Joy in the Essential Components

A yellow background with the words "Joy in the Essential Components" embossed in purple and white.First-year writing courses through the University of Connecticut have six essential components that undergird the entire class: (1) course inquiry; (2) field research; (3) studio pedagogy; (4) multimodal composition; (5) information, digital, and media literacy; and (6) reflective writing. Over the last few blog posts, we’ve been assessing how Gholdy Muhammad’s four aspects of historically responsive literacy can engage in feedback and the habits of practice. For this blog post, we’ll be considering Muhammad’s fifth aspect, joy, developed in her book Unearthing Joy, in relation to each of the essential components and how they might be used to create a joyful experience in the writing classroom.

For Muhammad, joy is not simply happiness or a rush of endorphins; joy is uplifting “beauty, aesthetics, truth, ease, wonder, [and] wellness,” forming “solutions to the problems of the world,” and finding “personal fulfillment” (Introduction). A fun classroom can be a part of bringing in the aspect of joy, but the real work of joy comes in developing purpose and passion. In the writing classroom, this could mean encouraging students to form a relationship with writing that shows them how it can affect the world around them and their own selves. 

Joy in Inquiry

Course inquiries guide each version of first-year writing, giving enough railing for students to be pointed in the right direction but also enough room for the students to guide their personal inquiries and learning. In the baseline syllabus for the Storrs campus, the collective inquiry is, “What does an education do?” For the semester, readings and discussions are based around education, but each student develops their own questions and lines of inquiry in relation to the class’s guiding question (or questions). “What does an education do?” is broad enough that it can expand to fit each student’s questions.

Students can find joy in inquiry by discovering their own passions and interests. The inquiry is meant to allow a student to follow their own wonder, developing their writing projects as answers to their own questions. With the educational inquiry, for example, a student who is passionate about mental health might lead out in asking questions about mental health in education and how it can be improved, while a student who is passionate about sports and fitness might use their writing and research to uncover ways of integrating fitness more into the classroom. In this way, all the students are learning about education and what it does, but they are pursuing their own inquiries. This solo pursuit supporting a group inquiry creates an atmosphere of finding joy in discovery—whether that discovery is your own answers or someone else’s in the classroom.

Additionally, a collective inquiry for the course allows students to discover alongside each other new voices and projects that are pursuing similar work, if perhaps at a scale larger than the course itself. As students dive into the archive, read up on their chosen inquiry, and learn new things, they find joy in finding out that they can put their voice alongside the voice of those in a chosen scholarly field and those in the classroom around them. Inquiries—both individual and collective—mean that knowledge is growing within the classroom atmosphere and with those in the discipline.

Joy in Field Research

First-year writing is meant to support students developing a wide range of skills that allow them to practice the philosophies and methodologies forwarded in discovering, learning, and researching. It is meant to help students think about how to solve problems and develop their writing on their own. A lot of answers can come from books and articles, but answering questions sometimes requires more than just reading. Sometimes it requires students to do field research.

Field research develops different approaches to questions and finding answers. While the skills of close reading (or listening) and good note-taking are important to field research, field research also encourages students to think critically in the moment. If, for example, you have a project built on the Humans of Education project, in which students interview people in the field and discover what their opinions are, the students will discover that they have to think quickly in the moment of the interview—especially when the person doesn’t provide a lot of in-depth information that can be collected and curated into the final project. This quick-thinking can bring joy in a student’s work because they’re having to stay engaged in the conversation and not lose any threads of thought while talking. Juggling between the different ideas that must happen when performing field research adds a purpose to the execution of this essential component.

Joyful Studio Pedagogies

Studio pedagogy is meant to be fun! It encourages creativity and messiness and messing up and doing things wrong and failing and also winning and finishing and being proud of making. All of these things can evoke joy in our classroom. By getting messy—from using glue sticks and poster board to remixing work through Canva or Adobe Express—students engage in “active and accessible learning, play, design, and digital literacies.” But even more, they get to see what’s possible and how they can all find different ways of sharing ideas and finding those ideas in what their peers make. Joy in studio pedagogy also comes from engaging in projects as a group, developing talents alongside each other and seeing how other people think.

Joyful Multimodal Compositions

Students participate in multimodality on a daily basis. As they scroll through social media, walk around a grocery store, or watch a television show, they are experiencing multimodal compositions. Multimodal composition reflects how the world around us has changed from one in which we get information from ink and paper to one in which we learn and communicate through small rectangular black boxes that bring video, images, and sound to the palm of our hands. Being able to participate—even make a change through—this method of communication and interaction is an important part of multimodal composition; it’s meant to not only ask students to think outside the box but also to analyze and rhetorically understand outside the box too.

Joy in Information, Digital, and Media Literacy

While information, digital, and media literacy is about learning the skill of navigating the library system, it’s also about learning how to assess and understand what is being presented to us in our information overload society. How does one take time out of their scrolling to answer the age-old question, “Why”? This form of literacy teaches the skills of academic research—diving into library databases, grasping how to read an academic article, and developing an approach to learning more about an article’s research genealogy. It also helps students form a deeper understanding of what they are consuming—from TikTok videos to informational YouTube videos to Instagram posts to news articles—and how to learn more. This exploration can bring joy into the classroom by exciting students about different ideas that are all around them. 

