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60 Posts authored by: Miriam Moore Expert

In my last blog, I wrote about the frustrations of dealing with difficult student questions (“So what are we doing?”) and the possibilities for instruction embedded in those questions. Similarly, I’ve addressed the challenge of responding to student comments comparing current instructor practice with their experiences in previous courses.

 

An unfiltered response in both these scenarios might be snarky or rude at worst, and unhelpful at best. As I wrote before, these difficult comments and questions can be teachable moments—both for the student and for myself—if I can filter the initial knee-jerk reaction and think through what I could say to engage the student for deeper thinking. Can I open what Jesson et al. (following Wegerif) have called a “dialogic space,” where “the teacher’s and students’ contributions serve to drive thinking forward” (157)? If my response shuts down the conversation, that space contracts—or disappears altogether. Moreover, those unfiltered comments do not invite the kind of on-going development of talk about writing and language—meta-talk—that I want to foster, explore, and evaluate in my classes.

 

Recently, I encountered another of these difficult interactions. A student (who had already conferenced with me and received feedback concerning a developing text that did not address the parameters of the assignment) submitted an intermediate draft without any substantive revisions to content. When I asked the student about notes from our conference (since the work submitted for review did not reflect thoughtful response to the comments I had made), the student replied that one of the upper-level writing fellows working with our class “said it was good,” so the student assumed no revisions were needed.

 

I have heard such comments before: someone else—a writing center tutor, a friend who is an English major, a high school teacher, a parent, or even another instructor—read the paper and said “it was good.” 

 

What would your knee-jerk response be? “That other person didn’t write the instructions.” “That other person isn’t going to be grading this paper.” “That other person doesn’t have my degree.” “That other person may not have been honest with you.” “I don’t care what that other person said…” 

 

I suppose our response would depend on the context—first, intermediate, or final draft, for example, and what we thought the student was hoping to achieve by reporting on someone else’s assessment of the piece, generally a more positive assessment.

 

In considering my own response to the student (which was to ask for a conference during office hours), I began to wonder what a thoughtfully-filtered response that opens dialogic space might look like. I considered the talk-encouraging questions I might ask:

 

      
  1. What specifically did the writing fellow tell you was good about the paper? Did you take notes? If not, would it be worth asking her to discuss it with you again?
  2.   
  3. What did you ask the writing fellow to look at when you went for your conference?
  4.   
  5. Did you discuss my comments with the writing fellow?
  6.   
  7. Did the writing fellow make any specific comments or recommendations we could talk about?
  8.   
  9. Why do you think different people sometimes give different feedback? How can you handle the differences, as a writer?
  10.   
  11. How would you define good when it comes to writing? How does context affect our understanding of what good is? Could our comments about the piece actually both be reasonable evaluations of it?
  12.   
  13. What do you like about the piece as it stands now? Are there parts of the paper that you can build on for revision?
  14.   
  15. What did you hear when I gave you feedback during conference?
  16.   
  17. Knowing that the paper does not currently meet the requirements of the assignment, what information from me would be most helpful to you?
  18.   
  19. What sorts of things could you tell the writing fellows to help them target their feedback on the next draft?

 

I recognize in myself a tendency to allow frustration to stop conversations. And yes, some of the frustrations arise from student apathy, laziness, or forgetfulness. They have told me as much: they didn’t take notes, they forgot what we discussed, they wanted not to have to write again. And at times, especially for some of the students who find themselves in my corequisite sections, the problem stems from the overall culture shock of college. But perhaps those students need me to filter my responses the most—and they need an opportunity to talk about the writing a little bit more. 

 

What comments and questions from students cause you the most frustration in your corequisite writing courses? What strategies have worked for you in responding?

If I surveyed composition or IRW instructors about the student questions we find most frustrating, I am sure there would be considerable overlap in our responses. I would love to say that I am so calm, so focused on student support and student learning, that I am never flustered by student questions, and I am never tempted to give a snarky reply. But of course, this is not the case. Certain questions trigger my irritation, and more than I’d like to admit it, some rather unhelpful responses.

 

I got one of those questions last week. My students are writing rhetorical analyses of arguments about writing (choosing chapters from Bad Ideas about Writing as the focus of analysis), certainly not the easiest of tasks for beginning writers. To prepare for the assignment, I lead students through activities sequenced to scaffold instruction: first we practice summary, then recognition of argument components, then identification of various stylistic devices related to tone, stance, and engagement. In each case, we move from a large group discussion to a group or paired practice, and then individual practice.  The week before students begin working on their own drafts, they collaborate with others to practice parts of the assignment: summarizing the article, noting key elements of the argument, and crafting a thesis statement. We review these collaborative pieces as a whole class, discussing what works and what doesn’t. 

 

After the weeks of preparation and three preparatory “check-points” (summarizing the article they had selected for analysis, making a bulleted list of key rhetorical strategies, and drafting a thesis), I set aside a class period for drafting. About ten minutes into that class session devoted to drafting, a student came to me and asked me that question:  “So, what are we doing?” This student had been present for all the previous classes. This student had access to the handouts, the instructions, the samples, and the collaborative exercises—and the student had selected and summarized an article. But the student was completely lost when it came to drafting his analysis. “So what are we doing? Am I just supposed to write what I think about this topic?”

 

Snark filled my mind: what did the student think we were doing? Talk about a failure to transfer – how much nearer could writing situations be? And yet there was a failure to connect the previous three weeks, the collaborative practice and the checkpoints, to the current task. And in the moment, I am pretty sure I widened my eyes (but refrained from rolling them). The student must have noted my reaction.

 

I remembered my own teaching goal: build writing-talk so as to support metacognition, reflection, and transfer. I encouraged the student to get the assignment instructions, and we talked through what we had already done in preparation. The student nodded and went back to the computer. Still, it took some time before the draft began to take shape.

 

This week, the students in that class met with me in groups of four for review conferences. The questioning student came with a draft that did not address rhetorical analysis in any way, despite the review we went through on drafting day. During the conferences, we projected drafts one by one onto a screen for group discussion. And during this student-led discussion, the student had a breakthrough: “So that’s what we’re doing. I need to go back and re-think my thesis.” Other students made suggestions and gave encouragement, and the student left with a focus for revision.

