In 2016, I had the good fortune of being nominated for an “Honoring Our Professors’ Excellence” award at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where I am a PhD candidate and a graduate instructor of English. Aria, a student in one of my first-year writing classes, nominated me for the award because, as she wrote, “I never felt stupid or wrong in his class. He created such an inclusive environment and I was able to do some of my greatest work in his class.” I believe this deeply gratifying and humbling award from Aria, and my overall success as an English instructor, can be attributed to the impact of ecological thinking on my pedagogy.
My teaching approach stems from a decade of K-12 and six years of university teaching experience in diverse, multilingual, and international contexts. These experiences have led to a dynamic, ever-evolving approach to teaching has been significantly informed by various ecological theories of education, including Ecocomposition, Ecoliteracy, and Ecojustice. These ecological-informed approaches have led to a fundamentally shift in my pedagogical orientation toward what ecologists call systems thinking. That is to say, I perceive literacy, learning, and life to be constituted of complex webs of relationships with other living systems. Thinking, writing, and knowing are therefore collaborative and communicative, as ecological theory prefers interconnectedness rather than “centric thinking.” In the classroom, this means that I approach learning through relationality. I question the hierarchical position of “expert” in the teacher-student relationship, and I refuse to view students as empty vessels. Rather, I seek to facilitate and coach learning by creating a supportive classroom ecology: I am one of many unique learners, and we all work together as a network to share, create, and explore knowledge. My non-hierarchical approach helps to explain why Aria “never felt stupid or wrong” in my class.
My refusal of “expertness” does not mean that my classes are not rigorous. In a regular class meeting, students actively engage with complex questions, sharing and comparing their ideas and experiences with one another in various forms, modes, and genres. We work to further deepen understandings by connecting our knowledge across course readings, films, interviews, out-of-class fieldwork, and guest speakers. Learning in my class occurs via complex relationships within a diverse classroom community that also expands beyond the classroom walls: a web of relations and knowledges shared between students, between myself and my students, and between our individual and collective ways of thinking as they relate to our particular places, institutions, and environments. This is likely what Aria means when she describes our classroom as an “inclusive environment.”
Whether in first-year writing or in upper-level English Education courses, I employ an ecological approach to literacy that emphasizes process over product. That is to say, I encourage students to explore learning and writing metacognitively, considering how these dynamic processes involve recursive patterns of growth and change for them in our course and throughout their lives. Students’ work is not understood or assessed as a fixed, final product, but the writers—and their writing and learning—are seen as complex, active processes that cannot be fully understood by quantitative measures. Rather, I seek to read and understand student learning holistically, as facilitated through metacognitive process memos and portfolio-based assessments. Also, whenever possible, I look for ways to meet one-to-one with students throughout the learning process, employing writing center tutoring techniques of collaboration, conversation, and dialogue. My process-oriented approach, I believe, contributed to Aria’s belief that she was able to compose some of her “greatest work” in my class.
In fact, context and interrelationships inform our work together even before the course begins. My curriculum and planning work starts with an interdisciplinary understanding that knowledge and ideas are not limited to fixed fields or approaches to meaning-making. My own scholarly research connects aspects of literacy, critical pedagogy, writing studies, rhetoric, qualitative methods, social theory, and ecology. Therefore, I begin by selecting widely-applicable themes to inform my creation of assignments and selection of diverse texts that will connect to students’ funds of knowledge. In first-year writing courses, my students’ writing has been informed by studies of food, sustainability, and digital technologies. Currently, I teach a capstone methods course for English teacher candidates. This course focuses on English curriculum and assessment organized around the overlapping topics of climate change and the environment. Together, we collaboratively read and write ecocritical curriculum around personal essays, Cli-Fi literature, Shakespeare, and documentary films. Aria’s course with me in 2016 involved an in-depth study of life writing: writing memoirs, interview-based profiles, essays on the “truth-value” of autobiographies, and multimodal presentations on contemporary memoirs. Such thematic teaching offers an ecological way for students such as Aria to build pathways from prior knowledge into new areas of inquiry, guiding academic research and writing across a wide range of fields and discourses.
A teacher’s pedagogy expresses to their students far more than the specific content of their class. This “hidden curriculum” reflects a teacher’s ways of thinking and being in the world. The quote cited above from Aria indicates to me the value of an ecologically-informed approach to teaching and learning. Aria expresses that my valuing of the processes—the means—of learning and writing together were just as important as the products—or the ends—of our work together. These processes involve attention to context, conversation, and connections, and a deeper appreciation for the mysterious web of relationships of which we are all a part.