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Bruce Matsunaga's
Teaching Philosophy
"A Work in Progress"

My teaching philosophy is titled "A Work in Progress" because I believe that as I reflect on each class and the lessons that I both presented and learned that day, I add to my reservoir of experience and slowly incorporate those lessons into my philosophy. When I first started teaching, I was given books and a syllabus with little instruction. I relied on the models of teaching that I had experienced as a student with varying degrees of success. What I learned from that experience was to reflect on what I did in the classroom and why. When a lesson worked, I wanted to know why. When a lesson failed, I desperately wanted to know why. I approached teaching, then and now, as a student of teaching. My text became the interaction between my ideal world (my lesson plan and goals), my presentation of the lesson, and the class's response.

I tend to approach teaching as I do any meaningful project in my life: I attempt to connect the theoretical with the practical and reflect on the results. Whether I am working with students or working on my bicycle, I like to examine not only what I am doing but also the why. I need to know a little about how a bicycle works in order to tune it properly. I believe the same holds true for teaching. I am constantly examining what I do in the classroom and why.

A good example of my approach is how I use freewriting in the classroom. I tend to agree with Peter Elbow's assessment of freewriting as a "paradigm of the real and the utopian," in that it provides a space for students to discover what they know and think without the concern for "good writing," but that it also is a self-consciously created space that is allowed by the authority of the teacher. There is a sense of dual ownership in that although the teacher authorizes the space, the students have the freedom to fill the space with their own content. On another level, freewriting in my classroom is a place for students to begin to discover their situatedness in culture, but it is also a place for them to ask practical questions about the class and reflect on what we are doing in class. I give students the option of asking a question in their freewriting, and I find that they often answer their own question by the end of their writing. I see freewriting as a space for students to reflect on themselves and the class, in order to find out what they know and think.

It should be clear from my freewriting example that much of my approach to teaching is centered around encouraging and instructing students to accurately reflect on their learning so that they can teach themselves. This approach works very well in the writing classes that I teach, but I believe that this approach would also work with most any subject. When students are trained to reflect on their work, they can use this ability to analyze anything. Reflection becomes a way of performing critical analysis that can be carried with them after their experience with me is long past. If students can leave my class with the ability to reflect accurately about themselves and their work, then I think they have taken the first steps towards lifelong learning.

In order to facilitate students' honest reflection, I try to manage the class in a way that allows for freedom of expression while maintaining a non-threatening learning environment. I spend a good portion of the first week of classes doing "icebreaker" type workshops, because I want to get to know my students and I want them to know each other. I also think it is important to be supportive of students particularly the ones I meet in my first year composition classes. I don't attempt to be a counselor, but I do take the time to learn my students' names and to take a genuine interest in their lives. I encourage students to come to my office, I correspond to them through email and I treat them like the adults they are and will become. This has many benefits to the students and the class: retention can be increased in students who are new to the university and the area since they will feel that they have a link to their new environment, and the effort pays off in the classroom because students are more likely to respond if they perceive that the teacher has an investment in the class and their education.

I don't want to portray my classroom style as a hug-fest. I establish expectations and goals early on for students, and I expect them to be mutually responsible for the achievement of those goals. I expect them to come to class prepared and be ready to work. They come to know that much of the content of the daily class depends on their input.

This style of classroom management has other rewards as well. I remember how concerned I was at the end of my first semester teaching101. I wasn't sure how to bring the class to a proper sense of closure. I created lesson plans and a workshop on the final reflection letter, but I could not come up with something that properly expressed how I wanted to close the course. I felt that this class has really pulled together as a group and I felt connected to each of them. Appropriately, some members of the class brought cameras and cupcakes to class addressing my concerns. Many of the students expressed how sad they were going to be now that the class was ending. I knew that many of the students had become friends with other students in the class. One student commented that she enjoyed the class because it was one of the only classes that was not a "huge lecture class." Other students agreed and commented how they didn't know anyone in their other classes. We went around sharing what we liked or remembered about the class. Everyone had something to say and many responses were memories triggered from another student's response. A waste of time? Hardly. Since their final project was a reflection letter, this unplanned workshop was perfect since it naturally lead into a more detailed discussion of specific things the students learned about themselves and their writing.

Although I consider that experience unique, I think that the design or flexibility in design allowed that moment to happen. The students had to feel that they were truly sharing this class with me and were responsible for its content. In many respects, my students and I shared that class as a set of new beginnings. They were embarking on the beginning of their university experience having learned some of the techniques of academic discourse, while I was at the beginning of my journey as teacher learning from them.

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Page Contact: bhm@asu.edu  
Last Update: April 24, 2005