 

“So what are we doing?” I need to remember the grammar embedded in this question.  “So” is a discourse connector; the question doesn’t appear in a vacuum. Part of instruction in meta-talk is helping students make connections to our previous discourse, to see the cohesiveness of the instruction up to that point. And it’s “we” – not just “I.” I have told the students we are a community, and answers often arise in collaborative work, just as they did for this student in our group conference. Finally, the question is in present progressive: a work in process. The process includes what we have done (present perfect) and what we will do (future), and each part is tied together. From the present moment, especially from the student’s point of view, the process as a whole can be terribly difficult to see. 

 

“So what are we doing, Dr. Moore?” This terribly annoying question can be a powerful teaching moment, if I will let it.

 

What questions annoy you in the writing classroom? How are you handling them?

When I think back to my high school writing instruction, I remember red ink, error codes, rules written by hand (it was the early 1980s) ten times in an effort to earn back half the points deducted for rule violations on initial drafts. By my senior year, I had great confidence in my ability to deploy semicolons correctly, avoid phrasal verbs, and resist the urge to write a fragment for effect. I could generate error-free writing with very little trauma. But I was terrified to say anything creative or unexpected, because the secondary lesson of my instruction was that writing presents a million ways to make mistakes, and mistakes should be avoided above all.

 

It’s difficult to explore ideas and meaning—doubting and then believing yourself in turn (Peter Elbow had not yet made an impact on secondary writing instruction at that point) when you edit each line as it appears before you, even before a proposition has reached its final punctuation, to ensure that subjects and verbs agree.

 

I had not yet understood (or could not verbalize) that writing concerns meaning—and identities, relationships, and social expectations, among other things. Implicitly I must have known something of these concerns, for I recognized that writing “correctly” would open academic doors for me, as it eventually did – doors that bypassed first-year composition courses. But “correctness” for me entailed writing without a number of language resources that could have been helpful in clarifying meaning for different audiences and purposes: passive voice, phrasal verbs, first and second person pronouns, some sentence-initial conjunctive adverbials, and there is/are constructions.

 

My current composition classes are working on revisions to literacy narratives, and I am working to create classroom spaces for metatalk about writing and grammar, encouraging students to consider their language and writing resources, the choices they have made in this particular paper, and how they are assessing the effectiveness of those choices.  Similar to my own concerns in high-school, much of their talk revolves around rules and errors—and the fact that I have told them they can violate “rules” they learned in previous courses, as long as their decision to do so fits the purpose and evolving meaning of the paper (which requires them to think about purposes and meanings and how language might either align with or work against them). I am trying not to restrict their writing or language resources in any way.

 

But an upper-level student challenged me on this “no linguistic restrictions” policy during a discussion in my advanced grammar class recently. We were looking at the functions that be plays in English, particularly in the progressive aspect and the passive voice, as well as in there is/are constructions. Students were exploring the rhetorical and discourse purposes of these constructions—backgrounding/foregrounding, creating cohesion, denying or reducing agency, introducing topic shifts, etc. I casually mentioned that I hated to hear that be verbs were restricted in some composition classes, given what be-based constructions can accomplish within a text. Why would we ever want to restrict students from using legitimate linguistic resources, especially when avoiding those resources might lead to less than optimal prose?

 

One of my students suggested that he had found a restriction on using be verbs helpful to his development as a writer. When not allowed to use be in a paper, he became aware of the extent to which he did use be verbs. And in the course of our conversation, it became evident that not using be might help a student develop skill at using other structures—just as an athlete or musician might restrict the use of a dominant hand in order to strengthen a weaker or less-practiced hand. When assignments are framed strategically, as exercises designed to target a particular linguistic “muscle,” then such restrictions might make sense.

 

Indeed. I have done such exercises—framing them as ways of playing with language, especially at the paragraph level. To the extent that these exercises highlight and illustrate language-meaning relationships and the ways in which language choices can affect a reader’s experiences, they also support my goal to expand and explore metatalk in developmental and first-year writing courses. 

 

The student’s comments challenged me to consider yet again the way I frame instructions for assignments—both major papers and smaller classroom exercises; the nature of the framing language can either make my purpose clear or leave students bewildered, sensing that they’ve just encountered another idiosyncratic and arbitrary rule. The advanced student’s comments—and the lively metalinguistic and pedagogic discussion that followed—also reminded me of the value of opening spaces for first-year writers to talk about their writing with each other, not just with me.

 

What language restrictions do you give student writers? Are these restrictions part of a specific assignment? What is your purpose in restricting linguistic choices in that assignment? Do you explain that purpose explicitly to students? How?

Metalanguage, metacognition, metadiscourse, metapragmatics, metagrammar – I am seeing references to all things meta in professional journals and conference presentation titles. In his overview of scholarship on metadiscourse, for example, applied linguist Ken Hyland notes that metalanguage “concerns people’s knowledge about language and representations of language” (17); metalanguage engages language’s ability to reflect on itself, to be employed for the purpose of language analysis.

 

And we, as writing teachers, are aware of the value of reflection, particularly in teaching for transfer. 

 

But over the past couple of semesters, I’ve watched students in corequisite sections of freshman composition wrestle with the task of articulating reflections, particularly reflections on their rhetorical and grammatical choices. I am wondering what makes this reflective task so challenging. Is it a lack of experience in this sort of thinking and writing? A sense that reflection is one more thing that they need to get right for me, the instructor (and thus another opportunity to fail)? Have I not illustrated to them the value of the process? Is there a lack of vocabulary—words to capture the concepts that shape their revising and editing processes? Or perhaps those concepts are still quite fluid and thus resist articulation?

 

These questions are shaping my reading, thinking, and pedagogical experimentation this semester, not only in my corequisite section of FYC, but also in my sections of the grammar courses that English majors at my institution are required to take. As one of my graduate instructors used to say, I’m taking time this term to muck around in the data and explore the context; I’m focusing on creating opportunities for metatalk in my classes, and listening—or reading—as attentively as I can to what my students have to say. 

 

I’m also fortunate to collaborate with some advanced students who are making space for metatalk about writing and language for my students outside of the classroom. My corequisite students, for example, are working weekly with two of our “Writing Fellows,” who are workshopping papers with them in a small group setting. In my sections of grammar classes, I have student supplemental instructors who offer sessions during the week for class members to talk through and apply concepts we are covering in class. In these relaxed sessions, they are asking composition students and sophomore grammar students important questions: what’s going on in this paragraph? In this sentence? Why do you feel uncomfortable with it? What could we differently here, and how would it change our response?