Reflective Writing for Joy

Reflective writing can be used in many parts of the first-year writing classroom—from self-assessment of an assignment to preparing thoughts for a discussion to starting a writing assignment. Self-assessment reflective writing can be a way for students to find joy by discovering a truth about their own writing process. When students engage in reflective writing to help them prepare their thoughts for a classroom discussion, they are untethered from having to have a clear, coherent, and polished presentation and can engage in the joyful process of wondering and exploring ideas. 

HRL in the Writing Classroom: Intellectualism & Criticality

A fuzzy, colorful background of yellow, blue, and red is overlaid with the words "Historically Responsive Literacy: Intellectualism & Criticality."In the last two posts on Gholdy Muhammad’s historically responsive literacy, I focused on the first two of four aspects she puts forward in Cultivating Genius: identity and skills. I offered possibilities for how those two aspects might be considered in light of our habits of practice. Now we turn to the last two aspects of HRL (intellect/intellectualism and criticality) along with some concluding thoughts on this series of posts.


Intellectualism, for Muhammad, is about understanding things and knowing how those things affect the world around someone. It is knowledge, and it is knowledge in action. A person with intellect is someone who understands the information they’ve accumulated through an education and does something with that knowledge to better the world around them. 

In many ways, Muhammad’s approach to intellectualism could be brought into conversation with the habit of practice “contextualizing.” To contextualize writing means to put it into relationship with what is happening around it. It is an acknowledgment that writing doesn’t happen away from or without culture but that writing is the very middle of what is happening. 

Muhammad does warn: “I find that intellectualism can be minimized in schools as the focus shifts to skills and test prep” (Ch. 5). Intellect is more than learning how to do something; it’s also about learning why to do something and why we learn how to do it. Muhammad uses the following example to illustrate her point:

“As an example, teachers should teach students on the subject of ‘What does mathematics mean?’ I asked this question once to large group of high school math teachers, and no one knew, but they all saw the importance of learning the ways mathematics is defined. Mathematics (like all content areas or disciplines) has a rich history, and the ways it was conceptualized has changed over time. Teachers ought to teach the history of their discipline . . . as an intellectual endeavor.” (Ch. 5)

We can apply this example to the writing classroom. “What does writing mean?” The answer will be different to each person and their understanding of the history of writing, but there are specific ways writing has been used throughout history—for instruction, for communication, for philosophy, for personal thought and record, for history, for procedure, for propaganda—that Muhammad invites us to bring into our classrooms. 

We might consider teaching the history of a multimodal project. How, for example, did social media come about, if we’re asking students to make a TikTok video? We could also talk about how social media can be used for data collection, political influence, and social change and ask students to reflect on their experience with social media and their reasons for making certain choices in their project creation. 

One way this pursuit of intellectualism could be brought into feedback is through a modified peer review. Have students partner up with another person creating the same type of multimodal project. The student peer then writes a short response to the peer’s work. What historical contexts or concepts do the students see in their peers’ works? How does their peers’ works engage in a broader conversation around that media? In providing feedback attuned to the context and engagement a multimodal project is doing, students will gain a deeper understanding of how their writing and other people’s writings are in conversation with others—or how they might be able to bring their work into more conversation with others.


Criticality encourages people to take an anti-oppressive stance in their activism and writing about the society around them. Because there are various forms of oppression in society—sexism, racism, etc.—criticality encourages rooting them out, interrogating where, how, and why they are, and pursuing a way toward a just future. It creates a “transformative purpose for change and liberation” (Ch. 2), recognizing that in this world, we all face oppression and subjugation. 

When providing feedback, we might use criticality as a way to push our students to apply their writing more to an engagement with the world around them. How, we might ask the student, does this part of the essay or multimodal assignment invest them in helping to improve society? It may not cause a great change or the end of oppression, but it is a small way—within the community they’ve grown up and within the community of the classroom—to oppose oppression.

Criticality could also be used as a way to provide guidance in peer review. Muhammad writes that criticality includes “reading print texts and contexts with an understanding of how power, anti-oppression, and equity operates throughout society. Criticality enables us to question both the world and texts within it to better understand the truth in history, power, and equity” (Ch. 6). Along this vein, we might consider having our students read each other’s work and respond to the following questions:

  • How does this work understand and negotiate power?
  • How does this work oppose oppression and encourage equity?
  • How does this work question the world around us?
  • How does this work improve our understanding of history, power, and equity?

While this might not work with every writing assignment, it could lead to interesting conversations between students about the application of their written and designed work.

Conclusion to Cultivating Genius and HRL

Muhammad’s work in Cultivating Genius has given us four specific aspects to think about and consider in relation to the various concepts used in the first-year writing classroom through the University of Connecticut. These ideas have helped us analyze how we might expand our use of the habits of practice, the essential components of the FYW classroom, and feedback and response to our student writers. 

HRL reminds us to think about how we are encouraging our student’s to use their entire being to develop themselves as thinkers and engagers in the world. How, HRL asks in the first-year writing classroom, might we use this writing project or that multimodal assignment to affect the world around us? This effect might not be grand or large—each writing assignment does not need to change the entire world. But HRL does help us focus on how a writing assignment might affect two or more students in conversation with each other about a topic or assignment. 

By asking ourselves how each writing assignment encourages identity formation, skill acquisition, intellectual engagement, and criticality opposed to oppression, we integrate into our pedagogy a way of making each assignment and lesson applicable.

Questions to Consider About HRL in the Writing Classroom

Muhammad invites us to think about how we might reframe and reassess our lesson plans. Identity, skills, intellect, and criticality are all things we are emphasizing in our teaching of writing, but by using Muhammad’s new vocabulary and historically influenced approach, we might see new ways we can highlight different aspects that can support our students’ writing.

