It’s time for my first real post. And so I decided to write about one of the most creative things I’ve done in the classroom.
I taught Moby-Dick.
OK, so that doesn’t sound terribly creative. But what I mean is, I taught Moby-Dick. That’s what we read for 14 weeks.*
This was when I was a graduate student at UConn, learning how to be a teacher. I was teaching a section of Freshman Writing, where you make your bones as a college-level English teacher. And one of the best parts of the grad program at UConn is its commitment to pedagogy and the chance to take risks and be creative. So I was pretty happy when I pitched my idea to the Director of Freshman Writing and he encouraged me to go for it.** And in retrospect, it was one of the most creative things I have ever done in the classroom.
Why? First, most Freshman Writing courses work with multiple readings; in part because the students will be working with multiple writing projects, in part because many people teaching Freshman Writing (from what I can tell) use it as a place to teach lots of things that they love. Lord knows I have done this in the past as well. The previous semester, most of the students noted that we read too many pieces, spent very little time talking about them, and they felt that I rushed through the semester. So I decided to take things slowly. Very slowly. And we read one book over 14 weeks. Granted, it’s a rather long book, especially for non-major freshmen. And yes, many students found the book very challenging at first. But the benefit of reading one book over 14 weeks is that we could slow down when necessary. Some chapters posed serous problems to the students, and others raised a host of questions. And by the end of the semester, some chapters just fascinated them. And because we spent more than 3 months on this book, we had the time to slow down and work through all their issues in detail. Slowing down allowed me to address concerns, questions, or even just spend time exploring. It was eye-opening.
Though it may seem obvious (I assure you, it was not at the time), I learned that when we spend more time on the reading, we can explore the text in more depth. And when we explore the reading in more depth, the students get more out of the work…and end up writing better. (Yes, in addition to the reading, we spent time on the art of writing; you know, the goal of the course.) The students were better writers because they were not rushing through the reading. If one day’s reading was particularly challenging, we could address it again the next day. I had built in enough time to allow us to do just that. By the end of the semester, the students were writing very strong essays. Some of them worked with the same issue/theme/etc. in multiple papers; others tackled something new with each assignment. Of all the sections of Freshman Writing I have ever taught, this one is the most memorable, and not just because of the reading. The students, as a whole, produced the most complex and engaging writing I have ever seen from freshmen. This is because they had time to really think about what they were reading.
So what did I learn? I learned to slow down. Sure, some of my courses (especially senior-level courses) involve a great deal of reading. (Just ask my students from last semester’s Historical Fiction class.) But my intro-level courses do not. That semester at UConn taught me the value of slowing down.
Was it creative? You bet it was. No, I wasn’t employing the latest high-tech devices, social networking sites, or any of the various kinds of readings often used to “reach” college freshmen. And while it may seem obvious to experienced teachers (in the way it seems obvious to me now, 10 years later), at the time it changed how I think about my classes, how I structure my classes, and how I address the concerns that students have with difficult readings. But most importantly, I learned how important it is to try new things in the classroom. And not just for the sake of trying something new.
Oh, and if you haven’t read Moby-Dick yet? Please change that. Find a comfortable chair, sit down, and take your time. Trust me, it’s well worth the investment.
*We read a second book for the last week of class, In Search of Moby-Dick, but that’s not relevant for the rest of this post.
**In the future, there will be more posts about Prof. Tom Recchio, one of the most inspiring teachers I ever met.