 

In all sections, both composition and grammar, I’m asking for more drafts with annotations, questions, and—of course—reflections.

 

As I meet with the writing fellows, supplemental instructors, and students in my class, I want to hear what obstacles they encounter engaging in metalinguistic discussions, and then consider how my pedagogy might address those obstacles in future semesters—or how students can investigate metalinguistic awareness with me. As this semester progresses, I will be blogging both about my observations and about some of the strategies we are experimenting with in class. 

 

What are you investigating in your teaching this fall? What has energized you about your return to the classroom for this academic year? I would love to hear from you.

 

What are your scholarship and professional development plans for the summer? Like many colleagues, I relish the opportunity to focus on research projects, reading, and course development during the summer “downtime,” when I am teaching only one course. Such summer work informs our pedagogy for the academic year to come, whether we are full-time, part-time, tenured/tenure-track, or contingent—and whether or not our institutions and the legislatures and governing boards that fund them recognize the value of this particular academic labor.

 

Perhaps our summer efforts do not always appear as work to those outside academia because these activities can be so varied. Just consider the possibilities. I’ve got colleagues who have done or will do the following: 

 

  1. Plan and conduct research
  2. Travel as part of research work
  3. Finish writing an article or book chapter
  4. Attend a conference (perhaps a regional CCCC event?)
  5. Read a book (Paul Hanstedt’s Creating Wicked Students: Designing Courses for a Complex World was recommended to me recently, for example.)
  6. Create a virtual or F2F reading group (I’m in a group reading John Warner’s Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities.)
  7. Participate in a syllabus or assignment swap
  8. Catch up on reading journal articles
  9. Actually write one or more of the essays they typically assign students (Have you brushed up your own literacy narrative lately?)
  10. Participate in a webinar
  11. Revamp an online course or participate in a course review
  12. Take a course in a field outside their own discipline
  13. Participate in departmental assessment or course redesign efforts
  14. Review textbooks for publishers or the department
  15. Revise or develop a new edition of a textbook (which is on my agenda this summer)
  16. Serve as an abstract reader for conferences or peer reviewer for a journal
  17. Join a writing group
  18. Take training in technology, course accessibility/design, etc.
  19. Learn how to create video content (or another use any other technology that is new to them)
  20. Get involved in a cross-disciplinary SoTL (Scholarship of Teaching and Learning) group
  21. Plan an undergraduate research experience for students
  22. Become a mentor
  23. Apply for a grant
  24. Host a summit or roundtable session to support adjunct faculty
  25. Join or create a composition teaching circle with faculty from high schools, two-year schools, or four-year schools (or participate in a National Writing Project event)

 

What are your summer plans? Is there a book you would like to recommend, a conference that you’re planning to attend, or a virtual group that others could join?  Share your recommendations with us.

In my last post, I looked at writing rules issued by instructors across the curriculum and the resulting confusion for student writers attempting to understand what good writing actually means—and how much of their previous instruction applies in a new context.  The comments on the post highlight how often we must address “conflicting rules” in our classrooms: Aprill Hastings, for example, pointed out that a discussion of rules can be a platform for teaching, leading students to appreciate how “delightfully messy” writing can actually be. Similarly, Jack Solomon noted that looking at rules from other courses can lead to fruitful discussions of conventions and genres, but also (critically) that students must be able to adjust to the expectations of different teachers, each of whom will give a grade. After all, Solomon continued, we “wouldn't want any student to be penalized in a different class for whatever writing guidance” we have given. Finally, Peter Adams admitted (with more than a touch of humor) that it’s possible for the same instructor to give different rules in different semesters or classes. 

 

Yes! I would agree wholeheartedly with all of these comments: I want to help my students develop not just specific writing “rules,” but a flexible approach that will allow them to tackle future writing strategically, transferring, expanding, and adjusting as necessary (applying what DePalma and Ringer have termed “adaptive transfer”).  

 

What I want to do better is facilitate such adaptive transfer, especially with basic and multilingual writers in corequisite courses. My students often want clear directives, models, and templates—and these can be quite helpful. But at the same time, I want to support our students’ engagement in what John Warner calls “the skill that is the writing equivalent of balance when it comes to riding a bicycle” – making choices.

 

To that end, this summer, I am revisiting my FYC/corequisite assignments, instructions, and related readings. Specifically, I am looking at rules that could be considered “choice-restricting,” and revisiting how I introduce and teach these directives.

 

Specifically, I am asking myself some questions:

 

  1. What is the underlying writing concept or principle this rule addresses? Is it creating a stance/voice, engaging with a reader, grounding discourse in an on-going conversation, adhering to conventions, acknowledging other voices, arranging evidence in support of a claim, or something else? Do I present the directive so that the connection to the underlying concept is clear?
  2. What questions would I ask when encountering this rule? How can I prompt students to reflect on the rule and ask questions of their own?
  3. Have I provided linguistic resources—vocabulary or syntactic strategies—that allow students to make choices in relation to this rule?
  4. Have I encouraged students to reflect on why this particular choice is important for a writer?

 

As an example, consider my FYC summary assignment, which includes a directive not to use first person pronouns. Students produce an objective summary of a source, showing an understanding of structure and content, without making personal comments. In addition, students include references to the author and “rhetorical strategy verbs” in each sentence of the summary: the author argues, he explains, they suggest, etc.

 

I can see how my students would view my “summary guidelines” as an example of one instructor’s idiosyncrasies, even while I see them as critical practice in developing stance and managing other voices effectively and accurately. So in my “assignment redesign,” I am framing these differently on my handout, referring explicitly to stance and including other voices as key writing concepts—concepts that they will encounter multiple times in my class. 

 

I am also trying to foster critical thinking about these concepts early in our discussion.  So, for example, I might ask students to consider a time when a person needs to do a job without drawing attention to himself or herself in the process. (When I asked that question this past semester, one student quickly responded “being an assassin.”) After brainstorming a list of several such occasions, we turn to writing: are there times in writing when you don’t really want to draw attention to yourself? In other words, are there times when you want to sound more neutral or distant from the content? Why?

