Navigating Writing-Intensive Courses as a Student

Teaching writing as part of a course, or the primary focus of a course, is especially challenging for teachers. Managing a workshop approach and surviving the paper load are demanding elements when teaching writing and not simply assigning writing as part of the course assessment.

However, we less often acknowledge that writing-intensive courses that require students to participate in workshop environments, submit multiple drafts of major writing assignments, and navigate different expectations for student behavior and assessment are also challenging and even paralyzing for students.

Both assessment elements grounded in process and product as well as the structures of the workshop approach present students with expectations unlike traditional courses driven by tests and transmissional classroom structures (lecture, discussion).

Writing-intensive courses tend to approach assessment differently than traditional class-based one-session testing. Writing assessment includes, then, feedback on products (essays), meaning that the assessment is integral during the learning not simply something that occurs after the learning.

In writing-intensive courses, instruction and assessment are integrated, but students may also experience multiple rounds of assessment (feedback) and even multiple grades on the same product since several drafts are being submitted for teacher response and/or grades.

Along with the holistic nature of instruction and assessment, writing-intensive courses tend to require that students meet deadlines, submit work fully, and participate in the process—not just produce a product, especially in one sitting.

And that leads to the unique expectations of the workshop approach. The broad components of workshop tend to include time, ownership, and response.

For students, this means that their student behavior must include participation—such as drafting and submitting multiple drafts—over the entire course (time), must include students making their own decisions (ownership) in terms of drafting and revising their essays, and must include submitting work for multiple rounds of feedback (response) from the teacher and peers.

A course grade in writing-intensive courses is grounded in how well a student fulfills all of these dynamics, not just the singular quality of the final essays.

Ultimately, then, writing-intensive courses that require and allow students to submit multiple drafts have different expectations for student behavior throughout the course but also in terms of how that student is graded. Those different expectations (and thus different student behavior) include the following:

  • Understanding the writing process in terms of submitting work and meeting deadlines. Two aspects of this are important for students to rethink their participation in writing-intensive courses: first, essay submissions should all be good-faith attempts at the draft (not a “rough” but a first or second, etc., full submission, as if the student will not revise); second, submitting work fully and on time (meeting deadlines) is about fully engaging in the learning process, not a way to avoid having points deducted for being late.
  • Major essay assignments and multiple essay assignments as the primary evidence of learning. Since students tend to think about courses as “how do I earn X grade,” writing-intensive courses require students to rethink grades since the writing assignments tend to be the most important or the only evidence for those grades. Students must understand, then, how each draft will (or won’t) be graded, and then how a final grade will be determined for the course (portfolio assessment, for example, as a final and cumulative process versus averaging a list of grades over an entire course).
  • The role of process in learning and receiving a grade. In some courses, students are explicitly told effort (such as class participation) factor into grades, although often as a very small percentage. However, writing-intensive courses forefront effort in the form of participating as a writer: students brainstorming and drafting during class session, students peer conferencing, students conferencing with the teacher, and students submitting multiple drafts for feedback and then revising guided by that feedback. This means that course grades require this type of participation, rendering participation a minimum requirement, not optional.
  • Revising and editing instead of correcting. Submitting drafts, receiving feedback, and then revising to resubmit—this process is fundamental to writing-intensive course, but students who remain trapped in traditional ways of thinking about doing school also fail to understand the distinctions between revising/editing and correcting. Teacher feedback is both instruction and guidance for students to become their own agents of revision and editing. In other words, students should rethink and re-examine each draft fully, guided by the feedback but not simply walking through what is marked to “fix” that only.
  • Novice learner vulnerability and growing as a writer. One of the most crippling aspects of traditional grading and classroom dynamics is the deficit perspective that students enter a grading situation will 100% and must work not to lose credit or points. Oddly, this creates in students the compulsion to be perfect in the eyes of the teacher as the agent of their grade. Learning to write, however, require student vulnerability and transparency. To navigate a writing-intensive course, students must make good-faith efforts early and often throughout the course, fully realizing they are exposing their weaknesses and trusting that the process and growth will be honored over those initial struggles.
  • There is no finish line. Many students view learning as two fixed points: at the beginning is the learner who knows nothing (empty vessel) and then at the end is the finished (filled) learner. Writing, however, is not an all-or-nothing proposition since all writers and all writing can be improved by the process. This means that any time designated for learning to write is a valuable span, but it is the time frame that is fixed or set—not the status of the learner or the quality of the product (essay).

Writing-intensive courses where students are learning to write and not just being assigned essays are also demanding because many times students must rethink their behaviors, less like traditional students and more like writers. These are challenging and overlapping conditions that often inhibit students navigating these courses successfully.

