Building Classroom Community

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Mission: Making Interdisciplinary Writing Fun

In Fall 2015, I taught four sections of an interdisciplinary junior level writing intensive course, ENG 305w: Writing in Disciplinary Communities.  Knowing that many students were in the class by requirement, and not by choice, I made it my goal, my mission to create an enjoyable classroom environment to increase student learning and engagement.  To do this, I employed numerous pedagogical strategies, two of which are detailed in the paragraphs below. I conducted pre and post surveys to measure my success, and the results demonstrated that I was highly successful in my approaches. Overall, I discovered that the use of these pedagogical approaches helped students to develop a sense of community within the classroom, and this community was one of the primary reasons why the course was effective and, as some students remarked, even “life changing.”

Interdisciplinary writing teachers, particularly those who teach required courses, need to face the fact that many students don’t enroll in the class by choice. Only a handful of students choose to take a junior level, writing intensive interdisciplinary writing course, such as ENG 305w. Many students don’t recognize or care about the value necessity of having strong writing skills, and are uncomfortable writing. Often these students are afraid to write because of past experiences where they may have been told that they were not good writers. As such, they have negative feelings about the course requirement and about the course itself. These are the constraints, the “beliefs, attitudes, documents, facts, traditions, images, interests, motives,” etc. that Lloyd Bitzer describes in The Rhetorical Situation (qtd. In Lucaites, Condit, and Caudill 222). To circumvent these constraints, interdisciplinary writing instructors employ various pedagogical approaches to encourage and engage such students.

On the first day of ENG 305w this past fall, I surveyed students to identify their preconceived notions about their junior level interdisciplinary writing experience. Specifically, I asked what thoughts the phrases interdisciplinary writing, junior level writing intensive, and Writing in Disciplinary Communities elicited. Many responded with the expected answers: time consuming, difficult/challenging, lots of writing, required, strict, and rigorous. And one student even said “painful.” This puts interdisciplinary writing instructors in a tough spot; we must make a continuous effort throughout the semester to engage and motivate students who see writing as unrelated to their majors and/or who have experienced negative writing experiences in the past. On the survey, students also ranked how enjoyable, interesting, and relevant they thought the course would be. Not surprisingly, most students didn’t think the course would be fun or interesting.

How better to overcome such negative attitudes or constraints than to make the course fun: to try to create a class that students look forward to attending? This was my mission for ENG 305w in Fall 2015. Throughout the semester, I employed numerous pedagogical approaches to help me accomplish my mission. Two of the highlights included:

  • A game based achievement system where students earned badges for various accomplishments that aligned with the course goals and objectives in their writing and class discussions, as well as badges for correctly answering writing trivia questions. I introduced this as a fun way for students to work toward the course objectives and to increase their knowledge of writing related principles. Students were presented with a mission to earn five badges to receive a discussion pass, which dismissed them from an online written discussion. Even with a written discussion pass, students were still expected to complete the required readings and to participate in our in person discussions to ensure they were meeting the course requirements. The trivia questions mostly included random English facts, English history, and grammar questions from course lessons. It wasn’t necessarily the questions themselves, but rather the fun, the play associated with trivia that engaged many students. I asked the questions at random times during most class meetings: sometimes at the beginning to start the class on a positive note, sometimes mid-lesson to liven up the atmosphere, and other times during or after work time to re-engage the class. Trivia really caught on and students started asking for trivia questions and even bringing in trivia questions to me as the semester progressed. Most students enjoyed the challenge, and by the end of the semester, nearly all students received 1-2 discussion passes for online written discussions.
  • Student led learning, where in groups and individually, students led discussions and presented lessons to the class on various grammar topics, and our course readings. The course readings, including selections from various textbooks, scholarly articles, websites, and TED talks, covered a wide range of issues from culture to science to food to community. During our student led discussions, students approached the readings through their individual disciplines Students were active participants in their own learning, as well as in the learning of their peers. Through the lessons and discussions, each student developed a unique role in the classroom community. Students became resources for their peers. Within our community, the discussions gave way to a casual (yet appropriate), relaxed, and—in some cases—humorous atmosphere. For example, during a student-led discussion about food (GMO’s, sustainable agriculture, etc.), several students ate bugs (by choice, of course) in class after watching Marcel Dicke’s “Why Not Eat Insects?” TED Talk. Though seen as “gross,” the incident became a lasting source of humor throughout the semester. During discussions about culture, students shared stories about their unique cultural backgrounds and experiences, sometimes leading to emotional, but eye-opening conversations. Students reacted positively to our student led discussions and lessons, and students enjoyed coming to class to share and learn from each other. Students shared laughs, frustrations, and even tears as a result of the topics addressed in our course readings and the individual experiences that students shared during discussions. Our classroom was a safe space. An enjoyable space. A community.

These approaches helped students progress toward the ENG 305w learning outcomes. For example, through the achievement system, students earned badges for their own work in applying their knowledge of genre to address audience expectations; analyzing and acting on understandings of audiences, purposes, and contexts to communicate effectively; and applying knowledge of language, images, and design to writing, research, presentations, and designs.

Student led learning, including students presenting grammar lessons and leading/participating in discussions, supported nearly every ENG 305w learning outcome. Notably, through discussions about the course readings, students discovered the impact of social, cultural, and historical contexts on personal expression and the reception, comprehension, or study of texts. The effectiveness of the achievement system and student led learning was enhanced by their correlation with the course objectives.

Mission Complete

Did I successfully achieve my mission? Overwhelmingly, the post-surveys say yes. Nearly every student ranked their actual overall experience in ENG 305w to be more fun, interesting, enjoyable, and relevant to their discipline and career than they anticipated. In fact, most students among my four ENG 305w sections ranked these areas as above average. Also, many students had more positive responses than they initially had about their interdisciplinary writing experience, such as “fun,” “pushing—in a good way,” “mind opening,” and “helpful.” So, I did something right.

Initially, I thought the achievement system and student led learning would be the keys to making the class successful, but in retrospect—through my own reflection and reading through feedback from my students—the class was successful because of the community we formed. Making the class fun and enjoyable was just one small aspect of creating this positive community. Based on my experiences and observations, the best way to foster a sense of community in an interdisciplinary course is to make the classroom a place where students want to be; a place where students are encouraged to think critically and to share their thoughts about new and important issues; a place where students are free to take risks, to fail, and (most importantly) to recover from their failures; and a place where students have a teacher and peers who encourage growth and success. Creating an achievement system and having students lead class lessons and discussions are two approaches that can help cultivate this type of community.

Next semester, I plan to survey students to learn which specific pedagogical approaches were most effective in creating a positive class experience. Stay tuned for my next blog.

Works Cited

Bitzer, Lloyd F. “The Rhetorical Situation.” Contemporary Rhetorical Theory: A Reader. Ed. John Louis Lucaites, Celeste Michelle Condit, and Sally Caudill. New York: Guilford Press, 1999. 217-225.