University of Wisconsin–Madison

Listening to your Students Through Writing: How Culturally Relevant Pedagogy Informs Classroom Writing

By Jon Isaac, WAC Assistant Director

When teachers ask Tina Treviño-Murphy, a graduate student in Special Education who also teaches full-time at Capital High on Madison’s East Side, how they can be more responsive to the needs of students in their teaching, she responds with one word: “Listen.” And, she would add, you can do that through asking your students to write.

Last year, Treviño-Murphy taught a 40-student section of CHICLA 201, “Intro to Chican@ & Latin@ Studies.” From the beginning, she foregrounded that the class, which fulfills UW–Madison’s Ethnic Studies requirement, was not simply a history class about the Americas but also about the culture and experiences of Latinx and Chicanx people in the United States. The Ethnic Studies requirement is designed to help students (1) articulate some of the effects the past has had on present day circumstances, perceptions of, and disparities in, race in the United States; (2) recognize and question cultural assumptions, rules, biases, and knowledge claims as they relate to race and ethnicity; and (3) examine questions and make decisions with consideration for the cultural perspectives and worldviews of others.

With this task, Treviño-Murphy made it a point to listen to her students in order to hear how they were progressing through the course material. She built in daily written check-ins that asked them to share what they were learning, how class was going, and what remained unclear. Each student would enter class having offered a unique discussion question on Canvas concerning that day’s readings (after she’d spent classtime discussing what makes a productive discussion question), which Treviño-Murphy says “asked students to evaluate what they thought was important to bring in to class.” And each student would leave the classroom only after writing a reflection on Canvas on that day’s class and on the thoughts that lingered with them.

The Ethnic Studies learning goals meant that the reflections that her students offered and the discussion questions they posed were especially important to developing her classroom as a learning and self-discovery space. They allowed Treviño-Murphy to check in with her students on new and perhaps unsettling information. Further, she was able to listen to where her students were and to pinpoint potential obstacles to their learning and writing tasks.

Treviño-Murphy was able to listen to her students through written check-ins to pinpoint potential obstacles to their learning and writing tasks.

Treviño-Murphy said that this amount of writing wasn’t as daunting for her as one might anticipate, since she could read and respond to their comments on Canvas on her 30-minute bus ride home—and it meant that she was listening to her students daily, which allowed her to remain flexible and responsive to the class as the semester went on.

On top of these daily written check-ins, Treviño-Murphy also emphasized student choice in her formal writing assignments as a way to be responsive to their needs: “I wanted them to have choice in what they worked on, and I wanted them to think about revision as an ongoing process in their writing lives. I wanted them to see that if they did the same assignment at the end of the semester, it would be very different, so they could understand what they learned.” 

Each assignment offered students the opportunity to choose their topic, on top of offering multiple ways to complete the assignment. Her final assignment, for example, asked students to revise one of their previous projects, which allowed students to deepen their understanding of their previously researched topic and to identify the ways that their thinking had changed over the semester. By listening to where her students were and what they needed, Treviño-Murphy’s students produced writing assignments that challenged them—and her.

A Closer Look at the Assignments

For her first writing assignment, Treviño-Murphy asked her students to choose one poster from the popular People’s History Poster Series and identify how the author interprets Latinx and Chicanx history through the lens of various “keywords” drawn from the course reader, Keywords for Latin@ Studies. The goal, she says, was to get students thinking about Latinx and Chicanx history through its cultural representations—both visually and textually—and about what is gained or lost through this process of representation. In this way, her students were able to “look at someone else interpret history through art” and identify how cultural keywords are foregrounded in representations of history. Thinking about history as a series of artifacts left behind also prepared Treviño-Murphy’s students for their next assignments.

For her second assignment, Treviño-Murphy partnered with the Chazen Museum of Art to have her students develop original analyses of various pieces of art curated by the museum that reflect Chicanx and Latinx culture and heritage. Her students moved from identifying an artist’s interpretation of history in the first assignment to analyzing why an artist’s interpretation of history is significant. Working with curators and staff at the Chazen, Treviño-Murphy encouraged her students to spend 30 minutes just observing a piece of art. While many students initially thought that this would be an insufferably long time, many of them returned for later trips to view the art a second or third time.

Through reading and responding to her student’s written discussion questions and reflections—in other words, through listening to them—Treviño-Murphy was able to better guide her students toward formal paper topics that each might be interested in. This personalized relationship also deepened her students’ investment in the course and their relationship to Latinx and Chicanx culture.

Treviño-Murphy likewise utilized peer review in each of the course sequences. Using this strategy, she would have students read their piece out loud so that students could listen to one another’s writing and find mechanical errors more easily. Following this, the reviewer would look at the project’s assignment rubric on Canvas and ask the writer to identify how they accomplished each of the evaluation criteria. On peer review days, student reflections about what they learned from peer review almost always ended with the claim, “Everyone is doing such interesting things in this class!”

Teaching as a TA/Lecturer

The University of Wisconsin–Madison has many world-renowned academic support offerings, and Treviño-Murphy made a point to get feedback on her assignments as she developed her course. As a graduate student instructor, she utilized UW–Madison’s Writing Center to further ensure that her students were thinking critically about the relationship between writing and the world around them.With the Writing Center, Treviño-Murphy scheduled weekly one-hour appointments to workshop upcoming writing prompts, using the tutors there as soundboards for her assignment ideas. Faculty interested in getting feedback on their writing assignments can make an appointment for a consultation with a member of the Writing Across the Curriculum team here.

“It’s worth the time to really hear from every student…By the end of the semester, a class of 40 students felt really intimate.”

One of the greatest resources that Treviño-Murphy relied on was her past experience TAing an Ethnic Studies class for Mary Layoun in the Comparative Literature department. It was from Layoun that Treviño-Murphy got the idea to get daily feedback from her students: Layoun would collect her students’ note cards at the end of class, read them all, and address them at the beginning of the following class. Treviño-Murphy agrees that “It’s worth the time to really hear from every student. This process allowed them to create relationships and allowed me to ensure accountability. By the end of the semester, a class of 40 students felt really intimate.”

What’s next?

Treviño-Murphy hopes that she will be able to teach CHICLA 201 again in the future—and she has a lot more ideas. She’s been thinking about how to incorporate the work of Frida Kahlo, renowned Mexican painter, into a future class, especially with an eye to Kahlo’s interpretation of her own dis/ability. She currently teaches full-time at Capital High, and she has been able to take some of the creativity on offer in CHICLA 201 to inform the sorts of hands-on assignments and activities she compiles for her own students.