A key to making the transition from traditional student to engaged student-writer includes a better understanding of participation over a long period of time. In other words, while the final product of any essay is important, in a course designed to teach a student to write (or write better), the process itself is equally important; therefore, students need to be engaged in drafting, submitting, and revising throughout the course—and not simply trying to turn in a “great” essay in one shot.

Traditional courses that are transmissional and focus on the acquisition of content (disciplinary knowledge) tend to establish for students how they best can behave in order to succeed (or survive) as students. Writing instruction may often overwhelm these students in high school and college since writing-intensive classes are seeking a complex behavior (not factual knowledge but process) as well as asking students to behave in many new ways.

Here, then, I have circled back to why writing-intensive courses are so challenging for teachers since to be effective we must address all of the challenges facing students.

 

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Student Agency, Authority, and Credibility as Writers

Each semester I teach, I become even more convinced that teaching writing is a journey, not a destination. And this semester has once again pushed me in that direction.

While it was just the second time I have taught the new upper-level writing/research course now part of our general education requirements (GER), it was in my 100-level GER course that struck me hardest, notably when a senior student sent the following message with a revised submission of the course major cited essay:

Attached is an updated copy. I don’t know if I have already said this, but thank you for being so helpful in all of these drafts! Also please let me know if it is going in the right direction or if I need to consider larger changes as opposed to these smaller edits.

This was the fifth submission of the essay, and the student has also met with me to conference about needed revisions.

What stands out here is the not-so-subtle message I have been receiving from this student and others—the “smaller edits” comment. Another student, exasperated, came very close to stating directly that I am being arbitrary and nit-picky.

My 100-level students are perfect examples of the problems associated with how a culture of grades degrades learning—and especially inhibits students from writing with agency, authority, and credibility.

Often, I am the first—and only—teacher who holds students accountable for foundational obligations related to formatting submissions and applying essential aspects of citation and scholarship.

Students have either had points deducted for formatting and citation or have simply been told they have “mistakes,” but that these are mere surface elements and thus not really important. Here, I think, is the seed of the student quoted above seeing my feedback as mostly addressing “smaller edits” even though my feedback was, in fact, substantive.

First, teaching any student to write, for me, is grounded in fostering some important foundational concepts about them as student-writers and developing scholars—how to represent themselves as purposeful writers and thinkers while establishing their authority and credibility.

Purposefulness is a difficult transition for students who have mostly been inculcated into a culture of rules about language and writing.

For example, I want students to set aside seeing their work as either correct or mistakes so that they focus on revision and editing their work—not merely correcting what I mark.

Instead of thinking “fragments are mistakes writers must avoid,” students are encouraged to think “what sentence formation am I using and what purposes do these purposeful sentence-level decisions serve in conveying meaning to my readers.” (The problem in student writing is not that fragments are “wrong,” but whether or not the student is aware of using a fragment and then if that use has effective purpose.)

Purposefulness in sentence and paragraph formation as well as choosing either to conform to conventions of grammar and mechanics or not is an essential element in establishing authority and credibility for student-writers and developing scholars.

This is key, I think, because the culture of grades creates a false dynamic in which some aspects of student performances of learning (writing) are deemed trivial and thus the holistic nature of demonstrating learning, or of expression, is corrupted for an analytic view of student behavior—the separate parts matter more than the whole while simultaneously some parts are rendered irrelevant since they simply cost the student a few points.

My approach to minimum requirements while requiring and allowing students to revise their work guided by feedback and conferencing seeks to honor the holistic nature of writers establishing their authority and credibility.

Especially in my 100-level courses and first-year writing, here is the structure I implement that helps students (ideally) move away from seeing some of their revision and editing being about “smaller edits” and toward viewing their work as a student-writer and developing scholar as a coherent whole:

