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In my first-year writing courses this fall, I’ve asked my students to explore James Gee’s concept of Discourse as a means of interpreting their previous literacy experiences. A common theme in their first essays is a sense that prior schooling often suffocated their voices, leaving them with little interest or personal investment in classroom writing. They “know” they shouldn’t write in the first person or use textisms, emoji, contractions, or “I think” statements. 

 

For their course projects, students select and explore one of the Bad Ideas about Writing—some of which are written in first person. They seek out blogs, TED talks, newspaper articles, peer-reviewed journal articles, and a range of other online and print sources related to their chosen “bad idea”—and to their own experiences, majors, and career choices.  As they work with sources, I ask them to consider how the various writers represent themselves in the texts. Do the students hear a voice there?  Where?  What gives the readers a sense of that voice?

 

To help students recognize multiple ways of expressing voice within academic contexts, I have them read Ken Hyland’s “Disciplinary Voices: Interactions in Research Writing,” which approaches voice from a disciplinary perspective. Hyland says,

 

“Writers have to display a competence as disciplinary insiders to be persuasive and this is, at least in part, achieved through a writer-reader dialogue which situates both their research and themselves. This means adopting a disciplinary voice; using language which establishes relationships between people, and between people and ideas…. All this is done within the broad constraints of disciplinary discourses” (7).  

 

Specifically, writers position themselves using “stance” markers, and they connect with readers using “engagement” strategies. My students look for ways their source texts demonstrate both stance and engagement, noting how these concepts are instantiated differently according to the context and purpose of the piece.

 

The course project builds throughout the semester; shortly after mid-term, students have found, evaluated, and summarized four sources, and they have matched quotes or paraphrases to show how sources confirm, expand, complicate, or contradict each other (and their own experiences). As we move into the home stretch of the project, students need at least one additional text or audio source, as well as an interview.  But many of the students hit a snag at this point: they struggle to find an additional source that fits smoothly into the conversation that is taking shape among themselves and their sources.

 

To address their concerns on a practical level and to reiterate our on-going discussion of voice, during one recent session I asked students to think about hashtags in social media contexts. What is the purpose of hashtagging a post on Twitter or on other social media platforms? How do hashtags express stance? Engagement? 

 

I have just over 40 students in two sections, all of whom are working on the Bad Ideas about Writing project. After our hashtag discussion, students posted the citations for their first four sources on a shared Google doc, and for each one, they added four to eight hashtags to represent both their reaction to the source and the shared purposes of the classroom.  Their hashtags thus demonstrate both stance and engagement, as these examples from our document suggest: #scholarly, #wedontalllearnthesame, #lengthy, #Teachersneedbettertraining #Easyread, #longggggggg, #getadreamjournal, #goodread, #notaboutwritingbutstillgood, #literacyinstruction, #realworldexamples, #teacherPOV, #findyourvoice, #videoincluded, #fingeredspeech, #conventionalphrases, #howto, #followthesteps, #don’tbesohardonyoself, #followurownrules,

#researchbased, #textingislikeasecondlanguage, #shortandsweet, #thanksPerelman,  #downwiththeessay, #outdated, #PurposeOfRevision.

 

The shared Google Doc, when complete, contained nearly 150 citations and accompanying hashtags, giving students a number of choices (vetted by classmates) for their fifth source. First drafts of annotated bibliography entries for these sources came in last week, and many students commented on the value of “shared legwork” on their research, while others noted how helpful the information packed into the hashtags was.

 

Do you use hashtags in your classrooms?  Do you teach voice, stance, or engagement? I would love to hear what is working for you.

Guest Blogger: sara heaser  is a Lecturer of English at the University of Wisconsin La Crosse, where she specializes in basic/co-requisite and first-year writing curriculum, pedagogy, and program development. She is an alum of the Dartmouth Summer Seminar for Studies in Composition Research and is currently in the midst of a qualitative study to explore first-year writing as a space for retention. She can be reached at sheaser@uwlax.edu.

 

I have a four-year-old son who understands the world in basic binaries: good vs evil, happy vs sad, big vs small, and such. So when he asks his big questionslots and lots of themabout really abstract things, I resort to the most simple, applicable analogy I can think of.

 

Here’s an example. We were reading a book about the human body and he asked about the “weird-looking lines” (veins) inside us. We live in the Midwest on the Mississippi River, so I said that those lines were like little rivers of blood, and that the blood rivers have barges on them, and the barges carry things he needs around his body to where his body needs them. There’s obviously not microscopic chunks of bananas and fruit snacks floating from his stomach to his toes via his veins, but it’s a close enough explanation to appease his curiosity and to reach a level of understanding that he gets, for now.

 

This is a hard part of parenting, negotiating mutual understanding of an unfamiliar concept. The same goes for teaching. As teachers, we collectively live in the same world as our students, sometimes quite literally in the same communities. But this doesn’t mean we share or value common experiences. This is especially true when it comes to writing.

 

The students in my FYW courses are well beyond understanding the world dualistically like my son does, but when it comes to writing, I see them rely on old tropes. I often find their understanding of writing and its processes is limited to playing it safethey rely on archaic rules that someone told them to follow somewhere along the way in their writing education. And as we know, FYW can sometimes be a student’s first foray into writing for purposes and audiences instead of writing to follow rules--a very unfamiliar concept, indeed.

 

Rules are inflexible; metaphors are interpretative. Introducing metaphors in FYW that imply writing is flexible, unsteady, confusing, messy, frustrating, and such might suggest not only a difference in kind but a difference in understanding of what writing is, as a verb. Some I rely on often:

 

  • A wacky genius effortlessly producing prose is a mythological trope seen in fictional films.
  • Writing is like cooking. Gather the ingredients as you prepare, adjust them as needed to your purpose and audience. (And this one reminds me of my own role: I’m not the one cooking. The students are. So back off.)
  • Engaging in research is like having a conversation. Sometimes you might not know what the conversation is about, and that’s ok. Just listen for a while.
  • Learning to write well is like learning a sport. It requires repetitive, deliberate practice. Just like you might stretch or lift weights to train for a big race, you might practice combining sentences to train for revising a big draft.

 

The five-paragraph essay, sad and useless, is a particularly fun target on which to apply metaphor. Even entire rhetorics for FYW invoke metaphor, like Understanding Rhetoric: A Graphic Guide to Writing, which uses “hosts” (the authors) that guide students through a journey of learning about writing.

 

I don’t have extensive data on student response to metaphor or the effectiveness of metaphorical language in composition pedagogy, but I have a teacherly sense that the use of metaphor in FYW plays a special role beyond just explaining what writing is and can be.