Muhammad offers four questions around the four aspects of historically responsive literacy (qtd. from Ch. 2):

  • Identity: How will my instruction help students to learn something about themselves and/or about others?
  • Skills: How will my instruction build students’ skills for the content area?
  • Intellect: How will my instruction build students’ skills for the content area?
  • Criticality: How will my instruction engage students’ thinking about power and equity and the disruption of oppression?

    To end this blog series on Cultivating Genius, I want to leave you with some questions to consider in your writing classroom:

    • How does your feedback to students invite them to expand their own identity?
    • How do your interactions with students engage them in developing their skills?
    • How might a peer review session increase a student’s intellect? How can you point to that in the post-peer review lesson?
    • Are your students thinking critically about their own writing and their peers’ writings? How can you model that for students? How can you invite them to question each other in a way that is inviting and increasing criticality?

    On Feedback and Encouragement: Three Reflections

    I really enjoyed sitting in a room with so many of you and feeling your enthusiasm and deduction to education. Because I am new to this position, I wanted to create a conference in which the experience in the room was shared between each teacher. There is so much knowledge within the many years of classroom teaching that combine when we all get together, and I hoped that in getting us to reflect, converse, and engage with each other, we were able—and continue to be able—to utilize and share that vast amount of wisdom.

    For our Fall 2023 Conference, we had an animated conversation about feedback and how we provide it to students. The conference favored an egalitarian approach to learning about feedback, focusing on sharing with each other and then with the group different ideas for providing feedback within the first-year writing classroom.

    Feedback is essential to the writing process, especially as we help to encourage and point new writers toward improving their writing craft and taking charge of their writing. Our course emphasizes writing as communication, and our feedback therefore models attentive, engaged reading. The conference was based on a think-pair-share methodology, with each workshop supporting reflective writing, pairing or grouping up, and then sharing with the entire collective. Many participants use feedback to support students questioning and interrogating their own work, conversing with students if a lot of feedback is needed, and coaxing out of students new ideas and approaches, especially while supporting and praising vulnerability in writing.

    A core question we considered was how to give positive feedback that encourages students in a direction that can improve their writing rather than just correcting them into the right direction. Many teachers talked about their difficulty of remembering to provide positive and encouraging feedback to a paper, especially when the paper isn’t written that well. As we talked about how we might expand a paper that didn’t go into much personal detail, some of the participants reminded us to thank a student when they share or attempt to share something vulnerable or personal in their writing. I think this is a really great thing to engage in. When do we thank our students for taking time to work on their essays? When do we thank them for thinking through ideas that are difficult and sometimes personal? This approach of gratitude toward writing can be used to highlight good things done in an essay—a personal anecdote, an idea or method that is unique to the student, etc.—and thereby encourage that student to continue being personal in their writing. Putting attention on social, affective parts of writing can help students see writing as more than just a formal exercise.

    We also collectively considered giving feedback to multimodal projects, something that I’ll continue to write on in these blog posts since the approach is still new to many and is multifaceted. How, we asked, do we assess and thereby give feedback to a project that isn’t in our wheelhouse, like a website, a podcast, or a digital creation? In our group conversation, we talked about focusing on the concrete aspects of writing, commenting on the creativity, developing rubrics that guide students, and engaging in conversations with our students. One of my favorite feedback suggestions was to just sit down with a student and ask them questions. Another response favored having the student ask questions of their own work, inviting them to point out what they think might not be the best or can be improved upon. This way of helping and supporting the student to become their own critic is helpful in developing them as a writer or creator without a classroom support system. And not everything needs to be assessed and quantified. We might worry less about how to “rank” multimodal projects and keep our focus on providing commentary, response, and reaction. What is this thing and how does it work? 

    Many teachers favor talking to students in one-on-one settings, but this feedback practice can be close to impossible with the large number of students and limited time that we have. Are there ways to provide feedback to the entire class or to converse with students who might not be the best at talking with others? One of the things I want to work on providing over the next few months is different methods of giving general feedback, the positives and negatives for this approach, and how to manage the large teaching amount that’s asked of us within our programs (even twenty students is a lot to give feedback to!). I don’t believe generalized feedback should be applied in every situation, but I want to dive into the research to provide some thoughts and methods that have been studied and disseminated in the scholarly community.

    Because styles and methods of feedback vary so widely, we would love to hear from you about what you want and need from us. What would you like us to research, share, and consider with the entire community when it comes to pedagogy? Where do you need help in your classroom and your approach to first-year writing? Send us an email ( for your voice to be heard! I see my purpose as the graduate assistant to support you in your teaching by providing scholarship, ideas, and provocations in order to develop pedagogy and praxis.

    If you haven’t turned in the materials for your course, please do so ASAP. You can turn them in using this form.

    On The Write Space, Jason talks about international and first-gen students, discussing some cool cross-cultural activities he’s been engaged in and how teaching Phyllis Wheatley relates to these students.

    TL;DR Concrete Things to Apply in Your Teaching from the Conference (Text of the Above Image)

    • Feedback can and should be both positive and constructive.
    • Thank students who share personal experiences or specific details about their lives—they’re being vulnerable in writing and that should be applauded and appreciated.
    • If you’re not sure how to give feedback on a multimodal project, have a meeting with a student and have them point to things they think they can improve. Let them lead the feedback process with their own eyes and knowledge.
    • When sitting down to a feedback session with a student, be prepared to just ask them questions rather than providing them with specific feedback.
    • Try to break down the hierarchy between teacher and student by letting the student take charge of their revisions.

