Teaching Tips: The Merits of the Workshop in ENG 1020

By: Sean Renkert

Far and away, the most successful, productive activity I have implemented within my single section of ENG 1020 has been the workshop. During week 10, I asked every one of my 22 students to write down what they considered the best, most effective usage of class time. Overwhelmingly, “workshop,” “time in class to write my essay,” “individual writing time,” etc. were the top choices. I currently teach a single section which meets for 55 minutes a day, three days a week. Time, therefore, is compressed; being able to effectively address relevant content, enable the students to question this delivered content, and finally allow enough time to enact and synthesize the content into the five primary projects, is a tall order.

During Project #1, with it being my first semester as a G.T.A., I focused largely on presentations, lectures, visual aids, etc. Essentially, I felt the need to always be talking or addressing some facet of the rhetorical analysis essay. This became tiresome and, as I became more comfortable within the classroom, I devised ways to “break up” the compaction of my own voice within each 55-minute segment. Beginning with the I-Search project, it appeared necessary to allow students time to brainstorm ideas and interests and so, the individual-based workshop was born, at least in my class.

My approach is simple, so simple in fact that I spent the first couple of weeks of Project #2 worried that I was pulling one over on the university due to the fact that I had a productive class of 22 students, all working on their individual essays.  I checked in on this strangeness repeatedly by walking up and down the aisle between the long computer desks, and found that indeed, students were working on what they were supposed to be working on, and doing an able job of it. My own input in this process is very pro-active in that I am constantly checking in on their progress. 90% of the time, I will see a hand raised and will go over and spend anywhere from 1-3 minutes with the student. There will always be short 2-3 minute pockets where seemingly nobody needs help.

I workshop almost every class period. My basic template looks something like this: say it is week 1 of I-Search. I block out that week to work on brainstorming ideas and working on parts 1 and 2, the intro (What I Know or Think I Know and My Motivation to Write). So, Monday would be brainstorming and would be comprised of having the students make a list of potential interests along with questions and sub-questions. Wednesday and Friday then, are for the two parts of the intro. I prompt this by offering this incentive to the students: by completing these sections in class they are basically constructing huge swaths of the first half of their essay, which leads to less at-home work and more importantly, much less pressure on the final weekend the assignment is due. This last point was one of the main problems I heard after Project #1 and, I feel, this rush or lack of class-time led to lower rhetorical analysis essay grades. I could be wrong, but the I-Search was a great success, grade-wise, and I attribute most of this to the workshop.

Also, music is a HUGE factor in this scenario. I cue up Spotify and will randomly ask a student to pick an artist, then play that artist for 10-15 minutes before having someone else pick the music. My classes run smoothly, with minimal interruption. I feel like I have built a pretty awesome classroom community and I attribute this sense of community and comfort, in large measure, to the fact that I get out of their way and allow my students to work on their own.

Author’s Note: Sean Renkert is currently a Ph.D. student in Wayne State University’s literary and cultural studies program. His current focus is on early modern British literature with an emphasis on Shakespearean Drama. His research examines the intersections of Shakespeare studies and philosophy, specifically object-oriented ontology, vitalism, and ecocriticism. 

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