Prepping For Your First Day in the Classroom

Trial by Fire in the Classroom

This post begins an advice series for new teachers. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be exploring that ever-important first semester in the classroom. We’ll share tips, advice, and resources that will help you survive your first year in a new teaching position.

Like it or not, a teacher’s job begins long before we first step into the classroom. In fact, by the time you take your first roll, you’ll have already knocked out most of the groundwork necessary to facilitate a successful first semester. The question, then, is how do we prepare? What kind of planning must we undertake in order to be ready on that first day of class?

Trial by Fire for College Composition Teachers

If your graduate experience was anything like mine, then you probably had very little preparation for your teaching position. You probably received little or no training in how to design a syllabus, how to create paper prompts, or how to facilitate an engaging classroom discussion.

Believe it or not, this lack of teacher training is much more common than you might think. Most of us who enter the college composition classroom have almost no training and very little institutional support or professional development. Which basically means we all have to figure it for ourselves–on the fly. On the job training, if you will.

This “trial by fire” is going to make your first few weeks, months, or even years in the classroom very stressful. Just do your best to step back and observe what is working and what isn’t. Then you can make changes and adjustments accordingly.

I’ll tell you upfront that it took me all of two years in the classroom before I was able to get a grip on what I was doing. My biggest problem was nervousness. I was so nervous in class that I couldn’t objectively evaluate myself or my teaching practices. All I could was try to fill each hour with something (anything) and try not to sweat through my shirt.

That pretty much sums up my first year in the classroom and part of my second. Finally, in my fourth semester as a teacher I started to relax a little, and in year three, things really started to get better. I was finally able to pay attention to what was working in class and shift focus when my lesson plan was dragging.

So, my first bit of advice is do your best to relax. Try to get a feel for the general vibe in the classroom. Stay as flexible and open-minded as possible. Stop occasionally and ask yourself, “Is this working? Why or why not?” For that matter, these are questions you can and should continually ask yourself throughout your teaching career, no matter how experienced you become.

But this flexibility and prescient focus begins even before you enter the classroom, during which time you will need to do a lot of groundwork. This, too, will help you feel more prepared when you finally begin, thereby allowing you to reduce your stress level and be more “present” when you actually begin teaching.

Personally, I like to begin with my syllabus. Determining desired teaching outcomes and the readings and assignments I’ll use to achieve those outcomes helps me feel more confident when I walk into class on the first day. My semester usually starts at least three weeks before the first day of school as I create my syllabus. As a first year teacher, you’ll probably want to allow yourself even more time.

In the next post, I’ll discuss syllabus design and give you some examples from my own syllabi. I’ll break this syllabus down into major sections and show you how and why I include each of these sections in my syllabus.

Classroom Advice for a New Teacher

New Teacher Award

All new teachers want to know what to expect. Maybe you arrived at this article asking the same question: What can I expect as a new teacher in a college classroom? What should I do on the first day of class? The first week? How should I grade? How many papers should I assign? What if no one talks in class?

All valid questions and real concerns for a new teacher. Due to the large number of requests I get to answer questions like these, I’ve decided the best thing I can do is create a post series dedicated to new teachers. In this series, I’ll answer all of these common questions about how to prep and what to expect as a new teacher. I’ll cover some of the grading policies I’ve developed over the years (including some that failed miserably), and I’ll also toss in some sample assignments, paper prompts, and syllabi that I’ve had success with in my classroom.

This new teacher series will focus primarily on freshman composition for two reasons. One, it’s what I teach. That one’s obvious. The second reason, though, is that freshman comp is by far the most common course taught by new teachers. Almost every student at every university is required to take at least one semester of freshman writing, so you can imagine how many sections that translates to each year. Lots of young writers and lots of young teachers standing in front of them, imparting their writing wisdom.

[pullquote]In the writing classroom, new teachers have to develop interesting paper prompts, create and navigate a grading rubric, facilitate engaging classroom discussions.[/pullquote]

And, furthermore, freshman composition allows more creative freedom to the new teacher than any other course. It’s not like math or science, where the prof can just follow along with the textbook and run multiple choice tests through the computer grader. In the writing classroom, new teachers have to develop interesting paper prompts, create and navigate a grading rubric, facilitate engaging classroom discussions.