 

If shared language is a symbol of intimacy, metaphor is essentially the foundation on which we can build a sense of community. (A metaphor to explain a metaphor—I couldn’t resist.) When I overhear students drop our metaphors in conversations or read them in a reflective essay, I can literally see and hear metaphor functioning to humanize writing and to establish a relationship between writer and audience, between student and teacher, and between the most important relationship of them all, between the novice writer and writing itself.  

 

What metaphors do you use to talk about writing with your students?

Guest blogger Ann Amicucci directs the First-Year Rhetoric and Writing Program at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs. She teaches courses in first-year writing, writing pedagogy, and the rhetoric of social media. Readers can connect with her on Twitter at Ann N. Amicucci (@AnnNAmicucci) | Twitter

 

All readers make snap judgments. To lay the groundwork for sustained, critical reading, I teach students to identify the thinking that occurs when readers encounter a new text. I describe three activities here that foster metacognition by leading students to understand why readers are drawn to some texts but not others. Following "Reflection in the Writing Classroom" by Kathleen Blake Yancey, I have students engage in reflective discussion and writing throughout the semester to develop their facility with the habit of mind of metacognition (see the Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing).

 

Reading Reaction Chart

I assign a Reaction Chart in connection with my first-year writing course’s custom reader, which contains 43 non-fiction texts: a range of speeches, essays, and personal narratives. This activity can be adapted for any course reader or textbook. My directions are brief: “Read the title and first sentence of every text, and write a reaction note that tells us (briefly!) what your first impression of the text is.” I list titles on a spreadsheet in Microsoft’s OneDrive, then students type their name and reactions in a column on the spreadsheet.

 

The following is a sample of students’ reactions to the title and first sentence of Richard Rodriguez’s “Aria: A Memoir of a Bilingual Childhood”:

  • Love hearing about someone’s struggles that they had to climb over.
  • I feel like I should know more about this, but this is not interesting.
  • I am not interested in this topic at all.
  • I think memoirs are really cool and get very personal so I admire this already.

 

Later, when I give students choices in what to read and write about, they refer to the Reaction Chart to recall which texts caught their interest and to browse others’ reactions for insight. By directing students to name initial reactions, this activity prepares the class for metacognitive practice to come.

 

Questions that Readers Ask

Next, students reflect on the thinking that occurs when we decide whether to read a text. I lead a discussion about what text types students choose to read and give students time to explore their favorite websites and study visual features that catch their attention. Students then work in small groups in response to the prompt, “What questions are we answering without even realizing it when we decide what to read?” and post questions to our class discussion board. \

 

Questions written by this semester’s students include:

  • Am I interested enough in the topic?
  • Will this article or topic be helpful in the future?
  • Is this is factual or written by a biased source?
  • Does this book benefit myself or those around me?
  • Would I be judged for reading it?

 

Brainstorming these questions fosters students’ metacognitive awareness of the choices we make in deciding what to read by slowing down the moment of initial reaction to a text and making thought processes explicit.

 

Annotating Visual Features of Texts

Finally, we investigate how readers react to texts’ visual features, in connection with students’ reading of Chapter 1 in The Academic Writer, which discusses how communication technologies and multi-modal text features impact reading and writing.

 

I select a range of web and magazine articles and bring printed copies of their first pages to class, and students work with these texts in small groups. They write brief “annotations” that identify visual features and corresponding reactions. As the photo shows, students attend to images, use of quotation marks, illuminated letters, and paragraph length, among other features. Students hang their annotated texts around the room and circulate to read each other’s notes, then I post photos of the annotations . As with the previous activities, this annotation process gives students metacognitive practice in noticing their thoughts when confronted with a new text, and their attention is now specifically tuned to their thinking about visual features.

 

What Comes Next?

All three activities have longer-term purposes. A writing course aims to teach sustained, critical reading and analysis that is a far cry from the snap judgments of the Reaction Chart. I lead students into the critical reading process by first acknowledging what those snap judgments are. When students return to read texts fully, they test their latter opinions against their initial reactions. They can see value in reading closely when their opinions become more nuanced from digging into a text. Similarly, the Question and Annotation activities serve as a starting place for analysis of how texts connect with readers. In deciding what text aspects to analyze for major essays, students get ideas by rereading their questions and annotations.

 

All three activities prompt students to identify their reactions as readers. Doing so allows students to understand the thinking processes behind readers’ snap judgments and to recognize that such judgments are just a first step toward analysis.

Much published work on transfer tells us that students must practice reflection to develop metacognitive awareness and encourage application of knowledge and concepts from one context to another (see Writing Across Contexts: Transfer, Composition, and Sites of Writing, by Yancey, Robertson, and Taczak for an overview). To emphasize reflection in my courses, I’ve usually focused on assignments with a reflection component—journals, process narratives, or discussion board posts. But I was challenged this week to consider weaving reflective practice throughout writing (and also integrated reading and writing, or IRW) courses—using conversations, feedback, classroom tools. I suspect, in fact, that this weaving process establishes reflection as a part of the fabric of the course itself, not just a decorative embellishment. 

 

For example, I use Google Docs for drafting work in my courses; I invite students to respond to my comments, to draft their own comments and tag me in them for additional feedback. We also use the platform for peer-based discussion and collaborative writing. But does this particular writing tool promote reflection? I am not sure I have exploited the possibilities very well. I have had students use the record of comments for a reflective assignment, but I am wondering how I might build an on-going reflective process with Google Docs – not just an after-the-fact review. For example, questions such as the following might encourage reflective practice—and transfer—during drafting and revision:

 

  • Why did you make this statement here? Were you applying something you learned in a previous writing course? What makes this context a little different?
  • How does this observation from your classmate support or complicate what you’ve learned about __________?
  • Look back at the comments from the last paper. Is there something there that might help you solve this writing problem?
  • You’ve tagged me in three questions related to ______________. Why do you think _______________ is a challenge for you in this paper? How does the context of this assignment differ from the last one, in which __________ didn’t seem to be an issue for you?
  • You have said here that this section “doesn’t feel right.” What have you done in the past when you’ve had that sensation?
  • You’ve pointed out a problem with this sentence. Can you describe that problem in general terms? Have you seen it before in your paper?

 

In a sense, these comments turn the drafting process into an exercise in critical reading. When I assign readings, I ask students to make connections between texts and other texts or between texts and their prior experiences. Similarly, these questions invite students to zoom in to focus on particulars of their developing text and also to zoom out to see their work as it connects to a broader picture.

