Submitted by Jeremy Morris, English
A few years ago, I had the opportunity to join one of Harper’s first Communities of Practice. Our CoP focused on creating a model of extended development in Reflective Teaching and Pedagogical Philosophy. It gave us the opportunity to reflect on what had shaped our own teaching strategies. This culminated into the realization that for many educators we are conditioned and shaped by our own previous teachers and mentors.
Thinking back, I reflected on the principles that my teachers had elicited and how these concepts had manifested into my own. I learned that there’s a meeting place of encouragement and criticism that needs to happen in the classroom. This balance is very important as you must give enough encouragement for the student to continue through the complications of craft, and at the same time, criticize appropriately so that the student doesn’t lean on bad writing techniques or clichés. A distilled version of this is what one of my teachers, Malena Morling calls an “appropriate response,” which could be delineated as compassionate yet critical, encouraging feedback. It seems that quality learning starts with this “appropriate response.”
For me, finding this balance of encouragement and criticism is key. I believe that a learned intuition of push, pull, and praise can be critical to facilitate learning. With this approach as teachers, we may then execute a controlled learning environment for the student learner that is less of an academic lesson and more of intellectual discovery.
I’ve been fortunate enough to see students successfully develop within this paradigm a few times, however one circumstance has created an ever-present impression on me. While teaching an Introduction to Poetry course at Harper in 2017, I had a student that gravitated towards the course early on in the semester. I could tell that the intellectual eagerness was there, along with the attentiveness. The student engaged with the material analytically and creatively. As the semester progressed her essays expanded cerebrally from common observation to that of scholarly interpretation. Further, what I didn’t expect was for her creative side to expand into an explicit literary craft. After finishing a unit on formal poetry I gave the assignment to write a formal poem of their own.
Upon grading these assignments, I was struck by this student’s poem for both its emotional resignation and capacity but also for its mastery of intricate form called the Pantoum. I wrote in the marginalia to “Please submit this to POV (Harper’s Student Creative Journal).” At first, the student was hesitant, but after praising her for the quality of the piece and offering critical insight she obliged. A few months later we received word that she had not only been chosen for the magazine but that she had been chosen for POV’s prize in poetry. The semester ended on a high note, but as always, it ends and students disperse back into their own lives with occasional campus waves.
That following Christmas I received an email from the student saying that she had framed the poem and gave it to her mother as a gift. She confirmed that her mother loved it and that it hangs on their wall. Sometimes as teachers we must think more like gardeners. An open hand is fertile soil. We must place a seed in the palm and then water it. We must also teach the students how to water it for themselves. Then, as always, an evening will come and we must close the hand. If we’ve done our job that seed will bloom and continue on.
If you have a student success story that you would like to share with the Reflection on Student Success Community of Practice please contact Steven Titus, English, at the following email for more information: firstname.lastname@example.org.