So many opportunities for uncertainty and excitement. And, ahem, so many opportunities for a new teacher to crash and burn. Don’t worry about that, though. That’s why you are reading this series. Because you’re going to prepare properly and succeed in your first semester as a new teacher.

A New Teacher Resource Guide

The point is the composition classroom has many opportunities for you to do what you think is best. Which is pretty cool if you’re ready for it. Hopefully this series will help you–and the many others who contact me each week–plan for a successful first teaching experience. Over these next few weeks, I’ll regular add short posts containing advice, tips, anecdotes, and examples for new teachers in the composition classroom.

If all goes well, I’ll turn it into a nice little ebook resource when I’m finished that will help many future new teachers. You can be a part of the experience by interacting with  the articles. Use the comments to ask your own questions, to give advice, or to share your experiences as a new teacher. Also feel free to tweet me with ideas or questions: @josh_boldt.

The more people we get involved, the more comprehensive the resource will be. Hopefully fewer teachers will have to learn the hard way like many of us did.

Continue to the next post in the series: Prepping For Your First Day in the Classroom.

Teaching Short Stories in Writing Classes

Teaching Short Stories

Last week, we talked about the benefits of teaching poetry in literature-based writing courses. I explained that, in my writing classes at the University of Georgia, I incorporate four major genres of literature, and I began to make the argument that a semester of literary study can be deeply beneficial for students who are learning to write. This week, we’ll pick up where we left off with the second post of the series: Teaching Short Stories in Writing Classes.

Like poetry, teaching short stories in your writing classes can also cultivate unique skills in your developing writers. Being conversant in the language of the short story will not only help students compete intellectually, but it will also help them develop and hone their own writing skills.

Teaching Short Stories Helps Students Analyze Essay-Length Works

One of the most common requests from upper level content professors is that students learn how to effectively analyze a text’s theme. When students get into 300- and 400-level courses, it’s crucial that they can quickly pick out the main points of a writer’s argument. Regardless of the text, a student must be able to consume it relatively quickly and determine its key elements.

Note-taking and outlining are both important skills for students to acquire if they hope to be able to meet standards when it comes to thematic textual analysis. And guess which classes students begin to develop these analytical research skills? You guessed it–freshman composition.

My English 1102 classes (Composition II) always spend at least one day in the library learning how to research. On this day, I schedule an appointment with a reference librarian for a Library Instruction Day. I can’t even begin to describe how useful this day is for the students. Getting familiar with many of the primary online research databases will help them for the rest of college. I strongly recommend you contact your school library and start doing this if you aren’t already.

Our library instruction day is scheduled around Paper 2, which requires students to choose a short story and conduct what is essentially a thematic analysis of that story. In this assignment, students must identify a theme in the short story and show how that theme is revealed in the narrative. Because I want to challenge them to join a critical conversation, I also request that they use a research database like MLA or JSTOR or even Google Scholar to locate a critical piece about their chosen story. They then must engage with that critical interpretation in their own papers.

Students, therefore, are tasked with identifying a theme, interpreting that theme, and crafting an argument that adds a meaningful contribution to the critical discussion of that theme. I call this assignment an “Interpretive Critical Essay.”

After completing this assignment, students have begun to get comfortable identifying and discussing a theme. They’ve also gained valuable research skills and learned several tips and tricks for incorporating quotations and signal phrases into their papers–two skills that will serve them well as they grow as writers.

I believe that demonstrating these skills by teaching short stories is one of the most effective ways we can do it. My students tend to enjoy short stories more. Most of them have grown up thinking fondly about fiction. Beyond that, we’re more inclined to recognize themes in short stories because the stories of our childhood predispose us to look for a “moral of the story” or a message.

Sometimes this tendency to moralize a story causes students to interpret them with cringe-worthy clichés like “don’t judge a book by its cover,” but at least it’s a starting point for our discussion. It’s a ready-made theme that opens the door for a deeper interpretation.

If you design your short story unit and paper prompt deliberately, teaching short stories can be a great way to scaffold thematic analyses and research skills.

