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My Philosophy of Teaching

I still find teaching to be immensely challenging (and greatly rewarding); the challenges have increased as the profile of my students has grown and changed. While I continue to teach undergraduate students from a variety of majors, I now work with different populations of adult learners, especially graduate students in Masons Professional Writing and Rhetoric Program and our Teaching of Writing and Literature Program. Further, as the Director of the Northern Virginia Writing Project I find myself in the privileged position of being a teacher of teachers in public and private schools from across content areas and grade levels.

The scope of the content I teach has also grown over the years. I now teach undergraduate courses in academic writing, composition, advanced composition, business and technical writing, entrepreneurship, and writing for publication; plus, I lead graduate seminars focused on professional writing and the teaching of writing.

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The sense of responsibility I feel towards my students has also increased over time; fortunately, along the way I have learned to take a stance towards my teaching activities that has helped me to continually grow as teacher and answer the questions that I faced in the Writing Center. Namely, I see my role as teacher as that of chief learner . I have found that if I can create an environment in which I invite and empower students to join me in broadly defined fields of inquiry they will have the greatest opportunity to take developmental steps and achieve the learning outcomes of the course. This notion of a shared inquiry forms the first pillar of the dialogic curriculum (Stock, 1995) I seek to enact with my students.

This learning-centric approach seems vital to me given the rapid increases in knowledge in the fields in which I teach: namely rhetoric, composition, writing, professional writing, and the teaching of writing. For example, while rhetoric is a discipline with it's roots in ancient Greece (and, indeed classical rhetoric forms the foundation of my approach to the teaching of writing), the study of persuasive communication (across platforms) continues to advance greatly with important contributions coming from the disciplines of psychology, sociology, writing studies, education, and communication. Thus, to teach a course that is relevant and rigorous in terms of content knowledge (e.g., research methods, writing processes, rhetorical knowledge, or pedagogy and human development in the cases of the courses I teach for teachers), as an instructor I must be deeply engaged in learning the ever-expanding body of knowledge related to the disciplines I teach.

The second condition that leads me to adopt a learning stance in my classroom teaching derives from the diversity and prior experience of my students. The knowledge students bring with them into class is a tremendously valuable resource for learning. This is especially true at George Mason University where non-white students are in the majority and cultural, geographical, and linguistic diversity are truly celebrated. Yes, I am the expert in the room on many topics, with my advanced degrees and years of experience in academia and beyond; however, my students frequently are the experts in the room on a variety of subjects. By adopting a learning stance myself I can better activate and validate the prior knowledge students bring with them into the courses.

I am continually experimenting and looking for better ways to design and support learning environments in which students are highly engaged. Paradoxically, this involves recognizing factors which extend beyond the classroom, including positive opportunities for development that exist beyond the boundaries of my classroom: honoring students cultural, educational, and linguistic backgrounds; acknowledging the pressures and knowledge derived from work experience; making room for learning from other courses; discovering and making visible students long term goals; and, integrating the rapidly changing, global, technological environment we share.

Deep learning, if it is to occur, happens within the integrated context of students lives. Although extracurricular and co-curricular influences frequently remain in the background of the classroom experience they are at the foreground of the students lived experience. Thus, I work to view student experience and knowledge as a non-trivial, contributing resource to students learning objectives and to the overall classroom culture we are creating together.

Valuing participants prior knowledge is also central to my work as Director of the Northern Virginia Writing Project (NVWP) where our method of instruction centers on Teachers Teaching Teachers. Rather than lecturing to participants in our workshops and presenting myself as a university expert, in the NVWP we demonstrate our teaching practices for each other so that all can arrive through discovery at new understandings and experience for themselves the aims of teaching lessons. In this way we send the message to teachers and others that what practicing classroom teachers have learned through years of experience and practice counts as deeply valuable professional knowledge.

Notably everyone, even very young children, have background knowledge and prior experience that may serve as an important contribution to a community of learners. By drawing out this background knowledge within a community of learners, students too learn that everyone in the room can have something valuable to contribute to the whole. It is this focus on engaging diverse groups of learners as whole persons that forms the second pillar of the dialogic curriculum.

