published on august 5, 2020
Last updated on August 4, 2020
I couldn’t wait to be a college professor.
After 21 years of teaching high school English, I was thrilled to teach dual-enrollment courses at my school for our local community college, Spartanburg Community College. Last spring, when our former dual enrollment teacher retired, I was lucky enough to inherit his courses. That meant I would be teaching freshman composition all year long – to juniors taking Advanced Placement English Language and Composition and to seniors taking dual enrollment English 101 and 102. I had arrived. The images of every beloved college professor of my own as well as the ones we love in the movies took over my imagination as I prepared for what I thought would be the best year of my teaching career.
Dual-enrollment programs are becoming more and more popular because they provide high school students the opportunity to take college classes at their high school, earning them both high school English credit and transferable college credits. The tuition rate for these classes is reduced, and the class offers the students an introductory taste to college work in a safe, known environment. Its popularity is increasing across the nation because of all these benefits, and I was determined to make sure my students left my class able to write an academic, researched argument for any college class they would encounter later, regardless of their major. I had big plans.
I spent most of last summer preparing for my new classes by attending orientation sessions at the college, scouring other professors’ syllabi, and finding the absolute best pieces to teach from the college textbook. I meticulously planned the fall schedule with each session’s texts and activities listed on an easy-to-read chart that would be attached to the syllabus.
I wasn’t quite so concerned about my methods, though.
Teaching English 101 couldn’t be that much different from teaching Advanced Placement English Language and Composition, and I had done that for over a decade. The content of the class was the proverbial no-brainer; I knew exactly how to teach rhetoric and argumentation.
The only difference would be pacing, adhering to the college’s required assignments and rubrics, and managing the college’s online learning system. And besides, this wasn’t even my first attempt at teaching college classes. I had been teaching as an adjunct instructor for a local private college for a couple of years. I knew exactly what I needed to know about teaching freshman composition.
Just a few weeks in, however, I found out that I would learn as much or more than my students that first semester. Looking back on the situation, I can now see that I fell into some novice teacher mistakes that most likely arose from a veteran teacher’s arrogance.
Mistake #1: I made assumptions about my students before I learned who they were.
I assumed my seniors taking English 101 wouldn’t be much different from my juniors taking AP English Language.
Often, the very nature of an AP student is one of natural curiosity and a drive to expand his or her understanding of the world. An AP student often thrives on competition, or the ones who don’t participate in the competitive aspect of AP are there for the freedom to create (at least in English classes, from what I can tell).
My job as an AP teacher is to ease the competitive rule followers into creativity and to guide my creative ones into essays that earn high scores on the exams. I know I am generalizing here, but the trends seem to hold over the years in my experience with AP students.
My dual enrollment students were different, though, and I should never have assumed they wouldn’t be different.
In general, they were much more practical students; they took dual enrollment courses to receive college credit at a reduced rate. Of course, my dual enrollment classes had some creative students, but primarily, my dual enrollment students viewed English class as a transaction: give me what I need to earn my credit, and let’s move on. This attitude made them less likely to engage in open discussion about controversial issues, maybe even less interested in those same controversial issues that often ignited heated debates in AP English class. My assumption that dual enrollment would be AP 2.0 left me directing the class and leading the discussion instead of facilitating debates and guiding my students into backing up their own thoughts - too much from the teacher, not enough from the students.
I also assumed my English 101 students knew some basic composition elements, such as how parenthetical documentation worked. In theory, all of them should have written at least one major documented paper each year in high school, plus countless smaller essays in which they were required to quote from a text and cite their sources.
Our state testing requires a text-dependent analysis essay, so they certainly had been taught how to quote from the text, right? I never took the time to ascertain their prior knowledge on documentation. When they turned in their first essay that required outside research, their works cited page looked nothing like the citations in parentheses. Some of them didn’t even bother to use in-text citations at all, just listed some items on the works cited page, some of which were just URL addresses.
I should have known better; I should have made sure they understood how in-text citations work with their works cited entries long before they had to produce one on a high-stakes writing assignment.
Mistake #2: I waited until midterm to get personal feedback from my students.
I did it then only at the prompting of my college department chair. She sent a recommendation to all 101 instructors asking them to poll their students to get some feedback on how the students felt so far in the course, what surprised them about college classes, etc.
Their responses were, enlightening, to say the least. Some of them expressed shock over how fast-paced the course was, how the due dates had not changed, and how we stuck with the schedule on the syllabus even when we might not have fully discussed a particular essay or concept. Some said they were frustrated with learning the new online system and wanted printed materials instead, and others said they wanted all materials online instead of my printing and posting them. Many, however, said they felt uncomfortable with the political nature of what we were reading, and this was the part that shocked me the most.
Again, I had assumed these students would be like my AP students who relished discussing controversial issues, but I was wrong. The very topics that drove critical thinking and debate in my AP students were the ones that caused my 101 students to withdraw. I have contemplated the reasons behind this, and I have several theories, but I keep coming to the conclusion that had I known my students better in the beginning, had I taken the time to get some reflective feedback early in the semester, I could have chosen a different approach that might have drawn a few of them into discussions instead of scaring them away.