    Identities and Skills in the Writing Classroom

    Blue banner with the words "Identities & Skills" written on it

    One thing to think about while assessing Gholdy Muhammad’s approach to teaching is how the different aspects of historically responsive literacy might intersect and interweave with each other to bolster and support your and your students’ work. How might we focalize each individual identity in our classroom while building the students’ skillsets—especially their habits of practice? In last Friday’s blog post, I wrote about two of the four ideas forwarded in Cultivating Genius. In this blog post, I want to think about some specifics on how we might bring those two aspects—identity and skills—into conversation with the University of Connecticut first-year writing habits of practice—collecting and curating, engaging, contextualizing, theorizing, and circulating. Below you’ll find some ideas that’ll hopefully help to get you started on how you can bring these two pedagogical frameworks into conversation in your own praxis.

    How can we bring out their identity when thinking about collecting and curating?

    We could consider a collecting and curating activity in which they represent themselves by creating a collage from old magazines. After this in-class activity, we could lead them through a discussion of the strengths and difficulties it took to collect, curate, and even circulate their identities in this way.

    How can we bring out their identity when thinking about engaging?

    One possible way is to invite them to write about someone in their life. They should use their words to describe the person, their relationship to them, and how they engage with that person. Then, the students could reach out to that person and share what they wrote, asking the person about what they wrote about them. Once they’ve done this, we could lead a classroom discussion about what the students noticed and what they might’ve engaged in a different way than their subject. This can lead to a discussion about engaging with a source and how engagement is based on point of view but also on trying to represent the author’s point of view accurately and correctly.

    How can we bring out their identity when thinking about contextualizing?

    Set a timer for 5 minutes and have the students write down everything that contextualizes them and their family. (If you want to make it even more interesting, you could give the class a single letter and every word has to start with that letter, like in Scattergories). Pair up the students and have them share their list with each other. Is there anything the same? Similar? Different? Have them discuss those similarities and differences to see that contexts change based on each person (but sometimes they’re the same too).

    How can we bring out their identity when thinking about theorizing?

    Watch a short episode or read a short story. As a class, choose a character depicted in the media (or split the class into different groups and assign them different characters). Ask the students to then create two columns on a piece of paper. On the left-side column, ask them to write things about that character, either from their past or in their future after the story has concluded. How did the character grow up? What happens to the character after “the end”? The students will be theorizing about the character. In the right column, have them write down the evidence for that theory. What is said in the story or shown on the screen that lends to that theory about the character’s identity? Share with the class what may happen to the character and the reason for those theorizations.

    How can we bring out their identity when thinking about circulating?

    Ask students to reflectively write about how they circulate themselves in the world. How do they pick their clothes? Their interaction spaces? Their online spaces? Their choice of social media apps? Lead them in a discussion about how that is them circulating their own identity through different media.

    While these are just a few ideas of bringing Muhammad’s work into the framework of first-year writing curriculum at the University of Connecticut, I’d love to hear more about what you think about the two. Feel free to reach out to me at the ECE English email address. I hope your week is going great!

    Historically Responsive Literacy: Identity and Skills

    Gholdy Muhammad’s Cultivating Genius is focused on bringing out historical approaches to literacy to improve the learning experiences of, specifically, students with marginalized identities, but also students of all identities. Her book invites teachers to engage deeply with the identity and legacy of each of their students, being mindful of how this history, genealogy, and atmosphere can be utilized to improve the learning experience in the classroom. She forwards “historically responsive literacy,” which “responds to the histories, identities, and literacy and language practices of students” (Ch. 2). For each of her assignments, lesson plans, and evaluative methods of education she focuses on four aspects: identity, skills, intellect, and criticality.

    In this blog post, I focus on the first two aspects—identity and skills—to discuss possibilities of how they might be engaged in our writing classrooms. I conclude with some thoughts on how identity and skills might be brought together in different classroom activities.


    The identity aspect of historically responsive literacy emphasizes the meaning-making that occurs through literacy—in other words, how words, texts, and, to think through multimodality, ways of communication shape our individual self. Muhammad centers this in “the ability to read one’s world,” which means “understanding the self within local and broader contexts and reading the signs of the time to inform . . . actions and behaviors” (Ch. 2).

    Lesson Idea: Developing Identity through Interviews

    If you have a project that utilizes interviewing skills, try out this exercise with students (for more, see Ch. 3 in Cultivating Genius; adapted from Muhammad’s “Brief ‘Who Are You?’ Exercise”)

    • Pair students up and have them decide who is “a” and who is “b”
    • Have the students take turns asking the other “Who are you?” The other student can only respond with one sentence, and it must be different than what was previously stated. Have them answer quickly and get as many answers within one minute as they can give.
    • Have the students write down what they remember the other student said, as though they are reporting on the other person’s “Who Are You?”
    • Invite the students to share with each other their short paragraphs on the other person. How did the person’s recollection match up to their partner’s words?
    • This activity can lead into a discussion about interview integrity and representing other people on the page. Reporting on what other people say (and who they are) doesn’t always work perfectly, but it’s worth the practice.

    Identity can be integrated into every activity because writing allows students to put their identity on their page—no matter what they are writing. One of the tasks for us as teachers is to point out how a student’s self comes through in writing and how their identity affects what they say and how they say it (for good!).


