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Philosophy of Teaching

As an educator and education researcher, I have come to understand learning as irreducibly


situated in specific contexts, communities, and purposes. All too often, teachers proceed under the
assumption that reading, writing, interpretation, and critical thinking are universal sets of skills that
can sink in given the right drills and enough repetition. The same teachers are sometimes baffled
and frustrated to find that students struggle to apply the routines from class in novel contexts or in
later years. I strive to design my classes around projects that necessarily raise questions and problems
that, in turn, motivate critical reading, thoughtful discussion, and writing across a range of genres.
Indeed, the current-world applications and performance tasks that I build into my courses (please see
examples of projects and assessments in the Additional Supporting Materials section) are not
accessories to academic development; they are constitutive of that development. My intent is that my
students never have to wonder what place a given assignment or conversation has in the projects that
frame the course, and that the audience and purpose for their work is never opaque.
Early in my career as a middle and high school English teacher, I became attuned to the
distribution of responsibility between teachers and students, and I was intrigued by the prospect that
some conventions of teaching unintentionally withhold from students some of the richest facets of
learning. Influential English educator Sheridan Blau captured this sentiment in a heretical speech
titled On the Advancement of Learning Through the Abolition of Teaching, and while I would not
go quite as far as his title suggests, I am a staunch advocate for the power of inductive teaching: I far
prefer sparking, documenting, and building on students thinking to displaying the fruits of my own;
I far prefer steering a class into generative difficulty than designing a controlled environment in
which precise questions point to known answers. While many students feel comfortable in the
familiar, passive role of information recorder/regurgitator, I have found that most of my students
report being better served by courses in which assignments and class time privilege thinking,
building, and interacting.
This disposition to generate looks different in each of my courses, but the common routine is
for students to build theories and principles about central concepts in a course by using their own
(and their classmates) thinking processes as data. In a Literature Appreciation course, my students
discover what is worth saying about a literary text by responding to a short text with very little
guidance and then comparing and discussing each others moves. In this way, what students did say
becomes a first blush at (and a common resource for) what they might say, and if I use my expertise
to nudge the students toward or away from certain strategies of response or interpretation, I do so in
the spirit of widening our collective repertoire rather than claiming for myself the difficult work of
deciding what good engagement with literature should be. In a course on the teaching of reading and
literature, I have students confront the complexities of censorship and the politics of English
curricula by staging a simulated town meeting in which students research and then take on the roles
of various community constituenciesconcerned parent, school principal, minister, librarian, etc.
and debate the merits of a controversial text and a durable process for selecting and challenging texts
in the towns public schools. Perhaps it goes without saying that the students rise to the occasion of
inhabiting a perspective other than their own, but more importantly, they use the complexities of that
debate as a springboard for considering their own future curriculum development strategies, their
plans to communicate with colleagues and parents, and the ways in which they defend the teaching of
controversial texts. (Please see my sample syllabi and major assessments for more examples.)
While I am outspoken in my endorsement of inductive teaching practices across disciplines,
this sort of student-centered inquiry is a particularly good fit for the English methods courses I teach
to Teaching Communication Arts and Literature BAA students. No undergraduate, after all, brings
more prior experience to a subject area than she brings to a course related to education itself.
Whether to build on students tacit expertise or challenge their assumptions, I organize my classes
around making students prior knowledge explicit and putting that knowledge in dialogue with the
perspectives of peers and researchers. Some of the most productive conversations I have witnessed
about teaching and learning have arisen when students are invited to hold up a theory or teaching
method against their own long experience as students. In some cases, rigorous research or theory
unsettles students ardent beliefs; in others, students bring wise criticism to academic work through
their experience as expert participants in school and community cultures.
This sort of self-reflection is foundational in courses that examine the historical and political
dimensions of English and English teaching, since situating different forms of schooling historically
and systemically also requires students to situate themselves in the same ways. As students come to
see that their own social and educational experiences might have been otherwise, they also see our
educational systemand their identities as teachersas contingent. In many respects, teaching is an
inherently political act; the things I position as relevant to college courseworkand the things I
background as less relevanthave implications for the kinds of thinking students do and the ways
they construct their disciplines and futures. I take seriously my roles as an institutional representative
and a role model within my fields of study, and part of my commitment to the political act of
teaching is to center the pursuit of social justice in everything I do as a teacher. I strive to return all of
my classes to questions about what ways of being and knowing have been dominant, and how, and
why. My teaching and research with diverse young peopleI have taught in and researched inner-
city English classrooms, and I continue to teach at an internationally diverse summer boarding
schoolhelps keep these themes at the center of my teaching, as does the diversity of literary texts
and the social justice-oriented professional texts that I build into my syllabi. All of this leads me to
construct my courses not only around the practices and methods that carry high status in the world
we have, but also an exploration of emerging and underrepresented forms of inquiry that point to the
world we might create.
Finally, I have come to believe that a good teacher considers the roles of his particular
course(s) within his students long-term social, academic and professional development. In this way,
I have benefited from a spectrum of teaching experiences across grade levels, from middle school to
the doctoral level. Many of my students have pointed out that my disposition to empathize with the
dilemmas of being a studentincluding the transition from consumer to producer of knowledge, the
disorienting immersion experience in the language of both humanities and social sciences, and the
too-often tacit expectations professors have for students academic writinghas kept me attuned to
the forms of explanation, support, and patience that help students succeed. A mainstay of my classes
is an examination of assigned readings as models (or anti-models) for good writing. Another is to lay
bare what longstanding historical factors, policy debates, and research conversations underlie
readings and other artifacts we encounter in class. A third is to converse with students in and out of
class about their questions, struggles, and interests. I maintain in myself the same long-term
commitment that I try to instill in pre-service teachers: to be critical anthropologists of ones students
and situate the teacher-student relationship vis--vis the assets that students bring with them and the
struggles that are at the heart of their apprenticeship into literary engagement and teaching.
I have been pleased to find that my students informal and formal feedback on my teaching
has affirmed the major goals that I set for myself: to have an infectious enthusiasm for my students
inquiry into the disciplines of English and education; to organize opportunities for students to
connect academic knowledge to their own experience; to put that experience in dialogue with real
and possible others in ways that raise important ethical and political questions; and to be a resource
for my students in their larger trajectories through the discipline, their college careers, and their civic
and professional lives.