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Tips for New Teachers #1: Classroom Ethos

posted: 4.28.11 by Andrea Lunsford

In the next several weeks, I will be blogging about issues that are important to all writing teachers but perhaps especially key for beginning instructors.  So if you are a new teacher of writing, stay tuned!

Every year, I get to visit classes taught by graduate students, most of whom are teaching on their own for the first time ever. And before I visit, I get to spend a term with them in a seminar as they design their classes and develop their syllabi. One of the things we talk a lot about is what kind of “ethos” they want their classes to have—that is to say, what sort of atmosphere they want to establish and what relationship they hope to create with and among the students in the class.

How would you describe the “ethos” of classes you have been in?  I think of Walker Gibson’s delightful categorization of discourse into three types: “tough,” “sweet,” and “stuffy”—and I can easily think of classes that fall into each category.  The really tough classroom ethos is one where everyone is on the attack, trying to vie for the best grade or for the teacher’s attention.  The “sweet” classroom might be just the opposite, with all the students loving each other and all their writing. And we all know the “stuffy” classroom—the teacher lecturing or handing out notes, the students trying to stay awake. But most of us don’t want to inhabit such classrooms, and our students definitely don’t want to.

What I aim for in my own classes is an open, inclusive, collaborative ethos that is built on mutual respect. When I team taught a class with Jacqueline Jones Royster, I watched her establish such an ethos early on in our class by putting her cards on the table. “At the end of this class,” she said to the students, “I want you to know that you have something to teach everyone in here, and that includes me. And I also want you to know that you have something to learn from every single person in here, and that includes me too.”

Now what did we do to enact this goal? Some pretty simple things: rearrange the desks so that we could all see one another; establish ground rules for speaking, so that no single person dominated the conversation; appoint a “note taker” for the day, whose job was to summarize all contributions and present them the next day (and to rotate this assignment so that every student had several opportunities to take on this task); engage everyone in the class in designing evaluation criteria for assignments. Some other moves were not so straightforward, like setting up effective peer groups, creating assignments that demanded collaboration and shared expertise, and finding ways to share the knowledge we as teachers had without talking way too much ourselves.

Just as there is no ONE way to teach writing, there is no one perfect classroom atmosphere or ethos: each teacher needs to develop an atmosphere that works well for him or her. Just acknowledging that fact—and then engaging students in talking about how to build and sustain it—is a pretty good place to start.

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