    Muhammad’s book pulls on her training as a historian and illustrates her four aspects of historically responsive literacy through the history of Black literary groups from the 1800s. “Sharing and shaping their writings through . . . peer critique,” Muhammad writes, describing a particular writing group led by William Garrison of The Liberator, “created stronger compositions—and exemplifies the skill development that took place in the literary societies” (Ch. 4). Peer review and feedback, critiquing and revising drafts, is a long and treasured process of developing writing skills.

    Muhammad offers the following two-pronged approach to develop skill in writing: “First, the teacher should teach the genre of the writing, whether students are writing responses to literature or a word problem or writing poetry or essays. This is best accomplished by using several examples of authentic and meaningful texts. Then it is important to craft elements and assessment language of that particular genre and connect them to the learning standards. Then students need to learn those elements and practice their writing with several stages of feedback from peers and the teacher” (Ch. 3). Key for Muhammad in this relationship is not only working with students on the genre they’re writing but also teaching them how to assess their writing so they have a vocabulary of skills to match up when they are talking with their peers and with you.

    For example, if you’re focusing the teaching of writing on the habits of practice (what we’ve called Writing Moves), you might develop vocabulary to explain the habits of practice and to assess the habits of practice, as seen in the table below. In the “skills to learn” column, I have taken one of the learning objectives from the table provided on the writing moves page linked earlier in this paragraph. In the “Language of Assessment” column, I have tried to provide a way that you might explain your assessment process of that learning objective to your students, while still trying to give students the freedom to play with their assignments.

    Habit of Practice Skills to Learn Language of Assessment
    Collecting and Curating Create a purposeful assemblage using collected artifacts for your audience. A “purposeful assemblage” is something created with an intention or reason. Your intention or reason will be clearly stated in your curation note of the assignment.
    Engaging Determine a text or texts’ set of ideas and questions to find a way into other texts/to formulate a response to it/to make use of a text You will be assessed on how well you introduce a text, quote or paraphrase the text, and analyze the text. To introduce a text, you should tell us a little bit about the text. To quote or paraphrase the text, you should choose a short part that encapsulates what you’re pointing to. To analyze or respond to the text, you will need to write how that text applies to what you’re saying overall. You will be assessed on these three components of engaging.
    Contextualizing Situate your project, issue, or event within the relevant context(s) Throughout your project, do you explain how the text you’re engaging or the idea you’re discussing relates to broader communities, arguments, or ideas. You will be assessed on whether or not you do this at least once in your assignment.
    Theorizing Intervene, contribute to, change, or provide new ways of seeing a conversation, question, topic, or issue You will be assessed on whether or not you say something about the information you’ve collected. This does not need to be an argument, but you do need to offer a new idea or new way of looking at things. This should be done in your own words, not through a quote or idea of someone else.
    Circulating Experiment with different platforms to determine how audiences might interact with your text on those platforms. You will be assessed on your reflection on circulating that you do after the project. You should answer how your process changed with the different way that you shared the information.

    Muhammad outlines further ways of giving students different ideas to support their development of their writing skills. If you have any ways of developing skills in your classroom that create a vocabulary and teach that language of assessment, we’d love to hear about it! We can share it with other teachers through the blog or through a recording of you explaining it.

    We’d love to hear about any examples of bringing optimism, positivity, and joy into your critiquing process. Please email us about your experiences, and we can highlight them on the blog and share them with your fellow first-year writing teachers.

    Registration is open for our October 6 Conference. We’d love to see you there!

    If you missed it, Jason Courtmanche in The Write Space wrote about some weird and interesting experiences in a reflection on his teaching career.

    Please remember to upload your course materials on our website.

    Introducing Praise and Optimism in the Writing Classroom

    Cover for Cultivating Genius: An Equity Framework for Culturally and Historically Responsive Literacy by Gholdy Muhammad

    Welcome to the new school year, 2023–2024! As you get into the rhythm of the year, we hope you’re starting it’s starting well. At ECE English, we have a new graduate assistant, Adam McLain (he/they), who will work on a few initiatives to support you and your classrooms. Adam is in their second year as a graduate student and studies utopian and dystopian literature. He’s excited to learn more about teaching from all the outstanding teachers working with first-year writing in high school.

    First and foremost is our upcoming conference on October 6. If you’re able to attend, please remember to register. Our conference theme is “Salutations, Congratulations, and Critiques: Praise and Optimism in the Writing Classroom.” Over the next three months, from September to November, our programming—blog posts, emails, outreach events like the October conference, and more—will focus on critiquing and feedback. Specifically, we’ll be thinking of how to integrate praise and optimism into our criticism and responses to and between students.

    Cover for Unearthing Joy: A Guide to Culturally and Historically Responsive Teaching and Learning by Gholdy Muhammad








    In our introduction to the conference, we pointed to four different texts—Gholdy Muhammad’s Cultivating Genius and Unearthing Joy; Deonna Smith’s Rooted in Joy; and Felicia Rose Chavez’s The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop. With our blog, we will focus on these texts and how the principles taught within can be utilized to bring praise and optimism into the first-year writing text. Each book applies anti-racist frameworks to think about how to support all students in the classroom.

