Thursday, October 28, 2021
By Jennifer Keefe
East Campus Professor of English Kirsten Holt does a lot of things to make writing relevant to her students, but one of her most successful approaches is simple — she keeps it real. In addition to poetry and creative writing, Kirsten teaches English Composition I and II, classes that are required for most majors but are not always a favorite among students. Her advice to others teaching required classes is, “Be transparent. Tell them when you’re struggling, too, so they know it’s okay. Model how to find answers when you don’t know the answer.”
Kirsten firmly believes that “empathy facilitates learning and communication.”
Hired in 2013, Kirsten is in the last year of her tenure process, having completed her portfolio. She looks forward to
receiving tenure in April 2022. She says she “never grew up wanting to be a teacher, but I believe in the work I’m doing.”
That work includes teaching a lot of students for whom writing does not come easily. Kirsten says she has a particular soft spot for students majoring in the sciences, probably because she once completed half a major in physics herself, before switching to English. Her key to helping them do well? She says they “just have to translate the language in different ways” from other students who might inherently write well. For instance, Kirsten uses the scientific method as a metaphor for the research and drafting process to highlight the investigation and development of strong questions as vital steps in the planning phase.
Part of Kirsten’s teaching philosophy also has to do with her views on failure. She wants to help her students come to terms with making mistakes and correcting them.
“I don’t think students [today] are as well-prepared for failure and how to grow from it as they used to be.” she says. “I know there are generational trends that worry every decade of teachers, but in this case, I think we got off track somewhere and forgot to teach them how to cope with discomfort and disappointment. They experience higher rates of anxiety than our generations ever did. I can’t make those realities disappear. But I can help them feel empowered to tackle the emotions that come with it.”
Kirsten allows students to revise and resubmit assignments (within reason) if they are not happy with their first attempt and understand where the work got off track. She calls it “gaining experience through making mistakes.”
Some of those mistakes become lessons in Kirsten’s classes. She often takes snippets from student papers, makes them anonymous, and uses them as group teaching tools. She also “calls herself out” in class when she makes a mistake. She explains that she “tries not to hide a lot from them (her students), and I make my own errors part of the conversation in class.”
She also tries to teach her students to manage their expectations of both full- and part-time professors at the College. Whether it’s understanding how to read and receive feedback or getting an answer to an email, Kirsten wants to ensure students understand that instructors and students, both, have to manage tricky schedules and work-life balance. She also includes a note to parents of dual enrolled students on her faculty front door to keep the conversation going.
Before the pandemic, one of Kirsten’s most successful classes involved working with students for several weeks on writing a single paragraph. She met with each student in the class several times, providing written and verbal feedback until the students had mastered the concepts of the assignment.
For her action research project, Kirsten taught students a new approach to essay writing that moves beyond the standard five-paragraph model.
“It’s hard at first, but once they get comfortable with the freedom, they are more comfortable with research and writing their own ideas,” she explains.
The first step in her project was to get students to recognize the five-paragraph model and their perceptions of the “safety” that goes along with it.
Then, she teaches them a more argument-based approach to writing, one that allows them more control of their content. Kirsten notes, “Voice has a lot more power when they can decide how their paper is organized.”
She says that most students like the new approach to writing once they get the hang of it. Teaching this new approach to writing also led to a revelation for Kirsten.
“I’ve accepted that I will be the bad guy who drags them kicking and screaming into new things,” she shares. “I don’t want them to feel like they are starting over. They are expanding on what they already know.”
Kirsten also incorporates some fun into her classes. Each summer, she teaches a horror-themed section of ENC 1102 that’s all about literary analysis. The students look at the historical roots of the horror genre including novels and short stories, but also film, video games, music videos, comics, memes, and the uniquely Millennial tech-based genre of ARGs (Alternate Reality Games). Students examine texts like “Dracula” and “Frankenstein,” then create the last unit of the class, on GenZ horror, by selecting their own examples from film and other media.
Kirsten’s favorite lesson that she teaches is one she calls Questions and Opinions. It’s something she describes as “a completely ridiculous day” where students learn to ask different kinds of questions by selecting a random topic. One example she gives is from a class that selected “eyes” as a topic. Among the questions, the students came up with were things like “why can’t eyes smell.” From these questions, she says that students learn how to do credible research, which is something that can help them in classes across the College.
Do you know a faculty member doing great work? Or, perhaps you’d like to share the work you’re doing? Send the colleague’s (or your) name to us at The_Grove@valenciacollege.edu and include Faculty Highlight Nomination in the subject line of your email. We might just feature your colleague (or you) as an upcoming Faculty Highlight.