Methods of Teaching
To Meet Unknown Needs of Students
Peter Elbow challenges teachers to give meaningful comments to a student's writing. He contends that "most bad commenting comes from slipping automatically into one habitual resounding gear." It has been my experience that students cry out for comments, be it for reinforcement or for a future challenge. Students have expressed feelings of being cheated if they do not receive a certain "amount" of comments. Comments to my students have been a measurement of my interest, my knowledge of their ability to write clearly on their subject, or even my lack of ability. I often find myself falling into the "habitual response gear" to meet unknown needs of my students. So is this failure on my part? I say no. Often I have found it a springboard for more development of clarity of their subject or even my lack of ability.
"Movies of the Mind": Responding to Student Writing
Peter Elbow makes a number of worthy suggestions for expanding the range of instructor responses to student writing: offering them positive advice along with negative criticism; praising what "works" in their text in a strategically focused manner; and describing the text and its functionalities as non-judgmentally as possible. I am resistant, however, to his assertion that we educators engaged in the evaluation of student writing would better serve our students (and, presumably, ourselves) by offering "feedback consisting of a frank account of (our) perceptions and reactions."
It strikes me as a bit naïve and misguided of him to posit the notion that the kind of subjective responses he advocates--such as telling students when passages in their writing evoke in us sympathy or involvement or boredom or even anger--will deter students from questioning impersonal instructor "verdicts."
Why should students trust us as readers any more because we couch our evaluations in emotional subjectivity, which they might be even more inclined to mistrust than our (perhaps imperfect) attempts to be objective and even handed? Isn't there danger in the subjective approach that students will be even more motivated in their writing than they already are by the desire to please a single reader?
Moreover, don't such emotional reactions serve merely to reinforce in their minds that we are indeed what they already know us to be--i.e., biased. And isn't it delusional rationalization on our parts to attempt to validate our own biases simply by virtue of being open and honest about them?
Writing Experience in College
The amazing thing is that none of my writing experiences in college stands out as particularly painful or as fabulously fulfilling. Perhaps I've repressed them, but I have no memories of writer's block or pre-paper panic. Although I was generally a conscientious student, my papers were pounded out on an Olympus typewriter the night before they were due. I never handed in a paper late, but I don't recall ever reading over my first draft either.
I may have written as much in French as in English. Oddly enough, any frustrations with writing paragraphs and papers have faded away. What remains is the fun of making connections in texts and criticism. We all felt ourselves to be in a privileged world of francophones, bandying about the critical theories of Bachelard, in the middle of Iowa.
However, several aspects of my writing in French are quite different from my teaching practices in E.S.L. I don't remember any explicit instruction on form although we undoubtedly had models of prose to follow at some point. I think now that if my students hang their ideas on a recognizable form, they're more likely to be understood.
No one could have accused our French professor of coddling us. "Risible" he would write in the margin, or illogique, affreux, or à refarie, so often that we presented him with stamps bearing his most frequent comments, a gift he did not appreciate.
Nor did we do much personal writing after the first few levels. Journals were not much favored by my formal European-trained professors. I proceeded differently with my students--lots of supportive comments of writing tasks, more input from them on our syllabus, more compassion in contrast to my conservative training. It's more pleasant perhaps to teach and to learn, now, but I'm not sure which is more effective.
My senior year of high school my humanities teacher succumbed to a cancerous brain tumor. In her place, the school substituted the wife of our new social studies teacher. Mrs. Poe had taught college writing, but needed a special exemption from the superintendent to teach high school students.
Most of the students found her prissy and too detailed after the slightly zany and chaotic Mrs. Theis. However, I was thrilled. She gave me a structure for an essay. She showed me how to state a thesis, develop it, and write a conclusion. As a typical eldest child, I thrived on organization and structure. Finally I could write and feel some confidence that I would produce an acceptable product.
In fact the only thank you I have ever written to a teacher was to Mrs. Poe. During orientation my first week at Iowa State University, I wrote a screening essay to determine if I could place in an Honors freshman composition course. I did place and felt I owed my success to Mrs. Poe's structure.
