Posted by edsouza at 01 January 2017

Statement of Teaching Philosophy, continued

I began my career in formal education as a paraprofessional at Ridge and Valley Charter School, an elementary and middle school inspired by Montessori and Waldorf philosophies of self-guided learning, experiential and outdoor education, Earth literacy and sustainability, whole-student qualitative assessment (as opposed to report cards), and integrated lenses and multi-age groupings (as opposed to siloed grades and subject areas).

Ecological learning, then, has come to mean so much in addition to learning “about” the natural world; it is a paradigm and a mindset that I have brought to bear on my work as a college writing teacher. I can hope to achieve intentional goals in the classes I teach, like raising student awareness of the strategic, relational, and material dimensions of rhetoric, its applicability to diverse contexts, or their mindful use of evidence in support of claims in writing. I can—and do, in fact—work in reasoned ways to meet those ends. However, the ecological perspective reminds me to attend not only to instrumental outcomes, but to the dispersed repercussions of the words I use, the decisions I make, and the very tone I set as an instructor. It teaches me to see the student, the person, as wholly integrated—and to account for the rational and the affective—even though I’ve been entrusted to care for just a piece of the much bigger picture (i.e., college writing).

Scholars like Marilyn Cooper, Asao Inoue, Jody Shipka, Danielle DeVoss, Ellen Cushman, and Jeffrey Grabill have written about the ecological, or infrastructural, elements of the writing classroom. Systems thinking approaches inspire a similar awareness in me. Students—who are never only students—are, themselves, actors in tangled networks of people, dispositions, histories, cultures, and prior experiences, assessment structures and university constraints, and a diverse array of ordinary objects exerting their own power (books, planners, writing technologies, and even such things as the chairs, tables, windows, projectors, and lighting of the classroom). I, too, am a participant.

When I was a paraprofessional, I was assigned to work directly with middle schoolers with academic and behavioral challenges on individualized education plans (IEPs). This, and my witness to the school experiences of a loved one in my own life, led me not only to ecological thinking, but to the path of universal design; from the onset, then, I design and facilitate curricular experiences that equalize access for all learners—an extension of social justice. Anne-Marie Womack argues beautifully that teaching is accommodation—it is “the most basic act and art” of what we do, it is “the process of teaching itself,” and that the ramifications extend to both theory and practice. The “universal” in universal design does not so much refer to any single, one-size-fits-all approach, but rather the flexible means for every student to forge a path in the process of learning. The preference, then, is for multiplicity: multiple modes of representation, multiple means of action and expression, and multiple means of engagement.

I enact a writing classroom that is, together, ecologically-informed and universally-designed by way of several practices. One is my adoption of contract grading, which honors the labor and self-reflection that students invest in writing and takes a holistic account of classroom performance. I have loved it in my own work because it exactly demonstrates, and values, the kinds of principles on which a healthy classroom culture is premised: student choice and autonomy, greater instructor transparency, and participation understood broadly. I also demonstrate my philosophy by way of the language and visuals I use in my syllabus, assignment prompts, and everyday dialogue with my students (to communicate, like Sonja Foss and Cindy Griffin suggest, an invitational rhetoric). I take care to embed usability features into my digital and analog classroom materials (like alt-text, closed captioning, descriptive narration, the use of legible typeface, and mobile device compatibility). I distribute surveys welcoming student feedback at early and midterm points in the semester (in addition to the required final). Assignments are created with student choice in mind—not in such a way that students are not challenged to revise or modify their own thinking, but rather, that their exploration and making of new knowledge is guided by the internal and external dynamics of interest.

I draw frequently from environmental studies when I present or discuss topical examples, but I respect that not every student shares my explicit interest in it, regardless of its broad applicability. After some contemplation and research on my end, I generated the following six topical categories for use across contexts of first-year writing, technical and professional writing, and writing arguments: 1) peace, justice, and conflict, 2) health and wellbeing, 3) social economic transformations, 4) heritage, community, and culture, 5) human and natural environments, and 6) fundamental questions. Much like the integrated lenses used at Ridge and Valley, I use these categories for discussion and writing because they foster interdisciplinary thinking within bounded domains of concern. At the end of the semester, instead of individual presentations, I use the thematic clusters in which students were grouped (inductively, not a priori) and encourage discussion that resembles that of colleagues at academic and professional conferences—not, then, rehearsals for the teacher, but rather, “practice” for the real contexts of peer review, collaboration, and sharing writing beyond the classroom. My writing classes have also heeded the critical attention to metacognition and multimodality in the field through assignments and exercises that have given them serious weight and centrality, and not as afterthoughts.

Finally, I can summarize my view of teaching as a generational gift; it was handed to me, many times over, and I hope I will spend my life giving it again—once, twice, and many times over. This is where distributed agency comes in—that ripple of effects that goes far beyond me, what I could ever witness with my own eyes, or what I could do in my own capacity. One consequence of a belief in this is, I think, a very good dose of some plain humility. If I am not remembered, at the end of my life, for anything I’ve written—any theory I’ve devised, any mystery I’ve solved, any eloquence of my own—what I hope to be remembered for is this: that I loved my students, each one of them, and that I served them the way a rung serves a ladder, the way a star serves a constellation—as a light on the path, just one, leading travelers to a place beyond herself.

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