On Teaching for Change: Using Writing as Catalyst

I am a newly minted teacher. My first semester adjuncting at Old Dominion University in the Fall 2014 was my very first stint in teaching alone. I was afraid. Most of the time, I became overwhelmed and drowned in anxiety. Although I consider myself primarily a writer first, I am and have always been a teaching-artist. I was the Community Engagement Fellow at Mills College during my MFA, which allowed me to harness my craft as a writer and also build my skills as a teaching-artist within the community. I became a teaching-artist because of the teachers before me, these giants and lovers of art and writing, and it was they who helped me critically understand the outside world to unchain myself from shadows. If there were anything I wanted to pass onto my students, it was what my teacher-artists taught me: that writing gave me the language to gain ownership of my own critical thoughts and self. It is best summed up in Flannery O’Connor’s sentiment on the power of composition: “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.”

This is why I structured my 110C English Composition classes in the deconstruction of cultural myths, or what Chimamanda Adichie describes as “the single story” of marginalized people. I sought to explain to my students the Cycles of Socialization (Bobbie Harro) that construct the institutional and societal oppressions of our reality, and that writing, with its power to dignify and expel the single stories of all cultures, gives us the strength to humanize each other, which ultimately incites change. Through writing, we talked about the cultural myths of poverty, class, race, gender/sexuality, and able-ism. I structured the class readings around these themes, facilitated Fish Bowl discussions over these complications, and assigned Paper Assignments deconstructing them. I didn’t realize how easily I could become exhausted at talking about race and class and gender over and over again. This is why I was shocked and beyond touched by the student evaluations I received at the end of the semester: they were thankful. They said this was the best class they’ve taken (well most of them, one particular student deemed he learned nothing from my class). I was shocked because I felt we didn’t go deep enough—there was always something more to probe, something else to say, something else to critically analyze and understand. We, as a collective entity, went into the difficult subjects headstrong: we discussed Ferguson, Eric Garner, and the following protests across the country, and we disagreed respectfully. I was touched by the maturity of my young students mixed with my older students. The diversity of their backgrounds—they came from broken homes, the military, and middle-class existences—enabled them to use writing to understand the varied positionalities and contexts we originated from.

Despite my positive student evaluations, I felt as if I could have done more at helping my students grasp the nitty-gritty mechanics of the English language. Pedagogically, I referred to Bloom’s taxonomy, taught with handouts from the mentor teacher I followed at Skyline College, and structured my rubric to adequately grade their progress in grammar and research skills. We had class in the ODU’s library for research instruction and we went over MLA guidelines and common student writing errors. I believe I can push myself more as a teacher in this area. When I began the work on building my 211C syllabus and editing my 110C syllabus for Spring 2015, I worked on building lectures, presentations, and pop quizzes that included lessons on grammar and punctuation, essay-building rhetoric, and common student writing mistakes. I also built into the syllabus using my one-on-one introductory conferences to gauge each student on their command of the English language and essay-building skills. I wanted to be sure that I knew how to help each student in the areas they needed to improve upon.

Overall, what I learned during my first semester at ODU was this: teaching is a dynamic relationship. What you give to your students is what you receive back. I was thankful for my first batch of 110C students: they came to class every morning at 8am ready to discuss the things that mattered most to them—the diverse realities they experience living in a society rift with contradictions and complications. After each Fish Bowl discussion we had, I realized my class was where they came to discuss the very topics that haunted them: the subjectivities on race, class, and gender. Many students, especially biracial students, had families broken over what happened in Ferguson and the police brutality that erupted the protests. They didn’t know where to go, who to turn to, how to shift their rage into something more than just pain. What I hope I taught them was to go to writing, that writing provides us the language to communicate the depths within us, that writing gives us the strength to name our realities and, through this, incite change.

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