 

The advantages of Google Docs for file sharing, keeping a record of comments, and working collaboratively are many. But like all technologies that involve targeted feedback—whether online or on paper—students risk seeing problems and solutions only in terms of the specific context. If they do generalize, they may assert “rules” that cannot and should not be applied broadly (as indicated in some of the Bad Ideas About Writing | Open Access Textbooks | WVU Libraries). Reflective connections during all phases of the writing process might help students avoid the perils of two pervasive writing myths: assignments within and across courses are unrelated, and there is a single form of writing appropriate to all academic writing contexts.

 

I’ve also been exploring one other means for weaving reflection into my classes. After we have completed a significant writing project, I’ve asked students to complete an anonymous survey, usually using an online tool such as Google Forms. I craft just one or two questions, such as these:

 

  • Did your experience writing this paper confirm, contradict, expand, complicate, or confuse what you’ve learned in previous writing experiences? (Check all that apply). Can you give me one example that illustrates your answer?
  • What is the biggest writing problem you encountered in this project? Had you ever encountered it before? What made it different this time?
  • What is one thing you wish you had known before tackling this project?
  • What is one question you wish you had asked before starting this project?
  • Did you have an “aha” moment in this project? What led to it?
  • Did you get the feedback you needed to complete the project successfully? If not, why not?

 

I don’t ask all the questions each time, and in an IRW course, I can adapt them to address the reading process as well as writing. These anonymous questions allow students to vent frustrations, especially in a course that often asks them to approach writing with different strategies than those used in high school. But the questions may also promote reflection: students consider projects in context and in the arc of their overall writing experience. But perhaps more importantly, their responses become a source for my own reflection about teaching: how did this class respond differently than previous classes? What did I do that helped or hindered their learning? How can I change that?

 

Finally, I am learning to share some of my reflective process with them: if I make changes or reconsider my language use based on their collective comments, I tell them about such changes. I want to model reflection as well as provide ample opportunities for practice. 

 

How are you building reflection into your FYC, basic writing, and IRW classrooms? 

Note from Miriam: During Fall 2018, I am sharing the “Real Teaching” blog with colleagues from around the country who will beMelissa Adamo sharing what works in their writing classrooms.

 

Guest blogger Melissa Adamo is currently the College Liaison for the Dodge Poetry Festival and an Adjunct Instructor at Montclair State University and Rutgers University-Newark. She primarily teaches composition courses at both institutions but has also taught creative writing and literature courses at Ramapo College of New Jersey. Readers can connect with her on Twitter Melissa Adamo (@mel_adamo) | Twitter . 

 

Students often come into second-level composition or literature courses describing poetry as hard to understand or too abstract. In high school, many students feel forced to “overanalyze” poems, leading to fears of finding “the right answer”; this seems only natural for those accustomed to standardized tests. My desire to reframe poetry as a topic of discussion rather than a place of correct answers led me to Twitter.

 

In creating this lesson plan, I took inspiration from the book 101 Exercises for the College Classroom in which Jacquelyn Ardam has students pare down a text to six words. My version of this assignment used Twitter, a platform with a 140-character limit. I asked students to Tweet a creative response to a poem and then present their Tweet to the class, supporting their choices by directly connecting the Tweet to lines in the poem.

 

I wanted to fulfill similar objectives from Ardam whose assignment built “close-reading skills” through examining the author’s style or diction “as deliberate” choices. I wanted to help further these skills as well as analytical thinking through writing, collaboration, and presentation. Another aim for the activity was to decenter my authority on the poem in order to promote more confidence in students.

 

First, I broke the class into small groups to select a poem from that day’s assigned reading. Next, I instructed them to re-read their poem together, breaking up its parts: What is it about? How is it structured? What effect is produced? What was your reaction to the poem?

 

I then asked students to create a Tweet based on their group’s understanding of the poem. Students could write as the speaker of the poem to highlight its message, as the author to directly comment on literary choices, or as readers to show their experience of the poem. They could also choose to compose as they actually would on such a platform, modernizing language from the poem or, if writing from the reader perspective, revealing their interpretation through slang. Here, students became the experts in the room, for example, defining what “af” or “savage” meant, thus giving them more agency over vocabulary in an academic setting.

 

Like most social media platforms, Twitter also uses multimodality through memes, GIFs, and emojis. I encouraged students to play with these modes to practice analytical reading skills, not only on traditional texts but also on visual texts. I also pushed them to see how much they can include in such a small space; because of Twitter’s character limit (currently at 280), students must pare down the text to avoid unnecessary summary and convey more information with less words. Although most Tweets look rather simplistic, the more layers added (e.g. hashtags, pictures, text), the more conversation a group can generate.

 

After each group created their Tweet, students would present it to the class. Presentation requirements included students explaining their text and images from the Tweet as well as how it directly connects to a line of the poem or the poet’s writing strategy. This presentation component required students to support claims and thus assessed their ability to communicate their reasoning.

 

After each group presented, the rest of the class was invited to ask the group questions about the Tweet. This larger discussion promoted an even more in-depth analysis of each poem. For example, in one group, students debated characteristics of a GIF’s subject and compared it to the poem’s speaker, drawing parallels between popular culture present in the image and the literary text assigned. Not all students saw connections between the image and poem at first, but in our collective conversation we all built toward it.

 

Such discussions allowed an opportunity for me to read and learn alongside my students. Because I don’t always know the reference nor do I know how the students will create their tweet, we are all on equal footing. It offered the chance to model that “good” readers do not simply know all the answers, but rather they are comfortable asking questions or reviewing a text together.

 

Bringing Twitter and its memes, GIFs, and hashtags into the classroom resulted in a class atmosphere that was inviting and playful, rather than inaccessible, meeting my original objective. Seeing the confidence this lesson helped build in students was key in the process of not only reframing their view on poetry but also furthering their critical reading skills. It even prompted students to analyze popular culture and visual media, which they often do not look at with a critical eye.

 

Changing such perspectives about reading and analysis could apply to more than just poetry, of course. I would be eager to try this with other texts in the composition classroom, hoping to find the same level of student engagement and analytical thinking.

One of the eight threshold concepts that frame my FYC and co-requisite courses is this:  uncertainty, difficulty, and confusion are normal parts of a writer’s growth. Upon reflection, I think I would add that these nouns also characterize an experienced writer’s process (the meandering path that led to this particular blog post, were it made visible, would provide substantial evidence to support this assertion). 

 

And yet, even having articulated this principle within my classroom (and particularly in the readings I assign), I find that I am still very quick to minimize or undermine uncertainty for my students, especially in the early days of their college writing careers. And I suspect in doing so, I am also minimizing an opportunity for learning.