Teaching Short Stories Allows Students to See a Variety of Different Writing Styles

I mentioned last week that using poetry in a writing class is a great way to help students develop their own personal writing voices. This is perhaps even more true when it comes to teaching short stories. By assigning readings from a wide variety of writers, students get exposed to several different styles.

Although students may not be consciously mimicking a writer’s style, simply reading stories from different authors subconsciously affects their own personal styles. I’ll never forget the first time I read Faulkner or Denis Johnson or Melville. Everything I’ve written since has been affected by the styles of the writers I respect.

I believe we learn by watching and emulating. On Twitter the other day, Kerry Hasler-Brooks agreed:

As Kerry points out, reading these “profound” voices helps students create their own authorial voices. One of the unique advantages of the writing class is how intimately connected reading and writing are–moreso than in any other class. We read things and we write about them. The writing classroom, then, allows us to read and then mimic like no other course does. It’s the perfect place to develop one’s voice.

In my classes, we read Kate Chopin and Alice Walker, William Faulkner and John Updike, Ernest Hemingway and Sarah Orne Jewett. Students see very different styles and tones. And, although I don’t actively encourage them to emulate those styles, there’s no question that these famous writers sometimes rub off on the young writers. To which I say, “Great!”

Teaching Short Stories Helps Students Concentrate

If you’re of a certain age (like me), then you remember a time when you could pick up a book, sit in a chair with it, and read for hours and hours without interruption. No internet or social media or cell phones to distract you from the text. I didn’t even have a cell phone in college. Gasp!

Times have obviously changed and distraction-free reading is largely a thing of the past. Even I, an English professor, rarely go more than 15 or 20 minutes without looking at my phone. I know, it’s shameful.

And most of our students have lived their entire adolescence like this. Cell phone never moving more than six inches from their bodies at all times. Frankly, I don’t know how they get any work done, but they seem to manage. The point, though, is that the work they do is almost always rife with distraction.

Think about how we’ve learned to consume content on the internet. We read differently on the internet. We look for subheadings and bullet points. We skim. We skip around. Our eyes travel up and down and even right to left. Reading on the internet is the most distracted kind of reading, if we can still call it that.

That’s why I like teaching short stories. From a good, old-fashioned short story collection. With real pages. Short stories use rhetorical devices that nonfiction does not. Foreshadowing, suspense, symbolism. If a student skips sections or doesn’t finish the story, he’ll probably miss key plot points (We don’t learn how to do that until grad school. Ha.). With a nonfiction essay on the other hand, a student can wing it and still have a pretty good idea what’s going on.

So I assign short stories to help students develop some of those important concentration skills that the outside world is constantly undermining. Once we get a few pages deep in a good short story, we might decide to stick around for a while.

These are some of the reasons I’m currently teaching short stories in my writing classes, but what about you? Do you teach short stories? Why or why not? What’s your favorite story to teach and/or read?

Teaching Poetry in Literature-Based Writing Courses

Literature-Based Writing Class

This post on teaching poetry begins a four part series that explores literature-based writing classes. In this series, we’ll explore the concept of literature-based writing courses and how we, as writing teachers, can use literature in our composition courses to teach writing.

In order to gain a full perspective on this discussion, I’m going to break our exploration into four different parts, each focusing on a popular genre of literature: poetry, short stories, short film, and drama. Because I use each of these genres in my literature-based writing courses, much of this discussion will focus on my own experiences in the classroom. I’ll tell what has worked for me and give some examples of effective assignments.

But, I also want to use this series to open a discussion. I’d love to hear from you. Do you teach a literature-based writing course? What works or doesn’t work in your composition classroom?

Teaching Poetry in Literature-Based Writing Courses

At the University of Georgia where I teach, the second semester of freshman composition is literature-based writing. We use various forms of fiction to help students both generate interesting topics and also to provide for them models of engaging and effective writing.

We discuss the works, of course, but not quite in the same way you would in a literature seminar course. After all, freshman composition is still primarily about writing. Therefore, I use the literature to help spur discussion and to catalyze critical thought in a way that’s a bit different from what students do in their first semester, which is more focused on analysis of nonfiction.

