Sunday, October 26, 2014

Mutt Genres: How My Teaching Has Changed



The penultimate prompt for the reflective teacher blog challenge! Home stretch: "How have you changed as an educator since you first started?' I'll take this to question to mean "since I first started teaching". I'll save the question "since I started the blog challenge" for my 31st reflection. 

I've changed in so many ways. Most of those changes are less about doing a 180 degree reversal or flipping a switch from off to on. The changes have been gradual, processional. And I hope, ongoing.  

One big change is my ongoing transition from assigning "mutt genres" to designing "real world" genres. By mutt genre, I mean the kind of writing that only exists in first year (FY) college composition courses, that mutant mash of modes and patterns. The prompts for such assignments often  no where else except a classroom, devoid of context.

I can't think of anywhere else I'm asked to write or read a five-paragraph composition. Even if the topic or inspiration for an FY composition compels students, that formula evacuates any joy students may have felt discussing the book or topic. The format is stale, deadening, and demonstrates less about student voice than their ability to conform. Nor does the format allow us to assess students' ability to make choices beyond fitting square pegs into square holes, round pegs into round holes. 

Sure, I want students to be conscious of form, shape, and structure. But rather than providing a formula or template to follow, I'd rather have students learn to ask the questions about their purpose and their audience, questions that help them make intentional, deliberate choices about particular strategies they use, about the modes they select and manipulate.

Blogging serves that purpose - composing something actually meant for public consumption. I've also come up with scenarios, (semi) realistic situations where students have to compose something for an audience they can imagine, something that doesn't fit the five-paragraph format. I asked students to compose a two-page informative flier to teach incoming students the meaning and significance of "audience". Another prompt asks students to compose and annotate a web page that curates a particular grammar or composition skill. In another assignment, students compose a newsletter article for high school teachers that argues for using pop music to teach rhetoric appeals to apathetic students. 

These example assignments focus on particular content students must understand: audience, grammar, or appeals. Each composition has an authentic audience, and the writing has a purpose. The trick for me is to come up with a thoughtful self-evaluation or meta-commentary where students discuss how they approached the assignments, what deliberate choices they made. I want to know their decisions and intentions and for students to become conscious of those choices and deliberations. 


These assignments allow me to lead discussion about the use value of composition, its relevance and application. Ideally, these kinds of assignments engender more excitement (not a whole lot, but at least not the groans or glazed-over eyes that mutt genres tend to generate). Investment is often higher. And assessing their learning is much easier (and less painful) than slogging through mutt genre essays, compositions I used to assign . . . for far too long!