What is the goal of a teacher? To cover material; to produce results? Or to instill a genuine love of the subject? For me, as a teacher, appreciation and experience are key. My pedagogical philosophy centers on creating an active and engaging classroom environment.
As my background in teaching covers university classes on literature and language as well as creative writing at the middle school level, I want to address these different aspects of my pedagogical approach. In my work teaching and as the Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment Director of WriteOn NYC, I work with New York City school children. I also prepare MFA creative writing candidates for careers in teaching and non-profit work. In my role as a teacher for WriteOn, my primary goal is to make literature more accessible to kids, both as readers and writers. I mention this work because it informs how I teach at the university level as well. With students from financially poor backgrounds, art and literature represent an emotionally rich way of life. Creating—whether it is by writing or by speaking—is an educational path to communication and interaction with the world. I see teaching writing as fundamentally teaching communication.
Teaching Italian, then, is teaching a communication with a part of the world a student may never have experienced. The Communicative method is a natural mode by which to steer students toward speaking. My university students and my adult learners come into my classrooms with different expectations than my middle school students. I find that many of them arrive thinking that I, from on high, would bestow knowledge upon them and they would absorb it as though through osmosis. For some Italian students, rote learning is what they were used to in their high school classrooms. And my adult learners were so used to apologizing—”I’m sorry, I’m really bad with languages.” So many of them were afraid to make mistakes.
I hear that so often—everyone is so concerned with doing things the right way. This is the primary difference between university level and middle school learners. Children are often more willing to experiment. They are fearless. With both sets of students I push them to pursue any path that comes into their head. Play. My students learn through play and through “mistakes.”
As such, I have a much more process-oriented class than most—polished product is secondary to playful pondering. “Risk taking” is a part of almost every assessment rubric I use (and it’s become surprisingly easy to assess risk taking because my students will tell me what they think is “impossible”). My classroom is a safe place to “mess up.” Eventually the bumpers come away; the world will do that for everyone. But what the world will never do is simply hand out a job, a novel to write, or an Italian book to crack open. Students have to run at it, leap, and see where they land. My students make their own work, their own mistakes. Discussions in my classroom are high energy and exploratory. They relearn to practice play in their artistic process. They reflect on what they’ve learned in the textbook and are encouraged to articulate it, refine it, and apply new vocabulary and grammar to their thoughts.
My philosophy extends to myself, and I let my students know that at the beginning of the semester. I become a better instructor with every class I teach. My classes are often spontaneous; if something I’ve laid out isn’t working for my class, I throw it out and give them something different that will. And repeat. My syllabus is a living document that can grow and change, even in the middle of a course (we’ll call it course correction). Above all, everyone involved in my classes (including me) comes away with an ability to communicate that will help them grow in the world. My philosophy is to provide access to the power of leaping off metaphorical cliffs into the vast unknown and the excitement of communication with “foreign” languages, texts, and ideas.