Each fall semester, we offer our second year graduate teaching assistants the opportunity to complete some additional professional development as part of their teaching practicum: to prepare to teach one of our undergraduate literature, film, or professional writing courses. Following several weeks of observing experienced instructors, discussing pedagogy, and drafting a syllabus and assignments, some will apply to teach their chosen course in the spring semester. As the spring semester comes to a close, Latrice Ferguson (MA ’19) shares below her reflections on teaching a section of ENGL 355 “Literature for Children,” a course required for students in Elementary Education and an elective for English majors, minors, and other students.
One of the student learning outcomes for ENGL 355 is that “students develop critical skills for reading, thinking and writing about children’s literature.” At times throughout the semester, I wondered if I was successfully helping my students fulfill that outcome. By the end of the semester, though, the final assessments illustrated how much the students in the class had grown in the way they discuss children’s literature.
Even more rewarding was their new appreciation and respect for Children’s Literature. In multiple critical reflection essays, that were paired with their own creative work for children, students mentioned how they have a new respect for children’s illustrators and authors. They communicated their difficulty creating unified text and image for picturebooks, in telling a story with limited vocabulary for easy readers and making comics that use icons and symbols effectively. All felt a new appreciation for the work that goes in to creating stories for children. A few even asked for suggestions for what they should read next. After some early stops and starts, the class discussions grew more complex and more students engaged in the debates and critical conversations. They seemed to have more fun as the semester progressed and I, in turn, had more fun teaching.
I think I owe that transition to asking my students what they needed from me to make our classes more engaging. Their answers reminded me of two pieces of advice I received from Professors Anne Phillips and Naomi Wood.
Dr. Phillips told me that I while I should choose titles that I loved for my course syllabus, I shouldn’t expect that students will feel the same way about those titles. Second, Dr. Wood told me that I should remember that my students are undergraduates, some of whom haven’t taken college level English courses. She said that I would have to teach them how to discuss literature by asking specific guided questions and practicing talking about language, character, plot, etc. with depth.
In my eagerness to share the wonders of children’s literature, I completely forgot the advice given to me by much wiser and more experienced teachers. However, what my students needed was for me to remember what they said. I had to find a way to make them at least appreciate texts they found boring (even though I couldn’t understand how anyone would find the texts I chose boring!) and learn how to talk about children’s literature.
Once we got over that hump, sometime around February, everyone seemed to relax and enjoy what was happening. It was like a sigh of relief that took some pressure off everyone.
Among my favorite days was the debate we had to discuss Rita Williams-Garcia’s One Crazy Summer. The debate heated up when we discussed the main character’s mother, Cecile, a much-disliked character throughout most of the text. Is she a good mother to her girls? A simple question with an incredibly complex answer. Additionally, we had great conversations during our popcorn discussions (thanks so much to Dr. Westman for the discussion format) that decentered me and encouraged participation from everyone. It excited me to hear students bring up texts from earlier weeks to put in conversation with other texts. They remembered the Week 1’s ideologies about immoral, romantic, and tabula rasa childhood and applied the concepts to texts later in the semester.
Teaching ENGL 355 was incredibly rewarding and forced me to remember how young I am in teaching years. The course went well, but I’m glad to reflect on ways to make it better. I’m invested in growing and developing as a teacher. I’m happy the course went so well, but I’m even happier that I had so many people in the department who were in my corner cheering me on and giving me advice. The faculty in the Children’s Literature Track supported me, helped me, and encouraged me throughout this entire semester. I had such a great time teaching this course!
— Latrice Ferguson (MA ’19)