Author Archive

Peer Groups in the Technology-Enabled Writing Classroom

posted: 4.21.15 by Steve Bernhardt

I suspect we all use peer review in some form or other. If we can help students become effective peer reviewers, then we give them a skill that helps them improve their writing without a teacherly intervention. Peer review makes writing public, so students see what others are doing and learn indirectly. We also help students become valuable workplace writers, because they know how to interact with others to improve writing within an organization.

My typical pattern in my introcomp class is to have students arrive to class with a completed draft, ready for peer review. We work from stated criteria on a given assignment, so students get in the habit of asking whether a document fulfills requirements and meets the purposes of the assignment. Comments, of course, range widely and do not stick strictly to the criteria on the rubric, but that is OK. We will often work in pairs.

I have a morning class this term, and I generally set a deadline for 11:30 pm that evening to turn in revisions. What I like about the system—and what students like, too—is that peer review makes a difference, immediately. Students might get some really helpful feedback and want to act upon it. Students might decide after seeing a couple of papers from others that they need to make some major changes. Or they might realize they fulfilled part of the assignment, but forgot to attend to some criterion. Or they might realize they have pretty good work in hand and just need do some final editing before submitting. Because the assignment is due the same day, students get immediate help, and the peer comments are fresh when they revise later that day. I get better work, and I get more work out of the students.

There are different ways to do peer review, and using available technology opens up more opportunity to play with the structure in a way that benefits students most. In my class, everyone brings a laptop (and we have a few Surface tablets for those without), and sometimes I have students pull up their texts in Word, turn on Track Changes, and then we play musical chairs. Students work at the author’s laptop, inserting comments and suggesting changes. They learn to use some very useful editing tools, and each student can quickly review two or three papers, so everyone gets feedback from more than one reader. Students like this approach because they feel freer in this setting, where they are not face-to-face with the author, to offer criticism, to suggest meaningful revisions, and to ask real questions about the text and its effectiveness.

But I also like to mix up my approach to peer review. My students sit at tables where they have a large shared screen. Anyone can connect by cable or wirelessly, and students can put their work up in front of other students. So sometimes we will put up a paper, especially an early draft, in front of the whole team (4-6 students per team). They can talk as a group about the writer’s approach, the strengths and weaknesses, and perhaps review two papers in class with the group agreeing to offer individual peer reviews to others outside of class. I let the teams manage the logistics.

My team tables are permanent through the course term, so students really get to know one another and establish good working patterns. But sometimes we work across teams. I’ll have everyone post their work to Sakai, our class management system, in the Forum (or Discussion) area, as an attachment. Students can then download the attachment, comment on the text either in the text itself or in the dialog box in Sakai, and review anyone’s text. I ask everyone to give at least two reviews and get at least two. Some do more. Many, I suspect, read quite a few of their classmates’ texts, learning to see what is strong or weak, what is novel or predictable, in the work of others. A collateral benefit of this approach is that students learn to be careful when downloading, renaming, and saving files so they can work on them. They use those handy Word tools to track changes and comments, and then upload their annotated files to the Forum. Students get to see what other reviewers do, and we can have a follow-up discussion about whose review comments were most helpful and why. A very natural modeling process for peer reviews leads to stronger future reviews.

Comments Off on Peer Groups in the Technology-Enabled Writing Classroom
Categories: Collaboration, Pedagogy, Peer Review, Steve Bernhardt, Teaching with Technology, Writing Process
Read All Steve Bernhardt

Personal Learning Networks

posted: 3.3.15 by Steve Bernhardt

We had a faculty development workshop at UD over three days in early February, where we welcomed keynote speaker Ann Hill Duin from the University of Minnesota. Ann is in technical and professional communication and has held various administrative positions at UM, especially focused on teaching and learning with technologies. Ann’s talk was about how central connections, connectivity, and connectionist theory relate to learning.

An activity she suggested is likely to have high value in one or more of the classes you teach. She suggested having students draw a personal learning network (PLN), a diagram of where a person’s learning connects to resources, groups, situations, individuals, experiences. She helpful suggested two tools: text2mindmap.com and coggle.it. Both are free and simple apps that support drawing networks—nodes and connectors.

My colleague, biochemist Hal White, and I started drawing Hal’s PLN—connections to research labs and fellow scientists, to people at the National Science Foundation, to journals and books, to editorial and review roles he plays, to online communities to which he belongs, to conferences and symposia. The act of drawing triggered engaging conversation about where and when and from whom we learn. We started talking about Hal’s students and what their PLNs might look like.

Hal’s Personal Learning Network

Hal has always been a big mind-mapper, having students draw connected understandings of some specific biochemical phenomena, some cellular or molecular process, or some complex system, like blood chemistry. He uses mind maps to figure out what his students know, where their concepts are faulty, and what he should be teaching. He also uses mind maps as semester exams because he can see what students understand.

I used a similar approach in a “rhetoric of the professions” course, having students create a knowledge network on the first day of class. I collected their work, put it away until the end of term, and then had them re-do their network diagram to show what they had learned about rhetoric and what they understood to be the important connections and relationships. It was a fine way to see (some portion) of what students had learned. It also helps students reflect upon and consolidate what they know into an organized space.