  • Document formatting matters. I both teach and then require students to submit Word documents that show purposefulness and control over fonts (consistent throughout the document, including the header/footer) and font size, word processor formatting (margins, justification, hanging indents, spacing, page breaks, etc.), and file management (naming files with purpose and labeling subsequent drafts during the process). I explain to students that while these elements of submitting writing may seem “small” (and even trivial), these formatting elements establish in the reader’s (professor’s) mind an initial message about purposefulness and control—thus the student-writer’s authority and credibility.
  • Citation matters. I both teach and then require students to submit cited writing that meets basic expectations for citation format. Since I am in education, students in my courses primarily use APA so I focus on header format, title page, reference page, parenthetical citation, and subheads. These mechanical elements of citation, combined with document formatting above, are strictly addressed in the first submission, often meaning I do not accept the first or first few attempts made by students to submit work. I explain that these are all very easy to do, and failing to address these mechanical elements suggests, again, a lack of purpose, authority, and credibility. (Students are provided direct instruction in class and samples with notes along with being required or encouraged to conference with me.)
  • Sources matter. Despite detailed university guidelines about teaching first-year writing students how to search for high-quality sources, my students routinely demonstrate that they continue not to understand source quality (peer-reviewed journal articles tend to be more highly regarded in academia than books, for example; print sources, more than online; newer, more than older, etc.). Students also seem to lack the skills to search for those sources, relying on Google Scholar instead of searching through the library system that allows them to target searches. I work hard to scaffold experiences for students so that source quality and variety are addressed before they begin their writing; this still doesn’t work across the board, however. Students, for example, in the 100-level course mentioned above do a group project requiring high-quality sources, which can serve as a foundation for their individual essays. Yet, students will submit their essays without any of those sources and only online newspapers and magazines cited.
  • Using what seems “small” to foster substantive revision. When I focus on titles, subheads, and the need to synthesize sources, these tend to be elements of revision that students such as the one quoted above views as “smaller edits.” Yet, titles and subheads are about whether or not the student understands the primary and supporting focus of the essay (titles) as well as demonstrating a purposeful and compelling structure and organizational pattern (subheads) to the discussion or argument. Probably even more stressful for students is my emphasis on synthesizing sources. Typically, students paraphrase and quote extensively from one source at a time, plowing through their list of sources without regard for patterns found in the research or creating any sort of hierarchy for the importance of ideas related to their topic. Here, I am fostering disciplinary awareness by exposing them to the disciplinary differences between writing literary analysis and using MLA in high school and then transitioning to a social science course in college.
  • Openings and closings matter. Students have mechanical and not very compelling approaches to introductions (and clunky thesis sentences) and conclusions. They are drawn to making grand overstatements without offering any evidence for those claims—as The Onion brilliantly demonstrated: “For as far back as historians can go, summer vacations have been celebrated by people everywhere as a time for rest and relaxation.” And they mostly feel compelled to open with vague statements that they then repeat in a final paragraph. Therefore, I work on students creating multi-paragraph openings and closings that depend on framing (establishing something concrete, such as a narrative, in the opening that the student returns to in the end) and that introduce and then extend a focus (broader and more complex than a clunky thesis statement, allowing questions as well as allowing the essays to work toward an idea or call to action).

In 1957, Lou LaBrant wrote:

But I hope that I have hit upon enough of the important factors which go into writing to make it clear that it is not taught by considering the subject-predicate nature of modern English, the rules for punctuation, the parts of speech, or the placement of modifiers. Nor is writing taught when the formal outline with its A’s and B’s, its l’s, 2’s, and 3’s has been considered….Writing remains the final, most difficult of the language arts….Knowing about writing and its parts does not bring it about, just as owning a blueprint does not give you a house.

I have been guided by this metaphor—building a house versus the blueprint—for many years, and I have also extended that into how houses are built from the rough work leading to the finishing work.

Above, I have made a case that the rough work (“smaller edits” often to students) and the finishing work (“larger changes,” or the substance, I think, to students) are impossible to separate from each other because it is a holistic venture to craft an essay from a blank page.


Related

Shifting Disciplinary Gears as Student Writers

Helping Students Navigate Disciplinary Writing: The Quote Problem

Minus 5: How a Culture of Grades Degrades Learning

LaBrant, L. (1957). Writing is more than structureEnglish Journal, 46(5), 252–256, 293.

Thomas, P.L. (2011, September). Revisiting LaBrant’s “Writing is more than structure” (English Journal, May 1957). English Journal, 101(1), 103-104.

Thomas, P.L. (2000, January). Blueprints or houses?—Looking back at Lou LaBrant and the writing debate. English Journal, 89(3), pp. 85-89.

Thomas, P.L. (2019). Teaching writing as journey, not destination: Essays exploring what “teaching writing” means. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.

Minus 5: How a Culture of Grades Degrades Learning

About midway through my first 18 years in education as a high school English teacher, I had mostly de-graded and de-tested my courses except, of course, for having to comply with mandates such as midterm/final exams and course grades.

At some point, my students and I began to openly parody grade culture in a sort of wink-wink-nod-nod way that included my saying “Minus 5!” any time a student offered an incorrect answer during a class discussion.

We all smiled and laughed.

As I approach the same amount of time in the second wave of my career as an educator, now a university professor at a selective college, I continue to use that skit, adding at times a “Plus 10!” with exuberance when someone offers something really thoughtful.

My college students are hyper-students, having been very successful in school for many years while receiving as well as expecting high grades because of the student-skills they have developed.