 

Having connected the “no first person” rule to a concept and a purpose, I want to provide linguistic resources. In this case, “signal phrases” or “author tags” (as I mentioned earlier) are one option. In addition, I could show students how to convert “rhetorical” verbs to nouns: “Krashen suggests” could become “Krashen’s suggestion…” I could also teach cleft/inversion structures: “Krashen wants readers to” becomes “what Krashen wants readers to do is…”

 

Finally, I am adding some reflection questions to the students’ journals and the cover letters accompanying final drafts: 

 

  • Where else do you think you might need to take a more objective or neutral stance in writing? What makes that hard to do?
  • Where have you seen other writers take a more objective or neutral stance? What can you learn from those writers?
  • What concepts or connections might help you understand why a teacher tells you not to write in first person?

Over the past two weeks, my FYC students have been drafting, revising, and editing a researched essay. I conference individually with students and devote class time to workshops, feedback, and student questions. This semester, as usual, many of their questions concerned writing rules encountered in previous courses or in other content courses they are currently taking. The typical exchange goes something like this:

 

Student: So, can we use contractions in this paper?

Me: Well, sure – if they make sense for your purpose and your reader, and for the tone or voice you are constructing for yourself in the paper.

Student: Seriously?

Me:  Yes.

Student: But in my other class, the teacher said academic writers never use contractions. She took points off if we did. 

Me: Well, in some contexts it could be better to avoid them—think about what class it was and the purpose of that particular paper. How was that purpose different than your purpose here?

 

Students rarely see an overarching concept—such as writing for a specific purpose and reader—tied to the rules given by an instructor. Rather, they see each assignment as its own, isolated entity, and their task as doing whatever a particular instructor wants for a particular assignment. 

 

Why should that be? Perhaps our efforts across the curriculum to give clear and unequivocal statements regarding our expectations can work against our goal to help students connect assignments and transfer what they already know. I am not suggesting that our assignments should be fuzzy or vague, but I do think we need to look at the array of directives in those assignments through the eyes of students. 

 

So, for example, consider a list of writing rules I’ve begun to collect from students, colleagues, handouts, and presentations about writing. These come from assignments across disciplines, from two-year and four-year instructors, from first-year to upper-level courses:

 

  1. Avoid quotes. Paraphrase and put key information in your own voice.
  2. Avoid saying your paper “attempts” to do anything. Avoid “impact” as a verb, along with “seeks to.” Avoid “aims to.” Avoid saying “in the past.”
  3. Avoid vague references: “as we all know,” “people say.”  
  4. Begin broadly and then narrow your topic to the thesis.
  5. Do not announce what you are going to do in the paper.
  6. Do not begin too broadly (“throughout history,” “in all of literature,” etc.)
  7. Do not begin sentences or clauses with any of the following: “There are/is…”, “This is…”, “It is…,” etc.
  8. Do not end a sentence with a preposition.
  9. Do not give a dictionary definition as an introduction.
  10. Do not hedge with words like “maybe,” “seem,” “perhaps,” “might,” or “possibly.”
  11. Do not overgeneralize or make unqualified assertions.
  12. Do not provide a long list of references after facts established by previous research.
  13. Do not put these words at the beginning of a sentence: “however,” “furthermore,” “moreover,” “indeed,” etc.
  14. Do not say, “I/we argue.”  
  15. Do not say, “Everyone has their own opinion.” That is obvious, and it shuts down critical thinking.
  16. Do not start a sentence with “and.”
  17. Do not use the passive voice.  
  18. Do not use first person pronouns.
  19. Do not use contractions.
  20. Do not use “say” to introduce source material. Choose a more interesting verb.
  21. Do not use scare quotes or put quotation marks around words used in unexpected ways.
  22. Do not use second person pronouns.
  23. Do not use the word “very.”
  24. Do not write paragraphs with only 1-2 sentences.
  25. Make sure the significant results are stated in the beginning.
  26. Put a clear and obvious thesis sentence at the end of your first paragraph.  
  27. Remove the verb “be” in all forms from your writing.
  28. Use “rhetorical verbs” such as “say,” “assert,” “explain,” or “introduce” when you introduce sources; do not use “cognition” or “emotion” verbs: “think,” “believe,” “understand,” or “love.”
  29. Use short Anglo-Saxon words.  
  30. Write in the present tense.
  31. Write in the past tense.

 

What do students see when confronted with rules such as these from different instructors? They may see idiosyncrasies, contradictions, and frustrations. When we talk about “good writing,” it’s no wonder a common response is that it means “whatever the teacher wants.”

Comparing rules and our rationales for them (which may not be clear to students) might be a helpful point for a cross-disciplinary discussion and a focus for WAC-oriented professional development.

In future posts, I want to look at some promising strategies for helping students think differently about writing rules and assignments that seem to be framed by those rules.

How do you respond when students mention rules they have encountered in other courses?

Miriam Moore

Finishing Well

Posted by Miriam Moore Expert Apr 17, 2019

Many years ago, during the panic-riddled days prior to my dissertation defense, an experienced friend encouraged me to see the defense procedures as a celebration of scholarship, something to be savored, not a hurdle to be feared or dreaded. While I was not able to embrace that perspective fully (especially the night before), I sensed a shift from “grilling” to intellectual debate after just a few minutes into the defense, and that shift came with a growing sense of confidence: I was ready. I had done the work, and I had something worthwhile to say. Those who attended listened, questioned, and affirmed.

 

My first-year writing students have reached the final two weeks of the semester. As they are finishing projects and final reflections, I can see distress rising – many of them are taking three, four, or (in some cases) five other classes, and they have families, work, or even high school rites of passage that compete for their attention. As I conferenced with students this week, I listened to their stories, fears, and questions. I realized they need a context in which to finish well; I need to make the final two weeks a reminder of what they have accomplished and to celebrate the progress they have made. 

 

What specific steps create that context for finishing well? I look back and remember what contributed to a positive ending on my dissertation: time to do the work and reminders of how that dissertation fit into the larger picture of my education and training. For my students, time means our class meetings will be devoted to the projects they are working on: workshops, small group and one-on-one conferences, and peer review. And the big picture includes feedback, reminders of how concepts we’ve circled around all semester are relevant to these final projects. When a student asks me, for example, if I think her opening move makes sense, I first affirm the value of her question as evidence of her growth as a writer. When a student asks me how to cite an interview he conducted with another professor, I remind him that his view of source material has changed since we began, and then we think about resources for MLA citation rules. Another student tells me her thesis for the final project “just doesn’t feel right yet,” and I commiserate with her—while applauding her choice to listen to that intuition. Our workshops will provide a platform for her to talk through why her thesis draft is not working for her. Our talk about writing over these two weeks, while centered on their specific drafts and needs, will touch on the threshold concepts that have framed the entire course.