My thinking here is influenced by a recent Bits posts by Traci Gardner’s on digital identity mapping. Read her post—it’s all about having students map themselves, with a focus on how they live digital, connected lives. Traci’s approach provides a nice alternative to literacy narratives, a genre covered in Writer’s Help.

It’s not hard to think about how a class or sequence of classes ought to extend a student’s PLN, or their digital identities, or their understanding of blood chemistry. In all cases, students ought to be better learners, better researchers, with more connected and complex networks for learning what they need to know. They ought also to be more self-aware of what they do when they need to learn something. That’s one outcome worth measuring.

Comments Off on Personal Learning Networks
Categories: Steve Bernhardt
Read All Steve Bernhardt

Look it up!

posted: 1.27.15 by Steve Bernhardt

Working on some medical texts last week, I was continually impressed with the ease of looking up unfamiliar words. Pretty much without fail, if I right-clicked on a medical term, Adobe Acrobat would drop a box with the last choice being Look up “xxx”:

From that choice, I could click through to a screen like this one:

Pretty handy! Two clicks from term to definition and pronunciation. The entry continues with alternate forms, etymology, a British dictionary entry (Collins), and a medical dictionary entry (American Heritage Stedman’s Medical Dictionary).

Maybe a Latinate compound like immunogenic is too simple, since a reader can practically figure it out from the two root words. However, as I kept using the Look Up feature, it was rarely stumped. Here are the main entries, for dacarbazine and lysine:

Wow, an Unabridged Random House Dictionary entry on decarbazine, complete with a clear pronunciation and the chemical formula. And a Random House Dictionary entry on lysine.

Dictionary.com, according to information on their Web site, is part of a Nasdaq-listed company (IACI), located in Oakland, CA. Their site is literate, sprinkled with interesting quotes about words, and it portrays the work environment of a lively Bay Area culture, with their mission being to “to delight and inspire anyone using the English language by being the most innovative and comprehensive digital source for everything related to words. We provide resources that help people accurately define, pronounce, and apply words in the moment.” They manage to do so supported by fairly non-intrusive on-screen ads.

That Dictionary.com provides these resources for free with such easy access “in the moment” makes Dictionary.com a superb resource for writers who wish to help themselves. The threshold is now so low for looking up words in the dictionary that individual inertia is no longer a concern.

Similar look-up functions exist with a right-click in Microsoft Word, though not quite as slick as those in Acrobat:

 

The MS Word allows a Bing search on the term, along with access to several Microsoft proprietary tools, like Encarta. But what you don’t get is immediate access to two of the English language’s best dictionaries, Random House and American Heritage. Too bad, because this is where “in the moment” help is really helpful.

As we work with students to help them become independent learners, the tools under right-click are worth exploring.

Comments Off on Look it up!
Categories: Steve Bernhardt, Uncategorized
Read All Steve Bernhardt

Writing about Campus Rape

posted: 12.2.14 by Steve Bernhardt

I am having a hard time not thinking about the disturbing Rolling Stone exposé on the rape culture at the University of Virginia. If you have not read it, stop right now, follow that link, and think about your campus culture.

Reporter Sabrina Rubin Erdely doggedly pursues a story focused on the experience of a first-year woman student, Jackie, who was brutally gang raped at a fraternity house party just after she arrived on campus. And no, she was not drunk or passed out, but keenly aware of what was happening to her by nine men in a pitch-black room. It’s the story of her life unravelling as she experiences and re-experiences the trauma of the event. It reveals her subsequent, inadequate, attempts to come to terms with her rape. The story reveals the inadequacy of the student’s social support networks and of the university’s student support services. It’s also the story of an institution that is conditioned to do more to protect its reputation than to serve its students. The voices of other victims corroborate Jackie’s story.

The story is an exploration, or exposé, of a brutal and largely hidden side of campus life. The campus system is set up in such a way that legal process is subverted. Criminal behavior is excused by redirecting the victim from the criminal justice system toward a campus judiciary system that suppresses victims’ rights, dissuades victims from filing suit, and quietly allows horrific abuse to continue. It took the public embarrassment of the Rolling Stone story to get UVA to take action, to get the police involved, and to suspend fraternities for at least the short period of investigation. The story demonstrates the power of careful research and reporting. And it is also the story of the student, Jackie, and many more like her, finding the courage to speak out about a campus problem.

I am trying to figure out now how to use these issues as a focus for a series of assignments for my spring introcomp course. I am hoping students can connect from one of many angles: law and justice, individual and institutional ethics, individual vs. group behavior, the experience and aftermath of trauma, cultural norms and institutional policies. My students should be able to feel the urgency of the story, since campus predators often target first-year women who may be naïve to the dangers of campus culture, inexperienced with college drinking scenes, likely to feel powerless, and predisposed to withdraw rather than challenge the system. Perhaps an introcomp class can be a place to begin researching, speaking, and writing about important campus problems?

