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Basically, Writing about Writing Builds Confidence and Skills in Struggling Students

posted: 8.18.11 by Elizabeth Wardle and Douglas Downs

Adele RichardsonToday we welcome guest blogger Adele Richardson, an instructor in the Department of Writing and Rhetoric at the University of Central Florida. After a ten year professional writing career, she went back to school for an MA in Literature. She has taught FY writing since 2007.

I’ve been a banner carrier for the writing-about-writing curriculum since 2008. Since then, I’ve helped pilot the curriculum change here at UCF, spoken at conferences, taught teacher training classes, and delicately—yet firmly—pointed out to the naysayers the errors of their ways.

However, I can’t deny that one of the problems I’ve experienced with the WAW curriculum is that sometimes incoming freshmen, who are not being all they could be academically, flounder with it. High school, for whatever reasons, simply does not prepare everyone equally for the rigors of college.

To help combat this issue, I spent the spring of 2011 designing a basic WAW course that I tried out in a six-week summer semester.  And, boy, did I have fun!

Here’s what happened: I divided the course into three parts. In part one, students read and wrote about reading. My theory is that you can’t really write much of anything for college if you don’t know what you’ve read. In part two, we read and wrote about writing, and in part three, students put all their new skills together for an I-Search project. I had students write in class nearly every day about what they personally took away from the readings, or how they could use what was discussed in the world outside our classroom. Our “major” papers began as short (two to three pages) literacy histories and advice papers, but ended with a five- to six-page research paper.

This strategy worked very well not only for gaining and retaining skills, but also because of the confidence I saw manifest itself in the entire class. I saw students who insisted they could never write more than a page or two produce four-to-six-page fairly focused papers, and they were all very proud of themselves for having done so (and so was I!).

Don’t get me wrong; some of them still dislike actual writing, but it’s not the same monster it was when they first entered my classroom. Now, they see it as a doable task. It may still be hard and frustrating and time consuming, but it’s not impossible. Now they can find something useful to say and stay on topic while saying it.

In their portfolio course reflections, many students commented that they now see how to talk to authors (annotating and asking questions) while reading. They see now why running spell check when they’ve finished writing simply isn’t enough. Oh, some still may stop there, but they do know it’s not enough—and my secret hope is for waves of guilt to wash over them when they do that for other classes. They “get” that a first draft shouldn’t be the only draft. A few even commented on how it really takes four or five drafts to make a paper decent. (As a side note, I’ll mention that I fully understand some of these students may have been writing what they thought I wanted to hear. And even if that is the case, I have to commend them on understanding and writing to the rhetorical situation they found themselves in! Very few had that skill a couple months ago.)

In the end, I believe the course was a success. I still have many changes to make for the next time around. Without a doubt, not everything I tried went as planned, but this class was a good baseline for determining what worked and what didn’t. More importantly, I am confident that the students who do move on to Comp 1 are far more likely to succeed because of their experiences in this basic WAW course. And that makes me smile.

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Categories: Basic Writing, Writing about Writing
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3 Responses to “Basically, Writing about Writing Builds Confidence and Skills in Struggling Students”

  1. Susan Carter Morgan Says:

    Would you share some of the readings you offered? This sounds like an innovative way to approach writing.

  2. Joan Dahlen Univ. of Bridgeport Says:

    I would have scoffed at your writing ideas before this past Mon., but on the first day of my composition class, I tried something new, a literacy narrative in-class assignment. It started off with a quote from Helen Keller’s book when she tells about her moment with Annie Sullivan when the letters etched in her palm – w-a-t-e-r – connected in her mind with the water flowing over her hand and from that moment, she could learn.

    My students read that passage and the instructions to write about their own language moment. I was afraid of what I would see on their papers at the end of the class, but I did not need to be afraid. They wrote about moments that were not only touching, funny, beautiful, but they were revealing in the deepest ways. Even the few who could only write a paragraph captured something of the moment when the stories on the page made them want to read. Soooooo – would you share with me your ideas from that course you designed that uses the literacy narrative in many different ways? I would like to redesign my composition class along those lines that you discuss in your blog, but I don’t have any other ideas other than the literacy narrative I just told you about.

    [Moderator’s note: Joan, I’ve removed your email address from the comment so that you won’t get spam, but I’ll pass it on to Adele! –Sophia Snyder, Bedford/St. Martin’s]

  3. Adele Richardson Says:

    Hi Susan,

    I use several articles from writingspaces.org. If you haven’t been to that site, I highly recommend a visit. The readings are meaty, but very relateable for students, so they engage with them. Three that my students really took to were:
    Bunn, Mike. “How to Read Like a Writer.”
    Reid, E. Shelley. “Ten Ways To Think About Writing: Metaphoric Musings for College Writing Student.”
    Savini, Catherine. “Looking for Trouble: Finding Your Way into a Writing Assignment.”

    Fom what I gather, another Volume should be out on the webite this winter.

    I also assigned “How to Say Nothing in 500 Words,” an old essay by Paul McHenry (you can probably google it) and Donald Murray’s ‘The Maker’s Eye.” There were also a few smaller pieces here and there, but looking these over, you’ll get the idea of the types of readings that worked that semester.