“When students write for teachers, they are writing ‘uphill’ in the authority dimension: instead of having the normal language-using experience of trying to communicate ‘across’ to others in order to tell them what’s on their mind, they are having the experience of trying to communicate ‘up’ to someone whose only reason for reading is to judge the acceptability of what they wrote and how they wrote it.”—Peter Elbow

I came across this quote during the summer while rereading Jonan Donaldson’s “The Maker Movement and the Rebirth of Constructionism.

I was drawn to the quote because I was experiencing the obligatory summer nostalgia for the classroom.  I like to dream big about what school could be. I know it sounds cheesy, but I even visualize how an ideal class period will go the upcoming term.

Elbow covers many of my current beliefs in the quote. Here’s how it breaks down in my head:

  • be explicit to students about pedagogy–blur the “authority dimension” as best as possible
  • continue to have students write to authentic audiences and not just me–“communicate ‘across’ to others”
  • begin to have students use the classroom as their learning environment–fight against students having “the experience of trying to communicate ‘up’ to someone whose only reason for reading is to judge the acceptability of what they wrote and how they wrote it”
  • continue to place an emphasis on students developing digital literacies–it’s 2014 now, so “communicating ‘across'” often involves technology, or at least it involves the choice to use technology
  • continue to stress the importance of considering the rhetorical situation in order to be successful in any communicative act–effectively “communicate ‘across’ to others in order to tell them what’s on their mind”
I’ve had some success with these points before, but I’m not sure that students felt ownership over what was happening.  I’m pretty sure they were just acting as students in the teacher’s class, like they’re trained to do.
 
Be explicit to students about pedagogy
I don’t know what it is, but sometimes I still feel like a big nerd when I’m being “meta” with students. I know that it is important for them to know why we are going to do something and for them to reflect on how they’re doing with the transferable concepts in my class, but it still feels like I’m beating a dead horse sometimes.We unpack every assessment by analyzing what students need to know (as far as content) and what they need to be able to do (as far as skill) in order to be successful on an assessment.  So, before we start every activity, I explain how what we are about to do will prepare them for the assessment.
I’ve finally gotten to a place where I’m thrilled to hear my students say that they understand why we do what we do. They know it isn’t busy work. They helped unpack the assessment we are building toward.

This little switch in my teaching over the last two years has had the biggest impact on a day-to-day basis. Students seem to feel as if they are a community of learners all working to learn material and skills that will not only help them do a fine job on a summative assessment, but will transfer to other contexts when they need it.

I like what Maha Bali says about critical pedagogy: “Critical pedagogy…is not about knowing how to do everything right, or getting it right the first time, or every time. It is about putting faith in our learners to take control of their learning, and teach us, each other, and themselves in the process.” 

Continue to have students write to authentic audiences and not just me

I’ve already blogged about exposing my students to authentic audiences and I’m continuing that work this year.

A significant shift for me this year is the way I’m viewing authority in the classroom. By coming down off the hill, as Elbow points out, I am able to come alongside students while they are writing and encourage them to take chances and consider available choices with their writing. These conversations with students still privilege me as the teacher-expert (and in high school I’m still not convinced that this is all bad), but students are asking questions about how their text will be perceived by their audience, not just wanting to know what I’m looking for.

Begin to have students use the classroom as their learning environment

Pods of desks are all over the classroom.  Students also have access to white boards and stickynotes while they are working. Another aspect of the class that has emphasized student control of the learning environment is making sure that seating is fluid. Depending on our task for the day, students will sit in different places.

Last week, I was eavesdropping on a conversation that a group of students in my 7th period were having. This was the 2nd day for them to write a literacy narrative in class. Without any prompting they had opened each other’s papers up in Google Docs and were giving feedback to each writer. Real feedback. They talked ideas, not commas.

I was pumped.

This couldn’t happen in the rows I’ve had students in in the past.

Students continued working with each other when they were peer-editing as a part of class. We used techniques from Peter Elbow and Pat Belanoff’s “Sharing and Responding.”

Published in 1989. That’s right. 1989.

My students were using Google Docs to leave feedback simultaneously. I was available to conference with individual students while they worked, but, for the most part, they took over. A lot of the information in the handout I gave to students came from a great presentation by Jeff Paschke-Johannes.

Kenneth Bruffee explains in “Collaborative Learning and the Conversation of Mankind” that “learning is a social rather than individual process and that learning is not assimilating information but rather a social and collaborative effort to create and maintain knowledge.”

My students experienced this kind of collaboration. 

Continue to place an emphasis on students developing digital literacies

I don’t have a whole lot more to add to this. I’ve written about my beliefs regarding digital literacy praxis. I’m just trying to actually put those beliefs into practice.

Continue to stress the importance of considering the rhetorical situation in order to be successful in any communicative act

This is the foundation of my pedagogy. As a critical pedagogue, I’m constantly reflecting on not just what I’m having students do, but why they’re doing it. What will they gain? Lose? How will teaching this over that impact their growth as learners?

Ultimately, I believe that being able to step back and understand any situation’s rhetorical situation and then respond accordingly is the linchpin to success in college and career. Heck, just everyday life.

Maybe this is one reason why the Common Core places such an emphasis on argument?

These ideas go back to Aristotle: “An ability in each particular case to see the available means of persuasion.” For Aristotle, “the means” are the appeals: ethos, pathos, and logos. However, I think a part of his definition that is often overlooked is what he means by “each particular case.” The emphasis here is on a variety of circumstances. A variety of situations. Rhetorical situations.

As a rhetoric and English teacher, the skill that I want to transfer with students the most is “an ability” to think about how they are going to present what they are communicating to an audience in a way that will be successful. How will they use the appeals to fulfill their purpose by using and designing genres appropriately and taking a stance that encourages dialogue and not silence from their audience?