Despite my careful and detailed explanations upfront that I do not grade and do not give tests, these college students struggle, some times mightily, in a de-graded classroom. Once, for example, a student emailed me about how to make up the “minus 5” I had taken away in the class discussion.

This semester in my educational foundations course and an upper-level writing/research course, many of the greatest flaws with grading culture have sprung up once again.

Even as we approach the end of the semester, I have had several students email me asking for extensions on submitting their major essay. I have to carefully reply that the concept of an extension isn’t relevant in a course that doesn’t grade and is grounded in the requirement that all assignments must be completed fully (and ideally on time) and resubmitted in a final portfolio.

In all of my courses, essays must also be submitted in multiple drafts or I cap the final course grade.

I explain repeatedly to my students that we are here to learn and that if I focus on artifacts of their learning while requiring that all work be completed fully, I have no option other than accepting late work, and they have no real option except to submit work late if they cannot meet deadlines.

Yet, my college students often cannot fathom any other system except the culture of grading that they have navigated quite well for many years.

Broadly, as an educator, I am daily disturbed by witnessing my students trapped in a grade mentality and not a learning mentality. As I have explored many times, the rewards/punishments elements of grading discourages risk and even effort in students and thus weakens the learning process that often requires a series of flawed efforts by students combined with mentoring from a teacher who requires and encourages informed revised efforts.

School at all levels, however, is just a statistical wrestling match between students and grade culture in which some students persist, hoping to excel, and many students simply try to survive in order to find some sort of freedom at the end.

Over the past couple of weeks, my educational foundations students have been submitting their major essay. I purposefully scaffold this assignment by having students present in groups earlier in the semester; those group presentations include focusing on students finding high-quality research for their topics and (for many) learning some basics of APA citation (the preferred style sheet in education).

I refuse to provide groups feedback on the group presentations until the group submits a correct and adequate references list for their sources used. This strategy lays the groundwork for each member having a start on sources for their individual essay and for my students to become somewhat acclimated to my minimum requirements approach to assignments (contrasted with grading).

Major cited essays are powerful windows into how a culture of grades degrades learning.

Students are provided a sample APA cited essay with notes and several checklists for preparing and revising an essay using APA citation; much of this is meticulously covered in class as well.

I also schedule some workshop time in class to help students with both trivial and significant elements of preparing a document in Word (headers can be a nightmare using APA). Then, as the first submission due date approaches, I stress that I will not provide feedback unless students submit a full first draft that includes some fundamental elements of formatting and citation [1].

However, as I experience every semester, several students submitted essays that were unacceptable (let me emphasize here, that when I reject these essays, the only recourse is that students address this problem by submitting a minimally acceptable draft as soon as possible, and I will meet with them if they are unsure how to do that despite the ample support I have already provided).

This included essays submitted without adequate sources (I stress the need to use peer-reviewed journal articles as the foundation of their sources, but also encourage a variety of sources), without a references list on the document, with a reference list but no citations in the essay, with some jumbled hybrid of MLA (usually the references list labeled “Works Cited” and then the bibliographies a wild Frankenstein’s monster of formatting), or as a document clearly in an early stage of brainstorming—what they would consider drafting—such as huge gaps between paragraphs, different colored fonts, and their own comments to themselves scattered throughout.

I have this happen despite stressing repeatedly they should submit the first draft of the essay as if they can never revise.

These dynamics in a degraded class that emphasizes authentic artifacts of learning and provides students ample opportunities to revise their work with my feedback in the form of comments on their work and conferences highlight that many students are unable to break free from a culture of grading, even when provided the opportunity.

Most students simply have their grades lowered when they fail to format and cite properly; that process tells them that these things really do not matter.

Yet, in my work as a scholar, I know that part of the authority a writer gains if from the trivial (formatting documents) and the essential (finding, understanding, and incorporating high-quality sources).

A culture of grading allows both students and teachers to be lazy about the things we claim to care about the most, such as authentic learning that translates into the so-called real world.

Once again, I have watched as several students have become angry at me and deeply frustrated by a process that is both requiring and supporting them to learn, in some cases for the first time, aspects of being a scholar that benefits them across their work as students and then in their lives after that.

What some are framing as “mean,” however, is a tenacity on my part that often results in students coming to understand and then apply the very things we sought to learn. But that process is unnecessarily painful because of the culture of grades that, in fact, asks less of students and teachers.

The culture of grades remains incredibly powerful in formal schooling, and as I discover time and time again, it makes the work of teaching and learning nearly impossible.

