Manatees. Cheese. Broomball. Earth day. Canada. What do these things have in common? Well, nothing. Especially when you randomly pair them with dentists, senior citizens, second graders, Congress, and a high school marching band.
But when combined into a first-year composition course for college freshmen, they do create an experience for students.
I teach first-year composition to college students, and I know that we can talk about rhetorical concepts such as “audience,” “purpose,” “context,” and “message,” all day, but until the students grapple and engage with it themselves, it doesn’t take on nearly as significant of a meaning.
I first came across Norman Eng’s work while in graduate school. I was teaching a section of first-year composition for the first time. Like many graduate students, I worried if I was teaching students everything they needed to know. Afterall, I was learning along with them.
One line from Norman’s work changed my perspective on teaching, which is his focus on becoming a facilitator of meaningful experiences. Suddenly, I didn’t need to know everything to be an effective teacher. I just needed to focus on creating relevant, meaningful experiences for students. Now I try to incorporate this into my teaching in some way every day.
Which brings me back to manatees. I used to (and still do, I admit), often focus on what I want students to learn or do by cramming class sessions with informational PowerPoints and providing students with note sheets to follow along. However, I also try to think about what experience I want students to have in the classroom by thinking about a story or situation to frame our lesson around.
For example, one activity that my students (and I) enjoy, involves tailoring a topic to a specific audience. In all writing and activities, thinking about audience is important, but often in an introductory English course, it is difficult for students to conceptualize “audience” as anything beyond their teacher.
To get students thinking critically about audience, and how to tailor a message to a specific audience, I facilitate a creative presentation. I type up the following sample “topics”: manatees, cheese, Earth day, broomball, and Canada. Then I list five sample “audiences”: dentists, senior citizens, second graders, Congress, and a high school marching band. Students form teams and draw one sample topic and one sample audience per group. They are asked to create a three- to five-minute presentation about this topic tailored to this specific audience. I ask them not to share their topics or audiences with other groups. We have to guess when they present. Each group also needs to include a visual component to their presentation, and I intentionally leave this open.
After some head-scratching, funny looks, and a few “Are you kidding?” questions, the groups get to work and begin tailoring their topic presentation to the target audience. I’ll never forget when a group of my students lobbied on the Senate floor for American cheese to be taken off the market because it’s “not even real cheese”, or when a group of students led a high school marching band in a class-sung “Oh Canada.” And the whole class enjoyed when we played Earth Day-themed bingo at a senior citizen home.
It is my favorite class period of the semester. Students laugh and are engaged. Although we talk about audience all semester, we all experience audience in this activity.
Although it’s not possible to replicate this kind of activity every day, I like to open class periods with a short story or thought-experiment when possible. Learning about cover letters and resumes becomes a lot more fun when students visualize their dream job posting and even share with a partner sitting next to them what their dream job is before we dive into the nitty gritty of writing job documents.
3 More Ways “Facilitating Meaningful Experiences” Has Changed My Teaching
I open up with an engaging prompt or video. I teach two courses online, and I used to start each weekly module with, “This module introduces you to…” Yawn. Now I try to include an interesting story or question as the “hook.” For example, our module on “Revising Writing,” opens up like this:
You’re running a marathon. You pass mile 23. Do you give up? Say “good enough, I already ran 23 miles”? No! You keep going to finish your race. The same is true of business writing. You have written drafts of three business letters. Now, here come miles 23 to 26. Time to revise.
I use lots of white space on assignment sheets. I write in short paragraphs and use bulleted lists to organize information because I know many students are accustomed to reading information like that outside the classroom. Major assignments should be introduced in a way that’s easy for students to comprehend. I try to organize the information in the easiest way possible for students to understand, focusing on what Norman calls the “Learner Experience.”
I start every class with “How are you?” and actually listen for their responses. It sounds silly, but sometimes students just want to verbally share that they’re stressed out over a test. It’s a good way to gauge the energy level of the class, too. Sometimes I ask students to turn to someone next to them and check-in for 30 seconds. In early morning classes, sometimes I ask them to jot down whatever is stressing them out and then put it aside. It’s not a perfect method, and I’m sure some students find it irrelevant, but I’ve also had students at the end of the semester say this class felt like a family.
“Become a facilitator of meaningful experiences.” Easier said than done! But it is a question worth asking each day we step into the classroom. How am I creating a meaningful experience for my students today? What will make them grapple, laugh, head-scratch, and sing “Oh Canada” to the Senate?
If you have thoughts or comments, please share below!
Megan Pietruszewski is an English Lecturer at Clemson University where she teaches writing courses such as Technical Writing, Business Writing, and first-year composition. She is interested in writing-across-the-curriculum and implementing client-based service-learning projects in advanced writing courses. Connect with her on LinkedIn.
Love the idea of the class check in. What a great way to support the class and have them support each other
Hi, Erin! Thanks, I’m glad you like the idea of a class check-in. It seems to help build the classroom community. It’s also fun when students realize they are in other classes together and start to ask and check-in with each other about upcoming projects in their other classes (unprompted from me!).
Megan, thanks for your article! It was really inspiring to see how you helped students really get the idea of “writing for your audience” and created meaningful experiences for them. Something I’ll keep in mind. Hope to hear more.
Thanks for your comment, Lauren! I’m glad you enjoyed this lesson. It’s a fun way to build classroom community, too!
Great post and great blog. I teach ESL writing in a community college in the Pacific. If the textbook is the “script,” I’m constantly localizing it to open up more possibilities for relevancy. A big challenge is just to get students to participate, since they are very self-conscious speaking English in class due to the size of the group. My take-away from your post is to liberate myself from the script even more. Thank you.
Megan’s experiences really crystallized the idea to get away from the “script,” as you referred to it. I think a lot depends on the comfort level of the instructor, but at the same time, she gives us a great method we can apply to our own classes!
Hi, Mary, thanks for sharing your take-away to liberate from the “script.” Yes, I love the way you worded that! I used to teach ESL and I understand how some students are timid to speak because of the fear of making mistakes (which is certainly true of native speakers, too!). I love your focus on keeping the class relevant to them. That’s a great reminder!
Totally stealing how you start class!! I never thought to have them tell me how they feel or what is stressing them.
I teach STEM, so I can’t directly use some of what you use, but it does challenge me to think hard about how I can facilitate learning in my STEM class, particularly by making it more relevant to my audience. Bravo! I’d love to have had you as my Freshman Comp teacher.
Hi Pamela, thanks for your kind reply! I hope you see positive results with students checking in with one another at the start of class. In my experience, it helps get them engaged right away. Have fun planning meaningful experiences for your STEM students, and be sure to share!
P.S. You’d probably be interested in this STEM-specific active learning article:
How fun was that exercise? And I was only reading about it! Thank you, Megan, for reminding us about being Facilitators of Meaningful Experiences, where meaning is facilitated by humor and creativity. I’m inspired by how you put your own learning into concrete outcomes that benefit your students.
Hi, Chris! Thanks for your reply to remind us about humor and creativity in the classroom. Yes, I have to confess…much of the rationale for me repeating this exercise semester after semester is that it’s so much fun for me to watch the final presentations! The other students get a kick out of it, too. No group has ever done the exact same presentation!
What a great way to start a class by asking students what stresses them out! You can certainly understand your students better by just listening to them! I also love the idea of us being facilitators of meaningful and relevant experiences. I try to carefully listen to what my students share in class, including their frustrations, and I try to tailor my presentations and class activities accordingly. Go Tigers!