 

In one of my classes, students will write a final reflection letter during the final exam slot, and in the other, students will present their final projects in a poster session. While they have not finished their educations, they have completed a significant first step.   Our final sessions will be a celebration of finishing well. 

 

What do you do to help your students end well?

I recently led a workshop on working with multilingual writers in IRW and corequisite composition courses, and I was asked how best to handle peer review when there are multilingual writers in the classroom. Several participants expressed concern about the efficacy and practicality of writing workshops, especially in very diverse classrooms where background knowledge, linguistic traditions, and experiences with academic writing vary widely. Could such workshops serve to marginalize multilingual writers?

 

I would suggest, in fact, that diversity offers the potential for a richer workshop experience for all students, although you may need to spend more time preparing students for participation and guiding them throughout the workshop, especially at the beginning of the course. 

  

I usually introduce workshops with a discussion of the purpose of the peer review process. Most of my students will have had some experience with peer review, and I ask them to hypothesize about the purpose, based on their experiences. Most affirm that peer review is supposed to “make the paper better” or “find the problems.” When pressed, most students equate peer review with a process very similar to “grading”:  point out flaws, tell people what to fix, make evaluative comments. To highlight the similarities, we may create a chart connecting what they’ve experienced in peer review and what they’ve experienced in teacher feedback or grading.

 

Comments in these early discussions reveal the reasons so many students (and faculty, in some cases) are wary of peer-review: they believe they are expected to take on the role of expert in the process—an expectation they cannot meet. In response to this perceived expectation, multilingual students (depending on background) may adopt an overly critical or directive stance, engage in enthusiastic but unhelpful cheerleading, or simply withdraw from the process.

Having discussed the purpose of workshops, I like to show students examples of peer feedback that I’ve been given, from colleagues and from editors at Bedford/St. Martin’s.  While most agree that the feedback is still targeted to “make the writing better,” they see quickly that the comments I’ve received lead to improvement not by telling me what to do, but by giving me information that I can use to make decisions about my writing. The feedback generally occurs in the form of reader responses, questions, I-statements, and clarification requests. In early drafts, I may also have questions about why information appears where it does. In short, I am getting descriptive and analytic feedback that allows me to make decisions about how to revise, much like a chef would gather feedback from taste testers to improve a dish or the way a producer might gather focus group feedback before creating the final version of a film.

 

The underlying aim of feedback, then, is to provide information authors can use to make writing decisions – and ultimately, information that will help authors evaluate their writing decisions. And unlike the role of expert, providing a reader’s perspective is an expectation that all students can achieve in a workshop setting. 

Once we’ve established the purpose of the workshop, we begin the process of practicing.  The following principles guide our practice. 

  • I provide specific guidance on acceptable formats for response. In most of my classes, that means that students don’t generally comment on grammar, at least not in the early stages. I also demonstrate how to make “I-statements,” how to request clarification, how to describe a gut reaction, and how to ask content questions.
  • I may ask students to annotate drafts for specific elements that we have been discussing in class, such as stance strategies, transitions, showing evidence, or efforts to engage the audience.
  • We spend some class time discussing how to use the feedback. One option is to have writers organize feedback as a set of issues to review, and then they can identify options open for addressing those issues.
  • I ask students to determine what feedback is most helpful and to use that information to be proactive in their workshops. As the term progresses, students create a “what I want from feedback” statement to share along with their drafts in the workshops.
  • We try feedback in different modes: small group discussion, shared annotations of Google Docs, writing directly on printed copies, using sticky notes, etc. As the semester progresses, classes can request specific types of workshops, based on what has worked well for them.
  • I offer students an opportunity to reflect on every workshop experience (usually through quick surveys or anonymous comments), and we make adjustments in the format and composition of workshop groups throughout the term.

 

Students in IRW/corequisite courses, especially those from multilingual and diverse backgrounds, may have had negative experiences with peer workshops. But eliminating workshops from our IRW/multilingual/corequisite courses altogether may reinforce mistaken beliefs that writing is a solitary process, that the only source of feedback is a teacher, and that the only gauge of a text’s effectiveness is the grade it receives. Integrating writing workshops in multilingual classrooms, on the other hand, builds a sense of community that values the contributions of each member.

I am continuing to look at suggestions for working with multilingual students in FYC and IRW corequisite classrooms. One area of concern for many instructors is plagiarism and patchwriting with multilingual writers. A number of researchers and pedagogical experts have weighed in on the causes of this particular challenge and ways to address it (see articles by Howard, Serviss, and Rodrigue, as well as Pecorari, for example).

 

I would echo one of their findings: for many multilingual writers, patchwriting often results from a novice attempt at paraphrase – an attempt that can be improved with an increased focus on instruction and practice. 

I begin a discussion of paraphrase early in my FYC and corequisite courses, since much of our text-based writing requires integration of source material via summary, paraphrase, or quote. When I introduce the concept, I ask students to consider how they are already making use of paraphrase in their daily lives. Multilingual students frequently negotiate conversations in multiple languages, and paraphrase is a strategic resource they deploy when moving between languages and audiences. We talk about the quizzical look we might get in our daily conversations, a look that signals that we have not communicated well. So we try again: we re-phrase, and we paraphrase. We also put paraphrase to work in teaching, coaching, parenting, mentoring, training, and encouraging—roles many of my multilingual students are quite familiar with. 

 

What students are able to see quickly is that paraphrase outside of the classroom is not about checking a box on a rubric; it’s all about communicating a message so that a particular audience can understand it. Our purpose is explanation, and the goal is comprehension. What we do in writing is essentially the same thing: we encounter interesting and sometimes challenging concepts and ideas from the texts we read, and our goal is to communicate those ideas clearly for our own readers. 

 

Having established the purpose of a paraphrase, students note quickly that paraphrase requires an understanding of the information being shared. The first step is successful paraphrasing is reading for understanding – often reading many times. 

