academy · teaching

Righting Writing Wrongs

Let me be right up front with you: writing is difficult for me.

I’m not talking about article or lecture writing (both of which are also difficult, but in more specialized ways). I’m talking about writing right. Good writing. Utilizing the kind of style that would make Strunk and White proud. I’ve been guilty of almost all of the writing mistakes that make top ten lists. And what’s more, I don’t like talking about how difficult I find putting words together on a page to convey meaning.

However, I find myself wanting to talk about writing now in part because I’ve done so elsewhere this week, and in part because my department has started discussing pedagogical strategies for teaching writing to first year students. We had out first brown bag pedagogy session this week, and quite frankly it was a highlight of my entire week (yes, I realize that is mildly pathetic. What can I say? I like my colleagues). It isn’t often that I get together with colleagues to discuss teaching strategies, and I can tell you that as a new teacher I am more than a little excited for any new (or tried and true) ways of teaching first year students to write.

After the session I found myself wondering who else was talking about student writing. Turns out lots of people are talking. One of the things I find so troublesome about many of the article about student writing skills (or lack thereof) are their titles: Students Can’t Write and They Can’t Spell. While there are a myriad of great articles out there suggesting proactive ways of curtailing bad writing, the consensus tends to be the same: writing is getting worse.

I managed to miss grammatical instruction as an elementary student. I’m one of the whole language generation, which may explain both my interest in close and critical reading, as well as my need to look up what the future anterior actually means. Or, perhaps the wholes–I mean holes–in my writing education are a result of moving from the Canadian education system to the American one as an elementary student: I simply slipped through some cracks and missed the joy that is sentence diagramming in both countries (& yes, I do actually mean joy). And while I managed to makeshift my own grammatical education (mostly through university Italian language classes: absolutamente fantastico! Grazie Senor Sergio) I’m less interested in the whys and wherefores of how student writing has reached this point. After all, I’m not trained in elementary and high school curriculum development.

What I am interested in is this: Teaching my first year students university-level writing skills. I’m not of the mind that I shouldn’t have to teach grammar or essay structure for that matter (though, of course, I would rather spend the entirety of class time discussing literary scholarship of higher orders). The fact of the matter is that I spend a goodly portion of time on writing instruction. Here’s what I do in addition to lecturing about literary interpretation (bearing in mind this is for a first year course that fulfills my university’s writing requirement):

1. Assess individual student abilities. On the first day of class I ask them to respond in writing to three questions: Why are you taking this course? What do you hope to learn? What is the last book you read for fun? These questions are in part to help me remember my student’s names, but also to help me get a preliminary sense of writing abilities.

2. Develop a class-specific top 10 list: after the first set of essays are due I go through and select examples of the most common writing errors. We workshop these in 15 minute slots each week.

3. Devote 15 minutes of class time per week to Grammar Slammers.

4. Twice a semester we run peer-editing sessions as a part of the revisions process for essays. I do this because I think it is important for students to start to talk to each other about writing, and because I’ve always wanted to have a writing group myself. It works really, really well. There are many resources online that can help you construct a peer-editing session. I use the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill’s writing resources as a template, but that’s mostly an Alma matter fidelity thing.

I also feel quite certain that students would learn by osmosis if I had The Oatmeal‘s entire poster series in my office. So if you’re wondering what to get me for Christmas…

What about you, readers? What are your proactive strategies for teaching first year writing?

6 thoughts on “Righting Writing Wrongs

  1. I use freewriting (or inkshedding, depending on which system you follow) to encourage creativity and to help distinguish stages of the writing process (wherein drafting, revising, and editing all involve different skills). I also create cumulative assignments – the simple analytical essay, the comparison essay, the research essay, all will little stepping stone assigments between them.


  2. Ohhh I really wish I could have gone to that pedagogy discussion now. I love the top 10 idea. I'm trying to get across to them that essays don't have to be boring rehashes of Sparknotes organized into five paragraphs. For the first assignment I had them write about a poem as though it were a movie review, to try and inject some personality into their writing, but that didn't help at all with the problem that since the advent of text messaging none of them have bothered with apostrophes.


  3. Hm. I do most of this, actually. But in my first year class, I've got 40 students, and they've got six separate assignments to hand in over 12 weeks of class, not counting that first formal email. (My grad students have three response papers, then a proposal , a bibliography, a draft, and a paper).

    I. Am. Dying. under the piles of grading. My personal life is falling apart, my deadlines are whizzing past me, my own reseach expectations are being revised ever downward, and I get up at 5am to grade.

    Teaching writing well means they write a lot, and what they write I read.

    For a first year class, 40 is too many. Give me 200 students, and 7 TAs, or give me 25 student. Or maybe we don't teach writing in this way anymore, because 40? and then 10 grad students? Is killing me.

    Everyone's writing is getting a lot of attention, and I think it's really pedagogically sound. But it is impracticable. I am one introductory paragraph away from madness, one more missed deadline away from the blacklist.


  4. @ Aimee: Yeah, I hear you. The other version of the post could have been the practicality of teaching writing well. I have 60 students in my first year class, they've got a similar amount of assignments to hand in over the semester (8 over 12 weeks) and I have one TA for this particular course. I'm drowning too, though to be honest I regularly delude myself into thinking that is because I am in a teaching overload.

    I think the practicalities of teaching writing well are, as you suggest, workload-related issues. In fact one of the reasons my department gets together for these pedagogy sessions is to think through workload in these kinds of classes.

    @ SC and Shashi: I think those sound like excellent ideas that I may adopt at some point!


  5. Ultimately, Aimee, you're right. We can't teach writing well with these class sizes. Period. No debate. So how do we stop taking on this impossible burden ourselves?


  6. SC, I don't know. I really feel that I have to take on the writing — I mean, I can't complain about how their high school teachers never taught them how to write, and then continue to pass the buck myself, right? I feel a moral as well as professional obligation to teach writing. (Not always: I have two courses–English courses!– where the grading is based entirely on exams).

    I think some schools are just loathe to give up the 'seminar' model of first year English, to move toward a big lecture: but is it a seminar when what used to be 10 students becomes 18, then 25, and now 40? It's the worst of both: none of the efficiencies of a large lecture, but none of the personal attention of a seminar.

    I think we need some radical change, at the curriculum and planning and administrative level, and individual instructors can't, obviously, enact those kinds of changes.


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