I sit perched on the cold windowsill of our classroom, relishing the din of 18 first-year writing students intently discussing topics for their first major writing assignment. It’s the second class period of the semester, and I’m teaching one of my favorite lessons: speed dating. Students work in different pairs for a sequence of short sessions, each student explaining their topic to three of their classmates and offering feedback to another three. Then, as a whole class we discuss the affordances and limitations of the speed dating activity. As I simultaneously listen in on a pair of students and keep an eye on the clock, I realize that my most productive teaching moments often occur when I’m not really teaching at all, but when I’m silent, listening to students working out their own ideas about their writing. These moments of silence on my part are a tool for more fully realizing my main goals as a writing instructor: to facilitate a safe space in which students can experience writing as a process and reflect on the role of writing in their academic, professional, and personal lives.
As a writing instructor, I have taught multiple sections of first-year writing, upper-level academic argumentation, and professional writing at two different universities. Across these writing courses, I aim to facilitate a safe space for students. I take several steps to create a safe space in my courses, including distributing a first-day of class survey that asks students about their backgrounds and prior experiences with schooling and writing. I also conduct individual conferences with students in order to learn more about them and their responses to the first-day of class survey. In addition to getting to know students individually, I structure in-class conversations about best practices and guidelines for what could be especially fraught moments in the classroom, moments like class discussion or peer review during which students are sharing their work and their ideas with classmates and with me.
Students’ perceptions of the classroom as a safe space show through in the topics they choose to write about and in their use of personal experiences as evidence. For example, one first-year writing student, a Nigerian-American immigrant, composed an argument advocating more awareness of heart disease within his community, using the experience of witnessing his father’s heart attack as evidence. Another student composed an argument defining what it means to be a good ally, including his own experience coming out as gay to different friends in high school as evidence. Students’ willingness to disclose identities and reflect on specific personal experiences in the writing they share with me and their classmates confirms for me the importance of creating a safe space in the writing classroom. By writing about their experiences, these students not only engage in peer-to-peer learning but also discover that good arguments often stem from personal experience. Students’ perceptions of the classroom as a safe space also shows through in end of semester evaluations of courses, where, for example, one first-year writing student writes, “I have especially enjoyed the fluid nature of the instructor for this course as she is responsive to different ideas than only her own.” Importantly, this student felt comfortable contributing ideas to the course, even ideas that were different from those I brought to the course as the instructor. Such comments confirm for me the importance of cultivating a safe space in which students can enrich one another’s (and my own) learning.
In addition to facilitating a safe space for students, I also design opportunities for students to experience writing as a process. In first-year writing courses, where I incorporate a writing about writing theme, a process blog assignment helps students to slow down and describe their writing process for themselves and an audience of their peers in the course. Writing in a process blog allows for students to take stock of their past writing experiences and to adjust their writing habits to the demands of college-level writing. For example, students have used the process blog as an opportunity to write about a range of topics including the places they write, the kinds of music they like to write to, and their past positive or negative experiences with peer review. In upper-level academic argumentation courses, I structure in learning about writing processes through an assignment sequence that includes an annotated bibliography and argumentative research paper. In these courses, which have an “understanding and making arguments about food” theme, this assignment sequence affords students the opportunity to take a capacious approach to research and to revise their working arguments as they encounter new and different research about their topics; ultimately, this annotated bibliography leading into a researched argument allows for students to compose arguments that are recent and relevant in the discourses about food they encounter everyday. In one section of the course, a student developed an argument about the negative environmental effects of super foods—a topic she had originally approached with an eye towards their positive nutritional effects. The opportunity to revise her argument after having conducted research allowed for this student to experience writing as a process and to compose a compelling argument relevant to the ongoing conversation about her topic. Students’ comments in course evaluations often demonstrate their appreciation for the emphasis on writing process in the course; for example, one first-year writing student comments that “lots of instruction and help was given near the beginning in order to let us know what was expected,” and “throughout the course our work became more independent as we all grew as writers.” This student’s realization of their writing development, aided by the structure of the course, confirms for me the benefits of a continued emphasis on writing processes in my courses.
Throughout the writing process, I also structure in opportunities for student reflection. With frequent opportunities for reflection, I hope that students will take authority over their learning about writing and choose to adopt or reject the specific writing strategies that the course introduces. A final literacy narrative video in FYW allows for students to revisit earlier assignments—like their process logs, arguing about a process assignment, or arguing about a genre assignment—and to make meaning from their own literacy learning in the course. For example, one student used the literacy narrative video as an opportunity to explore her habit of peppering her writing process with dance breaks; in her video she demonstrates that dance breaks help her take time away from writing and to come back to the revision stages of her writing with a fresh critical eye—a topic she began reflecting on in an earlier blog post for the course. In each of my writing courses, reflective memos attached to major writing assignments help students to situate a single writing experience within their ongoing learning about writing in the course and beyond. For instance, in my professional writing courses students’ reflective memos for their collaborative workplace writing assignments often make connections to collaborative writing they have done in courses for their majors or in professional settings they have worked. One student reflected on the differences of writing a collaborative presentation in my professional writing course versus working collaboratively to design a fitness app in a course in his Business major. Through reflective writing, students make sense of their writing in my course and its connection to their writing in other contexts.
With these emphases on reflection, writing processes, and safe spaces, my voice is present as a facilitator or mentor. With my guidance, students are encouraged to consider, adopt, adapt, or reject the particular writing strategies the course introduces. Ultimately, it is my hope that students’ learning in my course will equip them to transfer, adapt, or invent new strategies appropriate to the variety of contexts they will face throughout their college contexts and their writing futures.