There have been countless times in the past few years of my life where people ask me the infamous question during casual conversation; “What do you do?” However, when I respond with “I teach English,” I never usually receive an enthusiastic or interested reaction in return. They twist their faces as if they’ve just tasted something sour and say, “Oh, I was never good in English,” or, “I always hated English,” and my personal favorite, “Wow, at least there are some people out there who like English enough to teach it.” I genuinely understand that there are people who will never enjoy English, just like there are others who will never receive a thrill from doing math problems or science experiments. However, I also believe that the teacher is a much larger factor than some may realize when it comes time for a student to decide what they find compelling about a subject, and what they do not. As an educator, I find that it is the teacher’s responsibility to shape their classroom into one that welcomes interest and engagement in the subject. Arguably, one of the most beneficial ways of raising interest is by making students the first priority. Therefore, I mold my pedagogy around adaptive, student-centered teaching styles that put the student first so that they are able to reach the highest level of engagement possible. By providing students with the opportunities to participate in interactive discussion on the primary texts, along with assignments designed with an emphasis on engagement, I hope that my courses will not only help students obtain useful critical thinking, reading, writing and communicating skills, but they will also enjoy themselves along with way, alleviating the typical “I always hated English” response.
Part of being an effective instructor is adapting. A teaching method that successfully works for one group of students will not always work for another. However, these shifting methods must always remain focused on the student, not the teacher. Elaine Showalter highlights the importance of student-centered pedagogy: “if students are not learning, no matter how brilliantly we perform or indoctrinate, we are not teaching. In order to be effective teachers we have to think about how students learn and how to help them learn” (36). In other words, adaption is key to an effective learning environment. For example, the teacher should participate in class discussion along with the students; however, they should also be ready to facilitate the direction of the discussion when necessary. The learning process becomes active for both the teacher and the student as they discuss certain topics and make new insights about the texts together. Showalter emphasizes that “student-centered teaching makes the teacher a facilitator rather than a star. The teacher still performs, but the class is not primarily about the teacher’s brilliance, omniscience, personality or originality on the podium” (36). The students are not learning or engaging with the material if the class is based around the teacher’s knowledge and brilliance. Looking back at my conversations with those who “always hated English,” I wonder if their memories revolve around the “star” teacher, monotonously bantering their incomprehensible wisdom to the class. This particular thought alone motivates me to not only mold myself into an instructor that invites enthusiasm, but also one that is receptive to whether or not students are actually learning from the method in which they are being taught. Since, first and foremost, the amount of knowledge retained by the students is what represents the effectiveness of our teaching.
In my own classroom, I take my students opinions very seriously. Following certain class activities, I always try to conduct a follow-up group discussion on what they thought about the activity, and in their opinion, how beneficial it was for them and their goals. This process not only helps me adapt my teaching methods to the particular group of students in front of me, but it also allows the students to feel like they have an authorial voice over their own learning in the classroom. For example, I had ran a peer review workshop with my class for a few semesters in a row that had gone smoothly and thus, it was never changed. Student feedback on the workshop was always positive until recently, when one particular class was in agreement that the they were not finding the peer review workshop to be very helpful when it came to revising their papers. As a result, I completely changed the workshop. The original format had been in small groups where the students traded papers and ran through a series of checkpoints provided for them, making comments and marks on their group member’s paper when necessary. The workshop concluded with the small groups discussing their findings on one another’s paper, sharing insights on the revision process. The new workshop was transformed into one that circulated around the classroom, and all of the previous “checkpoints” were split up into timed circuits. Thus for each circuit, the student focused their attention on one particular aspect of their classmate’s paper and provided comments as necessary. After time was up, each student rotated to a new desk, working on a new classmate’s paper and focusing on a different checkpoint. When all of the circuits were completed, we discussed their findings as an entire class, rather than in small groups as done before. The modified version of the peer review workshop received positive feedback from my students and has ever since been the new, enhanced version of the previous one, and is the format I still use today. This experience shows that adaptive teaching methods not only benefit the students, but also provide a learning practice for the teacher, forcing them to understand their students’ needs on a higher level.
Although other instructors may not find it as an important component of a class, I argue that enthusiasm can be the ultimate, deciding factor for a student when it comes to their future decisions in academia or the workforce. If a person is not enthused or engaged with the material in front of them, how can we expect them to genuinely retain knowledge on it, or choose to pursue it further? As teachers, if we do not encourage engagement in the classroom, we will continue to produce the “I always hated English” stereotype. For example, instead of asking my students to discuss their research papers by creating a slideshow presentation, I chose to completely restructure the project component of the class into one that would invite a higher level enthusiasm and student engagement. For an animal awareness research project, I asked my students to design a professional looking pamphlet that covered the findings of their research paper, along with a take-home item for each classmate that related to their project in some way. For example, one student who argued that we need to stop whaling gave each classmate a bag of goldfish whale crackers with a creatively designed card attached to it that said “Save the Whales.” Another argued that we must put an end to dog fighting and had a petition for each classmate to sign, along with a sticker for each student to wear that read “I signed a petition to stop dog fighting.” The students showed keen interest and engagement with the project, and the follow-up discussion only reiterated what I had already suspected; the students loved the project and had learned much more than they had originally anticipated.
As these examples show, I strive to make the learning process in the classroom focused on the students, as well as open to new modes of thinking and active engagement with the material at hand. As Elaine Showalter describes, I want to be the facilitator of the class who is participating next to them rather than bantering my own knowledge in front of them. After all, “if the students are not learning … we are not teaching” (36).