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Methods, Non-methods?

This post is written by James Davis, NCTE’s P12 policy analyst from Iowa.

JamesDavis1At the 2015 NCTE Annual Convention in Minneapolis, immediately after a morning session on writing for the Conference on English Education’s Writers Who Care blog, I ran into a former student. Reminded that I had not worked with him in the Teaching Writing methods course (which I usually teach), I asked Brian about how our work in Creative Nonfiction contributed to his teacher preparation. I found his initial response intriguing: “It was a major source of mentor texts – my own writing – to use with my high school students.” We discussed instructor and peer responses to his drafts and subsequent revisions polishing those texts he now uses as “mentors”; these responses and workshop practices contributed to his current practices and allow him to share the processes behind mentor texts. Our use of nonfiction readings in the course, which deliberately expands students’ awareness of a less familiar genre, reinforced the potential of using reading to fuel writing, including in a writing workshop – timely for him, considering the recent emphasis on including nonfiction in secondary schools. Experiences in and products from this non-methods course enrich the apprenticeships into which Brian can and does invite his students.

Three weeks later I met with English teaching majors who had attended the NCTE Convention, in part to encourage them to write for the CEE blog, especially about the convention experience as part of their teacher preparation journey. I shared points from the chat with Brian. One student leader pointed to her Creative Nonfiction course portfolio as pivotal, coming as it did at a crucial decision point in her career and enabling her to process her choices through writing. Her writer’s notebook, started in Creative Nonfiction and continued daily for more than a year now, along with posts on the course eLearning site contributed greatly to her sense of self as a writer, a characteristic we should encourage in each of our English teaching candidates. Others among the five students in this course echoed the importance of the relationships they developed with writing itself, and with a writing group, as preparatory to becoming teachers, integrating a growth mindset into their sense of teacher-as-writer. They were also transitioning into an understanding of writing-as-teacher in field experiences, initially through reflections on practices observed and applied, but also through recognizing larger arenas of school practice and policy in need of teacher attention, even advocacy. Some students appreciated seeing “bumps” in our workshops and how I addressed them, such as peers not preparing for response sessions or responding in ways inconsistent with the spirit of the workshop – or not responding at all, including the reflective postings expected on eLearning. One referred to these frustrations as offering “advanced experience” with workshop pedagogy.JamesDavis2

Such discussions with fine future teachers provoke questions, especially since our secondary English teacher preparation occurs in an English department in a college of humanities, arts, and sciences in a medium-size regional university with a prominent state service mission. We often seem to interface awkwardly with the College of Education preparation our students report. We know future teachers critique, at least silently, the pedagogy they experience in their preparation program; they also scrutinize practices encountered in courses in their disciplines. That “teachers teach as they were taught, not as they were taught to teach” has long held some currency, so perhaps we should ask some questions more publicly. For example:

  • What fit might we expect—or fear—between college literature course pedagogy and the experiences that middle and high school students have with literature?
  • What kinds of student writing are called for by the practices of literature professors, and how does that writing subsequently affect the writing that secondary students are asked to do about literature?
  • What uses of electronic access to information infuse college students’ learning, and how do those uses translate into subsequent practices in secondary schools?
  • Can blog “threads” (for example, the recent online renewal of contention over grammar instruction, or definitions of argument and persuasion) engage methods students in current discussions of pedagogy and with issues they will encounter as new teachers?
  • Does their program as a whole position future English teachers as informed self-advocates rather than as compliant followers of scripted programs and users of status quo practices?
  • What if our pedagogy across all courses in our department reflected our conscious intent to transform teaching in the secondary schools from which we receive 90% of our students?
  • What if we engaged in a serious conversation about why and how to do so?

Jim Davis began teaching in southwest Missouri as an NCTE and affiliate member, attending his first annual convention in Milwaukee in 1968. Now in his 50th year in our profession, he teaches English education and directs the Iowa Writing Project at the University of Northern Iowa.