 

A classroom conversation this week illustrates my tendency. I had asked students about thesis statements, and their answers were typical: It’s the last sentence of the first paragraph in the essay. It’s just a summary of what you say. It’s the plan for the essay so the reader can follow. I was told it had to have a certain format. It can’t announce the topic. It can’t be too broad or too narrow. It should answer a question. You should know what it is before you start writing. Using their text as a guide, students talked about weak and strong thesis statements and identified problems in samples that needed to be “fixed.” The students seemed pleased with the exercise: it was straightforward and clear—thesis statements either work or they don’t. There was only a slight ripple of consternation when I suggested that thesis statements need not be presented in one place, worded a specific way, fully developed at the outset, or stated explicitly. Despite making these comments, however, the activity of evaluating and improving thesis statements (and reading about “common problems” with a thesis) implied the opposite: thesis statements are certain, clear, and predictable.    

 

Later that same day, I called my daughter, who has just begun a Ph.D. program in English. For some time, she had been reworking an MA project as a book chapter. She commented on how frustrating the process had been for the first several days (perhaps even weeks) of her work. But, she was thrilled to announce during our talk that her initial musings and reflections had finally led her to a thesis, and she now feels confident the chapter will come together. I could hear the energy in her voice: she had a thesis, and while it might still need some tweaking, her sense of the potential impact of the paper (and her ability to write it) was striking. 

 

Consider the differences in these thesis-focused conversations: for many of my students, a thesis is primarily a component of a written product – a component that will be assessed by expert readers, possibly as ineffective, inappropriate, or misplaced. In short, my students view the thesis as something they can “get wrong” and thus something that must be nailed down immediately – and preferably without any changes. My daughter, on the other hand, views her thesis as a means to control and develop her writing. She discovered her thesis via invaluable but messy exploratory writing (which no one sees or grades), and she is harnessing the power of that thesis to guide the development of her work. While the thesis will surely be subject to the critical reflection of her future readers, she can use those responses to further define and refine her theoretical stance.  It is, in short, a mode of learning, a means to agency and control in her writing—and her thinking.

 

I see a similarity in the ways my students conceptualize a thesis and their understanding of grammar: both are seen as a toggle switch, set to either the right or wrong position, not as opportunities to learn, make choices, or express meaning. The anxiety produced by the desire to get it right leads me (far too often) to let students bypass the messy process of thesis-building (or sentence construction) by issuing a judgment and recommending remedies quickly. They invariably do whatever I suggest. I know better, but I have a competing desire to relieve anxiety, especially for students whose previous academic experiences have been demoralizing and disorienting.

 

In a workshop for our faculty at the start of this term, we were challenged to apply practices of “Transparency in Learning and Teaching” or TILT (a faculty professional development initiative led by faculty researchers at UNLV) with our assignment design.  For me, this fall, that means finding ways to make “useful confusion” explicit for students and helping them recognize the value of uncertainty in the process of discovering and refining a thesis. Transparency about the value of uncertainty means challenging the binary terms so often used to talk about the thesis (right/wrong, strong/weak, broad/narrow). It also means asking more questions during writing conferences, and acknowledging the frustration of working with a murky thesis in initial drafts. My hope is that students will come to accept uncertainty and confusion—anxiety-inducing as they may be—as a means to extended possibility and power in their writing, just as experienced writers like my daughter have.   

 

In what ways are you helping students re-imagine uncertainty and confusion as platforms for writing development?

 

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I have been writing about ways to build grammar awareness through reading activities.  I began with an exploratory look at threshold concepts for grammar in the composition classroom. I also addressed activities that encourage students to notice grammatical features in target texts. In the last post, I discussed applying a principle of contrast to texts so that students can construct and refine grammatical hypotheses.

 

Another strategy that can be applied to texts involves the creation of grammatical frames to illustrate critical grammar points. Consider the following example, taken from an editorial by Steven Pinker:

 

If electronic media were hazardous to intelligence, the quality of science would be plummeting. Yet discoveries are multiplying like fruit flies, and progress is dizzying.

 

The first of these two sentences is a counterfactual (also called unreal) condition, which follows a standard format: If + subject + past tense verb, subject + would + base form of the verb. The next sentence introduces the real or factual counterpart to the conditional; as a contrast, this sentence is introduced with “yet.” In combination, these sentences illustrate a useful grammatical pattern for argumentation, a pattern that students can employ for themselves. Provide students with a simple frame, and then invite them to play with the language in the context of their own ideas:

           

            If _________ were _______________, (then) _______ would _________.  But (yet) ______________________. 

 

            If ______________________ (verb in past), _______________ (use “would”) __________.  But (yet) __________________.

 

Next, students could predict what the following sentence might logically contain. In this case, the next sentence could be a result clause beginning with “so” or “therefore.” Or the writer might choose to provide additional facts as a contrast to the conditional, as Pinker actually does (note his use of the words “other” and “likewise”):

 

Other activities in the life of the mind, like philosophy, history and cultural criticism, are likewise flourishing, as anyone who has lost a morning of work to the Web site Arts & Letters Daily can attest.

 

Patterns and frames can also be used to help multilingual writers and English language learners build lexical knowledge. One of the most challenging aspects of English language acquisition is verb complementation: whether a verb can be followed by a noun, prepositional phrase, gerund, infinitive, noun clause, or adjective – or some combination of these—is lexically determined. In other words, the individual verb determines what grammatical structures follow it. Vocabulary development for academic writing involves a growing awareness of which verbs occur in which patterns.  Reading exercises can foster this lexical awareness. Consider the following sentence from Pinker’s essay:

 

Search engines lower our intelligence, encouraging us to skim on the surface of knowledge rather than dive to its depths.

 

“Encourage” is one of several verbs which can be followed (among other patterns) by a noun or pronoun and an infinitive: encourage someone to do something. Students can begin to build a repertoire of verbs that follow this pattern, looking for additional examples in class readings (urge someone to do something, expect someone to do something, etc.). But instructors can also point out verbs students will not find in this pattern, such as “recommend” or “suggest.” 

 

Whether the frames are invoked to illustrate a grammatical construct such as a conditional or a lexically-determined complement, invite students to play with language in the frames in low-stakes activities.  

 

This use of frames or patterns is similar to the approach of Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein in They Say, I Say. Some have criticized the Graff and Birkenstein templates as formulaic or detrimental to the thinking process (as in this article by Phyllis Banay). My use of frames, however, differs from the They Say, I Say template approach in a couple of ways. First, frames are derived from course readings; they are not presented as a pre-determined list. Second, while frames may be connected to rhetorical moves (as in the case of Pinker’s use of counterfactual conditions to introduce evidence against a claim), the primary focus of the frames here is to build grammatical and lexical confidence. Finally, I would not require that students use a particular frame in a graded writing assignment; ultimately, my goal is to build student confidence to make grammatical choices—not dictate those choices for them.  