 

I next tell students I am going to tell them how NOT to paraphrase. I take a sentence or two from a difficult text we are working with, such as this one from Elizabeth Wardle’s essay in Bad Ideas about Writing. We talk about what it means to “put something in our own words,” and I show them a strategy that doesn’t work: we go through and substitute synonyms or related words for each major content word in the passage. Students may use a thesaurus or translator for this activity. Then we look at the results we get. I ask the students to consider whether or not the paraphrase is successful, and most will readily agree that it is not: it doesn’t explain, and it makes no sense. Our criteria for judgment is not how many words are copied before one is changed; rather, it is the effectiveness of the paraphrase in explaining the ideas in the original text.

 

We also take a look at paraphrases generated by online paraphrase tools, which usually produce a word salad akin to the paraphrase we generated in our first version. We wrap our introductory overview of paraphrasing by looking at a variety of successful and no-so-successful paraphrases, with example of patchwriting thrown in. Setting up the discussion with the purpose of paraphrase allows students to focus first on the meaning communicated in the paraphrase, and second on the language used to convey that meaning.

 

Finally, I have students work in collaborative groups to practice. I ask a targeted question about a concept from something we have read, and I ask the students to draft a paragraph in which they first quote from the target text to answer the question and then paraphrase the quote they’ve chosen. Finally, they extend the paragraph with an example from their own experience, and we review the paragraphs to see if readers can identify the parts (quote, paraphrase, and expansion) and the boundaries between them.

 

In peer responses to the paragraphs, students get one more shot at practicing paraphrase: they read a classmate’s paragraph and attempt to paraphrase the topic sentence (main idea), using the following frame.


     

       “Let me get this straight. You’re saying that __________________, right?”

 

This intensive practice prepares students to work with blending partial quotes, paraphrases, and summaries later in the term. While the class sessions devoted to paraphrase practice early on do not fully eliminate patchwriting and plagiarism, they provide students with a strong base for continued practice and discussion.

I am continuing to look at suggestions for working with multilingual students in FYC and IRW corequisite classrooms. Here’s a simple activity that can support sentence structure development for all readers and writers, one that is particularly helpful for multilingual students. 

 

Select a short passage (3-5 sentences) from a classroom reading, focusing on an excerpt that illustrates clear functions or rhetorical purposes. For example, in my current IRW composition course, we recently looked at this short paragraph from Elizabeth Wardle’s article “You Can Learn to Write in General,” from the open-source text Bad Ideas about Writing:

 

There is no writing in general, and thus no single class or workshop or experience can teach people to write, once and for all. But people want to believe that it’s possible to write in general because this belief makes writing seem less difficult and allows them to believe that writers can get a one-time writing inoculation that will extend across all settings. If this is the case, then non-English teachers and employers are off the hook; they don’t have to help students learn to write in their classrooms or workplaces, they can just criticize writers for not being able to meet their expectations— and criticize English teachers for not doing their jobs.  (31)

 

As my class discussed this passage in the context of the entire essay, we looked at what the three sentences accomplish rhetorically. Sentence one, for example, presents a strong claim (“There is no writing in general”) and follows with the consequences of that claim (“and thus…”). The second sentence introduces a contrasting belief (“But…”), followed by a reason (“because…”). The final sentence looks at the implications of accepting the alternative (“if…then…”), adding additional ideas via a semicolon and a dash. 

This analysis led to a simple discussion of different ways to express frustration, especially frustration in relation to mistaken ideas. Instead of screeching, “That’s wrong,” Wardle’s paragraph illustrates a formal and more “academic” means of confronting a false or mistaken belief.

Next, I asked students to think about statements or expectations suggesting mistaken assumptions that they hear (particularly in college or work situations), and to create a paragraph expressing their frustration, following Wardle’s model:

There is no _________________, and so ____________________.  But _______________ because _______________________.  If ___________, then _________________; _____________________--__________________.

 

Students worked on the project in groups, producing paragraphs similar to this one:

 

There is no way we can get so much homework done so fast, and thus teachers can’t expect us to finish everything completely.  But teachers want to believe that major assignments can be done in a day or two because they think we students don’t have lives and jobs outside of school.  If this was true, then maybe we should have all assignments done before the next class; teachers could also lecture us about how we don’t listen or how we make excuses--and even make us hate coming to class.

 

Once student groups generated their paragraphs, we did some large group editing for spelling, agreements, and mechanics.  But each group was able to complete a thought-provoking paragraph with effective sentence structure, using the functions and sentence patterns we found in Wardle’s original.  

 

This activity builds confidence for students, and in this particular case, it also allowed me to hear and affirm the struggles they have regarding academic expectations of them:  in addition to typical student complaints about the amount of time and work expected from them, students also commented on frustrations with feedback and criticism, the stress of comprehensive and high-stakes testing, difficulties talking with faculty, and the sense that faculty are offended when students aren’t 100% engaged in every class. The large-group editing and review of the paragraphs led to a frank discussion about strategies for dealing with mismatches between faculty and students. We didn’t resolve all the frustrations, but student perspectives were seen, heard, and validated.

 

What are your strategies for helping multilingual writers build confidence using different sentence structures?

I am continuing to look at suggestions for working with multilingual students in FYC and IRW co-requisite classrooms. This week, I’d like to consider vocabulary development, an area of struggle for many students in basic writing classrooms, but particularly for multilingual writers. When I poll my students about writing concerns, a lack of vocabulary is often mentioned as a barrier or challenge.

 

My current IRW co-requisite supports a writing-about-writing (WAW) FYC course, which means I am asking my students to tackle some tough reading assignments, and it is in the context of those reading assignments that I first address vocabulary. Before students begin a WAW reading assignment, I provide a reading guide that includes some key vocabulary words. The guide primes students for the text and scaffolds the reading for them, allowing them to work through the content without repeated stops to refer to a dictionary or a translator.

 

But this initial exposure to lexical items is only the start of the learning process; even though students will see the words multiple times within the context of the reading, “acquiring” these words means understanding more than a translation or a definition.   Most linguists or language teachers would include the following as part of “knowing a word”:  pronunciation, spelling, register, part of speech, connotations, and collocations, in addition to the dictionary definitions. And for many words, there are multiple definitions to consider.

 

Within my IRW classes, therefore, I target a set of critical vocabulary throughout the term. I choose words that I know students will encounter more than once in our class readings, words that are critical for discussions of language and writing. I may also choose words that occur on the Academic Word List, which is a list of words and word families that occur across multiple academic disciplines. When I “target” words, I introduce and highlight these words as they occur in context, and I provide focused practice and opportunities for use. 

