time to progress gradually from the personal to the academic.
Also, many of my students tell me they never learned the skills I teach. They’ve expressed gratitude for the grammar lessons. I think it would be a mistake to skip over this material.
The best solution I can see is to combine the two paths. I try to build in some room for personal writing at the beginning of the semester; and I look for readings they’ll be able to connect with.
- Remember that, whenever you learn something new, you make mistakes. It’s part of the process. For most of these students, writing analytically is a new challenge. When they write about their own experiences, they write more naturally, with fewer errors and contorted sentences, than when they discuss social issues or analyze a poem. Therefore, try not to be too discouraged when they write tortured sentences—especially in their thesis statements, where they often try to corral too many ideas into too small a space, and aren’t always sure of what they want to say.
- Don’t overreact to grammatical errors, or you’ll stunt their growth as writers. For many students, this means only marking a few of the most glaring problems. If they put all of their energy into not making grammar mistakes, they won’t have the mental space they need to stretch their thinking. Encourage them not to worry too much about grammar when they write first drafts, but to pay closer attention when revising.
- Think of yourself as a coach, a supporter. I also think of myself as an editor, because I believe they can learn from seeing possible ways to improve problem sentences—but I try to be a gentle one.
- Give them opportunities to think, write, and discuss in every class. The more they do this, the more comfortable they’ll be with each of these tasks.
- Break the writing process down into steps: brainstorming, rough draft, rethinking/revisions, more revisions, proofreading. Make it impossible for them to write the whole essay the night before it’s due.
- Encourage them to think freely before they attempt a first draft: sketching thoughts, stretching their minds, discovering ideas. If they have no idea how to do this, suggest freewriting. (There are other ways to generate ideas, but I won’t go into those here.)
- If your students don’t know how to form simple, compound, and complex sentences, teach them.
- Teach one concept at a time, and immediately apply it to in-class writing.
- Recognize that each skill needs to be practiced—and, ideally, mastered—before moving on to the next one. But that’s hard to accomplish with only 28 class meetings. Some students have told me they wished we’d gone back and practiced some of the skills more. Here’s a partial solution:
- Teach the lesson. Let them practice using the skill in class, in writing of their own.
- Later in the same class, have them practice the skill again.
- Ask them to use the new skill in a paragraph they write for homework. This can take the form of a response to a reading.
- Have them practice the skill one more time in the next class.
- Each time a lesson fails—when only a few of your students can do what you ask them to do—step back and consider how you could break the skill down further. (I’ve had to do this a handful of times. All of those lessons produced much better results the second time around.)
- Let your work with sentences feel like creative experimentation rather than grim drills and error correction. Show them that there are many ways to express the same idea: that different versions of the same sentence can be equally effective.
- Make the class fun. Seek engaging ways to introduce each new skill, and to have students practice it.
- Should they practice editing with sentences they’ve written themselves, or with sentences you provide? Usually I give them sentences written by students from past semesters, so as to avoid hurting anyone’s feelings. Often, though, when they share sentences they’ve written, I want to address some of the problems I see; but the potential cost to their pride makes me hesitate. If it’s a simple point of grammar that many of them need to learn, I’ll teach a short lesson on the spot, but usually I’ll let these errors pass without comment.
- As composition specialists frequently remind us, grammar exercises alone don’t result in improved writing. But I believe that giving students practice and asking them to use the new skills in their own writing does yield results.
- If you want your students to care about what they write, you have to give them assignments that mean something to them. But how do you get them to care about academic topics that seem remote from their concerns? 1) When introducing a reading, take time to connect them to the subject. If a story, poem, or essay is worth discussing, chances are it explores a theme that touches many lives. 2) When you assign an essay, offer them options. The more control they have over what they write, the more they’ll care about it. But beware of letting them write on any topic they choose, because some will recycle essays from high school.
- To develop fluency (and overcome the fear of writing, if that’s an issue), I have students write for at least five minutes in every class, either about a text they’ve read or about a puzzling question. I encourage them to dig for new ideas. This writing can serve as a starting point for a longer discussion—or, if it comes after a class discussion, it can reflect their best thinking on the subject.
- The All-Important Lesson: They must revise what they write, ideally more than once. In their revised drafts, they should try to flesh out, clarify, and deepen the content; make the writing more graceful; and correct grammatical and mechanical errors. This requires instruction (and encouragement/haranguing); left to their own devices, most students will just proofread for typos.
- Let them begin with short pieces, no more than a paragraph. This makes writing less intimidating, and makes revising less overwhelming.
- As they try to express more complex ideas (and write more complex sentences), new errors will arise. Understand this, and be patient.
- Whenever possible, offer encouragement and honest praise. Be specific about what they did well.
- “People must never be humiliated—that is the chief thing.” — Chekhov
- Remember that this skill takes years to develop, not weeks. With many students, what you’ll see, at best, is a small advance in the right direction.
- Beware of setting too many goals. Be realistic, and plan lessons accordingly. (Confession: I have never heeded this advice. A few of my students have complained that I try to cram too much in. It’s a character flaw. But I still think the advice is wise.)
- After each class, note what worked and what didn’t. Then try to solve the problems. What could you do differently? I keep a document called “Teaching Journal” on my computer, and add to it after each class. Consider this a never-ending experiment.