    Gholdy Muhammad, Cultivating Genius: An Equity Framework for Culturally and Historically Response Literacy

    In Cultivating Genius, Gholdy Muhammad uses her background in studying 19th-century Black literacy societies to develop a framework called “historically responsive literacy,” which utilizes four key aspects—identity, skill, intelligence, and criticality—as a new catalyst to understanding if our course materials are supporting the whole student. Instead of making these into numbered standards, she places them as developmental focuses—how does this lesson develop the student’s identity, skill, intelligence, or criticality?

    Gholdy Muhammad, Unearthing Joy: A Guide to Culturally and Historically Responsive Teaching and Learning

    Muhammad adds to her four-aspect framework from Cultivating Genius with a fifth developmental axis: joy. How are we invoking, preserving, and sparking joy in the lives of our students? How are we helping them increase their joy in learning and living? With this follow-up, Muhammad focuses on the intricacies of genius, justice, and joy.

    Cover for Rooted in Joy: Creating a Classroom Culture of Equity, Belonging, and Care by Deonna Smith

    Deonna Smith, Rooted in Joy: Creating a Classroom Culture of Equity, Belonging, and Care

    Joy can be a part of our work toward justice, Deonna Smith argues in this book that blends theory and praxis. Indeed, our work in front of the classroom and working with our students should be one with a foundation in joy. Smith reframes equity and belonging not as a checklist of things to do but as a happy place where we bring optimism into our classrooms, schools, and communities.

    Felicia Rose Chavez, The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop: How to Decolonize the Creative Classroom

    Felica Rose Chavez pulls on anti-racist and decolonial frameworks to offer a new perspective on what the writing classroom should look like. In it, she offers a writing classroom divorced from the hierarchy of tearing down writing (to build one’s writing up) and forwards a workshop that builds a community of like-minded writers, striving to improve self and the written word.

    Cover for The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop: How to Decolonize the Creative Classroom by Felicia Rose Chavez

    We invite you to read along with us in our blogging as we use these four books to support our three-month theme of critiquing and feedback. We’ll be starting with Cultivating Genius, then moving to Rooted in Joy, then The Anti-Racist Workshop, and concluding with Unearthing Joy. With each of our posts, we’ll focus on how principles taught within the books can support the first-year writing classroom. Emphasizing critique and feedback, we’ll see how Muhammad’s, Smith’s, and Chavez’s work relates to and engages with current theoretical conversations around critique and criticism. We’ll also discuss how their pedagogical approaches bolster our understanding of our multimodal, studio pedagogy, first-year writing classroom that engages with the five habits of practice—collecting and curating, engaging, contextualizing, theorizing, and circulating.

    Critique and feedback—circulation, more broadly—is integral to the first-year writing curriculum through the University of Connecticut. Circulation is the habit of practice that emphasizes sharing work. Through peer review, class workshops, and turning in work, our students circulate their work in a classroom-insulated space. How might we invoke not only critical critique but also how might we create a space that engenders positive and optimistic engagement with our students? How do we create a space where our students and we respond optimistically to each others’ writings? How do we measure our praise with our critique? How do we make critical comments a positive instead of a negative experience?

    With this focus on positivity and optimism, the hope is not to apply a thin layer of toxic positivity or faked optimism. We want to inspire real love and joy in our students’ approach to writing—and we hope to develop being able to do that more by integrating feedback into our courses. We hope this theme over the next few months will support your reflections on the feedback avenues within your classroom and how they inspire and bring happiness into students’ lives.

    We hope this start to the year is going well and that you’ll join us for our conference in October.

    We’d love to hear about any examples of bringing optimism, positivity, and joy into your critiquing process. Please email us about your experiences, and we can highlight them on the blog and share them with your fellow first-year writing teachers.

    If you’re interested in advising the programming and support that ECE provides first-year writing teachers in our program, please fill out the form about joining our advisory board.

    If you missed it, Jason Courtmanche in The Write Space wrote about teaching Asian American and Pacific Islander literature in his blog this week.

    Please remember to upload your course materials on our website.

    Navigating UConn Archives & Special Collections and the CTDA

    This week I want to write a brief post about some of the resources available to us on the UConn Archives & Special Collections website, as well as the Connecticut Digital Archive (CTDA) website.

    Like every archive, UConn’s Archives & Special Collections focuses on a number of special collecting areas: if you explore their digital collections page, you’ll see categories such as Activism, Connecticut History, Political Collections, and UConn Collections. Each of these areas expands to include more specific materials, including university catalogs, local business materials, maps, social activism resources, etc. Scott’s presentation already outlined some of the stranger things you might find by poking around in these scanned materials. UConn Archives & Special Collections also has audio recordings and videos uploaded to the website.

    I also want to point out UConn’s reproduction services for materials found in a general search. For example, if your class is working through a unit on social responsibility and environmentalism and you’re curious about archival records, you might do some digging on the UConn Archives & Special Collections website. In your search you might turn up a record called the “Sweatshop Labor Files” (this folder includes resources detailing the university’s response to student-led activism surrounding the use of sweatshop labor to produce university merchandise). These files have not yet been digitized, but that doesn’t mean you can’t access them. You can request a reproduction from Archives & Special Collections staff by specifying the particular folder and box on the Reproductions Request Form, and someone will scan those materials and send them to you.