In the wake of this essay assignment and many of my formerly happy students struggling, my “Minus 5” rings a bit hollow these days among the tense faces of really bright young people more concerned about their grades than anything class has to offer.


[1] From my checklist, for example:

Checklist for Revising Cited Essay

Format in APA

[ ] Entire Word document (including header) is in Times New Roman, 12 pt. font, and double-spaced

[ ] Cover page has “Different First Page” checked, and running head formatted as follows:

Running head: RUNNING HEAD IN ALL CAPS                                                                1

[ ] Page 2 and beyond has running head only, as in:

RUNNING HEAD IN ALL CAPS                                                                                        2

[ ] Except for new paragraphs, do NOT format page breaks (cover page to page 2 and final page to references) with returns and do NOT format hanging indents or block quotes with return>tab.

[ ] Include a few subheads to organize the essay, but a subhead should be several paragraphs (not one), and avoid “Conclusion” as your final subhead (be interesting and specific).

Style and Citation in APA

[ ] Do not announce sources (avoid referring to the author[s] and titles of your sources when citing research) in your discussion.

[ ] Prefer synthesis of multiple sources and discussing the conclusions (patterns) from those sources—and thus, avoid quoting and simply cataloging one source at a time.

[ ] Take care with proper APA parenthetic citation; note the use of commas, page numbers with quotes only, and the placement of periods, for example:

Ironically, of course, we almost never hear a word of protest about the abundant misinformation found in our U. S. history textbooks (Loewen, 1996; Zinn, 1995), primarily because the misinformation better supports the meritocracy myth our schools are obligated to promote for the good of the society.

While Greene (1978) argues that “democracy is and has been an open possibility, not an actuality”—thus requiring “the kinds of action [by teachers] that make a difference in the public space” (pp. 58, 59)—the reality of school’s focus on socialization is that we are committed to capitalism above all else, even at the expense of democracy (Engel, 2000).

Recent scholarship on this concern for diversity and the achievement gap among races and socioeconomic groups has shown that when we attempt institutional approaches to “critical issues,” the result is corrupted by the system itself, resulting in a widespread acceptance of the work of Ruby Payne (1996), work that has no research supporting the “framework” and work that reinforces the assumptions (deficit thinking) about race and diversity that are common in our society (Bomer, Dworin, May, & Semingson, 2008; Bomer, Dworin, May, & Semingson, 2009; Dudley-Marling, 2007; Gorski, 2006a; Gorski, 2006b; Gorski, 2008; Thomas, 2009).

[ ] Parenthetical citation of paraphrased or synthesized sources require including the author(s) last name and publication year the FIRST time in each new paragraph, but multiple uses after that include ONLY the last name. Do not have several in-text citations over multiple paragraphs if all of the citations are paraphrasing. For example:

Greene (1978) is exploring the central dilemma offered by John Dewey, a dilemma that has been misunderstood at best and ignored at worst: Dewey “knew that optimism, demands for conformity, and ‘riotous glorification of things “as they are”’ discouraged critical thought” (p. 62). In U.S. society, and thus schools, critical challenges are popularly viewed as outright rejections. Within critical pedagogy, the challenges to assumptions are seen as fruitful, an essential part of process toward emancipatory practice, toward the ideal of democracy as “an open possibility” (Greene, p. 58).

[ ] Do NOT include hyperlinks in bibliographies in your references lists from your library searches (ebsco, galegroup links) or from jstor for hard-copy sources (includes page numbers).

Worksheets? We Talking about Worksheets

A few days ago, I had an Allen Iverson moment on Twitter:

Iverson, among many other athletic and pop culture accomplishments, is notorious for this rant:

“We sitting in here — I’m supposed to be the franchise player, and we in here talking about practice. I mean, listen: We talking about practice. Not a game. Not a game. Not a game. We talking about practice. Not a game. Not the game that I go out there and die for and play every game like it’s my last. Not the game. We talking about practice, man.”

What resonates with me, after I posted the retweet above, is that Iverson was almost entirely misunderstood, and received a fair among of negative feedback and is often still misrepresented by his outburst.

Once I realized that my critical list had gained a momentum of its own—many people responding positively to my intent, but a few creeping into viewing my Tweet as a burn—I noticed that some people found the Tweet to be unprofessional in tone and misread my point as somehow being against students having fun or oversimplifying the problem with worksheets.

To attempt to set the record straight, and try to calm the piling on that I did not intend, I posted a thread navigating the misunderstandings and concerns about my tone and points.

For the record, I am firmly against worksheets (although what that label means needs some interrogation, I admit), and for authentic (even fun) engagement by students with whole and real learning and artifacts of learning. But that is really complicated.

