Advice for New Teachers— and the Rest of Us

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For a crowd-sourced blog post for “Beyond the Basics, ” I invited participants on the Council on Basic Writing Facebook page to respond to the following question: What one piece of advice would you offer to new teachers of Basic Writing? Why?

The responses clustered around three main themes:

  • Create classroom community
  • Draw on compelling pedagogy
  • Offer compassion, empathy, and transparency

While this advice may be especially helpful for new teachers, all of us can benefit from the ideas presented here, and the range of experiences suggested by the respondents.  I have not imposed separate categories, since these themes intersect as tributaries meeting at the same wide ocean.  Through deeply embodied pedagogy, the respondents theorize practice and emphasize the passion necessary for our work together with students.

Participants were self-selected and their contributions are listed in alphabetical order.  Thanks to everyone that responded, and please follow the Council on Basic Writing Facebook page for additional opportunities to participate in other crowd-sourced posts throughout the summer and in the next academic year.

Ann Amicucci Teaching basic writing means teaching writing confidence. Students need to be shown (or reminded of) what they’re capable of as writers. We can give them opportunities to develop writing confidence by crafting situations in which students write on topics they care about and are genuinely interested in and in which they have the chance to explore ideas through words without the fear of being told those words or the ways they’ve used them are wrong.

Elizabeth Baldridge Get to know your students, and respect and care about them as human beings. That is the most important work I do every semester.

Andrea Dickens Asking each student to set one writing goal for themselves each term allows them to start to think of themselves as capable of guiding their own learning. It allows them to move beyond passively accepting their writing abilities or lack thereof as being fixed, and lets them start to feel empowered about improvement.

Traci Gardner Allow for multiple modes of communication and multiple languages in your assignments and activities. Basic writers may struggle with the linguistic mode of expression in academic situations, but they are fluent readers, writers, and creators in many other scenarios. Find activities that let them demonstrate their understanding of visual composing by including photos, cartoons, mind maps and similar visual elements. Invite them to bridge from the languages they are best at to the language of the classroom with activities that focus on dictionary writing and definition. Respecting students’ existing communication skills is key to expanding their capabilities.

Ann Etta Green RE Commenting: less is more. RE Writing: more is more.

Nicole Hancock This is really basic, but learn students’ names on the first day of class and make sure they know what you would like to be called. It is especially important for Basic Writers to know that you see them each as individuals with stories to be told, and learning names is a good first step. Also, take the time to go over bits of the syllabus that are less intuitive: how office hours work, what we mean when we say the book is required vs. recommended, how the grading will work, how to read your assignment calendar. Instead of covering the entire syllabus at length in the first day, spread it out across the first week and reserve class-time for getting them writing and talking as soon as possible. This, more than anything else, will show students what the class is supposed to be.

Dale Katherine Ireland We teach best when we meet our students where they are. Because our students in basic writing classes arrive with differing skills and strengths, the basic writing class thrives in a student-centered learning frame; our students benefit when they teach to learn and learn to teach. Meeting our students where they are means we can invite them to teach and advance their strengths as they develop new strengths. When we join our students as co-learners, we help make learning transparent, including the benefit of failing, taking risks, and trying again.

‪Joanna Howard‪ I would add patience to the mix— and the ability to be patient while holding high standards. That is, patience during those times the students are trying something new, and are frustrated with their progress and results. That’s the moment to reassure them that they will get there. Because they will.

Cara Minardi‪ Be kind. Allow students opportunities to use writing as healing themselves of past intellectual hurts.

Lynn Reid All of the above AND: Experienced writers have internalized many things about writing that are implicit and implied. Make these things visible to your students as often as you can. Provide model texts that highlight the difference between successful and less-successful attempts at the assignments you have created so that students can see the contrast. When you model, help students to see not only the structures of a text, but also the thinking that underlies those structures. Always ask students to explain the logic behind the way they structured their own papers because, however it might look, they almost always had a plan in mind. Listening to what it looks like from their perspective will tell you a lot.

[Dale Katherine Ireland (I just had to respond to Lynn) Lynn Reid, yes to all you say, especially this: "When you model, help students to see not only the structures of a text, but also the thinking that underlies those structures." It's important that we help students understand their writing moves as choices. Asking students to consider the choices other writers make helps make the concept of choices more transparent. This thread has lifted me today. Thank all of you very much.]

Kristen Ruccio‪ Give students rights to their own stories and language. Our basic writing students often expect the system to fail them–because it has in so many ways. Don’t begin your relationship in that punitive vein. Most importantly, these are not basic people, so don’t lower your expectations for them.

Lynn Buncher Shelly Build community within your classroom (I learned this from Ann Amicucci)

Bradley Smith Imagine: year after year, having to face of English teachers giving you bad grades, marking up your essays with errors in convention, telling you it’s not good enough. Understandably, a lot of basic writers don’t like writing all that much—or at least what they write in school. A basic writing instructor’s job is to get such students to enjoy writing, to get them invested in the class. Once you have accomplished that feat with some (you won’t reach them all) those students can be proud of their work, critically assess their writing, and begin to work on their issues.

Jessi Lea Ulmer Do not treat the students like they are stupid. Most students in my basic writing classes are more than capable of writing full out essays, but have come to dislike writing since they were forced to write paragraphs or five-paragraph essays over and over. If you take the time to walk students through the process of writing, you will be amazed at what they can produce, even at the very beginning of the semester!

Chris Vassett Maintain high expectations, avoid grammar instruction (it is insulting to begin the college experience with such hegemonic soul crushing instruction), assign college level reading, and read Patrick Sullivan’s, “A Lifelong Aversion to Writing: What If Writing Courses Emphasized Motivation?”–Teaching English in the Two-Year College v39 n2 p118 Dec 2011.

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About the Author
Susan Naomi Bernstein (she/they) writes, teaches, and quilts, in Queens, NY. She blogs for Bedford Bits, and her recent publications include “The Body Cannot Sustain an Insurrection” in the Journal of Multimodal Rhetorics and “After Basic Writing” in TETYC. Her book is Teaching Developmental Writing. Other publications include “Theory in Practice: Halloween Write-In,” with Ian James, William F. Martin, and Meghan Kelsey in Basic Writing eJournal 16.1, “An Unconventional Education: Letter to Basic Writing Practicum Students in Journal of Basic Writing 37.1, “Occupy Basic Writing: Pedagogy in the Wake of Austerity,” in Nancy Welch and Tony Scott’s collection Composition in the Age of Austerity. Susan also has published on Louisa May Alcott, and has exhibited her quilts in Phoenix, Arizona and Brooklyn, NY.