Teaching and Learning in Writing-Intensive Courses

The fall of 2023, I will be walking into my year 40 as a teacher. I started my career journey as a high school English teacher in the high school where I graduated and even the same English classroom I had sat in as a student during my sophomore and junior years.

The somewhat early years teaching high school English at Woodruff High (Woodruff, SC).

Many of the teachers had been my teachers when I was a student, and I was then (seemingly suddenly) a colleague with veteran and well-loved members of the school and my small hometown.

One of those English teachers assigned their seniors only one essay, due at the end of the academic year and never returned or commented on by that teacher. Many of those seniors were destined for college and had essentially no writing instruction their entire senior year—filled instead with weekly vocabulary tests, grammar tests, and textbook tests on British literature.

Just down the hall, I was embarking on 18 years of responding to about 4000 essays per year by my students; I was committed to teaching students to write well by having them write often and in workshop experiences.

I just completed my spring 2023 semester, which had two writing-intensive courses. This spring followed my only sabbatical experience in the fall of 2022, although I had been in higher education for 20 years.

I returned to teaching with a renewed commitment to decreasing stress and high-stakes for my students while trying to foster greater engagement by those students.

For about three-quarters of my teaching career, lowering stress and high-stakes has included de-grading and de-testing my courses, although the de-grading applied to assignments since I still had/have to assign course grades (see here about delaying grades).

However, once again, a number of students offered feedback on student evaluations that deflate significantly my enthusiasm for many of my efforts to support autonomous students.

In courses with required conferencing, some students noted that conferences should be required; this disconnect is linked to students being responsible for requesting and scheduling those conferences.

In a semester where I responded to about 200 essays over three courses and 24 total students, some students complained that I did not provide enough feedback for their work and/or that my feedback was too negative or not specific enough (see here about negative feedback).

At the core of these tensions and disconnects, I feel, is the essential paradox of who is responsible for learning.

For over twenty years now, I am teaching adults, yes, young adults, but college students are adults. My career before higher education was high school, and again, I worked with teens and young adults.

Yet, most students have experiences in formal schooling that teaches them they are passive agents in the teaching/learning dynamic. My students, particularly those who struggle in my course, think the responsibility for their learning is me, the teacher.

My teaching is grounded in critical pedagogy, and I practice an awareness that the role of the teacher is to teach with the role of the student, to learn. More nuanced is Freire’s argument that the teacher is always a teacher/student and the student is always a student/teacher.

Critical pedagogy views teaching and learning as liberatory—to learn is to become fully human, which is a state that requires autonomy.

Broadly, my role as a teacher (and mentor) is to provide the ideal context for students to learn; however, I cannot make someone learn.

As painful as this is to admit, teaching does not guarantee learning, and ultimately, learning is the role of the student (acknowledging that far too many students are in life situations that inhibit that autonomy).

My students are mostly in ideal contexts to learn, yet they often struggle even as I create courses with low stakes (no grades, no tests, no lateness penalties, etc.) and encourage high engagement; that struggle is grounded in the stress that students feel by having the responsibility for learning shifted from me to them.

Traditional and enduring practices around assigning and teaching writing prove to be barriers for student autonomy—essay prompts, rubrics, comprehensive marking of student writing, etc.

Here is another story from my first years of teaching.

A very highly regarded teacher of English moved to the high school when my district reorganized around a middle school concept and shifted ninth grader from our junior high to the high school.

I often taught that teacher’s students, and they explained to me that they would submit their essays, and then the teacher would return the papers with comments before using the overhead to show the students how to rewrite the essays.

Students dutifully followed the essay that teacher rewrote for them and resubmitted essentially identical essays.

My students today often have one of those two experiences—the negligent writing teachers who assign almost no writing or provide no real feedback or the hyper-controlling teacher who uses scripted prompts and rubrics (the enduring five-paragraph essay included) while also commenting exhaustively on submitted essays.

For those students, my classes are disorienting and often difficult to navigate.

While I have worked for decades to reduce high-stakes environments in my courses to reduce stress, students are often stressed when the responsibility for learning is shifted toward them

As I ponder how to revise further my writing-intensive courses, I continue to look for ways to increase student engagement. Currently, here are the structures I use with varying degrees of effectiveness:

  • Reducing how much I copyedit and comment on student drafts and increasing face-to-face conferencing.
  • Providing students with resources that support their learning to revise and edit their own writing.
  • Grounding writing assignments in authentic forms of writing and inviting students to explore examples of published writing to support their own awareness about forms and purposes for writing.
  • Maintaining a culture of low-stakes that includes not grading student work while in process, establishing workshop environments for students as writers, and providing structure for students without using punitive or coercive procedures.
  • Establishing minimum requirements for student engagement that include required drafting of essays as well as options for additional drafts and conferences by choice and request.

A couple years ago, I created guidelines for students to better support their own drafting, revising, and editing—How to Revise Your Essay after Receiving Feedback—and guidelines for how students should navigate my use of highlighting when providing feedback on essays—Revising Drafts with Highlighting as Feedback.

Regretfully, I am not seeing these materials being as effective as I hoped because at the core of the problem is not my structure or guidance, but that students remain committed to seeing my role not as teaching but as making them learn.

For example, I often mark needed revisions on essays and add a comment to check for the issues throughout the essay, yet most students only revise what I have marked.

That is a habit they bring to my classes, and one I find nearly impossible to break.

What I am addressing as a writing teacher, then, is a subset of how to foster learning autonomy in students.

Traditional schooling and the pervasive consequences of the Covid era are working against students’ abilities to recognize and embrace that autonomy.

And having an outlier class like mine that centers student autonomy, despite my commitment to lowering stress and high-stakes, is ironically highly stressful for my students.

And thus, I have much to ponder before walking into my classrooms for year 40 this coming fall.