A former student and then early-career teacher, who has now left teaching, had a disturbing experience with why this position of mine is complicated. She taught in a school grounded in project-based learning (PBL). Her course was also team-taught.

As an English teacher, however, she was frustrated that she was required to prepare lessons and activities for students that were a series of different projects; notable in that requirement is that reading and writing were excluded from being the only sorts of projects students could complete.

She found herself in the sort of dilemma Lou LaBrant rejected in 1931, in one of the earliest rounds of PBL mis-attributed to John Dewey:

The cause for my wrath is not new or single. It is of slow growth and has many characteristics. It is known to many as a variation of the project method; to me, as the soap performance. With the project, neatly defined by theorizing educators as “a purposeful activity carried to a successful conclusion,” I know better than to be at war. With what passes for purposeful activity and is unfortunately carried to a conclusion because it will kill time, I have much to complain. To be, for a moment, coherent: I am disturbed by the practice, much more common than our publications would indicate, of using the carving of little toy boats and castles, the dressing of quaint dolls, the pasting of advertising pictures, and the manipulation of clay and soap as the teaching of English literature. (p. 245)

LaBrant’s anger lead her to this conclusion:

That the making of concrete models will keep interested many pupils who would otherwise find much of the English course dull may be granted. The remedy would seem to be in changing the reading material rather than in turning the literature course into a class in handcraft. (p. 246)

When I saw the original Tweet about hiding worksheets cut into strips inside Easter eggs, I immediately thought of my former student and LaBrant.

I am certain that I could create a Jeopardy!-style game to engage students in, for example, grammar activities. I think the game itself and student engagement could likely be exciting, and anyone observing that lesson would be fairly impressed with the energy.

I may even concede that students could learn grammar during the activity—although I am skeptical of the likelihood that a one-shot activity would produce genuine and deep understanding.

Here, however, let me return to LaBrant, who wrote in 1947: “We have some hundreds of studies now which demonstrate that there is little correlation (whatever that may cover) between exercises in punctuation and sentence structure and the tendency to use the principles illustrated in independent writing” (p. 127).

While the Jeopardy!-style game may be successful in being fun and engaging students, I am certain that whatever grammar students may learn, we remain faced with the same reality LaBrant confronted 80-plus years ago: Isolated grammar instruction does not transfer into student practice as writers.

Therefore, we must evaluate the Jeopardy!-style grammar game based on our instructional purposes. If we are teaching grammar-for-grammar’s sake, the game may be a valid instructional strategy (compared to completing grammar worksheets, for example).

But if our goal is writing instruction, even though the game is fun and engaging, it is a waste of instructional time better spent by students drafting, conferencing, and engaging in explicit instruction covering grammar, usage, and mechanics in the context of their original writing.

For those who see the teaching of English as more than writing and reading, we may be compelled to find engaging and fun ways to bring students to literature as well.

What if I designed a Thoreau-like nature walk for students to commune with nature and come to a better understanding of American transcendentalism espoused by Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau?

Again, this nature walk to an outside observer may appear to be very engaging and even fun for the students. But hiking in nature is not the domain of literature study; mining text for meaning, however, is what literature study entails.

Crouching in the woods or wading into a pond, like Thoreau, may help students with appreciating nature, but it is time better spent reading, discussing, and critically unpacking the essays written by Emerson and Thoreau, while also contrasting those texts with others written by their contemporaries, such as Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe.

Once again, as LaBrant argued throughout her career, writing is learned by writing, and reading is learned by reading.

Let me circle back, now, briefly, to the worksheet.

The decade’s long appeal of PBL comes, I think, from a realization that worksheets, workbooks, and static, silent students are elements of traditional schooling most of us want to avoid.

When I think “worksheet,” I am reminded of my early days of teaching high school English and being compelled to teach context clues because our students scored low on that subset of reading skills during state testing.

As part of our mandated test-prep, we were issued workbooks with worksheets dedicated to isolated reading skills. The context clues worksheet identified four or five types of context clues and then tested students with dozens of sample sentences requiring students to identify the type of context clue strategy needed to define the unknown vocabulary.

To be honest, this approach could likely raise student test scores since the worksheets were designed to prepare students for test-reading; the worksheets and tests involve the same sort of mechanical and inauthentic process and test a manufactured set of content designated as “context clues.”

Here’s the problem: Writers don’t write implementing context clues; writers just use words to form sentences and paragraphs. Context clues strategies work on worksheets and tests, but not so much in real-world reading.

Vocabulary acquisition is incredibly important for literacy development, but most people have the how of that acquisition backward: Students don’t need words (or context clues strategies) crammed into them so they can read better; reading more and more makes them better readers, in part, because that is how we acquire more words.

