Instructor Spotlight: Kate O'Donoghue


Writer(s): Derek Sherman

Teaching for the first time is a unique experience and it is one that ICaP tries to make less bumpy through our year-long mentoring program. Still, though, there is nothing like those first day jitters when entering the classroom for the first time, no matter how much preparation one has under their belt. But firsts are something that Kate O’Donoghue, a first-year MFA student in poetry, experiences quite regularly. Kate is a first-generation American, whose parents immigrated from Ireland, and a first-generation college student, so firsts have nothing on Kate.  

Prior to Purdue, Kate attended Muhlenberg College where she majored in creative writing and film. During her freshman year, Kate joined the writing center and quickly rose through the ranks to become the assistant director of the writing center upon graduation. These prior experiences have guided Kate in much of what she wants to accomplish while here at Purdue. 

When asked about her interests, Kate affirms, “My goal is to marry the writing center and how to think about FYW and poetry; in my head, that is the nebulous thing for me.”  

Linda Haynes, Kate’s mentor, articulates, “Kate brings so much to our mentor group: her expertise as a writing lab tutor and administrator and her creative writing background only begin the list.” 

Composing a book of poetry and collapsing the binary between academic writing and creative writing are also of interest to Kate, which is no easy feat for any writer. 

With ICaP’s newly implemented common assignment, the portfolio, ICaP was interested in how various instructors teach to our standards and how they incorporate their own flavor. Kate’s interests in writing center work, creative writing, and collapsing the binary between academic and creative writing proved to be powerful experiences that allowed her to create a classroom community enveloped in reflection, which is core to the portfolio and much of composition pedagogy. According to Kate, the French word essai best speaks to her classroom pedagogy because it means “to try” or “test.” “Maybe this thing will work, maybe it won’t,” states Kate. 

Her enthusiasm for classroom reflection addresses the key component to ICaP’s portfolio process: metacognition. Reflection is a central to ICaP’s portfolio process as it helps students practice metacognition, or the ability to think about thinking. Kate embodies this thought and often ends activities with a verbal reflection where she asks students what they have learned and/or their experiences in learning the material. Activities such as free-writing for five to fifteen minutes or a full reflection day after an assignment was completed are commonplace for Kate.  

At first, students gave pushback and did not quite see the value in reflecting. Students were completing reflections in 2-3 minutes in the beginning, but a reflective community soon blossomed. 

“The silent reflective space [is] where students really think about what they are thinking. It gives them time to think. [It was] rough at first but the more they did it the more value they saw in it,” admits Kate. 

When asked about this value, Kate elaborates, “The other side of the resistance is something magical. Something magical does happen when they do break through that wall.” 

That magic comes in the form of students being honest about their struggles and successes in writing by reflecting on these questions, for example: “What were you thinking while doing this assignment? What skills might you take forward to the next assignment? What was it like to put so many sources together?” In the end, “They are thankful they have the space to tell you,” admits Kate. 

Most importantly, Kate practices self-reflection with her students and shares her own struggles and successes with writing. The first-generation American and first-generation student status forces that self-reflective nature on Kate and other first generation students. While family and others support first-generation students, the territory is uncharted and one must develop their own ways to deal with the stress and rigors. Once this reflective attitude is harnessed, it becomes a powerful tool. 

When asked about her future classroom goals, Kate proposes, “What I want to work on is establishing more community in the classroom. How do I do that? How do I get students to talk to each other about writing?”  

“Kate is a master at acknowledging and supporting her students’ answers and guiding them toward what she wants them to understand,” Haynes says. “Her students genuinely appreciate her attitude and sense of humor and they seem to just ‘go with’ whatever she asks them to do without grumbling.” 

The positive, self-reflective nature that Kate brings to the classroom is something that will surely help her meet her goals. ICaP is pleased to place Kate in front of students and knows students will leave the classroom better writers than when they entered. 

Last Updated: Feb 22, 2020 7:02 PM

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