When I was a child, I used to line up my beanie babies in rows and give them spelling tests. They were great spellers. As I grew older, I started designing other types of assignments to give my imaginary human students; the beanie babies had long since graduated. Now, as I head into the last stage in my PhD program, I have experienced what it is like to design courses for real students — for individuals who come into my classroom with different lived experiences, with different academic expectations and goals, with different reasons for taking my courses.
The dynamics of teaching might have changed from those years I spent imagining my future work in academia, but the time I’ve spent in the classroom has made clear that there is so much that can be accomplished semester-to-semester, both as a student and as an instructor. Facilitating student success is not a simple matter, however, so I approach designing each of my courses with certain set properties in mind.
- First, I account for different learning styles in my major course assignment designs. My students work on academic writing assignments, creative writing assignments, recall assignments (reading quizzes and such), individual and group projects, assignments with visual components, and presentations.
- Second, I provide students with course resources on the class’ website, including a weekly and daily breakdown of homework and class assignments, PowerPoint lectures, and supplementary readings/viewings. I believe students should always have access to vital information provided in-class, not only for those students who are unable to attend each class session, but also for those who need additional time outside of class to more fully understand the material.
- Third, I divide class time with activities such as lectures, small group activities, student-led discussions/presentations, and whole-class discussions. I believe diversifying the ways students receive and interact with coursework can help them not only better understand the class material, but also their own learning process.
- Finally, I provide digital class discussion forums so that students uncomfortable with sharing during in-class discussions have the opportunity to share their thoughts and insights via an indirect, but still valuable, activity.
Diversifying the types of assignments and activities that take place in my courses is a major goal of my course designs. Additionally, however, as an English instructor, especially an instructor of children’s and young adult literature (ChYALit), I also take quite seriously the need to provide my students with diverse representations of important identity markers – such as race, gender, sexual orientation, class, (dis)ability, family-dynamic, and religion — as they read and watch the required fictional texts in my classrooms. The “literature as windows and mirrors” metaphor by Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop is often discussed amongst children’s and YA literature scholars and instructors. And while I do work to include potential “mirror” literature in my courses, literature in which students can easily identify with characters because they are so similar to themselves, I consider including diverse “window” literature more central to my course designs.
There is no guarantee that my students will have the chance or interest in reading or watching literary texts in which the protagonists experience life quite differently due to identity markers that my students do not have or perhaps do not even see in their lives outside the classroom. Considering the importance of acknowledging and studying social, cultural, and historical contexts when studying literature and its many adaptations (for me, in film, television, and fandom, in particular), including a diverse required reading/watching list along with diversely-styled assignments seems the optimal combination to aim for when approaching the designs of all my courses.
As a final note, while I require ample reading material in my children’s and young adult literature courses, I believe including popular culture adaptations and fanworks in the classroom is vital, as well. Not only are these texts often visual or multimodal in nature, providing avenues for teaching multiple forms of literacy, but they also demonstrate that literature is not static, but always evolving, and children’s and young adult literature in particular has become a major aspect of popular culture and the entertainment industry. I believe discussing and analyzing these texts in the classroom can help students see the prevalence and influence of ChYALit, and doing the same with fanworks shows them that they have the agency to interact with the works they read/watch in and outside the classroom. My hope is that students leave my classroom with the knowledge that not only do literary texts and adaptations influence their lives and the lives of those around them, but that they can influence these works themselves and as such influence their lives and the lives of others.