This Week in Teaching — Matilda, Mind Maps, and More
Image description: A black typewriter sits against a white background. A sheet of paper emerges from the typewriter, and written on it is, "Writing about teaching about writing". 

Welcome to the first of my teaching journal posts! This will be a regular public post for patrons and anyone else to read, for at least the duration of the fall semester. To offer some context for you, I’m a first-year PhD student in rhetoric and writing, teaching in a classroom setting for the first time. This semester, I have a General Studies Writing section consisting of 25 freshmen. The class uses a “writing about writing” approach to help students develop stronger composition skills, rhetorical awareness, and habits of mind, all of which I’ll be discussing throughout these posts. The posts are an opportunity for me to reflect on a week of teaching or a specific class session, and analyze what went well, what I might do differently, and consider my own teaching practices as someone who is simultaneously a student and an instructor. 

Right now, my students are working on their first project of the semester: a literacy narrative, in which they’ll spend 800 to 1,000 words leading readers through a story about some of their personal experiences with reading, writing, and other forms of composition. Their first draft of 400 words is due tomorrow. 

In class on Monday, I asked students to spend 10 minutes writing about their literacy sponsors, based on the reading for the day (Deborah Brandt’s “Sponsors of Literacy”). I had to remind students that this reflective writing period does count towards their participation for the class, as I’ve noticed that I’ll have all 25 students in class but only get 22 or 23 responses to the discussion section. I’d like to emphasize the importance of participation earlier in the semester in the future, both to alleviate students' anxiety about how their responses are assessed (they’re not; I just read them), which has affected their willingness to post, and to ensure my expectations around participation are clearer from the start. 

One thing that worked well for me was my decision to model the importance of the reflection period by spending that time writing as well. Due to the classroom setup, I wrote by hand — I have no monitor on which to type that isn’t also visible to the entire class, and I have a feeling that watching me type a response to my own question would be fairly distracting. However, seeing me engage the question and being able to watch me write, pause to think, cross things out, doodle, and engage bodily in the process of writing did seem to be useful! I noticed that the drop-off in typing was a longer time coming than in the previous session. They could also have had more to say about the question yesterday than on Friday, but I plan to continue writing with them to see how it goes. 

I also found the writing to be productive in generating an idea that shaped the last portion of the class session. I had planned on doing a brainstorming activity to get the students thinking about possible invention strategies, using a made-up example to inspire thoughts about literacy and literacy narratives. Instead, I decided to have the whole class do a participatory mind mapping exercise using the book/movie Matilda as inspiration. Almost everyone in the class had read the book or seen the movie (or both), and the opportunity to talk and think about a pop culture touchstone got them engaged and excited. They very quickly drew strong connections and identified key elements of Matilda’s literacy journey, and seemed to regard the exercise as a useful model for thinking about their own narratives. 

If I had the session to do over again, I would approach the discussion of the day’s reading a bit differently. I split the class into five discussion groups and asked each group to consider one of the major case studies in Brandt’s article. I think that because I asked the students to look at an individual covered in the article and answer discussion questions about that person, the answers I got didn’t delve much past the obvious surface-level responses. Had I engaged the class more closely with Brandt’s key concepts and asked the groups to respond to those instead, I think the answers would have been less of a rote listing of facts and more thoughtful and critical. 

Overall, I think the session went well (so far they all have, which is encouraging!). In thinking about the threshold concepts from Naming What We Know in terms of how the class has gone so far and how I hope it continues to go, I find myself returning to the idea that “writing is a social and rhetorical activity.” I want my students to engage with the idea of writing as something more than a unidirectional expression of their thoughts to a passive audience, and to conceptualize it as a practice that is deeply embedded in any number of social, cultural, and historical contexts — even if their initial audience seems small. It is something I’m starting to see them realize, and I’m excited to see what impact that realization has on their writing. 

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