Education has always felt like a field that I wanted to make a career in, but it was not until I began working with writing students that I truly understood why this is where I belong and what I am meant to be doing. Mina Shaughnessy’s Errors and Expectations was revelatory in my career.
It was the first concrete time I had encountered the notion that a writing teacher’s job isn’t just to correct the mistakes a student makes, but rather to understand the logic behind mistakes they are making and help them mediate that with the expectations and objectives they need to meet. It helped me start asking my students questions about the choices they make in their work. The answers they give have made me a better teacher because it opened me up to saying yes rather than no to a student.
By opening a conversation with the student about their work, their habits, and their ideas rather than simply telling them what to fix, I engage them more fully in the writing process itself and give them the agency they need as students to problem-solve when I’m not there. I can guide the students, and I can give them the resources they need to not only improve a specific piece of writing, but to also aid them in their future student careers.
As a first-generation student myself, I intimately understand the stresses that some of our students face when they come to the university. It is a new environment with new expectations. Most of the students I work with are early in their college careers and still learning to navigate the standards of the universities and their classes. I advocate for a balance between explicit and implicit instruction in order to provide students with skills they need to succeed in not just my course, but in others and in the workplace.
Explicit instruction, when used effectively, guarantees that our students come away from a lesson with skills they can apply in multiple scenarios rather than just for one assignment. Though my students learn to improve their writing in my classroom, my goal is that they leave with a better understanding of the expectations of the academic community at large so that they can become active and productive members.
In my classroom, I emphasize the writing process through scaffolded units that build on the students’ skills and introduce new ones as they proceed through draft work. My students work through metacognitive exercises to better understand what aspects of their writing process they want to improve or modify.
I introduce many aspects of academic writing conventions alongside more workplace appropriate genres, and they learn when it is appropriate to use which forms and skills. I make my evaluation and feedback processes explicit and transparent to my students, and we have conversations about the purposes of each. Students then learn to request and give feedback themselves in writers’ workshops, where they work on drafts of their work with their classmates. In line with much current composition research, I make use of portfolio work in my courses. This practice invites students to reflect not just on an individual assignment, but on their progress and successes throughout the course.
I have had the opportunity to work with First-Year Composition students of varying levels of preparedness, including developmental writers. Each of those classrooms has influenced my teaching practices in different ways, but one aspect stands out the most.
I have learned to listen to my students and ensure they have agency in my classroom to use writing in ways that meets their educational needs. Students don’t leave my classroom with just a grade; they leave with skills they will transfer to different classes across many different fields.