When I took my MS at Syracuse University, I was awarded an assistantship at the Newhouse School of Public Communications. My first term, I was assigned to work for a faculty member in the Advertising Department.
A few weeks into the fall term, the Dean of the Newhouse School told me that the professor had protested being given an assistant with no advertising experience. The Dean said he told her there are usually a couple assistants who need to be reassigned and if she’d wait a couple weeks, he could arrange a swap. The professor had come back that week and told him I was the best assistant she’d ever had.
She said she had given me a stack of papers to grade and was astonished that I knew exactly what to look for and had graded the papers overnight. I had accomplished the task that so astonished the professor by grading students’ papers according to how well they did what the directions told them to do.
At the time, I couldn’t believe that no other graduate assistants had reached that startling conclusion. Now, that that I’m older and more disillusioned, I realize that being able to discover the goal of an assignment from the directions for an assignment is not a common skill.
That’s why I was pleasantly surprised this week by an email I received from a graduate of a area college expressing interest in doing illustrations for books I’m writing about how to visit in nursing homes. (If you’re interested in getting updates on what I’m doing, use this link: https://dropping-by-books.ck.page/signup)
The artist said was interested in the project because she had done some visiting in a nursing home and her grandmother was reaching a point at which it is likely that she will have to be in a nursing home. Those two facts from her personal experience tell me she understands the goal of my books.
As writing teachers, you and I need to regularly spend a few minutes forcing students to think about what the goals of specific writing prompts are. If students see writing prompts as just busy work, even if they respond well to the prompts, we’ve not done a good job of teaching writing.
If you’ve been required to become an online writing teacher during the Covid pandemic, the difficulty of teaching students to write in an online class may have driven you to the point of despair.
I know that feeling all too well.
In recent years, I’ve typically been expected to provide an entire writing course online to employed adults in eight weeks. A writing course should provide a minimum of 100 hours of actual writing practice to get students to the point at which all that’s required for them to continue improving their writing skills is more practice. It is clearly impossible for me to give my students that amount of writing practice within an eight week period: They would need nearly two hours of free time a day to accomplish it.
In order to get anywhere near the minimum amount of practice, I’ve developed unorthodox procedures to eliminate any activities that are not absolutely necessary and give students as many hours of actual writing practice as I can possibly cram into eight weeks. The process is flexible, easy-to-learn, and it works for all kinds of expository nonfiction writing: It’s the process I’ve used for newspaper reporting, magazine articles, nonfiction books and what is politely called ephemera. (You may refer to ephemera as junk mail, but you won’t sound nearly as well-educated.)
You can reduce the stress of online teaching by adopting three of my practices. They’re equally applicable to teaching students grades seven through 12 as they are to teaching college students.
Here are three strategies that enable me to give students a maximum of writing experience in a minimum amount of time.
1. Don’t use traditional textbooks.
In lieu of a textbook, I have a list of eight writing strategies for expository writers. My list condenses what students must learn to do into eight imperative sentences, none longer than five words.
By learn, I mean not only that students memorize the 34-words list, but that they also are able to apply the concepts and skills inherent in those strategies to different expository writing situations. In some writing situations students encounter, they won’t be able to apply the strategies in their pure form, so they must understand the objectives of the strategies well enough to be able to accomplish them via some non-standard method.
If you’ve seen old films about World War II, you may recall situations in which the good guys in a risky situation have to devise a new way of achieving an objective. Soldiers might have needed to blow up a bridge, but they couldn’t accomplish that objective in the way they’d practiced, so they had to improvise to make use of resources at hand. A similar ability to improvise to achieve a writing objective when the actual writing situation is different from the “typical writing situation” is what I mean when I say students know the eight strategies.
2. Limit learners to prompts you assign.
I don’t allow a great deal of learner choice in the way you probably would define the term. All my writing assignments require expository nonfiction writing on communications-related topics. That’s how I give students authentic “English class” topics and still provide a way for them to bring in their out-of-class experiences.
One of the writing prompts in my PenPrompts collection Ready, Set, Write for not-yet-competent writers is this:
“In an I/E text, discuss 2 to 5 words used to change public perception of some topic, issue, or product in each of three fields of human endeavor.”
Word choices are definitely an English class topic. My writing prompt allows students to draw on both their in-school and their out-of-school knowledge to identify fields in which the choice of terms affects public perception. This year, politics would probably be on most students’ lists. Other fields where word choices matter include such different fields as sales and marketing, education, science, law, economics, real estate, and teaching.
3. Provide everything writers need in one place.
All the formal writing prompts I assign to students I embed in a self-contained writing lesson that’s rarely longer than both sides of a single sheet of paper. In lieu of having students look things up in textbooks, each lesson gives students all the information they need to get started on the assignment. For not-yet-competent writers that includes a working thesis that responds to the prompt and a writing skeleton™ so they can quickly “prime their brains” to notice information that may be relevant to their assignment. As they do each assignment, that writing prompt’s lesson drags them through a single problem-solving process that is repeated in greater or lesser detail in each writing prompt’s lesson material.
A few final words.
I’ve been fortunate so far in being provided with learning management systems to use in teaching writing online rather being required to use a business presentation technology. My students and I have communicated entirely in writing, so every student-teacher interaction reinforced the need to communicate clearly in writing. If you are stuck with Zoom or some other program developed for oral presentations rather than for online teaching and learning, you will have much more difficulty teaching writing online and students will have much more difficulty learning to write in the online environment. I wish that were not the case, but that’s reality.
If students leave the writing workshop feeling famous, then I have done my job right. Sharing your writing, being enlarged by others’ writing is what makes you feel famous. Source: Gretchen Bernabei, 2010 Summer Writing Academy, San Antonio ISD, San Antonio, Texas
As a writing teacher, what’s your goal?
Do you want your students to appreciate literature?
Respect others who are different from themselves?
Learn to work collaboratively?
Are you seeking to boost students’ confidence?
Help them develop grit?
Prepare them to participate in the democratic process?
Equip them with knowledge of the fundamentals of grammar, punctuation, and usage?
Enable them to be leaders?
My goal as a writing teacher is modest.
I simply want every one of my students to write competently by the end of the course.