Rules for Writing

To start off classes this semester, I had the students sit in groups of five. This meant 5 tables of 5 students each. I asked the students to list each member of their group on the board as well as a detail that might help us to get to know them. After they finished doing that, they listed five “Rules For Writing” that they believed in or had been taught to them in previous classes.

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college writing, composition, rules for writing, teaching, pedagogy, writing studies, St. John's University, Bill Torgerson, English, NCTE, CCCC, ENGCHAT, FYCChat

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Next, each group read a different text written by a writer about writing. On the first day, I used these texts/excerpts:

  • Black Boy by Richard Wright.
  • “Shitty First Drafts” by Anne Lamott
  • Life by Keith Richards
  • Ex Libris by Anne Fadiman
  • “Unlearn to Write” by Donald Murray

The students read the excerpt out loud and answered the following four questions:

  1. What is the writer’s message about writing?
  2. What are some “golden lines” that you think are worth talking about?
  3. How can you apply the ideas here to your own writing?
  4. Does any of what this writer says about writing cause you to rethink any of your own Rules For Writing?

When each group was finished, I counted off by fives at each table. Students moved to a new table and presented the text they had just read to students who had read something different. I want to thank St. John’s University doctoral student Katelynn DeLuca for reminding me about this “jigsaw” method of getting students to move around the room.

In the coming weeks, students will be reading and commenting on texts written by writers about writing. This exercise was a way for all of us to begin to get to know each other and for the students to get acquainted with some of the choices they have for their reading this semester.

 

Feedback and Revision are the Problem

Responding to student writing can be the toughest part of teaching First Year Writing / College Composition. This semester I spent a lot of time writing comments on paper-based texts. I got most of the students to hang on to my comments so they could turn them in with revisions. I do what I can to ask questions and give the students the sort of feedback that leaves them in charge of the draft. However, sometimes something is just wrong. For example, students sometimes italicize quotes. I feel pretty irritated when I give feedback along the lines of don’t italicize the quotes and then I get the revision and all the quotes are still formatted incorrectly. Yes, there are more important issues related to the students’ work, but I’m just giving you one example of how I spend a lot of time writing feedback that gets ignored.  There’s a lot more that I could write here, but what I want is a way to track drafts. The problems I’m writing about today are related to giving feedback to student texts and following the revisions that students do.

There is so much paperwork involved in saving drafts with my handwritten comments, and I think those comments aren’t doing as much good as they could. AND, I will still be faced with reading final DIGITAL portfolios with no access to previous drafts.

I could take you through all that I have tried and thought about that doesn’t work very well, but why would you want to read about that?

My online students do most of their writing on a blog. It’s a pain to either keep track of my thoughts until the end of their post or scroll down to the comments section every time I have a thought. A former professor of mine named Sam Watson used to type his students a letter after reading their work. There’s a lot pedagogically sound about this I think, but many students need examples such as how to write a transition or handle a quote.

I see quite a few possibilities for how I might navigate these problems but none of these solutions has everything I want.

The website Book Country has a way to give feedback that I like:

Book Country, feedback, College Composition, English, Language Arts

 

From what I understand, Book Country is a Penguin community where those who read and write genre fiction can come together and respond to each other’s work. I cut off the name of the writer’s work I copied here. I hope if you’re from Penguin and come across this, you’re glad I’m sharing your community with readers. If not, I’m happy to take this screen shot down.

What I really like about the Book Country set up are the boxes on the right. I can read the text and just write comments off to the side. I think there is also the potential for the writer (or possibly the teacher) to customize what kind of feedback they are asking for. This could put the writer more in control of the text, or if you prefer, you could think about those boxes in terms of a rubric or objectives.

Here’s two ideas I’m considering:

  • We use Digication ePortfolios at St. John’s.  I could have students upload a file to their portfolio. I could download the file to my computer and give feedback via the Word commenting feature. When I give feedback that way, I’m careful to save feedback as a pdf file so the student doesn’t just leave some of what I’ve written in the draft.  The student would upload revisions and we’d both have access to all the drafts. I’m not crazy-excited about all that uploading and saving or all the drafts I might have open on my computer screen at the end of the semester as I try to track what the student has done in the way of revision.
  • There’s Google Drive, used to be Google Docs.  I could access the student’s writing via a link. I type in comments/feedback, but then what happens? Can the students comment there too? Do we have to do our commenting off to the side? Will we be able to track drafts? How complicated is that?

I want to navigate the cycle of write, comment, revise, and collect to be managed digitally next semester. Can you give me some feedback on my ideas? Do you have a great system I need to learn about?

 

 

What are you working on? Discussion in the Writing Classroom

In the writing classrooms where I teach, we often sit in a circle and do a “quick share” to begin class where everyone offers a brief comment. Examples of what students might say include a golden line from a reading, a question for our fellow writers, or an observation about a project in progress they are working on. Beginning in this way helps me to avoid talking too much to start off the class, and I hope to encourage students who might otherwise just sit back and relax to try and engage actively with the activity of the course.

William Torgerson teaching writing research composition discussion college

the challenge of conversation

 

Even trying for rapid-fire sharing around the room, with up to twenty-five students, writers can get bored, feel left out, or be uncomfortable enough talking in front of a group that they don’t speak in a way that the students in the class can hear them.  Even if a student speaks two minutes out of fifty, that’s not much engagement or opportunity to be heard. In considering this problem, I’m taken back to my days as a basketball coach. I was always looking for ways to maximize our practice time and the opportunities each player had to improve. For example, if I were to put fifteen players in a line and have them shoot, get their own rebound, and then pass to the next player, then each player might get three shots in ten minutes.  This isn’t helping anyone very much and to my way of thinking, not so different than a student in a writing class who only gets to be heard once or twice. So what to do?

As a teacher, I often go back to my time as an athlete and then a coach. For me, developing as a writer has a lot in common with my development as a shooter of the basketball or training for a long run.  When I coached and wanted to get my players more practice, I arranged shooters into five lines of three, and all of the sudden each player got five times the amount of practice than if they were in one big-long line. The classroom version of this basketball solution would be to make use of small groups. Theoretically, a student in a small group has more opportunity to join a conversation about their reading and writing. However, I’ve been in small groups as a student and now as a faculty member, and I’m often not impressed with the sort of work that gets done. There’s often a lot of noise, but it doesn’t often seem to be the noise of conversation about reading and writing. If you want students (or faculty) to work in small groups, then there has to be a plan for how this conversation can flourish.  As someone who was beginning to get more and more interested in Twitter, I wondered about the possibility of using it to enhance classroom conversation.  More on that experiment in coming posts, and if you’ve got your own ideas about classroom discussion or the use of small groups, I’d love to hear them!