Principled Practices at Work: Pedagogy

I try to keep “curriculum” and “pedagogy” separate when I discuss what I do in the classroom: it makes things a little easier to follow for someone who isn’t familiar with how I teach.  But, obviously, pedagogy and curriculum influence one another pretty heavily, and so you’ll see a great many traces of curriculum at work in my description of pedagogy, and vice versa.

My pedagogy has five components to it: foregrounding student language; having multiple means of participation; frequent, small-group discussions; mobilized feedback; and curated artifacts.  These five components of my pedagogy mobilize the curricula I teach through my teaching principles.

Foregrounding Student Language

As you can see in my curricular practices, generating language is important for the classes that I teach.  In terms of pedagogy, this means that I engage in daily work to foreground student language in our discussions.  This has a couple of different “looks” to it, and can be anything from avoiding appropriating students’ words to making sure that we have a shared document of student writing to work from when we are engaged in the work of the class.

Multiple Means of Participation

Participation is important—as Inoue (2019) points out, you can’t learn without labor, and that labor will always have some impact on the classroom.  But not all students like to speak to the class as a whole.  Not all students like to speak in small groups.  Not all students like to share their writing publicly.

With enough options, however, I can make sure that students have a chance to have their say in the classroom.  It might be infrequent.  It might be just a note or a sentence here or there on a document, or a comment on the board, but it will still be there.  And with that means of participation can come the important developmental moments that students need.

In any given class, then, students will have the following means of participating:

  • Anonymous samples of texts that they’ve written and submitted before class;
  • Writing comments and thoughts in a shared Google Doc, or on the board;
  • Participating in small group work (2-5 students) at least once;
  • Participating in a large group discussion at least once;
  • Adding to the notes and documents after class; and
  • Writing up events from our meeting in an email to the class.

With so many opportunities to participate, then, students can both participate in ways that they are comfortable with and take chances outside of their comfort zone when they are ready.

Frequent, Small Group Discussions

Though I use a wide range of classroom activities, small group discussions are at the heart of my pedagogy.  It’s in these small groups that the key insights, the central aspects of our goal in any given class meeting, emerge.  Often, the design of my classes lead students into and then back out of the central activity of small group work.

These group discussions are sometimes planned out in advance (in any given class, at least one of them is) and sometimes a response to the flow of our other class activities.  So, if I decide that students need some time to think about a particular aspect of a problem we are working on, I’ll pose a question to them, give them time to write about it, and then give them time to talk about it in a small group before we get back to a whole class discussion.

I’ve come to embrace the idea of frequent, small group discussions largely because of their flexibility.  The duration of the discussion, the size of the group, the questions discussed, the outcomes we are aiming for can all vary widely, but I can also have some specific procedures for how to move into and out of small group work that creates efficient use of class time within that variety.

Mobilizing Feedback

Far too often, I see teacher feedback being disconnected from the work of the classroom.  It’s like the student is writing a paper (and receiving a grade and feedback on that paper) in parallel with the rest of the course: the paper and the class activity never seem to meet.  And, if they do, the connection is indirect.

I aim to help students to mobilize their feedback in preparation for the next assignment or the next activity.  Here’s the pattern to how this often works:

  1. Students complete an assignment and submit it a day or so before our next class meeting (time enough for me to respond to it.
  2. I respond to the feedback electronically (my go-to for the past few years has been through Google Classroom) and hit the “return” button before class starts.
  3. At the start of class, I give students an overview of what we’ll be doing today.  Then I give them several minutes to read my feedback and do some writing about how they can bring those comments to bear on the work we’re about to do.
  4. At the end of class, I give them another few minutes to think about how they could take my feedback and the work they did on it into their next assignment.

This is a pretty generalized pattern, of course, and there’s a fair amount of variation that goes into it.  But you can see, in even in such a generalized pattern, how my feedback pulls students into the next activity and assignment.