Since I sometimes file the Writing Center Newsletter before it gets the careful reading it deserves, I found myself reading most of the materials given to us for the workshop out of some sort of accumulated guilt. My, there's some good stuff here!
I am particularly taken with the article by Richard Hasswell on minimal marking. For most of my teaching career I have been bothered by the fact that my evaluations of student papers too often focused largely on correcting technical mistakes, and provided the student with little real help for improving the paper in a meaningful way. I am convinced that most of my students made corrections in a mechanical way and do little else to improve their papers. It also seems clear that my corrections do not sink into their minds, but rather that similar mistakes occur again and again.
The notion that one should go no further than to call a student's attention to the fact that there is a mistake somewhere on a line is intriguing. It seems plausible that students will learn more from having to look for a mistake than if they have it already 'corrected' for them. Like many innovative ideas, I'm sure it will have its flaws, but I plan to give it a try this fall and see how it works.
What Good Is (Slavish Attention to) Punctuation?
My name is Lynda and I'm a recovering copy editor. As a copy editor, I was immersed in the realm of punctuation, spelling, usage, and even blank spaces. I learned to tell an "-" dash from an "--" dash. I once engaged in a spirited debate as to whether "frontally placed adverbs"--as another editor so infectiously phrased it-- warrant a hyphen (they don't).
I still work as a copy editor, though this is no longer my profession; herein lies the problem. I cannot not see errors in others' writing. Seeing errors, I instinctively correct them or at least circle them. This is a problem for me because correcting (so many!) small mistakes is time-consuming, can convince me that the writer lacks consideration for the reader, and, worst of all, may distract me from the sense of the essay as a whole. This is also a problem for my students. They--perhaps assuming that they have a better command of mechanics than they do and/or that I, as a mere political scientist, am in no position to critique their writing skills--seldom seem pleased when I hand back their papers.
I sometimes tell my students that I was once an editor. I say this partly as a warning and partly in the hope that this will inspire them to clean up their writing. Instead, I fear, my commenting on papers is rather painful for all concerned.
The question, then is how do I turn off my "inner editor" while helping students to learn rules for punctuating that may, according to Word Shop #124, "violate the prosody of their inner voices"? That is the on-going tension for the recovering-editor-turned-teacher.
When I first received the package containing the reading material, I dutifully read all the enclosed articles (interpretation: I skimmed through a couple). Surprisingly, my memory of their contents seemed a bit fuzzy, and after a few beers at the shed, it was even fuzzier. But after a good 5 hours of rest my mind felt refreshed and I did the only thing a good, or even mediocre, statistician could do. I randomly picked one of the Word Shop articles. The luckily winner was #101: self-reflective assignments.
The techniques for self-reflection discussed in the article were hashed out at an August faculty retreat. But unfortunately they did not have our [phish] surroundings; they met in the Alumni House. But I digress (what's new). Rather than reflect on the writing/researching processes, or lack thereof that I have employed in this assignment, I would like to briefly talk about criticism.
Being self-critical and understanding others' criticism is a component of self-reflection. Responding to criticism, both positive and negative, has always been an ordeal for me (blame it on my formal British up-bringing). Conversely, it is easy to indulge in self-criticism, in the negative sense. My question to the audience is "How can we expect students to deal with criticism in an appropriate manner, when we ourselves can not?"
Discipline and Creativity
I struggle frequently as a teacher with imposing too much structure to a paper rather than supporting creativity. I find guidelines for writing assignments to focus on the information obtained on a subject matter. This carries over to the evaluation process of the paper. I'm often attempting to evaluate the amount of facts the student has correctly identified in an organized fashion. This approach is supported by the discipline through prescriptive language--certain facts generate a certain label. Oh, but creativity has just occurred in this writing exercise, since it is my method of pulling these facts together that helps me persuade and convince the medical community/insurance company that this label is correct, therefore obtaining a third party reimbursement.