 

What does that look like? To highlight words in context, consider these strategies:

  • Preview the words before a reading.
  • Highlight the words in a reading by reading paragraphs aloud, emphasizing target words, and discussing the sentences in which they occur.
  • Incorporate the words in lectures and include them on class handouts and assignment instructions, giving students a chance to hear and see them.
  • Ask students open-ended questions that include the words.

 

To provide more focused instruction, consider these ideas:

  • Provide related parts of speech. For example, when students learn the noun “concession,” I also teach the related verb “concede.” Then students practice with both words, using cloze (fill in the blank) and grammatical judgment exercises. The latter type of exercise requires students to determine whether or not something is a possible sentence. For example, students must determine if we can say, “I will concession this point.” If they decide it is not acceptable, then they offer an alternative: we’d have to say “concede this point.”
  • Provide collocations. We can make concessions or offer concessions, but we don’t do concessions. We make a concession on or about a certain issue, and we concede that something is the case; we don’t make concessions to an issue (although we can make a concession to a person), and we don’t concede to do something (with an infinitive). Again, I present this information explicitly (a chart works well to show verb + prepositions combinations), point to it in our readings, and provide practice exercises. I frequently draw the incorrect sentences for these exercises from examples in student writing, and students often seemed relieved to have the clarification.
  • Look at contrasts carefully. As students study words and look at translations, they may encounter similar words with different connotations or nuances. With concession, for example, students may want to understand the difference between a concession and an admission; we discuss those differences explicitly. At times, students ask questions I can’t answer immediately. After all, there are many things about words that I know intuitively but have never been required to articulate. I will think about the question for a day or two, perhaps ask a colleague or consult the OED, and then take an answer back to the class. We also make the fact of tacit knowledge a topic of class discussion, emphasizing that all of us, as language-users, have such knowledge about language.
  • Celebrate attempts to use the words, whether successful or not.

 

While some of these activities may seem daunting or time-consuming, it actually takes little time to preview words and find ways to emphasize them within the context of other class activities. The focus exercises are not particularly hard to draw up either, and can be implemented in just a few moments at the beginning or the end of a class.  

 

Finally, instructors can let students guide on-going vocabulary study by asking for some basic feedback at the end of a class period or as part of a reflection journal: What are three words from our reading or class discussion that confused you or that you’d like to know more about?

 

For more about vocabulary and multilingual writers, I recommend the work of Paul Nation, Keith Folse, or Michael Lewis.

 

What are your strategies for helping multilingual writers learn and use new vocabulary?

I am often asked about simple suggestions to help multilingual students in FYC and IRW co-requisite classrooms. For the next several weeks, I want to examine some strategies for addressing the needs of all students in diverse classrooms, with a particular emphasis on multilingual learners. I would love to hear from you as well: what techniques, assignments, strategies, and resources would you recommend when you are working in a multilingual and multicultural classroom?

 

One place to begin is a review of assignments and the written instructions that accompany them. An article by Joy Reid and Barbara Kroll, “Designing and Assessing Effective Classroom Writing Assignments for NES and ESL Students,” outlines several criteria for effective writing assignments, covering context, content, language, task, rhetorical requirements, and clear evaluation criteria. 

 

The Reid and Kroll article provides excellent guidelines for teachers to assess their own assignments and evaluation criteria. The goal, as the authors suggest, is to provide assignments that “stretch the students without overwhelming them and provide students with significant learning experiences” (20). In a multilingual classroom, I’ve seen assignments that have done just the opposite: they have overwhelmed students and, as a result, put them into panic or survival mode—and in some cases pushed them towards cheating or plagiarism. One thing that has worked for me, in addition to the suggestions provided by Reid and Kroll, is to make the assignment instructions themselves (and whatever problems students have with them) a teaching tool. In short, I think engaging students as co-evaluators of assignments can promote reflection and agency, serving as scaffolding for future “significant learning experiences.”

 

When I introduce a new assignment or tweak an assignment in some way, for example, I give the students time to read and think about the instructions. Then I do a quick anonymous survey via a Google Form:

 

  • Do you have all the information you need to begin this assignment?
  • If not, what else do you need to know?
  • Do you have the resources you need?
  • What questions do you have for me?

 

We spend just a few minutes at the beginning of the next class discussing the questions and concerns, and if needed, I update the assignment instructions (kept on a shared Google Doc). 

 

Next, once students have worked through each part of the assignment, I ask them to consider the writing or reading decisions that the assignment has required them to make. I ask:

 

  • Which decisions were the most difficult?
  • Did you have the information and resources you needed to make those decisions?
  • Why or why not?

 

Once again, we discuss the writing choices they are making, and if needed, I further adjust the assignment instructions. If the writing decisions that trouble them stem from word choice or sentence structure, we may spend class time identifying helpful and relevant structures. I also make a note to consider teaching certain structures as part of future instruction with this assignment.

 

We may go through several iterations of this feedback loop. Then, once the final draft of the paper has been submitted and graded, I ask for one final reflection:

 

  • What surprised you about this draft?
  • What did you learn about yourself as a reader or writer?
  • What is something you wish you had known when you started?
  • If you could change one thing about the assignment itself, what would you change and why?
  • If you could do one thing differently in writing this paper, what would you do?

 

I use these reflections to further refine and develop the assignment instructions for students. Their comments help me understand how successfully the assignment communicated its purpose and process. The comments also help me understand what scaffolding can support future student success.

 

I plan to try one additional step this semester. I am going to ask the students to work with me to develop a rubric for assessing assignments. We’ll use what they discuss to outline what makes an effective assignment (and I am guessing that their criteria will be quite similar to those suggested by Reid and Kroll). Then, I am going to let them assess an assignment I am planning for the future, using the rubric they have generated. Based on their comments and feedback, I will refine the assignment, and I will acknowledge their feedback on the final version of the assignment that I develop.

 

Involving students in assessing, revising, and refining assignments can benefit all students, but I think it has great potential for multilingual students, as the process can make expectations and resources for academic literacy explicit for those students, and it invites them to voice concerns and seek needed assistance without stigmatizing them as somehow “deficient.” 

