If you stumbled into my Composition I class this morning at the start of class, you would have no idea what class you walked into. My students sat, their chairs arranged in a circle on one side of the room (in what they nicknamed “family time”), and they chatted away the first few minutes of class. Billy shaved his head last night; Adam’s shirt deserved some commentary. Text messages from students delayed by the rain were relayed. Salena, my teaching assistant, and I sat in this circle and participated in the conversation along with the students. Five minutes into class, with most of the students in attendance, I asked a question pertaining to the assignment. My students answered with insightful responses, respecting a peer’s input, listening and waiting for the peer to finish speaking before contributing their own input. This is the type of community building I’ve struggled to build for years, but never before were my attempts this successful, and never before would I imagine this community would show at the start of our third week of class. So how, after almost convincing myself that such communities are a myth, did I make this a reality? I stopped teaching the first week of class (and that is not a hyperbole).
I did not intend to not teach the first week of class; I intended to incorporate some community building exercises and some introduction to rhetorical situations into the first week; however, I changed textbooks this semester and in this change came my happy accident. I planned to start using the textbook during the last half of the second week of classes, so my students had plenty of time to fight lines at the bookstore and finagle financial aid issues. Yet, when I started planning my course, I forgot about the class meetings between “syllabus introduction” and the start of their first project; I left myself with a solid course plan, but several days of empty space. Rather than revise the entire first project planning, I opted to use the first days almost as an extended icebreaker.
I returned to one of my favorite excerpts from my pedagogy class–Kenneth Bruffee’s remarks on students conversing in collaborative writing:
What students do when working collaboratively on their writing is not write or edit or, least of all, read proof. What they do is converse. They talk about the subject and the assignment. They talk through the writer’s understanding of the subject. […] Most of all they converse about and as a part of writing. — Kenneth Bruffee “Collaboration and the ‘Conversation of Mankind'”
I gave a lot of thought to the way I see students converse in my upper level classes. There is a general chatter when I walk into the class, and I can often overhear conversations about a colleague’s class, an upcoming paper, a favorite television show. The community, even among the junior level students, is built across classrooms and among students taking the same classes in addition to my class. It’s easier to form that community when you share the amount of commonalties that students in the same major share.
First-year student have more in common than they realize, but it doesn’t seem they have the chance to explore these commonalities beyond the first, agonizing class icebreakers. Before this semester, I walked into my first-year classes to find 24 students with their eyes trained on their phones, and we all know the complaints we have about students who don’t talk to people in the same room unless that communication occurs through the phone.
For this semester, I planned a series of activities across my three empty days. These activities got the students talking to each other and talking about writing. These classes started with some form of writing. The topics varied from journal entries about how writing is valued by family and friends to anonymous notes about bad experiences with writing. We spent one day with groups collaborating for tweets about writing myths (see #writingmyth on Twitter). Short writings were followed with group discussions, in our circle, there were no notes taken, there was no calling on a student to break the silence, there was no right or wrong answer. Our first class circle was quiet for a few minutes after I posed the first question, but eventually the students came up with something to talk about.
When I introduced the first project, I returned to Bruffee’s remarks, and I chose not to spend 20 minutes talking through the assignment only to answer questions that were covered in the handout. I sent the students home with the assignment sheet the class period before, and I asked them to read the assignment sheet and make a list of questions they had. The next class period, in their small peer groups, the students worked collaboratively to answer all the questions brought by group members. I circled the room, eavesdropping on conversations that found a truth in Bruffee’s words. I heard my students conversing as small groups about the assignment; I heard my students conversing as small groups about ideas they were considering for their project. My students were not only comprehending the assignment, but they were also brainstorming without an assignment to brainstorm.
Monday, we begin our fourth week of the semester. We’ve talked more about their project this last week, but I refuse to let go of our conversations about writing. Next Monday, we talk about the writing portion of the assignment, and I know from my students’ questions today, that there is still a lot of anxiety about the first writing assignment. I won’t tell them writing is easy or hard, and I won’t tell them that they will always fear writing or learn to love writing. What I will do is invite an English major to talk to them, an English major who, like we all do, still dreads the first writing assignment for a new professor or boss. I’ll pose one question to her: What are your fears and anxieties about the first writing assignment in a class? I’ll let her talk, and I will let the students talk to her. I believe that once they realize these writing fears don’t go away, they will be more willing to talk about their own fears and anxieties–something I could never force out of a previous community. But more than sharing their fears and anxieties, I expect my community of writers will come together and offer me some insightful answers to the next question I will pose: How can I help you with these fears and anxieties? I already anticipate that one of my students will reiterate a comment he made in a previous discussion and ask that I “not be an asshole” when I comment on their papers. I cannot anticipate what other input I will hear from these students, but I know that the community we built over the past three weeks is one where these students feel comfortable enough to give me honest input.