Philosophy of Teaching
A Series of Philosophies on Teaching – by Jimmy Butts
[I promise to put up some course syllabi soon.]
I believe that writing well with a unique voice is a special key that can unlock many doors.
I also believe that most people hate to write. Usually because some form of schooling has conditioned, conventionalized, and concretized our students’ thinking such that they unable to employ writing as a creative and expressive medium. Others challenging restrictive perspectives on education, such as Sir Ken Robinson in his TED talks, have considered the ways in which schools tend to suppress creativity. So, in my classes we do play with grammar, which, I promise, is not an oxymoron. We write sentences about pirates and ninjas. We correct Snooki’s tweets. I like to keep the curriculum challenging, but simple and engaging. I follow the standards set by the National Council of Teachers of English so that I know I am on the same page as other instructors for my students’ sakes. I use the 6+1 Write Traits. I want my students to be able to write well so that they will succeed wherever they go. But in my composition classroom, I work along the boundaries of disciplinarity. Our educational departments have literally departed from one another, breaking down holistic perspectives on learning. With my compositions classes, I often work from the classical strands of the trivium: rhetoric, grammar, and logic and prepare my students for the quadrivium, as well as the real world. Often when I teach writing, I even use classical rhetorical strategies, such as the progymnasmata, but modify and tweak them for contemporary situations.
I believe that learning should be as fun as possible. The things that I remember best from school are the things I most enjoyed doing. Some claim that Mark Twain famously quipped, “Never let your schooling get in the way of your education.” My father has told me that so many times that it has really become seated deeply within me. Thus, I try to have as good of a time as possible with my students, most of whom, I know, do not love composition as much as I do, and I am okay with that. English majors are the Gertrudes and Elmers of the world, an old English education professor once explained us, and our students care about other things. They are not going to enjoy analyzing some text that we find amazing, and wonderful, and beautiful, but they will pick up a trick or two and enjoy the process as they do. I take that to heart when I create lesson plans.
I believe that true multimodal engagement is crucial for a thriving composition classroom. When I taught high school, I attended a great teacher workshop with Dr. Marcia L. Tate, author of Worksheets Don’t Grow Dendrites. Tate’s workshop encouraged us as instructors to be creative with our planning in ways designed to better engage and help our students learn. She encouraged activities that involved music, going on field trips, drawing, and technology, so I plan lessons that employ Tate’s research. During my doctoral research, I gained experience and a deep appreciation for teaching practices that engage multiple modalities based on the continuing shift in composition practices. I grew up playing with computers, entering DOS commands and dialing up Bulletin Board Systems—and learned a lot along the way. As such, I have fully embraced the technological impetus in education. Computers and writing go hand in hand. My classes make use of collaborative spaces like Google Docs and collaborative class blogs. I like to make learning like a gamespace, as considered in the work of James Paul Gee, Henry Jenkins, and even Maria Montessori, where my students earn points and level up to earn A’s. We compose using multimedia, adapt literary works for the screen, run digital scavenger hunts that make serious arguments about the world, vlog, and meet in online chat rooms. These are skills my students need to know for the future. I also plan lessons to engage diverse students based on Howard Gardener’s multiple intelligences. I rely on Bloom’s Taxonomy. I want my students to use their hands as well as their minds. I imagine learning things while doing things, so I work hard to engage every single sense when I teach—another key perspective on multimodality in the classroom.
I believe that disorientation is an integral component of deep learning. In light of my research on defamiliarization as a rhetorical tactic, I have come to see all learning as involving a confrontation with the unfamiliar. Learning is a cycle of experiencing strange territory, coming to terms with it, and moving ever forward into new places. I take advantage of destabilizing my students’ thought to get them to think more critically, and to encourage them to find inventive paths of thought. Students thinking at the college level should learn to become increasingly hospitable to foreign ideas and navigate them with their professors’ help.
I believe in establishing an ethos my students can trust. I think it is especially important to gain the confidence of my students and foster a healthy rapport with them. Part of this process involves talking to my students like capable adults and giving them a voice. I follow the humanistic postmodern maxim of being the guide on the side rather than the sage on the stage. Usually, I stand when I teach with a cup of coffee in hand, and I move around, ask questions, and laugh with my students. Or, other times, I will sit down with my students and look over their writing one to one—a practice I have picked up from working in writing labs over the years. I think they can do anything, and I talk to them about what they want to do, instead of always telling them what they have to do. Sometimes they think that they want me to just tell them what to do, and they ask me what they should do. Instead, I encourage them to do whatever they think might be great, or exciting, or cool, and I try to enable them to do those things. I encourage them to become compositionists—to write into their world.
I believe in creative and critical pedagogical perspectives working in concert with one another. I embrace the challenging stances that thinkers like Paulo Freire and bell hooks have brought into educational thought. I continue to challenge myself to walk the tenuous line between challenging and inviting lessons. I ask my students to explore their own educational worlds, while I run alongside them cheering them on, sharing suggestions, and helping them to think more deeply in new ways. Each year I ask my students what they are doing in my classroom, spending thousands of dollars and several years earning a college degree. The discussion is always fruitful, and my students rethink what they are doing and why. None of them have dropped out yet. Knock on wood. They hang in there with me and keep composing. Teaching writing is like showing students how magic tricks are done. That is half the fun of it.