My concern and caution, then, are much broader than the worksheet since both worksheets and PBL (seemingly antithetical to each other) can be flawed practice if we are not careful to match our instructional strategies to our intended learning outcomes and artifacts of learning.

At first blush, this may seem tedious, even dull, but teaching English is mostly about reading and writing. These are often engaging and fun, but some times they are also challenging and rewarding even as they are tedious.

None the less, let’s not lose sight of what we are doing in the name of fun when that pursuit, in fact, avoids the real work that we should attend to and seeks as well to insure that students are engaged and, yes, often having fun.

The Dancing Comma, and Other Punctuation High Jinx

Social media are filled with bad political takes and far too much sexism and racism passed off as “It was a joke!”

Often in the same post.

But none of that can stand in the way of some good ol’ grammar, mechanics, and usage snark. Let’s take for example Benjamin Dreyer‘s interactions over Rob Lowe making a multi-level fool of himself on Twitter:

This Twitter discussion fits well into Dreyer’s recent release of Dreyer’s English and the perennial grammar wars (a bit of a misnomer since these wars between prescriptivists and descriptivists span across grammar, mechanics, and usage).

As Dreyer explains, punctuation placement in relationship to quote marks has different conventions in American and British usage:

  • I recommend that students avoid making adverbs into adverbs, such as using “secondly” instead of “second.” (American convention of period inside the closing quote mark.)
  • I recommend that students avoid making adverbs into adverbs, such as using “secondly” instead of “second”. (British convention of period outside the closing quote mark.)

These differences, I think, are excellent entry points into helping students copyedit their own work better, but also into fostering conventional awareness of language use (instead of a rules-based approach).

Image result for punctuation

I typically discuss the American/British difference before moving to the placement of punctuation in the context of quote marks as an issue of meaning, for example:

  • Standard English includes puzzling constructions such as, “I am being clear, aren’t I?”
  • Did you say, “My preferred name is Stephen”?

The question mark should remain, as in the first example, inside the closing quote mark to reflect that the quote itself is the question. In the second example, the entire sentence is the question, and the quote a statement; thus the question mark remains outside the closing quote mark.

All in all, these adventures in prescriptive versus descriptive approaches to language conventions may still feel like much ado about nothing to students, who often write because they are required to write and who simply don’t find the distinctions all that important.

The general public communicates moment by moment aloud and in text littered with so-called mistakes while also having almost no loss of communication.

And to be blunt, Rob Lowe’s problems in his Tweets are far less about his lack of understanding punctuation placement—and trying to show off about the Oxford comma but falling flat—and far more about his glib racism.

We descriptivists tend to argue that language conventions are a secondary issue to expression, although, as I explain below, it is nearly impossible to separate expression from conventions.

And so, this Twitter flurry over punctuation and quote marks provides another excellent entry point into helping students understand the role of conventional and purposeful language in establishing your credibility and authority as a writer.

As I have expressed before, some of the best lessons I ever learned about responding to student writing have been grounded in understanding how Advanced Placement graders are trained when scoring written responses.

One convention of writing about the action of fiction is to use present tense verbs—a contrast to using past tense verbs in detailing history.

However, at an AP training session, we were encouraged not to focus on the convention but to look for students being consistent. In other words, verb tense shift (dancing around from present to past without purpose or control) was a reason to lower a score, to identify the writing as less sophisticated.

I thought about this when I read Dreyer’s responses on Twitter because I still stress to my students that understanding punctuation placement in relationship to quote marks is mostly a problem for their credibility and authority as writers when the final punctuation dances around throughout the essay—some times inside, some times outside, with no rhyme or reason.

As a writing teacher who seeks ways to foster my students as autonomous and eager writers who also have a healthy attitude about language (an inclusive and historical awareness of conventions), I seek opportunities like Dreyer’s chastising Lowe as entry points into exploring conventional awareness and how language use cannot be disentangled from writer credibility and authority.

I often come back to again and again to making the case that credibility and authority are driven by writer control and purpose.

The dancing comma implies a lack of control, or purpose.

My argument, then, is not to browbeat students into being correct, but to encourage them to find ways to make their voices heard and appreciated.

And maybe to avoid being called out on social media, and to avoid stepping in the original mess again over and over.

My Journey with the Essay

I believe in coyotes and time as an abstract
Explain the change, the difference between
What you want and what you need, there’s the key

“I Believe,” R.E.M.

I am a writer.

I am a teacher—often and maybe essentially a teacher of writing.

Through no real singular decision, I have become mostly a writer of essays and a poet, and concurrently, when I teach writing, almost exclusively a teacher of essays.