 

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In my last post, I looked at the value of dedicating time for students to notice grammatical and lexical features in a text they are reading. Students can make their noticing tangible by annotating: circling, highlighting, and underlining. But what follows? A well-marked text signals visible noticing—but without activities to prompt students to hypothesize about the functions of the features they have annotated, the noticing may soon be forgotten.

 

Hypothesis formation and testing is at the heart of inductive grammatical exploration, but in my experience, formulating a “testable” hypothesis about the purpose or rhetorical force of a selected word or grammatical form can challenge students, especially those who are uncertain of their own intuitions in the reading process (or their own vocabulary for articulating intuitions). Students may offer vague responses at first: “Well, he did this to emphasize his point,” or “It sounds good.” When I probe further—how so?—the students often seem befuddled. 

 

One tool for helping students verbalize and refine a hypothesis about grammar is to use the principle of contrast: contrasts in grammar or lexis illustrate the consequences of the choices we make. Putting contrasting variations of sentences side by side can help students discover those consequences and, in turn, find useful principles to apply in their own writing (given time, of course – I am not claiming that a few rounds of contrast-based activities will suddenly “fix” all issues of grammar and style!).

 

Here’s a simple example, taken from an essay by Steven Pinker that I use in introductory writing classes to illustrate elements of argument. In this first example, I might ask students to think about the purpose of the commas:

 

When comic books were accused of turning juveniles into delinquents in the 1950s, crime was falling to record lows, just as the denunciations of video games in the 1990s coincided with the great American crime decline.

 

The introductory comma (such as the one after “the 1950s”) is one my students very rarely use, so this example works well for them. To create a contrast, I simply remove the commas:

 

When comic books were accused of turning juveniles into delinquents in the 1950s crime was falling to record lows just as the denunciations of video games in the 1990s coincided with the great American crime decline.

 

What are the potential misreadings that might occur without the commas? A casual reader, for example, might see “1950s crime” as a single unit, not separating “crime” as the subject of the next clause. While advanced readers will correct the problem easily, that simple misreading could slow or stump readers the first time through. Similarly, without the second comma, readers might assume that the “just as” is a time clause describing when “crime was falling to record lows.” But “just as” actually introduces a comparison, and the comma helps the reader separate the clauses. 

 

Granted, students might not frame these contrasts as I have. But they do (usually) see the difference in the two versions and understand the value of the comma in each case. 

 

Consider the following example, from the same article:

 

Yet discoveries are multiplying like fruit flies, and progress is dizzying.

 

Here, I might want to illustrate verb tenses with my students. Having asked them to notice uses of the present continuous (or progressive) form of the verb, I might then have them consider what happens when we substitute the simple present (conversion to the simple present is also a good time to practice subject-verb agreement):

 

Yet discoveries multiply like fruit flies, and progress dizzies.

 

Once again, I might ask students a simple question: what differences do these changes in tense make? Do discoveries always multiply in this way? Are we always dizzied by scientific progress? Students usually see that the focus here is on the immediate present: this generalization applies NOW, in this moment. And that time reference is critical for Pinker’s argument that technology (rapidly changing now) is not an impediment to innovative or deep thought. Astute students will often ask at this point why we call the simple present “the present” if it doesn’t really refer to the present (or at least exclusively to the present time). This question can lead to some interesting discussions about grammar terminology (and whether or not knowledge of it is necessary for effective communication).

 

So in working with readings and grammar, I begin by having students notice and annotate what they see. From there, we can use contrasts to explore what I would call the “so what” related to the target grammar. When these activities work well—and I give them the time needed—students also build confidence in their abilities and the value of their linguistic intuitions.

 

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In my last post, I suggested a set of threshold concepts about grammar that could support a “reading for grammar” pedagogy; in such a pedagogy, grammar is explored inductively and descriptively through interactions with complex and challenging texts.  The concepts I proposed address the nature of grammatical systems and the critical importance of those systems in meaning-making activities. Those activities—and the choices of readers and writers engaged in them—have implications for identity and social positioning.

 

However, practically speaking, how does this translate into classroom practice? I think it begins with noticing—simply bringing syntax and the conventions of written language into the students’ range of attention. My hunch that noticing initiates growth in grammatical awareness comes from years of interacting with students who, in reading class texts or their own work, responded to questions about specific linguistic features in this way: “I didn’t see that.” And while it is easy to attribute that response to carelessness or laziness, I don’t think that fairly captures the task students face in reading, particularly students who have not been afforded extensive reading opportunities (except for perhaps the mind-numbing readings assigned in the preparation and completion of standardized tests). After years of teaching composition (and with training in linguistics), I am certainly going to have a different experience with a text than my students do. I have developed an awareness of multiple linguistic features; my eyes scan for these automatically, and I interpret them rapidly. But I am not so adept in understanding how to “read” a soccer match, for example. Hundreds of details immediately evident to my students—aficionados of fútbol—escape my notice. “I didn’t see that.” 

 

My soccer analogy reminds me that I cannot push students headlong into noticing during our first encounter with a text, just as I wouldn’t try to pay attention to intricate player formations at my first soccer match. I would need to settle in at the stadium, figure out how to get to my seat, match teams and uniforms, and make sure I could see the goals at either end of the field. Students also need time to situate themselves as readers of a text.

 

But once we have spent some time with a text, I can invite my students to notice how the author is using grammar. I try to select an interesting grammatical feature of the text:  subject-verb agreement, commas, parallel structure, subordinate clauses, colons, use of quotes, verbal complements, verb tenses—anything that contributes in some way to our understanding of the text. Then I ask the students to notice that feature (having chosen only one). I might point it out in a couple of paragraphs, and then ask students to notice where else it is used and annotate those instances. 

 

My temptation is always to rush through this noticing; it would be easier for me to point out the instances and move quickly into explanation and practice (activities that I will discuss in future posts). But I am learning to resist this temptation and give my students time to notice for themselves, without moving in to correct what they “didn’t see.”  (Even with something that seems as obvious as periods as markers of terminal sentence boundaries, students may not be adept at noticing quickly. To combat the “5 sentences per paragraph” pseudo-rule that some students have been taught, I will ask them to count the number of sentences in one or two paragraphs of a reading we have done.  Invariably, students do not agree on the number the first time. As they check their counts with others in the class, I hear the phrase again and again: “Oh!  I didn’t see that.”)

