I was standing beside my two-year-old son on the shore of Lake Tahoe, instructing him on the joys of throwing rocks into the water: “Here,” I said, placing a rock into his small fist, “throw the rock!”
He dropped the rock, stooped, and picked up a handful of sand.
“No, no,” I said brushing the sand from his hands, “Pick up a rock, like this, and throw it into the water!” I placed another rock into his hand, and then demonstrated my rock-throwing technique.
Again, he dropped the rock, stooped, picked up a handful of sand, and tossed sand into the water. I stopped for a moment to consider what he was doing. His hand could only hold a pebble, nothing big enough to make an impression. However, with a handful of sand, he could make as great (or greater!) an impact on the lake as I could with my larger stone. My son had devised a creative solution to making an impact on the world, and I was so wrapped up in my way of doing things I hadn’t acknowledged his creativity.
It was at that moment that I realized how difficult it is teach even the simplest of tasks. To be a good teacher and scholar, I must let go of the idea that others should always see and do things my way, and I must challenge myself and my students to truly look into things before accepting or abandoning them.
My job is to make good students–students who not only challenge themselves, but challenge me. In order to do this, I must recognize and acknowledge strengths, challenge weaknesses, and advise. I must respect my students and their ability to think independently, make choices, and hold particular core values; but I must also push them, and make them realize that they are ultimately responsible for their own learning.
In my courses, I encourage students to ask questions, disagree, suggest a better way, and share experiences; they are responsible to fully participate in peer review of one another’s papers; and they can (and should) redo any work they are unhappy with. This is why I believe so strongly in portfolios and portfolio assessment for my courses. Through the use of the portfolio, my students understand the concepts of “writing as a process,” the importance of revision and editing, and the responsibility of group interaction. My students know that if they are willing to put in the time and effort to learn, they will learn–even if they begin with different levels of experience, or learn at different rates.
In the literature classroom, I do not see my role as an arbitrator, a translator, or a representative of a certain viewpoint–I see my role as similar to that of a tour guide: I can point out important points of interest; however, my students must be willing to get off the bus and investigate those points if they want to get the most out of the experience. I begin all literary discussion by providing background and information about literary works to place a writer and their work within a social, religious, historical and/or cultural context. In order to encourage active reading, I remind students that works of literature are created and manipulated by an author who has a reason for choosing each detail and recording it in a specific way. Students must question, criticize and evaluate in order to know a work. As long as they base their interpretation on the text, students should not fear being “wrong.”
In order to provide a safe place for literary discussion in my classroom, I take the time to counsel my students on the rules of academic discussion and disagreement. These are my rules for literary discussions:
1) Anyone may take any position, even if that position disagrees with their personal beliefs and/or is taken for the purpose of playing “devil’s advocate;”
2) No person can personally attack another–either in or outside of class;
3) In academic discussion, one must provide their grounds for interpretation; and
4) Disagreement must take place in an atmosphere of respect and courtesy.
My students learn more than literature and writing in my courses–they learn to relate with one another, respect others even when their ideas contradict their own, and to rely upon one another for discussion, assistance, and encouragement. These lessons are essential in encouraging independent life-long learning, and in providing students with the tools to become creative and critical thinkers.
As I push my students to think in new and different ways, I must also challenge myself. I feel that research is essential to truly understanding and keeping abreast of my field in order to be an effective teacher. In my dissertation I suggested that one major way in which multiethnic literature differs from Western European American literature is that ethnic American writers have a different relationship to words and word usage. I would like to expand upon the idea of “word-view” by researching linguistic studies of ethnic communities and their composition processes. I would then use that information to build upon my theory of the critical assessment of multiethnic literary works. As I research, I learn, and I improve my teaching.
When I teach a course, I share my ideas, my theories, and the story of my son with my students, and I let them know what my philosophy of teaching is, up front. I want my students to know I respect their abilities, and that I expect them to work diligently in improving their understanding of the writing/reading process. If I’m a good enough teacher, I’ll teach my students to learn without me, and they will continue to learn, and love to learn, long after they leave my classroom