Teaching in the 21st Century

Traci GardnerTraci Gardner, known as "tengrrl" on most networks, writes lesson plans, classroom resources, and professional development materials for English language arts and college composition teachers. She is the author of Designing Writing Assignments, a contributing editor to the NCTE INBOX Blog, and the editor of Engaging Media-Savvy Students Topical Resource Kit.

Aligning Composition with Student Interests

posted: 5.22.12 by Traci Gardner

The connected learning model relies on the power of aligning an educational context with student interests to foster their need to know more about the topic and about the skills they need to accomplish their goals. In the simplest terms, a student learns more when she’s studying something she’s interested in. While this idea is rather basic, the educational results can be quite powerful.

I was lucky enough to teach a first-year composition course in the mid-1980s that focused on the rhetoric of war. Admittedly, the topic was not one I had any deep ties to, nor that one I would have chosen on my own. I took on two sections of the specially-themed course as a favor.

I was not an authority on the topic. I hadn’t even reviewed all the texts for the course before I began teaching. I had to work to keep up with the readings and the films that the class watched. I designed the usual kinds of assignments and activities, which I have documented in a List of Ten and in my blog post Assignment: Naming and the Rhetoric of War. Frequently, the students in the classroom knew more than I did about historical battles and current military events.

Despite all the reasons the course could have gone wrong, I found myself with some of the most engaged students I have ever taught. Their personal interest in the topic made all the difference. Students had signed up for the course because they were interested in exploring the topic, so they came into the classroom ready to dig into the texts.

By contrast, the overwhelming majority of students signing up for first-year composition courses had no details on the courses they were choosing. Instructor names were usually absent from the course listings. There were no clues about the readings or context that the teacher would provide. Students simply signed up for a slot that fit their schedule and hoped for the best.

The specially-themed Rhetoric of War course gave me something I had never had in the composition classroom before: a group of students who cared about the topic and were eager to learn more. The same content would not have worked with a different group of randomly selected students. The personal connection between the students and the topic were undoubtedly the reason for the course’s success. As the connected learning model describes, students’ interest powered their engagement and learning that term.

I know that my experience was unusual. In most programs, first-year composition classes do not allow the kind of advertised focus that my Rhetoric of War course benefited from. The reality of trying to move students through a required course makes it difficult to advertise and support a range of course themes or educational contexts. That hard fact is what I’m struggling with this week. How do you find a context that will interest a class of students when they are randomly assigned from a broad demographic group?

As I wrote earlier this month, I understand how to use course design to make the class more relevant to students, but I’m still trying to figure out how to choose a context that can connect to every student’s personal interests. Holly Pappas’s idea of student-selected reading could allow students to follow their interests, but I have to confess that I’m not sure that I have the stamina to keep up with so many different reading options and contexts. I know myself as a teacher, so I know that I need to think of a specific context that will align reasonably with the interests of all my students. So far, I’ve gathered this short list of possibilities:

  • American Dream (or dreams more generally). Most students have some dream for the future. That’s why they’re in college, after all. Asking them to explore, poke at, and rethink their idea of success and the American Dream could provide common ground.
  • Common Experiences. If students have all read a common book, that reading could be the basis for a shared context. Alternately, connecting to special events on campus (like special speakers, film festivals, or live performances) could provide a shared context.
  • Local Issues. Students will have (I hope) some connection to campus or local issues. University initiatives (such as school service projects or recycling efforts) could work as a context for the course. Local history or current events might work as well.
  • Majors. I’ve taught a “writing in the disciplines” composition course before. If students have decided on their majors (a big if), the course can give them the chance to learn more about their future profession. My experience is that most students are eager to talk about their majors, since most first-year courses focus on basic requirements rather than the nitty-gritty stuff they hope to do when they graduate.
  • Pop culture. Students usually have some tie to popular culture. They may love comic books, reality TV shows, romance novels, or professional wrestling. The challenge of a pop-culture focus is the wide range of options. Finding topics that appeal to everyone may be difficult.
  • Gender, race, and ethnicity in cultural texts. Students could choose any texts or topic to explore that they like, but we explore all the texts with a common filter like the portrayal of gender differences. The analysis could easily expand to include sexuality, class, education, and so on.

Will one of those options create a context that interests students? I think any of them could. The challenge is to choose the one that would provide the best chance for personal connections for all the students in the class. I’m not sure any choice will be as successful as that Rhetoric of War course, but I’m eager to find something that will work with the connected learning model.

Do you have a suggestion? How do you create contexts that will lead to personal connections for students? Please share your ideas and recommendations. As always, I’d love to have you join me at the next connected learning Webinar session, or you can leave me a comment below or drop by my page on Facebook or Google+.


[Photo: USMC Iwo Jima War Memorial at Night, World War II, Veteran Soldiers, American Flag by Beverly & Pack, on Flickr]


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One Response to “Aligning Composition with Student Interests”

  1. Gina Maranto, University of Miami Says:

    I’ve been lucky to teach in (and for a while lead) a program that has a first semester centered on inquiry and a second semester themed course. As you say, the themed courses help create a community in which students have an inherent interest in the nominal topic of the course (although sometimes at my university it works out that students don’t have a choice due to a shortage of seats at a time and day that works with their schedules).

    But I’ve found that it’s equally possible to foster a generative ecosystem in the first semester inquiry course as well by choosing broad framing themes. The ones you suggest are great, and others I’ve worked with are the impacts of social media, students’ relationship to technology, the changing economics of attention (framing the course around readings related to Lanham’s book of the same name, and including countervailing themes having to do with materiality).

    I think student engagement has been boosted most through two elements–blogging and assignment design. In addition to more “formal” assignments, students blog 6 or 7 times during the semester, and are asked to comment on one another’s blogs. Bedford’s Nick Carbone has, over the years, given our program terrific grounding in how to foster productive student commenting. Students chose the topics of their blogs–the prompt is quite broad; we collectively produce a rubric; and I’ve experimented with both required and optional commenting. Students know what their classmates have written and bring that knowledge into class discussions (I use the same approach in content-based courses) and group work.

    The other element is having students design their own assignments. Out of a semester of five assignments, I often have students write two. We do it in class in teams, refine the language of the assignments, and then select one or more as options and develop a single rubric based on where we are in the semester–so I am evaluating all the papers (or mashups or videos or whatever is produced) for the same set of outcomes related to our inquiry curriculum.

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