    A GIF illustrating how to request reproductions (scans) of materials from UConn's Archives & Special Collections

    The CTDA, which works with UConn’s archives, is another great digital repository of archival materials. The CTDA houses the digitized materials you can find on UConn’s Archives & Special Collections website; but it is also far more expansive. (If a resource is owned or held by UConn Archives & Special Collections, the CTDA will tell you that when you access it.) It’s fun to poke around and look at videos, recordings of speeches and interviews, and even images of 3D objects. For instance, the CTDA has scans of an expansive political button collection; these are awesome for talking about recent and historical activist campaigns (many of which have become relevant again). Just like the UConn Library website, you can filter your searches on the CTDA website by material type, date of creation, location, and topic. It’s definitely worth checking out what the CTDA might have in its digital holdings when you plan out your course inquiry and reading list for the fall!

    A GIF illustrating how to navigate the CTDA

    Of course, UConn Archives & Special Collections and the CTDA aren’t the only digital archival resources available to us. A great place to start is this landing page from the National Archives, since it aggregates a number of other accessible digital archive spaces. Here you’ll find links to collections that include scanned print resources, audiovisual materials, and more. I know plenty of teachers also love using the Smithsonian Learning Lab (and I’ve only recently learned just how cool this resource is), since materials can be grouped into different collections by topic, and users can also create their own collections. These repositories are great for introducing conversations about research and primary versus secondary sources into your units; you can also use archival materials to talk about the different kinds of multimodal media that exist.

    Wrapping up the 2023 spring conference: UConn Library resources

    Earlier this month we held our second in-person conference of the year, with content themed specifically around reading in ECE English classes. We talked about developing course reading lists for ENGL 1007 and ENGL 1004, building text into existing course inquiries, and finding content to fill our very different classroom needs. We spoke about connecting readings to one another and maintaining the composition goals of First-Year Writing while teaching literary texts, as well as centering diverse voices and perspectives in our syllabi. Here, I want to touch base again on some of the practical resources available to us with our UConn NetID accounts as many of you look forward to planning your syllabi over the summer.

    Using the UConn Library website

    Like Scott mentioned in his presentation, the university library website has plenty of digital resources to bolster your class reading lists and liven up activities and assignments. Media in the library holdings range from books, to graphic novels and comics, to edited collections and anthologies, to newspaper clippings and magazine articles, to audiovisual links. I want to take a brief moment to outline some of my “tips and tricks” for making the most of my library website searches.

    Advanced Search: When I jump into a search, I typically make sure I’ve selected the “Advanced Search” option. This makes it easier to hone my results from the get-go, since I can input as much information as I have immediately. If I already know the title, author name, and maybe even the date of publication, it makes sifting through results much faster. Let’s say I want to show an example excerpt of Octavia Butler’s Kindred to my class to talk about historical memory in American culture. I’ll log into the UConn Library website and start a new search using this feature. It makes it easy to find texts that are available digitally right away.

    A GIF of an advanced search on the UConn Library website for a digital copy of Octavia Butler's novel Kindred

    Filtering searches: It might be good to spend some time familiarizing yourself with the different filters the library website has available on the left-hand side of the window; these are very helpful for narrowing down your search and can sometimes turn up new information you didn’t even know you were looking for. For example, I found an article on the anthropocene and opera just by playing around with some of the search filters here.

    Using the filters to edit a search

    Likewise, if you plan to use the library website in class, give your students some time to experiment with the sifting options on their own; this can lead to some fun (and strange) discoveries. I like to send my students off on project-related scavenger hunts. It can also prompt interesting conversations about search engine optimization and general algorithmic searches, since you can have them compare their library research results with a general Google search. What does Google give preference to, and how are search results ranked? How can you tailor searches to your own goals and interests? How is online library research different from more generalized internet research, and what expectations should you set ahead of time for both?

    Using databases: I also want to point out the access we have to digital databases via the UConn Library. These are great aggregators of information based on specific topics and content type, so if your students are working on a particular research project they may find doing research with a database useful. You can search through UConn’s available databases via subject. Here, I looked at the databases related to English, and found one that collects recordings of Shakespeare performances in Stratford-Upon-Avon.

    A GIF showing how to navigate and search with the digital databases available on the UConn Library website

    Plenty of databases are cross-disciplinary, so it’s worth poking around a little. You’ll also notice that many databases provide links to other databases, too. Through a site like Hathi Trust, for example, we gain access to all sorts of other digital repositories (like Oxford’s Bodleian Library, Cornell’s Rare Books collection, etc.).

    Pinning search results: You can “pin” things to your personal profile, and sort them into lists. If you want to create a list for a particular class or topic, you can add things and delete them at any point. It’s a really useful way to keep resources organized! I like pinning sources as I’m scrolling and then coming back to them later to see if they’re actually worth investigating or not. This can be useful for the planning stage, and you can also introduce this to your students as another method of resource gathering.

    A GIF illustrating how to "pin" search results to an individual profile on the library website

    Always log into the library website with your NetID and password before conducting a proper search. If you don’t, you often won’t see a full list of available results, and you won’t be able to access full previews or downloads, either. If you’re sharing sources with your students, send them the permalink (as opposed to the search bar link) in case a website or database gets updated or things get moved around (see Scott’s presentation for more information). I like talking with my students about why permalinks are better to cite with than the long version of a hyperlink. The same can be said for knowing book ISBNs and source DOIs; having conversations about what these identifiers mean and what purposes they serve is a great way to talk about research and citation practices.

    Next week, I’ll share some info on searching within UConn’s Archives & Special Collections digital repositories, as well as navigating the Connecticut Digital Archive (CTDA). As Scott pointed out during the conference, there are certainly quite a few surprising things hidden away in the archives. Luckily for us, much of it has been digitized and is available for free via high quality scans and uploads. In the meantime, you can find more information on the UConn Archives & Special Collections’s holdings here, and you can visit the CTDA here.

