Make certainty part of opening week

Getting students off to a good start in a writing class means helping them set realistic expectations for the course. A quotation I copied from Carol Graham’s book Happiness for All? tells one good reason why we need to tell our students what we expect of them and what they can expect of us:

While individuals seem to be able to adapt to unpleasant certainty…they are much less able to adapt to change and uncertainty, even that which is associated with progress.

Most of my students enter my writing classes dreading it. I rarely  (actually never) turn any of them into writing enthusiasts in the first session, but I do change their uncertainty about what the course will entail to certainty.

Just as Graham says, my students are able to adapt to “unpleasant certainty” reasonably well. And in doing that, they are able to make progress toward writing competently.

Spell Out Expectations for Writers

When I was in the newspaper business, I often heard reporters ask an editor, “What do you want in this story?” Usually the answer was, “Just write the story, and we’ll fix it later.”

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When the story came in, editors would yell at reporters to go back to get more information or to get different information, which made both reporters and their sources angry. The result was frustration all around.

If adults on the job react angrily to vague directions, imagine how frustrating it is to Caitlin and Joshua when they don’t know what the teacher expects them to do in their writing assignments.

For learning disabled students and others who struggle with writing, directions for a writing assignment must be clear. The directions need to spell out:

  • what is to be done
  • how it’s to be done
  • when it’s to be done
  • the standards by which it will be evaluated

Don’t assume students will know. Spell it out—in language they can understand.

Photo credit: Folded Paper uploaded by kmg