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Teaching Freshman Composition -Getting Started
Curriculum, Vol. 1, June 1989
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Teaching Freshman Composition-Getting Started
Choosing A Text Book and Setting It All Up
Determining what I wanted to do sent me on to the next step: finding
a structured textbook and creating a syllabus that would provide such
skill-building. Colleagues were most helpful in offering options, but I
learned the hard way that nothing is more paralyzing to the new instructor than information overload. So I just decided to work with a text and
syllabus recently used by a more experienced instructor.
Following a preset syllabus as a framework allowed me to focus my
time more on the assignments and the actual preparation of lesson plans
and materials. There just wasn’t enough time to agonize over what text to
use and what content areas to cover.
The use of a more structured text was a plus in another way as well: it
did some of the work and planning forme. Seasoned instructors who are
comfortable with both the material and the method of presentation can
work from a more open-ended text or no text at all. For a new instructor,
however, difficulties come in learning how to lecture, how to initiate and
sustain class discussion, and how to motivate and keep interest in assignments that students may not wish to do. So, the more prep time devoted
to familiarizing myself with course materials, the better.
As a last comment on the value of a structured text, I am never
comfortable with ambiguity, and my fears about effective presentation of
material were allayed somewhat by knowing exactly what to cover in each
class meeting,
Hand in hand with a textbook selection was choice of method. Again,
colleagues in the department pointed to the success of the portfolio
method which views writing as a “process,” The portfolio method allows
students to prepare multiple drafts of each assignment and submit them
to the instructor for comment and revision. No grade is given until a final
copy of each assignment (with all previous drafts attached) is submitted
in a portfolio. Students have praised this technique for allowing the
chance for improvement prior to final submission of the work.
Most likely, no method will succeed, however, unless the course
objectives and requirements are clear. A syllabus designed to achieve
Writing Amss the Curriculum (June 7 9891
these aims will focus the course. Vital information such as required texts
and materials, grading, and attendance policies must be clearly outlined.
Individual class assignments should then be listed. Ordinarily the syllabus will be less structured as the semester progresses.
Some Caveats
No textbook, syllabus or amount of preparation can speak to the
unexpected. Each class of students is different and requires renegotiating
and thinking on your feet. However, here are some well-tested thoughts
I gathered from more experienced instructors:
Be sensitive to the fact that writing is a difficult skill to perfect.
Allow sufficient time to learn techniques and to practice them.
Everything takes longer than you think, and squeezing in too
much material can overwhelm and discourage students.
Be prepared to expect a wide range of student skills and preparations. The variety will require that you adjust your materials and
the pace of your classes.
Be consistent. If you say one unexcused absence is allowed, be
sure that is all you allow. Classroom decorum disintegrates
quickly when students perceive the instructor vacillating on policies and procedures.
Be sure to communicateyour expectationsto the students; also be
sure to find out what the students' expectationsare. If you require
students to keep a journal in the course, this would be a fine place
to ask them to communicate their expectations.
Be aware that conducting class discussion is tough on
a new
instructor. Know your textbook and your material well; being
comfortable in the classroom depends on it. Build slowly, including more discussion as instructor and class members become
more comfortable with one another.
Teaching Freshman Composition-Getting Started
As A Last Point...
Remember that someone has been there before you. Colleagues are
usually more than happy to offer suggestions and sample materials.
Indeed, a faculty member is usually pleased to be approached as one who
knows the craft.
Bonnie W.Epstein is the Assistant Dean of Academic Affairs. She has recently
became an adjunct to the English Department where she teaches freshman
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