Eric Mills

educator, researcher, internet test-pilot

Teacher Manifesto / Philosophy of Teaching Statement

When discussing the teaching of English language arts, certain key words and phrases proliferate: journey, experience, lifelong, citizens; terms that directly accentuate the commitment of instructors to impact upon the student much more than ordinary grammar and stylistic conventions. In a foundational philosophical and literary text, Thoreau comments on a similar responsibility of scholars. He says they should not just study life, but earnestly live it from beginning to end. For my purposes here, I take this thought to mean that scholars should combine active study with active life: concurrently reading the world’s great books and “the great book of the world,” as Descartes called it in 1637. The life-long journey of English / language arts, which through recurrent experience produces critically active citizens, is one of integration.

Accordingly, my classroom conduct is less of “one who traditionally pro-fesses,” and more of one who fesses neither pro nor con—I strive to remain neutral when beneficial and assume intransigence when necessary. I agree with Peter Elbow’s statement in Embracing Contraries that all teachers ought to be “both abundantly inventive yet toughmindedly critical.” I find that a workshop atmosphere works. In each class meeting, I integrate and facilitate large group, small group, student to student, and teacher to student time. Students are, after all, each unique. Therefore, no one method or pedagogical approach will work universally and I borrow techniques from any insightful source.

On the “abundantly inventive” side of things, the role of the instructor transcends the responsibility to produce effective users of the English language. Or rather, the road to cogent writing passes many other vistas en route to concise prose. It is my explicit mission to attend to these other responsibilities without losing sight of language arts’s telos. These responsibilities include, but are not limited to, organization, inquiry, quandary, habit, routine, vision, re-vision, and above all critical thinking—qualities of productive academic citizens. High School students are unaccustomed to questioning traditionally held assumptions and beliefs. To train them in this area is my primary goal. This training is not a one-sided process, but is achieved as much through peer encounter as it is gleaned from the instructor. The “abundantly inventive,” then, pertains to students as well. Middle school habits need to be dispelled, and high school / university habits need to be “invented,” as David Bartholomae might say. My class functions as a community space where such an invention can occur. As high school citizens are formed, writing is continually produced and revised. Thus, thinking and writing co-evolve in my English class.

This co-evolution is where the “toughmindedly critical” side of my teaching enters current discussion. I assign texts expecting students to actively engage at all levels of learning: reading, reviewing, discussing, presenting, and formal writing. I compose assignments that are designed to offer various strategies for thinking and organization, and various means to address issues of vocabulary, audience, and purpose. Continual devotion to one technique, such as expressivism or social constructivism, is not only boring, but “is more likely to produce solipsists and paranoids” than citizens who can contribute positively to their community.

My thoughts on teaching literature run similar to writing. I lay emphasis on close reading, group discussion, interpretation, and reflection. Again, the class community contributes as much to the understanding as the instructor. Lectures are minimized and seen only as an introduction designed to serve as a “launch pad” for discussion and critical analysis. Integration plays a key part in literature courses, too. I seek to situate each text in its social and historical context to illustrate how it comments upon and reflects cultural conversations of the time. Contemporary culture, then, can also be added to the conversation to reflect historical resonance and definition. For this reason, I view the onset of the Internet as positively productive, promoting communal understanding and communication. I implement online bulletins, blogs, webquests, discussions, and email as essential tools in my classroom; familiarity with current technology is necessary. In this venue, students are able to convey complex thoughts not only with class members, but ostensibly and hopefully with the world at large.