At the end of the fall semester, four students passed the course with Ds, which meant they would receive high school credit, but they couldn’t move on to English 102 in the spring. All four of them scored at the D level because they completed some but not all of the required assignments. Another four or five chose not to move on to English 102 in the spring despite scoring As and Bs in 101.
The daunting reality of teaching a college class is that students have the chance to complete end-of-course evaluations that offer anonymous comments about the class and the teacher. To my delight, I received quite a few praise reports, but I received my fair share of negative criticisms that hurt my pride. I determined to learn from the first semester and not to repeat the same mistakes. I thought about why my students wrote the negative comments and what I could do to prevent those same kinds of comments second semester. I made a few changes in my approach in an effort to heal some of the damage I had wreaked in the fall.
Repair #1: In class, I allowed more time for students to interact with me.
Then, I let that personal interaction and the knowledge I gained from it drive my next instructional decisions.
Of course, I started 102 with the benefit of knowing what I had learned about my students the first semester, which helped me to choose texts and methods more effectively. Plus, since 102 centers on poetry, fiction, and drama instead of nonfiction, I was able to pick pieces that I felt would engage them more fully than what I had chosen the first semester. Yet, I still made sure with each unit in 102, I gave students time to respond personally so I could gauge their thinking and so I could choose carefully how to respond.
I allowed more choice in texts and writing, selecting a series of poems or short stories that shared some aspect in common from which they may choose the one they liked best or felt most comfortable reading and discussing. For instance, I gave them a list of classic poems that presented classic themes: “To His Coy Mistress” as a Carpe Diem poem; “I Celebrate Myself” as a praise poem; and “Those Winter Sundays” as a poem dealing with family relationships and of course, several more. They chose one poem and then found a song they enjoyed with a similar theme to serve as a basis for analysis and comparison.
For short stories, I tried to pick a mix of modern and classic short stories from a variety of writers: “Girl” by Jamaica Kincaid; “Story of an Hour” by Kate Chopin; “Everyday Use” by Alice Walker; “A Rose for Emily” by William Faulkner; “Hills Like White Elephants” by Ernest Hemingway; “A Good Man is Hard to Find” by Flannery O’Connor; their choice of Poe short stories, etc. Among the list had to be one to which they could relate and one they wouldn’t mind reading for themselves. Their analysis essays were based on the school of criticism they wanted to explore for the short story they wanted to analyze.
Again, I almost feel silly writing that I had ignored such fundamental principles of effective teaching all because I had set in my mind what a college class should look like.
Such hubris. Such foolishness.
Repair #2: I provided them with exemplars before every major assignment.
After the first disastrous set of documented research in 101, I decided to show my students what a successfully documented paper looked like.
Imagine that. A basic methods class would have taught me to do that first – I know.
A few students did do an excellent job on that first essay assignment in 101, so I asked their permission to show the rest of the students their papers with their names marked out. I pointed out all that these two students had done well and posted them on their course site to serve as models for what their next papers should look like.
No surprises here – the next set of essays were much better, and we were able to end 101 with strong scores.
For 102 in the spring semester, I went one step further. I personally wrote an exemplar paper for each major assignment that semester. I chose a text or a subject that was not related to their assignment but would still serve as an example in terms of organization and format. My students were definitely grateful and made comments such as, “Thank you! I was wondering how to start mine.” I also fielded questions such as, “So I can model my thesis after yours?”.
Repair #3: I designated time for conferences and peer editing.
On the first round of documented essays in 101, I told the students to take the rough drafts of their papers to the college’s writing center in my misguided attempt to teach them college-level responsibility. Some took advantage of the offer, but as I said earlier, the papers overall were not documented properly. For the next paper, I set aside one class period to guide them through a checklist for peer editing and then offered personal writing conferences during class time as well. For 102 class in the spring, I built that conference time right into the schedule, and with the combination of an exemplar essay to follow and a checklist for editing, their essays improved.
Again, I should have known better from the beginning.
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Now just about any veteran teacher worth his or her pay would be able to list these as time-honored and proven effective pedagogical strategies. Why I forgot them last fall (or why I ignored them) I can’t say for sure.
I might explain that I was overwhelmed with planning a brand new course over the summer, which is true, but not the only reason I ignored what I knew to be helpful.
Maybe I was so caught up in my idea of what a college course should look and sound like, caught up in the image of what college was like for me decades ago, that I arrogantly fell into a stereotype, a movie role I had longed to play.
What I had to remind myself after that first semester is that good teaching is good teaching, regardless of the grade level, regardless of ability level, and regardless of what the teacher’s imagination says the classroom should look like. I have already begun planning for this fall’s 101 class, and it is going to rock.
I even have a great plan to incorporate journal writing, and I can’t wait to share how it all works out.
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