Writing is a craft that blends an agreed upon set of mechanics and basic skills with an intuitive, artistic sense of what needs to be said, and how best to say it.
Each student writer's ability to master the fundamentals can easily be quantified and scored: Just as the square of three is always nine, "millennium" is always spelled with two l's and two n's, and I-t-s apostrophe has never been a word. But, while the fundamentals of the craft are within grasp of those committed to mastering them, the art comes less easily for some, which is why each student brings to the task an individualized set of skills, bad habits, and sense of language.
Peter Elbow's essay on assessment reprinted in Word Shop #70 reminds me that those who teach writing do not teach one course, but many variations on a theme–in effect, one course for each student enrolled. The task is to make each student a better writer by imparting, as required, insights and skills that endure. Each student's needs differ, as must each assessment of the effort put forth to confront weaknesses and build on strengths. Success is leaving class a better writer than one was on arrival. Failure is marching in place, going through the motions, but getting nowhere fast.
Elbow's grid seems to me a useful tool for individualizing assessment of writing skills, both skills readily mastered and those whose elusiveness make writing an ongoing challenge.
The Five-Paragraph Essay
The discussion of the five-paragraph essay intrigues me because encouraging our students to use this model is one of our goals in E.S.L., yet the troubles our students have with it reveal some weaknesses of sticking so closely to a form.
Our students arrive at Coe bringing their cultural writing patterns with them. Some find it essential to place themselves in the universe before attempting the assigned topic. Others, from an oral culture, tell wonderful stories to partners, but the details vanish in the process of writing. Others expect the reader to intuit the writer's ideas without the annoying blizzard of details we demand.
The introduction is the most difficult part. "Oh, you mean the conclusion at the beginning?" a Japanese student asks. Once they've put their favorite ideas in the introduction, the conclusion then may become either a transformation of the purpose--"In this paper, I was going to write about…"--or a simple "That's all."
We use the five-part essay as an introduction to critical thinking, to show that we English speakers need an announcement of what's coming next; we need all the details spread before us. Because I've found myself checking, at the end of a Japanese short story to be sure some pages have not fallen out of the book, I know we need some remarks that feel like a conclusion.
Despite our enthusiasm for helping students use the five-paragraph essay model to fit into American academic culture, many students are frustrated to find that their already limited use of language is to be further limited by a structure that seems illogical to them. Or, once they have begun to use the pattern, they feel betrayed that it isn't appropriate for writing assignments in many courses.
Value of Workshopping
The concept of writing workshops has been introduced to me during this weekend. This concept seems to be a time of sharing one's work, being open to input and thought from others, and being energized to go back and write some more, resulting from an opportunity of working together instead of in isolation. This has not been an approach that I have used in my classroom setting. But I think it will be an approach I will use in the future. My goal is not to jump off into an unknown. I want to create an atmosphere with my students of sharing their work and developing a sense of encouragement from their peers.
Myths of Oral Communication
These assumptions imply that our thoughts are preformed mentally before being given a voice; however, we often speak without thinking. In fact, it is more likely that the process of speaking is the process of thinking.
In class discussion our students assume the myths are true. They feel each of their comments in class must be a succinct, accurate, and impressive sound bite. The possibility that class discussion offers an opportunity to develop and test ideas is rarely considered. Instead, an over-riding fear of being wrong or embarrassed prevails. How can we create in our classrooms the atmosphere of the European café where ideas are debated?
There are times, however, when the free flowing, off-the-tongue speech of the café debate is not appropriate. . . . In our most emotional moments we speak without reflection. We speak in habitual patterns learned, for better or worse, in our family culture. And in those most emotional moments our words, for better or worse, have the most impact.
While writing can be easily revised, speech cannot. In a marriage, it takes five positive statements to offset the effect of our negative remarks (Dohm Gottman, Why Marriages Fail). In my interpersonal and intercultural classes, I teach students to self-monitor their communication patterns, to attend to the communication patterns, and to make thoughtful, careful responses. Am I teaching them to "pre-vise" speech instead of "re-vise" writing?