 

Noticing and annotating take time, and given the hectic pressure of accelerated courses and packed syllabi, it can seem that we don’t have luxury for these activities in class.  But I think noticing is essential for the development of close reading skills, grammatical awareness, and the ability to revise and edit one’s own work. I have found as students practice, an important shift takes place: not only do they notice the textual features I have asked them to see, but they also begin to notice other characteristics of the text—and lexical and syntactic awareness increases. 

 

In the next post, I will look at activities that build on noticing. In the meantime, your comments and questions are welcome.

 

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There is a terrific article in the March issue of NCTE’s Council Chronicle by Trisha Collopy, laying out both a rationale and some practical strategies for incorporating challenging and complex readings in community college classrooms at all levels. Much of the content in the article will resonate with integrated reading and writing (IRW) instructors; we know that deep reading will make a difference for our students—as they discuss “reading that matters” (12).

 

But I would suggest that such readings also offer an opportunity to revisit our approach to grammar (where we so often resort to decontextualized sentences, prescriptive rules, and worksheets – none of which seems to have a demonstrable effect on the quality of student writing). What if we invited students to consider language structure as a reading strategy, a means of reading closely, constructing meaning, and interpreting rhetorical moves and stances? What would that look like? What would it require for instructors?

 

I’d like to explore the instantiation of a “reading for grammar” pedagogy over the next few weeks. The foundation of such a pedagogy, however, rests on a linguistically and rhetorically consistent definition of grammar. Perhaps what is needed is a set of threshold concepts to frame and undergird the pedagogy, akin to Adler-Kassner and Wardle’s Naming What We Know

 

Here is a first attempt at such a list, garnered from studies in applied linguistics, language acquisition theory, and the composition classroom. I would welcome an opportunity to revise, expand, and refine the list as others share expertise.

 

  1. Grammar is a rule-governed system for producing and interpreting language.
  2. All speakers possess a grammar; speakers may access multiple grammars for different purposes.
  3. Grammars are neither “good” nor “bad.”
  4. The specific rules of grammar are derived from the habits of communities of practice.
  5. Grammars change.
  6. Knowledge of a word includes knowledge of the grammatical structures in which that word participates.
  7. Academic/written grammars are acquired; they are not native to anyone.
  8. Conventions of written language are arbitrary.
  9. Grammatical knowledge can be both tacit and explicit.
  10. Speakers working within a particular grammar make choices.
  11. The effectiveness of a grammar choice is related to the listener/reader’s ability to interpret that choice.
  12. People make judgments about others because of grammatical choices.
  13. People establish and maintain identities through the language choices that they make.
  14. Grammar is informed by previous experiences with language in a variety of discourse communities.
  15. There is no such thing as complete mastery of academic grammar. (Or perhaps there is no such thing as a common academic grammar.)
  1. Educated speakers can disagree about practice (Oxford comma, “healthful” vs. “healthy”).
  2. Grammar is contextual, rhetorical, and meaning-driven.

 

What else? I would love to hear your thoughts.

 

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I had the privilege of presenting as part of a CCCC panel on “Writing about Writing at the Community College” a couple of weeks ago in Kansas City (along with Elizabeth Johnston and Angelique Johnston of Monroe Community College in Rochester, NY). One theme reiterated throughout the panel is that implementation of writing about writing pedagogy needs to be rooted in the “community” of the community college – the local context and culture.

 

In my case, the context is teaching writing about writing in a sheltered ESL first-year composition course with an IRW co-requisite. I use six “anchor” texts that introduce my students to writing about writing (WAW) during the term, and students write about these (multiple times) in connection with other essays drawn from our departmentally selected reader. The first assignment for students is a literacy narrative; they connect their own experiences to those of other writers and to the concept of Discourse (from the work of James Gee, our first anchor text). The literacy narrative has revealed a lot about the language, reading, and writing experiences of my students.

 

This semester I decided I wanted more information about my students’ reading habits and strategies, beyond the stories they had chosen to tell in their first assignment. Mid-term, I gave students an anonymous survey to gauge how they were working through our anchor texts, by far the most challenging of the reading assignments in the course. I queried them about the amount of time spent on these, the number of times each text was read, and the strategies they used—as well as the areas that caused the most trouble and the suggestions they had for me to facilitate their reading efforts.

 

Some of the findings were expected: students were reading the challenging selections less than 3 times, on average, and spending an average of 3-4 hours (total) with each one, despite my recommendations to revisit them multiple times. Students also reported that the vocabulary was the primary impediment to reading, and they requested reading and vocabulary guides in advance of the readings. Given the experiences they have described in previous English language instruction, these findings were not surprising.

 

Fifty percent of my current students also asked for more time to discuss the readings in class, and many commented that they don’t feel comfortable with the readings until after class discussion. Again, given their accounts of previous education experiences (in which there was no need to do assigned reading in advance because instructors would “go over it” in the next class) these comments were expected.

 

But when I asked students what strategies they were using when reading outside of class, I noticed something I had not seen before: while almost all students reported annotating texts (as we have taught them to do) and using dictionaries or translators, only one student reported talking to another student about the text, and none reported talking to an instructor about the text outside of class. Also, students said they did not use graphs, charts, or pictures to organize their thinking about the readings, even though we frequently create such charts, graphs, outlines, and pictures (as well as paraphrases and responses) in class.  

 

These results led to an epiphany about my students’ reading process: this particular group views “text-talking” and making visual representations of assigned texts as teacher-directed, in-class processes. Their literacy narratives suggest that they engage in text-talk easily enough when it comes to self-selected reading, but that practice has not transferred as a strategy for approaching academic texts.

 

So this is my next IRW challenge: how can I foster text-talk and visual representations of texts outside of the classroom as reading strategies? Of course, I could assign an out-of-class discussion, require students to stop by my office and chat, or work with a team to build a graphic presentation before class. But will these activities transfer beyond my class as effective strategies for reading complicated texts? I can’t answer that yet. I will need to keep experimenting.

 

What are you doing to get your students engaged in “text-talk,” especially for challenging academic readings?

 

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I have just returned from the National Association of Developmental Education (NADE) annual conference, and a term from keynote speaker Dr. Stephen Chew of Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama stuck with me: the curse of expertise (or the curse of knowledge). In short, the curse afflicts those who have attained expertise and forget what it was like to be a beginner, someone who does not have a conceptual framework or vocabulary for a particular discipline. Experts who are cursed in this way struggle to communicate effectively with novice learners.