 

I will be looking at other strategies for working with multilingual writers over the next few weeks. If you’ve got a teaching tip you would be willing to share, let me know.

Miriam Moore

Be It Hereby Resolved

Posted by Miriam Moore Expert Jan 9, 2019

It’s January, and I am seeing signs of resolutions everywhere: explicit declarations of relationship, health, and professional goals, along with tacit commitments indicated by images of tracking devices, fitness equipment, organic fruits and veggies, garden plans, drawers or closets awaiting organization, and booklists. 

 

Resolve—along with related forms resolution and resolute—is a rich and powerful word, brought into English as a verb from Latin and extended via functional shift to serve also as noun. We resolve (make resolutions) to address what is unresolved—dissonant, jumbled, confused, unsettled, or lacking—in music, in labs, in institutions, in government, and in ourselves. 

 

After spending a day with colleagues and workshop leader Asao Inoue reflecting on our pedagogy and, in particular, our assessment and feedback practices, I am ready to make some resolutions for my FYC and IRW co-requisite classrooms this spring. I am also inspired by Traci Gardner’s "My New School Year’s Resolutions."

 

Here are my resolutions for this semester:

 

  1. Expand use of social media/technology to support collaborative activities outside the classroom, with an overarching goal of fostering a deeper sense of community within the class. Collaborative activities—from shared reading experiences to peer review—is difficult to establish (much less sustain) in the 150 minutes we are together weekly. And all too easily, these activities within my classes can become perfunctory, not constructive. As a starting point, I want to explore joint annotations of some sections of our more difficult readings using Google Docs.
  2. Give students more options and opportunities to negotiate our classroom activities and (some) assignment parameters. One of the “big ideas” or threshold concepts that I use to structure my writing course is that all writing involves choices that affect meaning, whether words, structures, details, punctuation, or organization. But I suspect it’s difficult for students to accept the potential power of (and responsibility for) smaller writing decisions when they have little sense of agency for broader learning activities in the classroom.
  3. Make a meaningful portion of a student’s grade related to the labor the student has invested in the process of the course (see Traci Gardner's post, as well as Asao Inoue’s Labor-Based Grading Contract). I am an Alabama Crimson Tide football fan (I hope I won’t lose too many readers at this point!), and I have read a several articles about Nick Saban’s approach to coaching, which centers on what he calls “the process.” He asks his players to commit to the process—the rigorous and regular work that goes into a season and into each individual game—not to a specific outcome. Players can control the time devoted to the process, but they cannot control (not fully!) the outcome. I am going to play with an analogy to Saban’s coaching this semester, asking my students to commit to a rigorous process that requires time: completing drafts, participating in workshops, reading (and annotating readings collaboratively), and exploring language with me. I am asking them to trust this process, and a significant portion of their grade will be derived from their willingness to devote time to this process, regardless of the final outcome or product.
  4. Introduce vocabulary and concepts from rhetorical and systemic-functional grammars. I have been using a writing-about-writing foundation for my FYC and co-requisite courses for a few years now, and I am pleased with the results. But I am not yet satisfied with my approach to grammar within that framework, and I’d like to experiment with the metalanguage of rhetorical grammar and SFG as strategies for helping students re-envision their grammatical choices.  
  5. Reduce the number of major writing assignments so that students can spend more time on them, seeing their investment in the process of these assignments yield intellectual insights that encourage them to continue reading and writing. Similarly, I plan to increase opportunities for low-stakes, exploratory writing and reflective writing.

 

My resolutions come from the tensions I have been wrestling with for the past couple of years: fair, meaningful, and useful assessments; effective collaboration; grammatical instruction that empowers student choices.

 

What are your resolutions for teaching in the coming year?

Guest Blogger: Michelle Kaschak is an Assistant Teaching Professor of English at Penn State Lehigh Valley. She teaches IRW courses, first-year composition, and upper-level social science and technical writing courses

 

When I was child, I loved connect-the-dots books and worksheets. They helped me learn to see the big picture as I connected each line to the next number or letter.  As a writing teacher, I am always looking for ways for students to practice writing outside of the classroom or to help them “connect the dots” to help them understand that writing isn’t always at a desk or on a computer. That we can stretch our writing skills to other locales and other purposes.  

 

In this effort to change locales and make connections, I tried to find ways to utilize resources on our small campus. In my basic writing classes, I started using our campus art gallery to have students practice descriptive writing with a touch of art appreciation. 

 

I am fairly certain many of my students have not spent any length of time looking at or writing about art. Although we have a small campus and a small gallery, we do have rotating exhibits that offer everything from pen and ink drawings to large sculptures and photography. 

 

The class before we go to the gallery is a practice class. I had them look at a sculpture of a dancer and watch a short video of a ballet performance. We wrote down different words to describe both. They even had to stand up to pose like the sculpture, so they could write about the kinesthetic feeling of the movement. It ended up being quite fun.

 

For the next class in the art gallery, I had them do what I called an “Art Gallery Walk.”  I asked to look at three different pieces of art in the gallery and get them to write down as many adjectives as they can for each one. I urge them to think about how a word like small or weird could be rewritten to be more specific.    

 

Some of the adjectives they wrote down were life-like, chilling, weathered, prickly, jubilant, and even ethereal. It stretched their vocabulary skills, though some students were stronger at this than others. After writing their adjectives, they had to turn those descriptors into a short paragraph describing at least one of the pieces of art.   

 

A sample response from one student: 

 

 

“I believe this is a Cuban woman since cigars are big in Cuba and it still is. Cuba is very old fashioned and this woman shows that; she looks like she’s been out in the sun and is smoking a cigar. Cuba is a part of her and she is a part of Cuba.  I really enjoyed this piece and felt a connection to it.” 

 

What the students get from this exercise is the ability to think about word choice in writing. I try to guess which piece of art they wrote about by looking at their paragraph. If I cannot guess, they need to think about how they can be more specific and clear in describing it.

 

Overall, this lesson provides them with a concrete item to write about. It gets them in the gallery looking at and critiquing art. It’s not uncommon to hear, “I don’t like that.”  Or “This piece is weird.” But then they have to learn how to explain why. They learn to use their vocabulary skills to go beyond the typical words. That, to me, is the fun part of doing this assignment. 

 

In turn, I think the students learn to “connect the dots” between what they see, what they think and what they write. 

 

What are your strategies for helping students build vocabulary and “connect the dots”?