Two Definitions of Rhetorical
Information Sheet #35 discusses the importance for a writer faced with "a particular task" of accessing the "writer's relationship to the subject and the reader." IS #35 asserts that the writer needs to answer several questions. I would like to focus on the first of these questions: "Who am I writing this for and what responses am I trying to effect in my reader."
The first part of this question is either too easy to answer or impossibly complex. It is easy for me to say that I am writing for a reader much like myself, not a specialist but reasonably well educated. On the other hand, it is quite difficult for me to say with any confidence what words and phrases my audience will respond positively or negatively to. I do not have the time or the resources to do the kind of in-depth audience response analysis that would allow me to really know my audience.
The second part of this is difficult in a different way. On one hand an experienced writer will be quite clear about the purpose, while an inexperienced writer will have to labor to come to any understanding of his or her purpose.
The real question, I think, that IS #35 raises is not whether the first question is important, but rather whether when you have answered it are you any better off than you were before, whether the question actually helps you to become a better writer.
IS #35 uses this question as a way of getting at a "rhetoric for writing teachers." The word "rhetorical" can have at least two different meanings. "Rhetorical" can mean, as it does here, the relationship between reader and writer and writer and subject. But it also can mean a set of specific tropes, that is, specific patterns of phrase and argument that, in effect, force upon a writer a coherent thought pattern. In other words, tropes provided a shortcut for writers faced with the implications of the question we are considering.
These two definitions of the word "rhetorical" illustrate the difference between teaching someone to play tennis, for example, by asking questions that cause them to come to grips with the essence of the game or devising a series of specific drills that teach particular techniques--backhand, lob, drop shot, etc.
Currently it is unfashionable to teach rhetoric in the second sense –as sets of tropes–but perhaps this approach is in fact both easier to do and is an approach that will achieve better results.
Reflecting on Revision
I am pondering the revision process. How do we teach revision? "Before we advocate editing in the name of clarity, we ought, at the very least, to consider with students what's being eliminated--and perhaps, forbidden--in the process." This quotation comes from Nancy Welch in Word Shop #112. Do we make certain assumptions about writing for clarity, as Nancy Welch suggests, that squelch the potential for unconventional style or dissonance?
This question made me rethink the revision process and how we approach revision with our students. Student writers find it difficult to write clearly in the first place. If their tangents and ambiguity were viewed as a valuable part of their writing, what would this do to our preaching for clarity? Should we encourage a process that strives for rawness instead of one that distills?
Real revision requires a process of subtraction and addition and it is through repeated subtraction and addition that the writer learns more about his/her writing voice. In this process of discovery, writers need to develop a writing voice that will serve the intent of the genre. The direction of the revision, whether a process of distilling or of dissonance by design, depends upon the kind of writing being revised. A poem relies on just the right word or image to stir the imagination or the reader. This involves a process that embraces ambiguity rather than concise clarity. An argumentative essay, on the other hand often relies on very clear, direct language and structure.
If we can teach students to understand that the intent of the piece plays a role in the direction of the revision, they can discover that the choices they make in that revision process need to serve the purpose of their writing. With this model they will learn that revision involves more than editing.
It was a felicitous moment when I tripped and fell into a black raspberry bush. (You can see where this is going.) The branches, obedient to physics bent towards the ground and I thought I would think about writing as I plucked them and ate them for inspiration and as I ate them this is what I thought:
1. Virginia creeper is abundant and unremarkable but at least in autumn it turns crimson.
2. I might be sitting in poison ivy.
3. Last week when I tossed out the meaning of the word contractor.
And that when I teach writing I am after 3 things:
1. Vision--which is something anyone can practice, everyday.
2. The beauty and power and labor of language.
3. Love--the love of the tools but mostly the love of the story.
The rest is just hard work and revision.
Next: Writing Done to Order
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