    Experimenting with visual design in ENGL 1007

    Last month, ECE English held its second virtual workshop of the year—this time, on visual rhetoric in the composition classroom. Though we opened our discussion through the lens of teaching infographics, we had a great time talking about the elements of visual design from a number of approaches. Certainly, there are countless ways to challenge your students to think about the importance of visual design in the media they encounter daily and the projects they assemble.

    We spoke briefly about the main elements of visual design outlined in the ENGL 1007 curriculum, which include balance, alignment, emphasis, proportion, movement, pattern, contrast, and unity. Here’s a brief video highlighting what each of those elements look like in action.

    Everything Everywhere All At Once movie poster

    In my own classes, I often use examples like book covers or movie posters to talk about the relevant elements of visual rhetoric I want my students to wrestle with. (These elements might change depending on the project they’re working on!) It’s always fun to bring in pop culture and pick apart the very deliberate choices that make certain advertisements, posters, illustrations, and packaging so effective.

    For example, if I knew my students were familiar with the film, I might show them the poster for Everything Everywhere All At Once and prompt a conversation about what it’s accomplishing in its design and storytelling choices. It’s massively cluttered, yet orderly and symmetrical; what does that suggest about the film’s themes? What motifs are repeated throughout? What images are enlarged (made important), and why? How is the text formatted, and why? What kinds of colors are used? What draws your eye first?

    Similarly, I could show them a book cover and have the same conversation. The example I used in March’s workshop was the cover of Katherine J. Chen’s novel Joan. The text and fleur-de-lis are perfectly balanced across four even quadrants, and the font is consistent. Even the color palette follows the same rules: it is inverted across quadrants, but remains the same. This cover also prompts questions about when designers break the rules: what might an asymmetrical design be trying to accomplish? What about unsettling color choices?

    Book cover of Joan, by Katherine J. Chen

    This is a great way to generate conversation at the beginning of a visual unit, and it can also be fun to ask your students to bring in everyday examples, as well. Instead of searching for posters or advertisements, have them perform a visual rhetorical analysis on one of their class textbooks, or a poster they saw hanging up in the hall outside of your classroom. As I engage my students in the elements of visual design, I’m also always asking them to consider the rhetorical situation in general, too: what is this text’s overall purpose, and who is the intended audience? How do you know? Is it effective and accessible?

    Visual design might not be the first thing we think about when planning a composition class, and we’re certainly not expected to be experts here, but it’s important (and fun, too). I’m reminded of my copy of Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, which begins with a note on the type: “This book was set on the Linotype in Janson […] This type is an excellent example of the influential and sturdy Dutch types that prevailed in England up to the time William Caslon developed his own comparable designs from them.” Writing and designing have always gone hand-in-hand, and conversation can be sparked from something as simple as a font in a book. As your students work on their various multimodal projects and you begin thinking about what assignments you’d like to incorporate next year, consider sharing any interesting and exciting conversations you might have with us! You can find a round-up of the workshop’s resources here, on our event page.

    Enter the podcast: experimenting with multimodality, aurality

    On February 15th, ECE English hosted its first virtual workshop, during which we focused on the topic of podcasting in the First-Year Writing classroom. Podcasts are a fun and experimental way to have students engage with the drafting and revising processes: the audio genre encourages play in the classroom, enhances students’ experiences with multimodal composition, and can get us thinking about what “counts” as “text” in new and interesting ways.

    Click the image to view the Google slideshow from the “Teaching Podcasts” virtual workshop

    Our session began with a conversation about why podcasts are so useful for the composition classroom. Participants shared insight into why this mode of communication is a great way to break up the traditional writing and editing process. Since many podcasts are recorded by multiple hosts, the conversations they have often happen organically. Asking students to think about how we get information (via collaborating with others, by practicing our listening skills, etc.) is an excellent way to frame this assignment. This is a great chance to share some excellent podcast examples with your students! You may also consider folding in time to allow students to practice drafting and asking good interviewing/question-asking skills, so they learn to listen to their interlocutor rather than simply anticipating what they want to say in response.

    Incorporating podcasts into the classroom also comes with the expectation that students will be using new technologies. This is a fun chance for students to experiment with recording and editing applications. Some of the apps mentioned during our conversation included:Podcast editing platforms Audacity, GarageBand, Soundtrap

    • Garageband, a free software pre-installed on most Mac products
    • Audacity, a free-to-download application compatible with Mac and Windows products
    • WeeVideo, an online editor compatible with Chromebooks
    • Soundtrap, the Spotify-hosted platform made specifically for recording and editing podcasts

    We also had some great conversations about the more practical particulars of podcasting, including:

    • Which podcast episodes you will incorporate as examples
    • How long students’ podcast episodes should be (3-4 minutes? 5-6? 12-15?)
    • Whether students would record episodes on their own, or with a classmate co-host
    • How to fold the podcast into the course, and what topic they’d be expected to talk about (connecting it to a text students are reading? tying it to your course inquiry?)
    • How to alleviate nerves if students are anxious about speaking in front of audiences or recording themselves (setting clear parameters for who will hear the final draft? practicing with smaller spoken assignments ahead of time?)

    To see the resources shared during this conversation, visit the event page for this virtual workshop. There, you’ll find the Google Slideshow, links to readings that were discussed and distributed, and a recording of the WebEx conversation (including the chat).