Finding the Balance (or lack there-of)

I am teaching ENGL 150 this semester, it’s an Iowa State University Communications (ISUComm) foundational composition course.  One thing that makes 150 unique is that it has a place-based theme, the idea of helping the students get to know Iowa State University.  Now, I really like the theme because it really works with the students holistically, working with their very likely homesickness as well as their writing.

Yet, one problem that I have is that I am struggling with finding the balance.  How do I teach the students communication skills while working on the theme as well?  Balance has never been my forte, so I thought that I would reflect on that.

The reason that I am reflecting on this is because all of the readings for my Social Justice Rhetorics class this week are on pedagogy.  One of the readings was on sending the students out to work with different organizations.  But the one that stuck out to me the most was “Empowering Rhetoric: Black Students Writing Black Panthers” by Gwendolyn D. Pough.

In it, she shares that she used Black Panther Party documents in a class that she taught.  She had amazing discussions and eventually, one of her students wrote an opinion piece for the university newsletter that criticized the lack of diversity of the University of Miami in Oxford, Ohio.  That piece was then supported and demonized by many fellow students at the university, thus beginning a conversation about it.

Eventually, a bunch of students decided to respond by creating the Black Action Movement (BAM) and being activists for social change.  They came up with a list of demands and Pough recognized that many of the same rhetorical moves that BAM made were used by the Black Panther Party.  So, by simply offering a bunch of readings surrounding a similar topic related to social justice (Black Panther Party documents), the students were able to comprehend what they did successfully and do it for themselves.

So, that’s the recap of the article.  But now, how would this look in an English 150 or 250 classroom?  Well, that’s what the rest of this post is going to be on.

My obsession is disability studies and I think more people need to know about it, so I would use documents from the disability right’s movement (both past and present) to begin a discussion on social justice.  It is possible that not many students are going to be a part of the disability right’s movement.  This is actually a good thing because for every document we read, I can ask them to generalize what they read to other movements that they may be a part of.

But, I just don’t know if that is strong enough—if that is good enough.  Because what about that balance?  How am I teaching composition?

Well, one of the things that I accidentally came up with was task days (I don’t know what to call it besides that.  On Mondays, we have a composition day, a day where we compose something or begin composing something with computers.  On Wednesdays, we have a discussion and analyze a text that may relate to the theme or may relate to what we are working on that week.  On Fridays, we have an activity or discussion that culminates what we have been working on that whole week when I ask the students to reflect.

So, maybe a classroom with a social justice reader would be possible.  Mondays would be a composition day where I focus on a different composition strategy each week (e.g., brainstorming, how to read critically, how to reflect), Wednesdays we do an analysis on a disability right’s document, and on Fridays, we do something that combines the composition strategy with what we read.

Maybe that would work, but is it focusing too much on the theme or is it focusing too much on composition?  I would be interested in reading any theory or article on how to teach a course that has a theme in it because I’m not sure if I’m doing it right.

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One thought on “Finding the Balance (or lack there-of)

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  1. I think this sounds like a good idea and you should try it. What about adapting the literacy narrative assignment that Pough uses in relationship to education and access? I’ll let you know if I come up with other ideas. Finding balance during your first year is a major endeavor, I think. Try to be patient with yourself.

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