Metawriting posts from the new blog location

Monday, August 30, 2010

My Credo as a Writing Teacher

I seemed to have reached the point in that early semester chaos when it is helpful to ground myself once more and review what I believe is important to remember as a writing teacher. Sometimes my goals get lost in the administrivia.

Most important, as countless research studies have established, writing is not one skill, and certainly not a basic skill, but rather a complex set of skills that vary according to task. As a complex set of skills, rather than one simple skill, writing cannot be taught. That's right, I don't believe in transfer -- at least not when writing instruction is based on skill acquisition. I do believe transfer can, and does, happen when writing instruction moves beyond basic skill acquisition. If I'm not teaching basic writing skills then what am I teaching?

I strive to teach my students that writing is context-specific. The specific audience and the specific task create the boundaries and goals for each piece of writing. This is why writing cannot be taught and why transfer fails. I cannot simply work my way down a checklist every semester and churn out competent writers. As soon as they leave my classroom they will write in such a wide variety of contexts that I cannot hope to prepare them for all possibilities. What I can do is help them develop an understanding of how genre and audience drive writers in their work so they can adapt and learn to work within those new contexts as they are encountered. Learning how to sift out the needs and conventions of each new discourse community they join will help my students become successful writers.

However, there is one more essential task that faces me as a writing instructor -- I have to make my students agents of their own change. I have to help my students not only believe that they can write but that they can guide their own destiny as writers. I can create and deliver the most amazing writing class ever, but if my students are not ready to accept the challenge and do not believe they can meet it then no change -- or very little change -- will take place. My experience working with writers outside and inside academia as well as my own research has reinforced this belief time and time again. This is the driving force behind my focus on writing self-efficacy in my research.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Fall 2010 3X3

As a reflective practitioner (clear demonstration of my NWP affiliation) Natalie Houston's suggestion on ProfHacker to reflect on the past semester as I prepare for the new one fell on fertile ground. I agree it is important to look at what worked and didn't in the past to make sure that my experience informs my future practice.

What Worked Well

Focusing on Writing About Writing with my first-year writing students. My concept for the class is not yet fully refined but students still learned important lessons. Not all of them were big fans but their arguments against were more eloquent and informed as a result of their reading (a fact none of them noted of course). I think I can work on this concept more to bring more students on board.

Switching from a multitude of summary assignments to building annotated bibliography as a class. This not only provides a saner (for me and my students) way to build the same skill set but it provides more support and scaffolding for the process. Also, when we are done we have a pretty helpful document to guide future research and writing which the summary assignments didn't really do for us.

Creating video tutorials were also a good choice. Admittedly they were initially created because I was dying to use my new Flip and as a new user they were not very polished, but students did find them helpful. I have a tendency to be too text reliant for the information I share with my online students so this was a nice break.

What Didn't

I assigned too much reading right up front. I was excited about making the switch to writing about writing and also knew students needed to front-load their reading to inform the writing they would do the rest of the semester. All true but still too much too soon for first-year students.

Starting out with a group project was a mistake. Enrollment has too many fluctuations at the beginning of a semester (especially in an online class) and it is really hard to make students work together when they haven't formed a community yet.

In part because I needed to allow more time for the group project than originally planned and in part because of my own misinterpretation of departmental guidelines I assigned too many pages of writing for my students. These factors meant I didn't allow as much time as I should have for drafting and revision.

What I'm Changing

One of the complaints about the writing about writing focus was simply that students didn't know what they were getting into. So this semester I created a video challenge to let students know what our focus would be for the semester. I sent it out weeks before classes started and also put it in my introductory materials (for those late additions as well as folks who might have missed those early emails). They still might hate the emphasis but at least now they've been warned!

I am making more video tutorials although perhaps for some at least mini-lesson might be more descriptive. Short explanations for major assignments etc. Hopefully students will find these useful and also help them understand my goals for the class and assignments.

I'm using social media to build a sense of community and audience and then took the elements I really wanted to keep from the class annotated bibliography assignment and melded it with the social media. This semester we are building a class annotated bibliography together but it is not a group project.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Am I Media Mad or Simply Mad?

That's mad as in crazy as I am committed. The syllabus is made. I notified my students. We are using Blogger and Twitter this semester in addition to BlackBoard -- and I'm making YouTube videos like crazy to support my instruction. What is up with that?

That is exactly what one of my students just asked me. She had me for Writing I in the spring and signed up for my Writing II class this fall -- assuming she knew what she was getting into. And then came my Challenge video and she is pretty confused.

I can't blame her.

Of course, change has become my habit ever since I started this whole Ph.D. thing. The more I study, contemplate, and conduct my own research about the teaching of writing (or the learning of writing, after all which came first, the chicken or the egg) then the more I want to do for my students.

So why Twitter? A couple reasons.

First, I believe it can be an easily monitored channel of communication that will allow any of us (teacher and students) to send a message to the group. If information is being generated in two different areas (Blogger and BlackBoard) then announcing changes and additions via Twitter means we can all still check just one place. This is actually an improvement on BlackBoard as there is not just one place information is posted in BB.

So simple communication is one reason, but perhaps more important, I think using Twitter with its limited character count combined with its open access will help my students get away from the traditional English essay mindset and perhaps (hopefully?) think a bit differently about audience and genre -- focusing on the message and not the medium or perhaps more accurately how the medium impacts the message. We'll find out!

So why Blogger?

This is perhaps the least radical change. For several semesters now I have required students to present some final web presentation of some sort and for many students that meant a blog. So requiring all students to blog (instead of create web pages, slide presentations, or Squidoo lenses for example) might actually be a step back. I am experimenting with the use of a class blog as a way to help two sections of the same class interact with our subject matter. That is a radical change. We'll see how that works. I'm requiring all students to make their web presentations of their project via blog in hopes that if we all use the same program we will be able to explore in greater depth the many ways this simple format can be adapted and changed. My reasons for sharing their presentations on the web as opposed to a final paper turned in via BlackBoard's gradebook are the same. I want my students to develop an understanding and appreciation for writing for a real audience -- not me -- and how the needs and knowledge of the real audience drive real communication. I've been striving for that goal for some time and still haven't reached it. I'm not sure you truly can in any writing class (after all, students know they are writing for the teacher) but every semester I hope I can do better.

And so, dear students, never fear. There is a method to my madness. Of course, that is exactly what I would say if I was indeed mad...