 

In another NADE session, Sonya Armstrong and Normal Stahl discussed the “fall of the field” of college reading. Among the factors influencing the decline of the field, Armstrong and Stahl noted the rise of composition-centric integrated reading and writing classes, often taught by instructors with little or no background in reading theory and pedagogy (and as I have seen in many community colleges, a dearth of resources and funding for professional development). Without that training, composition instructors—and content instructors across multiple disciplines—can easily succumb to the curse of expertise when it comes to reading. 

 

You may have heard the language of the curse in hallways and faculty meetings: Why can’t they read? Reading is a skill they should have learned in high school. Once you’ve learned to decode, you can read anything. I am not assigning much reading; my students can’t comprehend the text. I know they can’t because they fail the multiple choice comprehension checks I give them. If they can’t read this, they aren’t college material. When I was in school…

 

But as “expert readers,” perhaps we have forgotten the journey that brought us where we are – a journey of misreading and revision, of developing conceptual schemata and lexical sophistication, of growing awareness of genres and disciplinary conventions, of connections and the pleasure of shifts in our thinking. There was probably a moment when we first began to argue with texts or smile upon meeting a familiar idiom or rhetorical strategy in use. But before that familiarity, there was surely some confusion or frustration. 

 

I would like to make three recommendations for IRW instructors:

 

  1. Try to remember a reading challenge from your past. For me, it was early in my graduate studies in linguistics. I had not yet had a formal syntax course, but I was asked to read Denis Bouchard’s On the Content of Empty Categories. Each paragraph was painstaking and slow for me, although I considered myself a strong reader. I did not have the background knowledge to make sense of the text or build a coherent understanding; my copy of the book is riddled with question marks and attempted marginal paraphrases, most of which are either erased or crossed out. It took months of study and multiple readings for my mind to begin to construct an understanding of this book. (If you are struggling to remember such an experience, ask a colleague in another discipline to identify a seminal but advanced text in the field. Try to read it, and compare your reading with that of your colleague. As a reader who lacks disciplinary expertise, you may better understand your students’ struggles).
  2. Familiarize yourself with the robust published research in college reading. As a starting point, I would suggest an article by Armstrong and Stahl, “Communication Across the Silos and Borders: The Culture of Reading in a Community College,” or a white paper by Jodi Patrick Holschuh and Eric J. Paulson, “The Terrain of College Developmental Reading.”
  3. Finally, as you structure your IRW course, think about adding as extra “R”: Integrated Recursive Reading and Writing. Growth in reading takes time: time to read extended texts and to come back to them multiple times as meaning is constructed and refined. Composition teachers know that strong writing involves multiple drafts, and we tell our students that revision means re-seeing their written work. But so often, as “cursed experts,” we expect reading to happen fully and quickly after just one exposure to a snippet of text. Just as you might restrain the tendency to mark every grammar error on the first draft of an essay, hold back on your comments if students’ first reading does not yield a coherent interpretation, or if the students seem to have missed a rhetorical feature that is quite obvious to you. Give the students ownership of the reading, so that understanding can develop with time, and try not to tell them “what they should have seen.” After all, as novices, the students shouldn’t have seen what you did: you are reading as an expert. Acknowledge what the students did see, and invite them to visit the text again.

 

It’s so easy for students to see recursion, revision, and repetition as signs of failure. But we know they are not—they are the hallmarks of what we (as experts) do. 

 

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How can we help students deal with challenging readings—especially scholarly readings—in our ALP and IRW classrooms? Many composition programs require students to use scholarly sources in researched essays, and far too often, the result is a quote culled from the abstract or first paragraph of a peer-reviewed paper, inserted perfunctorily into student papers without context or clear syntactic connections. Students have checked the box and “used scholarly material,” but far too often, they have not read that material. 

 

In their investigation of student use of source material, Rebecca Moore Howard, Tricia Serviss, and Tanya K. Rodrigue suggest that “students are not writing from sources; they are writing from sentences selected from sources. That leaves the reader with the unanswered question: does this writer understand what s/he has read?” With my students, the answer has often been “no.” They’ve told me so.

 

When I see students try and abandon an assigned scholarly reading, I am reminded of the frustrated questions of non-English speakers when they first enter an English-only classroom: Where do I start? What do I look for? Where is there a connection to what I already know? What’s important—and what isn’t? How can I move forward when I am completely lost?

 

One way to help students answer these questions and navigate the readings is to provide reading guides with comments, questions, and opportunities for reflection. In my classes, I assign peer-reviewed research early (as part of a writing about writing approach), and for the first part of the term, I include a reading guide with each selection. I tell students my guide is like the tour bus that will take them through a foreign city for the first time: I will tell them what to look at, give them some background information when needed, and then invite them to linger and make some memories (maybe even take a selfie or two) along the way. I recognize the reading will not be familiar, but I’m inviting them to get on the bus with me, and we will, in a sense, work through it together.

 

This semester, my students read “Texts of our Institutional Lives: Studying the ‘Reading Transition’ from High School to College: What Are Our Students Reading and Why?” by David Jolliffe and Alison Harl. My reading guide for that assignment first walked students through the sections of the article, including the introduction, the literature review, methods, results, discussions, and recommendations for future research. Then I asked them to go back and focus on specific sections. Here’s a piece of that guide:

 

 

Other parts of the guide suggest where to skim and where to read closely. 

 

Reading guides have provided a way for my students to engage in difficult readings through scaffolded support. There are two dangers in providing students with guides such as these. First, the guides may reinforce students’ belief that reading is about getting something right or saying what the teacher expects them to say (as discussed in Cheryl Hogue Smith’s “Interrogating Texts: From Deferent to Efferent and Aesthetic Reading Practices”). A second concern is that students will not transfer, internalize, or repurpose the conceptual knowledge of the guides for future reading.

 

Four classroom practices can address these concerns:

  1. Revisit readings multiple times. The guide is an introduction; students should be invited to return to readings throughout the term, and when they do, they should have the freedom to adjust the focus, ask questions, or challenge initial interpretations. Students can also create their own guides or propose revisions to what the instructor provided initially.
  2. Invite students to apply, connect to, and synthesize readings in ways that extend well beyond the instructor’s initial guide.
  3. If students are conducting their own research, have them create reading guides for scholarly texts selected for their projects. Discuss the general principles underlying the construction of a reading guide, and invite students to assume the role of “tour guide” for the articles they choose.

  4. Finally, extend the reading guides to scholarly texts students might encounter in other courses. Invite instructors from other areas to contribute to the development of a guide, or have students interview faculty and create the guides for themselves.

