Yes, good people, it is that wonderful time of the semester when none of us has any time for anything. We give ourselves over to daydreams of purchasing a one-way ticket to Hawaii with plans to never return to teaching, grading, meetings, or anything related to university life. It’s a beautiful daydream. Filled with the salty taste of the ocean, an ice-cold adult beverage, and the feeling of burying your toes in sugar-white sand. Don’t tell me you haven’t imagined your escape plan, too. Maybe yours involves Cozumel or Aruba.
A few years ago I found myself sitting at my desk in my windowless lecturer’s office that I shared with ten other NTT faculty at NC State University. It was like a large janitor’s closet, that office.
Google, save me, I said to the computer one day.
I began searching phrases like “student motivation.” And “how to get students to talk.” Or perhaps “career choices.” One such search led me to a beautiful area of scholarship and publications like The Journal of Educational Psychology. Therein I found a life raft.
One article led to another, and eventually I discovered Rathunde and Csikszentmihalyi’s “Middle School Students’ Motivation and Quality of Experience: A Comparison of Montessori and Traditional School Environments.”
Their research hit me at time when I was beginning to wrap my mind around what it meant to teach a rhetorically-based WID approach to First-Year Writing. Rathunde seemed interested in questions about quality of life, student motivation, and pedagogical approaches to teaching that affect both.
An Insider's View from Kevin Rathunde, featured in An Insider's Guide to Academic Writing, page 161.
Rightly or wrongly I began to see parallels between a WID-based approach to teaching composition and the philosophy of Montessori. Primarily I noticed that both involved a student-centered approach and that both emphasized students’ intrinsic motivation to learn by encouraging students to develop research from their unique and personalized interests. Intrigued, I began synthesizing Rathunde’s research findings in my day-to-day activities for English 101, and lo and behold, I saw a bump in student motivation.
Here’s one example:
Rathunde’s research suggests that students’ motivation improves when they work in groups with clearly defined goals and clear accountability, and they have a voice in how they are graded.
I organized students into small groups, gave each group a dry erase marker, and asked them to develop criteria for a rubric written on a white board in the classroom. The rubrics, I told them, would be used by me to grade their next written project.
When they realized I was serious, the conversation in their groups took on an energy the likes of which I’d rarely seen in a classroom. They negotiated every criterion. Moreover, each group looked around at what other groups were writing on the white boards, and they drew from group to group.
Once they had a list of seven to ten criteria, we had a discussion. Groups would present things like “organization,” “evidence,” “spelling,” “thesis statement,” “purpose,” “audience,” “grammar.”
Often they would put criteria on their lists that made me uncomfortable. Things like “content” or “clarity.” I would ask them what they meant. Where could I point in a paper to assess “content”? Where is a specific example of “clarity” in your writing?
Show me, I’d ask them.
They would do their best to explain. And in so doing, they often came to realize what was and wasn’t good criteria for assessing writing. More interestingly to me, though, I began to suspect that the most important learning that was taking place was in the negotiation with their peers. If someone was domineering or difficult to work with, everybody else in the group recognized it. They would find subtle ways to communicate approval, disapproval, and develop optimal group dynamics. They had a collective goal.
The hardest part was letting go of my authority as a teacher. It was hard letting students take the lead. It was hard trusting them and their abilities to figure out what constitutes good writing. My hunch is that the essence of authentic learning comes by developing that trust, showing students that they have the ability to recognize, analyze, and produce good writing, and that they can work together toward consensus.
Stacey Cochran is the bestselling author of Eddie & Sunny. He has taught First-Year Writing for nearly twenty years at East Carolina University, Mesa Community College, North Carolina State University, and most recently the University of Arizona. He lives in Tucson with his wife Susan Miller-Cochran and their two kids Sam and Harper. He is currently at work trying futilely to overcome his impostor syndrome.
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