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Pedagogical Strategies, or How I Teach

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Martin J. Heade

I have discovered that in order to be the facilitator of a "decentered" classroom, a deep underlying structure is crucial. On the first day of the semester the class is divided into small groups, which comprise both peer editing groups and the groups that will facilitate discussions and design writing prompts for those class discussions. At midterm the class decides whether or not they wish to change groups for the second half of the semester.

Every week, a draft of an essay is due (students bring in multiple copies of second drafts--one copy for their small group, others to be distributed to other members of the class). Every class meeting includes a workshop session. Students work in small groups reading and responding to one another's drafts. I have individual in-class conferences with each student each week. I have found that a brief five-minute conversation is incredibly useful. I always ask the student what she wants me to know, how she wants me to read, or if there is anything specific I can look for/at. Sometimes when teachers confront a draft we don't know where to begin--asking the author is a good place to start. I collect, read, and respond to two of the three drafts for each essay--usually Draft #2 since this is the piece that elicits the most substantive changes.

Every week there is a discussion of the text we are reading; every student brings in his or her reading journal entry (the topic is assigned by the group that is facilitating the class that week--they have read ahead and at some point in the preceding class session they have given us a prompt). I do not direct or give out suggestions for what the prompts should be. This certainly does sometimes lead to a desire to leap in and say "What about the text?" since oftentimes the students choose to not to discuss it, but my experience has taught me to keep quiet.

At the end of class, the group in charge collects all of the responses (I write in response to the prompts as well as they are my only opportunity to be a writing member of the class), divides them amongst themselves and takes them home to read and write a brief comment. It is a challenge for them to be confronted with my writing, and they never believe me when I say that I'm worried about whether or not I've done the assignment "correctly," but I do. It's good for me to feel what they are feeling and do the writing in spite of my anxiety.

These are a few examples of student generated reading journal prompts in response to Patricia Hampl's essay "Memory and Imagination:"

Choose one:

*What does memoir mean to you?
*How, or can you relate to the main character?
*Can you relate her feelings of a memoir to one of your memories?
*What do you think the author means by, "It still comes as a shock to realize that I don't write about what I know, but in order to find out what I know" (27).
*When was a time you found yourself falsely elaborating a story?
*Describe Carole as the author did with Sister Olive.
*What are your feelings about/on a blank page?
*Write a short detailed paragraph describing a personal memory (whatever comes to mind accurate or not). The next day, go back and read your paragraph. Pay attention to the inaccuracies. Either rewrite or edit your writing to make it correct and to find your subject.
*Is there any event or person that you wish you had a first hand memory of?
*Which memories do you believe have a more substantial effect on you: positive or negative? Why?

I collect Portfolios twice each semester--at midterm and at the end of the semester. The Midterm Portfolio is crucial since students have not received any grades up to this point. Of course they have received extensive comments and have met with me for in class conferences, but this is the first work that will be evaluated. The Portofolio contains a Reflections Letter in which the students write about their experience in the course, a discussion of their evaluative criteria, and a rationale for why they chose the pieces they did for inclusion in their Portfolios. The other required items include one essay sequence of the two completed by midterm. Each essay sequence consists of an in class pre-writing exercise, first, second, and final drafts plus a piece of meta-writing about their essay. The final item consists of a selection of four reading journal entries, usually revised.

I read and respond to each piece of writing in the Portfolio, but I do not put a grade on the Portfolio. I meet with each student in my office for a conference to discuss their work and their midterm grade. My first question is "What do you think you have earned as a midterm grade?" The response is always the same, "You want me to tell you what my grade is? That's too hard." This allows us to have a conversation about the real world applications of evaluating your own work. Students have been graded for years and they are capable of taking on this responsibility. It is only rarely that a student's grade is more than a half step up or down from the one I have assigned.

This process, as time consuming and labor intensive as it is is invaluable. It has the ability to bring a class together with a communal sense of purpose that grading individual pieces of work does not.