Engaging students this way leads to tangible outcomes, especially in learning to write. In my composition courses, for example, my teaching objectives center on developing students abilities to write research-based arguments, in order to lay a foundation for their writing success in their college coursework and beyond. My goal is for them to master the conventions of academic writing, and the rhetorical moves that give meaning to these conventions. I want depth, complexity, specificity, and careful elaboration in their writing. I encourage them to create critical distance in their research so that they may incorporate evaluate, and critique alternative views. In short, I want extended research arguments of substance. This is no easy task in a first-year-composition course; however, I have found in seeking to create a community of learners who share an inquiry in the classroom, and by focusing on creating high levels of student engagement I have the best chance of helping my students achieve these high standards. I have found that when students are deeply engaged they write longer papers, revise at a deeper level, and seek more assistance, which are among the most important behaviors I seek to cultivate.

Fostering a highly interactive classroom culture in which knowledge is truly co-created from among a variety of rich inputs forms the third pillar in teaching a dialogic curriculum and creating communities of learners. A shared learning culture develops best as learners support each other, extend understandings, and improve practical competencies through a variety of means of dialogue and sharing. Thus, in all my courses, I draw frequently draw on the group dynamics of the classroom in ways that seem best suited to the content of a particular course.

Depending on the course students may: experiment in pairs and small groups with research methods; each individual may have the responsibility of leading discussions of a challenging reading; as a whole group we may brainstorm topic ideas or workshop research questions; students may work on collaborative projects; the entire class may work together in putting together a mini-conference at the end of the semester. I also create interaction at a the level of general classroom interactions through pair-sharing, small groups, affinity groups (groups focusing on smaller subsets of inquiry), randomly assigned writing response groups, or whole group conversations that can be led by me, by individuals, pairs, or groups. Through this variety of configurations students learn through teaching others, through listening, and through the direct feedback and questioning of their peers. Further, I teach nearly all of my courses in computer labs (where each student has a computer at their desk) so that the vast resources of the Internet and software tools are always available to us in our shared inquiry. Rather than one stream of information from which to draw, students have multiple streams of input coming from their peers, the course materials (online and off), and from me.

The fourth element of the dialogic curriculum is the focus on what's next for the learners. In other words, I see my courses as situated within what came before and what comes after: a lifespan of learning, the college curriculum, a specific degree program, or a career (especially teaching). The question for me to answer as the instructor is to what degree can participants take their enriched and extended understandings and their improved competencies back from their inquiries into subsequent tasks and the communities of practice in which they hope to participate.

Once again, this raises for me issues of relevance and rigor in the curriculum. That is to say, the course must be relevant to the actual leading edge of the field and to the students lives. The rigor too should come from the standard of professional practice and the next stages of the learning process rather than merely being imposed as classroom constraints. Or, put another way, the constraints of the classroom should mirror the constraints of communities of practice. Further, are the genres in which I'm asking students to write the actual genres (and sub-genres) they should be practicing and mastering for the tasks they will face? Are the research projects I'm asking students to carry out developing the real knowledge, skills, and competencies they will need to achieve their academic and professional goals?

I believe deeply that as instructors we must be highly flexible if we are meet the needs of all learners. Each student faces unique challenges and problems. The final element of the dialogic curriculum involves giving each student personal attention, to find out what they want to know, to answer their questions, and to allow them to shape the direction of their own inquiries. It means circulating amongst the class to assess the sharing, writing, reading, of pairs and small groups to see how individuals are performing in these settings. It means providing multiple means of creating access to course materials, and being responsive to students requests for attention.

I see teaching as a profession rooted in both science and craft. It is a science in that we have a growing evidence-base of research that provides validation of particular methods of teaching for students at different levels of development in particular content areas. I also see teaching as an evolving craft that requires years of experience, continued reflection, and experimentation in order to fulfill our obligations to our students.

I continue to approach the work of teaching with great respect and still feel the tremendous responsibility that accompanies each new class and group of students. By adopting a genuine learning stance I find myself constantly interested in what students say and think and in their ideas and writing. Further, such a stance keeps me curious about the efficacy of my own teaching practices.

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Posted in Community groups Post Date 03/11/2017


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