The goal of learning should not be correctness, but exploring and questioning one’s own way of thinking, and, if necessary, attempting to dismantle the bias within that thought.
This is a philosophy that I repeat to my students at least once a week in one form or another. I’ve had students come into my class with the belief that there is only one way to write and consume information inside the classroom. This way of thinking can be easily debunked with a Visual, Aural, Read/Write, Kinesthetic (VARK) quiz revealing the dozens of diverse minds that can occupy a singular learning space. A quiz I was often subjected to before coming to college. I walk into my classroom each and every day with this knowledge that there are more than a dozen young intellectuals who are actively hoping that our learning space provides them with the proper formula to excel in my class and possibly others, particularly when it comes to writing.
Questioning/Dismantling: How do I begin to dismantle a system of learning in 16 weeks that my students have spent 15 or so years mimicking? This practice of dismantlement mostly comes up during my class’ discussions of what ingredients make an essay. At the beginning of a class analyzing the essay “Greens” by Kiese Laymon, my students were stumped by my question: “Is this an essay?” One student asserted that Laymon’s musings were not an essay strictly because his detailing of his eating and mental disorders “felt like a story.”
“Does an essay not tell a story?” I asked. To this some of my students earnestly insisted that an essay’s job is to make an argument. “Do essays have to directly make an argument?” I pestered further. “Or can they inadvertently make an argument by trying to explain a person’s way through a situation?” This is my favorite “game” to play with my students. The endless question game. I cannot attest to how much my students enjoy it but I find that after some time it urges them to question their previous definitions of professional and effective writing.
I’m eager to use my classroom as a forum to question my own beliefs about writing and ask my students to do the same given the growing hostility among some toward critical thinking and self-evaluation. A resistance of self-evaluating introduces the rabbit hole of mental and social stagnation, a fact I continuously remind my students of.
Reassurance: It’s important that students concentrate on exploring their ideas and those of their classmates as not to label their own products of writing as incorrect. I bring this point up specifically in reaction to a student’s concern that I would be grading her on her opinions as opposed to how well she designed her thoughts on the page. This student’s remark was in response to a class assignment I gave halfway through the semester which asked the class to write to me what their biggest fears were coming into the class, and if these fears had subsided. It is common in my classroom to sporadically give students a prompt that asks them to consider how and if the class is working for them. Given the number of years I’ve been out of composition courses, I’m aware that I may not always be attuned to what my students need.
Reflecting back on English and writing courses in which my professors were looking for some magical phrase in my class responses or some hidden message I wasn’t properly hitting on in my papers, I understood why my student had this concern. In this moment I wanted to reassure this student, and the rest of the class, that any teacher who is worth their salt encourages their students to form opinions and constantly question why they hold these beliefs. Although it is true that one can completely miss the mark on a text, such as the story of The Tortoise and the Hare being interpreted as a narrative about why tortoises and hares can never be friends, my goal with students is to show that because there is no one way of learning, and no one way of interpretation, there is in turn no one way of producing and structuring the written word.