In my classes, we spend a few weeks each with poetry, short stories, drama, and short film, and I use each of these genres to teach different elements of good writing.

Using Poetry to Teach Writing

1. Teaching Poetry Helps Students Open Up

Students in my English 1102 classes begin the semester with a poetry unit. I always get some initial resistance to the study of poetry, but I’ve found that opening with this form really breaks down walls that would otherwise stand in the way of the meaningful discussion I attempt to foster in my courses.

And that’s actually the first advantage of using poetry to teach writing. It encourages openness and vulnerability and helps establish a classroom culture that prioritizes personal expression and reflection. Because I use drafting and peer review heavily in my writing courses, it’s crucial that my students quickly embrace the idea that we will be both giving and receiving advice that may sting a little. I need them to recognize that it’s okay to put ourselves out there a little bit–even if that means we might be opening ourselves to critique. Because that’s how we get better–by making ourselves vulnerable to people we trust and by accepting constructive criticism on works in which we’ve invested ourselves.

Thus, reading and discussing poetry helps establish a classroom culture that preps students to open themselves and make themselves vulnerable in order to get better. When I assign a 200 word reflection on Ezra Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro” on Day 1, I give them no direction and I tell them there’s no wrong answer. On the second day they must share their reflections with the class. I’ve found that this really scares some students who have been trained (by AP English teachers?) that poems have a “correct” interpretation. No student wants to be wrong. Especially not on the second day of the semester in front of the whole class.

Little by little, they begin to recognize that I never correct anyone’s interpretation of Pound’s poem. They can write anything the poem speaks to them and I will accept it and encourage them to explore the thought in more detail. In this way, the students gain confidence and become more willing to share their thoughts and ideas. Exactly what I’m going for.

2. Teaching Poetry Encourages Close Reading and Creative Critical Analysis

The second major advantage of teaching poetry in literature-based writing courses is the way it instinctively trains students to read closely and think critically. It’s basically impossible to discuss poetry without conducting a close critical reading.

Take for example ee cummings poem “next to of course god america i.” I teach this poem precisely because cummings’s strange syntactical arrangement forces students to focus on the poem’s words. The clichéd phrases are jumbled and out of order. The poem lacks proper punctuation and the enjambed lines require multiple readings in order to be understood.

Students not only recognize the importance of grammatical clarity, but they also begin to understand that sometimes we have to read a piece several times in order to truly understand its meaning. Not to mention the poem’s theme always catalyzes a lively discussion. Every semester, a couple students pick this poem to analyze more deeply in their first papers.

A second exercise I like to use during our poetry unit which encourages creative critical analysis is a comparative juxtaposition. I assign two poems to be read the same day. Two seemingly very different poems that turn out to be more similar than one might think: Anne Bradstreet’s “To My Dear and Loving Husband” and Sherman Alexie’s “Reservation Love Song.”

Written four hundred years apart, these two poems seem to be as disparate as conceivably possible. But once we start digging into the works and comparing them, the class begins to see these striking similarities that were previously invisible. We discuss the sincerity (or lack of) from each narrator. We explore the concept of honesty. We try to decide if each piece is an example of “true love.” We explore some of the cultural landscapes that produced each of these works.

By the end of the day, we’ve all begun to recognize that these two poems that once appeared to be binary opposites are actually quite similar and even inhere within each other. This lesson teaches students the ever important concept of the binary and how we can use opposing ideas in nature and society in order to conduct a deep analysis of the concepts those ideas represent.

3. Teaching Poetry Introduces Authorial Voice

The Bradstreet/Alexie juxtaposition–in addition to the many other poems we read–also illustrates vastly different authorial voices, which is another important element I hope to teach in my literature-based writing classes.

By this second semester, I want students to begin identifying their own writing voices and teaching poetry gives them multiple examples from which to draw. I’ll pick this discussion of voice back up in the second post of this series when I discuss short stories, where authorial voice becomes even more clear.

Poetry, then, kicks off my literature-based writing classes for several reasons. One, it creates a classroom culture of openness and vulnerability. Two, by its very nature, it forces students to read closely and analyze critically. And, finally, teaching poetry allows students to start thinking about their own voice and writing identity, which becomes even more important during the second unit when we begin reading short stories.