In May of 2018, I submitted a manuscript of a book on teaching writing. Recently, I have been compulsively checking the publisher’s web site because that book has been listed as “in press” for several weeks now.

Today, I checked and saw “published”—somewhat symbolically, I suppose, about a nine-month journey to its born-on date.

Those intervening months mean, as I argue in this collection of essays drawn from several years of blogging about teaching writing, that today I am a different writer and teacher of writing than when that manuscript was compiled and submitted.

Writing and teaching writing as journey, not destination, remains a powerful metaphor that grounds me because both avocations spark powerful and nearly debilitating anxiety in me.

As a regular blogger, I have become more and more skeptical of and terrified by the fixity of published works, especially books.

I like hyperlinks and being my own editor and publisher (although I often fumble these roles quite badly); I feel as if the blog posts are more living documents (I can and do copyedit them whenever I find mistakes or am prompted by a kind reader). And I have some concrete recognition of readers, a readership quantified and displayed daily for me by WordPress.

Yet, to paraphrase Robert Frost, something there is that doesn’t love a book.

books

Frost’s ode to a wall, I think, captures a similar ambiguity about books, especially for those of us enamored by them and for those who spend their lives critiquing and even criticizing them.

For the past nine months, I have been wading deeply into books about teaching writing—the production of my own book of essays and then reading and reviewing two published volumes by John Warner, Why They Can’t Write and  The Writer’s Practice.

This wading and mulling, nearly constantly thinking and rethinking, however, are nothing new because I exist in a permanent state of feeling compelled to write and teach writing along with being terrified I have no idea how to write or teach writing.

At the center of my compulsions and insecurities lies the essay.

Poets Write Beautiful Essays: On “Coyote” by Chloe Garcia Roberts

Like Warner, as a writer and a teacher of writing, I struggle with how to provide students some structure and guidelines for writing, and specifically writing essays, without reducing their task to templates, prescriptions, and rules that prove often to be false.

This morning as I saw that my book is now published, I read Chloe Garcia Roberts’s “Coyote,” and searched her book title, discovering that she is a poet.

And as I teach my students, I tend to read as a writer.

The essay “Coyote” opens with narrative, immediately engaging the reader with character, plot, and setting. While the first paragraph reads nothing like the introduction/thesis often prescribed to students, it does end by focusing the reader: “But actually what was happening here when the coyote was being seen as a dog was not passing, it was shifting.”

Soon, we realizing that Roberts is exploring ideas and words, “passing,” “shifting,” among others. But this isn’t some simplistic “definition essay” that may be assigned to high school students.

This essay by a poet is a testament to the power of mode—narration, description, exposition, persuasion—and a model of craft; Roberts offers historical references and literary allusions, and she breaks the narrator/reader wall.

What becomes compelling to me, however, is her diction, this essay as tour de force of seeking not a good word, but the right word, pushing me to google some along the way: liminal, thaumatrope, oscillation, crepuscular, rife.

The voice of the essayist, the poet-as-essayist, speaks through science, through history, through literature; layers here, I think, at the core of the essay speak about being an essayist like a coyote:

The ferryman is never the hero. He is always heartless. If your family cannot pay, you cannot pass. Reviled by both sides, his only purpose, his only function, is to change people from one side to the other. In Western myths, the ferryman sometimes rows alone and sometimes is accompanied by Hermes the trickster, the guider of souls. In American mythology, Coyóte plays all the roles. He is not a note in a larger spiritual pantheon but a full revolution of unraveling and creation, of journey and return.

The essay itself is a journey, and the essayist, then, is the ferryman.

“Coyote” is beautiful, and it meets the broad characteristics I often share with students: essays start somehow, develop some focus briefly and somehow, and then ends somehow—hopefully always compelling.

Now, with my teaching writing book published, I have come yet again to something new, something that will not be in that book about the essay itself as a journey, captured with poetic shape in the last paragraph of “Coyote,” again nothing like a traditional conclusion guided by the worst writing advice ever (restate the introduction in different words):

In English, a siren song is another way to say an alluring deception, a seductive lie. But I ask you: how can a song be deceptive if it is a matter of life or death that it be sung? If our very existence depends on it being sung? And in case you cannot see it, I should inform you I am singing right now.

Roberts ends with questions and her own alluring image of essayist singing, embracing the complexities she has drawn for us and drawn us into.

I, a fellow essayist and poet on a much less successful level, am further ferried along in my journey as writer and writing teacher, awaiting my copies of a book of essays, themselves fixed but just markers in my rearview mirror as I continue on my way.


Published

Teaching Writing as Journey, Not Destination: Essays Exploring What “Teaching Writing” Means (IAP)