 

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A few weeks ago, I posted some tips for fostering reading across the curriculum.  That post recognized that no matter what we do to improve instruction in an integrated reading and writing (IRW) developmental or ALP course, students will need on-going support in reading as they encounter challenging texts in disciplines outside of English.  After writing that post, I took some time to read the latest issue of Teaching English in the Two-Year College, and I found a relevant and (quite frankly) disturbing article by Annie del Principe and Rachel Ihara, “A Long Look at Reading in the Community College: A Longitudinal Analysis of Student Reading Experiences.”  The authors (English professors at Kingsborough Community College, CUNY) interviewed a cohort of students through their reading experiences across multiple semesters at the college. 

 

They state the bottom line early in the article:

In brief, we found that by the end of their time in our CC, all of our student subjects had learned the lesson that reading isn’t truly “required” in their classes and that it’s very possible to “get by,” and even succeed, in coursework without doing much, or even any, assigned reading. (183)

 

The authors recognize that theirs was a small sample and thus conclusions must be drawn carefully; unfortunately, their experience echoes what I have frequently heard from my students.  Students often say they don’t need to read:  in many classes, they are only tested on what is covered in lectures.  When I have tried to make the case that reading ahead of time can help lectures and class activities make more sense (after all, readers build connections and points of knowledge that they can connect to what they hear and do later), students shrug.  They tell me that reading the PowerPoint posted online after class is just as good.

 

I remember encountering Janet Emig’s “Writing as a Mode of Learning” as a graduate teaching assistant.  It was the first time I had thought about the affordances of writing as a method of learning—not just reporting what had been learned before.  Reading as a mode of learning, however, was a given.  I didn’t need a theoretical account of how deep and extended reading increased vocabulary, content knowledge, critical thinking, or the ability to craft sentences with syntactic complexity and nuance.  Learning by reading seemed self-evident, much as the rationale for integrating reading and writing instruction seems obvious to me.

 

But perhaps the time for the theoretical rationale has come, as more and more college classrooms appear to be abandoning reading as a mode of learning.  If integrated reading and writing instructors are going to partner with professors across the disciplines to enhance reading practices, we may first need to make the case that reading can and should be an integral part of a student’s learning in the college classroom.  And we must also celebrate and emulate instructors who are helping students read texts (and making the investment in a textbook worthwhile).

 

One such instructor is my colleague Curtis Morgan, a professor of history.  Morgan could rely solely on lecture (my ESL students have rated him a top guest speaker), but he has chosen to make reading a significant part of the learning in his courses.  Students in his introductory classes write up analyses of documents in their textbook (an exercise which requires reading not only the target document but also related background material in the text).  In addition, they are required to read 500 pages of material that they find on their own, with summaries of 50-page increments to be submitted regularly.  Morgan invites students to “specialize,” using the reading to develop an initial expertise in a particular area of history – thus giving them a stronger base for developing responses in papers and exams (I cannot help but think here of the paradox of the freshman year, where students must be both novices and experts, as detailed by Sommers and Saltz, 2004.  Morgan’s approach helps students navigate that dichotomy).

 

In more advanced classes (at my institution, these are sophomore level courses), Morgan requires students to present written reports on assigned texts, and he creates what he calls “book clubs” in his classroom to give students a platform for discussion and debate about these readings.  He also assigns a research essay, which of course requires reading. 

 

Many of my developmental, ESL, and ALP writers tell me that an 8-page reading is “too long,” and that they did not read in their high school courses.  When I can point to examples of courses such as Professor Morgan’s, I can show them that reading is not merely one more in a succession of meaningless hoops required for college success; it is a means to learning (and, in some cases, a rush of pleasure in newfound understanding).   The more I think about it, I would say that conspiring with colleagues across the disciplines to make reading meaningful may be the most important professional development for my work as an integrated reading and writing instructor. 

 

And now I need to get back to the stack of articles awaiting me.  There’s still so much to learn.

           

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Every so often, I encounter myths about my work as a community college writing instructor, and I feel compelled to disabuse my well-meaning friends or colleagues of their mistaken assumptions. For example, I have been asked (more than once) how I can possibly continue in such a “boring” line of work; surely it must get tedious teaching the same thing over and over again. “After all,” they hint, “there’s a reason that the ‘grunt work’ you are doing in first-year and developmental writing often falls to those who are lowest on the academic hierarchy!”

 

At this point, I smile and share a little secret: in over 20 years of teaching IRW, first-year composition, grammar, and ESL courses, I have never taught the same course twice. Granted, the institutions, course names, and even textbooks might be the same, and the syllabi might be quite similar. But my classroom is an on-going laboratory, and the content and pedagogy of my courses evolves continually. How can I possibly be bored when I am waiting to observe just how the latest adjustment will influence the writing, reading, thinking, and “languaging” that I see in my students?

 

Here’s a simple example. Like many writing instructors, I assign a literacy narrative in my first-year/ALP course. I first incorporated this assignment in my courses as a novice instructor working in a “process approach”: I spent time with my students in pre-writing activities, creating time-lines and freewriting about powerful memories. We then worked through multiple drafts before editing the final version. Later, as colleges moved to integrate reading more explicitly into the classroom, I began to ask students to read literacy narratives and react or respond to them in the context of their own writing; the assignment shifted to focus more on reading skills and the value of connections between texts and students’ experiences. More recently, under the influence of the Writing about Writing (WAW) approach to composition pedagogy, I have added excerpts from theoretical readings (from articles by James Gee or John Swales, for example) as students prepare to write literacy narratives; such excerpts provide students with a language lens through which they can analyze and reflect on their experiences. We are still working through a process and focusing on reading, but I’ve extended the assignment to address a vocabulary for interpretation and analysis.

 

This coming semester, I am considering another change to my assignment. In this case, it will be a change in sequence. I have always done the literacy narrative as the first paper in the course, but I would like to see what happens if I make it the final paper instead (or perhaps I can structure it as a two-part paper, with both an initial and final version). I plan to incorporate more structured reflection into the course as a whole, and I would like to give the students a chance to use that reflection as primary research—in conjunction with a semester of assigned readings—to develop the literacy narrative at the end of the term. Perhaps that would spark more analysis, more reflection, more metacognition, or perhaps even a stronger foundation for my students to transfer writing knowledge and writing habits to new contexts.

 

I’m excited about the possibilities for instruction based on a change in my assignment sequence. My enthusiasm certainly marks me as a very specific kind of teaching-nerd, but I am perfectly ok with that.

 

What changes are you planning for your spring composition or IRW courses? What do you hope to see as a result? I would love to hear from you.

 

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