What about you? Do you teach a literature-based writing class? How do you teach poetry in your classes?

Read the next post now: Teaching Short Stories in Writing Classes.

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Teaching Without a Plan

Teaching Without a Plan

Teaching without a plan makes the classroom exciting and a little dangerous. In a good way.

Dangerous because it’s a bit of a gamble. You never quite know for sure what will happen. Sometimes the house wins and you go back to your office and close the door, wondering what the hell just happened. These are the times that teaching without a plan leaves you flat on your face. Students don’t engage or you don’t ask the right questions. You get blank stares and throat clears.

But when teaching without a plan works, it’s amazing. You beat the odds and your classroom ignites with energy and passion. These are the times that you go back to your office and close the door, wondering what the hell just happened. Wait, is there an echo in here? No, you read that right. Teaching without a plan usually lands you in the same position at the end of the day, regardless of the outcome.

This “go big or go home” mentality isn’t for everyone, but it works for me. I’ve always been something of a gambler. I thrive in “make or break” scenarios–that’s when I feel most alive. I’m willing to risk a few faceplants on the path to lift-off. For me, that’s what makes life fun. And, for teachers willing to create this “dangerous” classroom culture, teaching without a plan can make education fun, too.

Let me give you an example.

In my freshman composition classes, I require three major assignments. The first two are papers–pretty traditional and straightforward literary analyses. In the past, I’ve tried a few different things out for that third major assignment. Everything from another paper to my Film as Composition assignment, where students work in groups to produce a multimodal composition piece.

This semester, though, I decided to mix things up a little. To teach without a plan.

Teaching Without a Plan: Designing Assignments

I started telling my students a couple weeks ago that I wanted some input from them about this third project. I told them we were going to spend some class time discussing the assignment and trying to reach some kind of consensus as to what we might do. Well, yesterday that time came.

I’m being completely honest when I say that I walked into class with no idea what was going to happen and no structure for our discussion. I was unequivocally teaching without a plan.

I know this isn’t for everyone, but I got a real thrill from it and I could sense the class felt the same way when I admitted, “Look–full disclosure here–I’ve never done this before and I’m not quite sure what will happen.” I was genuinely nervous about what might transpire.

The only ground rule I laid was that whatever we decided had to have some connection to the process of composition and had to be tied somehow to the general rubric we use for grading in the composition department at the University of Georgia.

At first, everyone was a little quiet. I asked how many people would rather just do a traditional paper, because it was less anxiety-inducing and more clear cut. A few hands raised. I expected that.

Next, I asked if any of them had ever made films. We spent a few weeks discussing short film earlier in the semester, so this was a fairly reasonable question. More hands. Some general buzzing beginning to pass through the rows.

Then the questions started. “If we did films, what would they be about? How long would they be? What kind of equipment would we need? How would they be turned in?” Whenever possible, I tried to direct the questions back to them and let the students set these parameters.

Some students had other ideas. “Do we have to work in groups? What if we want to do something on our own? Can we do a piece of creative writing? Can we instead just write a paper about a film?”

I was feeling the energy and the class was fully engaged in the discussion now. Some questions I answered, some I redirected, some I just left alone for the time being.

We ended up deciding on three possible options:

  1. Conduct a traditional literary analysis of a film
  2. Make a film using what is essentially my previous prompt for the multimodal composition project
  3. Create a “Choose Your Own Adventure” project (one of my students named that one and I like it)

All three options will require a detailed project proposal which will be due next week. In the proposal, individual students or groups will propose a plan to me, tell me exactly what they will do, how they will do it, what each person’s role will be, and how it relates to the composition classroom. This proposal will function like a pre-write or a rough draft, and I will either approve it or give further advice and ask for a re-submission.

This time around, teaching without a plan was a win (so far). Can’t wait to see the proposals they come up with and especially to see the final products. At the end of class, I asked if anyone was really uncomfortable with the fast and loose structure of this assignment. Only one had raised: mine.

What about you? When has teaching without a plan worked (or failed) in your classroom?