Photo: Anna Cotton (2011)
Reading “State of the Planet” by Robert Hass to students at Circle B Bar Nature Reserve on an Introduction to Literature field trip. Photo: Anna Cotton (2011)

I teach students to read deeply, write freely, dialogue openly, think wisely, and act compassionately. These skills, practices, and dispositions—which call students to develop both habits of mind and habits of heart—allow students to live more deeply and fully, can be useful for their current or future careers, and will empower them to continue growing long after their time in my courses has come to an end.

Teacher as Gardener, Teacher as Tree (Teaching Philosophy)

Now I am a woman longing to be a tree

—Joy Harjo, Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings

On the first day of class, I often pass out notecards for students to fold into “tents” to write their names on and place on their desks. On the side opposite the names, I ask the students to draw an image to use to introduce themselves to the class. With first-year writing students, I ask for a literal representation. With literature students, I ask for a metaphor. So a student might draw a guitar in the one case because she likes to play or in the other case because, even though she feels a little out of tune, she also feel strung together enough to make music with her life. I usually draw a tree. On the literal level, the tree represents my love for, well, trees. On the figurative level, the tree represents my teaching philosophy in two ways.

To begin with, the tree can represent the way that I see my students as plants and myself as a gardener. In other words, the students are living, growing beings, and I cultivate that growth. Many acts of gardening correspond to acts of teaching:

  • When I provoke students’ curiosity, I prepare the soil.
  • When I address prior or common misconceptions, I pull out weeds.
  • When I scaffold learning, I place stakes and trellises for vines to grow on.
  • When I help students manage their time and priorities, I ward off weevils.
  • When I give students challenging texts and tasks, I spread compost.
  • When I give constructive feedback, I prune.
  • When I celebrate student progress, I water.
  • When I trim my syllabus to not overwhelm students, I provide shade.
  • When I step back to let learning unfold, I provide access to sunlight.
  • When I allow growth to take its time, I wait as every gardener must.
  • When I find students deeply engaged in the learning process and producing work of quality surpassing what they had previously produced, I enjoy the flowers that have finally bloomed.

Like all good gardeners, I also constantly work to improve my craft, to better understand the varieties of plants, to adjust to changing weather patterns. For this, I can talk with other gardeners/teachers, read horticulture/pedagogy books, and experiment in the garden/classroom. Indeed, one of the most beautiful things about gardening and teaching is that plants and students alike are inexhaustibly living and growing entities, about the cultivation of which one can always learn more.

Some examples from my teaching repertoire follow. In each, I do not merely tell students what I want them to know. Since students have to be actively engaged in learning the ideas, skills, and dispositions for themselves, I take up the work of the teacher as gardener by considering the direction in which I would like them to grow and providing specific activities and materials that will guide and encourage the learning process.

Rhetoric in First-Year Writing. Upon entering college, many students understand writing primarily as a matter of following the teacher’s instructions. In English Composition II, I want them to come to see writing as a matter of shaping words to influence audiences in light of the students’ own purposes as writers. In one writing project, I ask students to imagine themselves as interns at a fictional philanthropic organization called Positive2 (“positive squared”). They write to a potential donor to ask for support for a social issue of the student’s choice. While I give the students some direct instructions—for example, telling them to use the classical argument structure (exordium, narratio, propositio, etc.)—I ask them to make certain decisions themselves, including “How many sources to use?” “How long to make it?” and “How formal a tone to take?” I help students make these decisions by guiding them through audience and purpose, samples of this sort of writing, and criteria for the project. (Download “Writing 5: Persuasive Essay” [PDF].)

Interpretation in the English Major. When English majors begin taking literature courses, they often rely on teachers (or CliffNotes) to tell them what the texts they read mean. In American Literature, I want students to ask their own questions, consider multiple possible interpretations, and weigh textual evidence supporting or contradicting each. In one discussion activity, I have students act out a written dialogue where two characters I’ve created, Armadillo and Rabbit, discuss John Steinbeck’s The Pearl. Rabbit proposes that the text, which the students have just read, boils down to the aphorism, “the love of money is the root of all evil.” Armadillo thinks it’s not that simple. Pairing up, the students continue Armadillo’s line of reasoning by coming up with reasons and textual support for why Rabbit has proposed a superficial reading. They then brainstorm possible alternative interpretations. (Download “Armadillo and Rabbit Discuss The Pearl” [PDF].)

Contemplation in General Education. College students in general education literature courses often assume literary texts are like crossword puzzles, to solve as quickly and painlessly as one can. In Introduction to Literature, I want students to slow down, read and reread, and connect with texts on an affective level. For one lesson, I ask students to bring painting supplies to class. Playing Gregorian chant in the background, I give the students the entire session to respond creatively to the text they have read for the day, The Book of Joel (a bit of Bible as literature). I ask them to copy out a particular passage to respond to before they begin. Then I invite illustrations of elements in the text or an abstract emotional responses, encouraging them to realize that the point isn’t to produce a painting but to slow down and connect with the text. (Download “Painting as a Reading Practice” [PDF].)

The metaphor of teacher as gardener speaks to what I do as a teacher. But I have also learned what the limits of doing are, where I have to stop doing as a teacher and start being as a teacher. This shift requires a new metaphor to describe myself as a teacher. Yes, the tree I draw to introduce myself to students speaks well to the idea that they are plants whose growth I will tend to. But it also speaks to my highest aspiration as a teacher. The second metaphor is that, as a teacher, I would like to be the tree.

Gardeners cannot force plants to grow or to be healthy. Gardeners can do their part and must then trust the laws of nature, which are not always known or predictable when it comes to living and growing things, to do the rest. I would like to live my life like a tree. While living and growing themselves, trees encourage the life and growth of other organisms—birds who land in the branches, squirrels who eat the nuts, mosses that hang in the branches, insects that live in the bark, humans who breath the oxygen, and so forth. As a teacher, I aspire to live in such a way that my own continuing vitality and growth contribute to an environment in which my students are encouraged and helped to themselves be more alive. As a tree-teacher, I aim to be open, generous, curious, creative, compassionate, understanding, thoughtful, rational, analytical, connected, present, awake, committed, caring, and engaged—so students can be too. Though harder to document, it is my hope that this inner treeness seeps out and informs and shapes all of my other acts and conditions as a teacher.

In short, I want to do certain actions that influence students, and I want to be a certain kind of person who wears off on students. Doing well requires pedagogical skill, knowledge, and creativity. Being well requires personal growth, depth, and integrity. Doing frames a space for learning. Being leaves that space open for that which cannot be predicted or controlled, which must be a gift—that element of inspiration, connection, relationship, insight—which we cannot demand or create, for which we can only prepare ourselves and our students, for which we can only be grateful. When that happens, I know what I have simply done, and been, my part. When it doesn’t, I go back to the drawing board and try to figure out how to do and be my part better.

Courses Taught

  • American Literature
  • World Literature
  • Contemporary Literature
  • Latina/o Literature in the US
  • Native American Literature
  • Ecology, Theology, and Literature
  • Literature and the Environment
  • Poetry of the 1950s
  • Introduction to Literature
  • Introduction to Humanities
  • English Composition I
  • English Composition II
  • Academic Research and Writing