The focus on coercive sex has particular resonance on our campus at the University of Delaware, as a case played out this term involving a popular sociology professor accused of preying on a female undergraduate, pressuring her to have sex in his office. A student reporter picked up the story and did an excellent job of reporting the student’s experience and frustration with the process of seeking redress. The victim connected with a professor who helped her work through her feelings and take appropriate action. A series of stories, editorials, vigils, and letters to the student newspaper kept the story alive and in focus. Student voices, written and spoken, were the primary forces triggering a community response.

I hope that my students will be able relate to these issues and that writing about such situations will give them some ideas about individual agency and the power to change university culture. I have to figure out the best ways to approach the assignments. If one in five undergraduates are the target of some form of sexual predation on campus (a figure commonly cited, including in the Rolling Stone piece), I am very likely to have men and women in my class who have either experienced or who know about such cases. It’s the sort of assignment that raises issues that are difficult to deal with, both emotionally and legally.

I hope to get various campus players involved in classroom interviews, perhaps our Title IX officer, or the faculty member who supported the student (who is also a scholar who studies gender and harassment issues), or someone from our Women’s Caucus. One aspect I would like to stress is that there are different perspectives on any complex social issue, depending on who we are, where we work, what groups we belong to, and so on. In my introcomp classes, we talk a lot about “angle of vision” or “bias” or “positioning” or “stakeholders” with regard to discourse. The rape case at UVA raises such issues explicitly.

If you are thinking about these same issues, I’d welcome your ideas on how to approach such a difficult but important topic. If you would like to link classes in a shared experience, I’d certainly be open to that, too.

Comments Off on Writing about Campus Rape
Categories: Campus Issues, Steve Bernhardt
Read All Steve Bernhardt

TED Talks Grammar

posted: 10.28.14 by Steve Bernhardt

My friend and colleague, Barb Lutz, who directs the Writing Center at the University of Delaware , recently linked a Facebook post to TED Ed: Lessons Worth Sharing. A subset of lessons on grammar and usage are worth a look. TED-Ed brings together the volunteered work of educators and professional animators to create short (3 to 5 minute) lessons on a variety of subjects. The results are quite professional: brisk scripts, clever animations, high quality voice-over narration.

Is there any interest in short video lessons on grammar? Well, the lesson on the ever-contentious Oxford Comma certainly suggests so, with over 230,000 views, inflated only slightly by my watching twice. It’s a very sharp presentation, with clarifying examples and explanations that show why the choice of whether or not to use a final comma in a series is such a tricky issue. Other topics have generated hundreds of thousands of views, too.

I am not quite as enamored of a lesson on the use of the words good and bad. The broad message is to avoid commonplace (and presumably empty) words like good and bad in favor of more specific terms. Good lesson? I tend to think word choice is trickier than simple prescriptions would suggest. But you be the judge. It’s still a well-designed and executed lesson that I am sure that many teachers would find useful.

Another lesson takes on a more complicated subject: deciding how to place commas with coordinate and subordinate clauses within sentences. I see problems with this lesson. Some important grammatical distinctions are elided: what is a clause and what is a sentence? What is a conjunction? Can you contrast conjunction (referring to coordinating conjunctions) with subordinate (referring to subordinating conjunctions)? Not in the terminological system I learned. The lesson suggests graphically and metaphorically that conjunctions do light lifting or balancing while subordinates do the heavy lifting. This lesson makes me wonder if a short animation can do justice to the complexities of punctuation by clause structure. Again, check out the video and see if the simplification of complex syntactic matters is adequately addressed by the lesson.

 I don’t want to be too negative. A lesson on plagiarism is quite good (there’s that word). It’s memorable, clarifying, and a fine starting point for a more nuanced discussion in a writing classroom. There are quite a few lessons that offer perspectives on the English language, some generated by noted linguists, and these lessons could stimulate interest among students in broad issues of how language works. I hope to see new, useful lessons on writing, usage, word choice, and other topics that we all care about. Ted Ed is not a bad start. Perhaps you might author a lesson that demonstrates the full power of the medium?

Comments Off on TED Talks Grammar
Categories: Steve Bernhardt, Uncategorized
Read All Steve Bernhardt

A Plethora of Words

posted: 10.7.14 by Steve Bernhardt

Reading sets of first-year essays typically offers teachers some curious insights into the minds of new college students. For several terms, I’ve found myself wondering about the word plethora. It’s of Greek origin, meaning fullness, and it has a specialized medical meaning related to profusion, or excess blood. It’s also a word that turns up more frequently than I would expect in the writings of more than a few of my students. I can only speculate why.

Perhaps it’s a favorite word for vocabulary lists in high school English classes, or perhaps it appears in test preparation programs for the SAT verbal. It’s one of those words that is attractive to students, and easy to spell, but difficult to use. When I encounter the word, I am typically brought up short, thinking “That’s not quite the right way to use the word—the collocation is slightly off.” But I let it go. I can’t teach students the subtle nuances that make a word fit the context, and I’d rather concentrate on important aspects of their writing the students can control. Besides, if the student uses the word, he or she is likely to attend to it in various reading contexts. I am sure that command of vocabulary comes from encountering words in context, not from memorizing lists or definitions.

The lists that circulate for test prep always contain some odd choices, including slightly archaic or literary terms. I just pulled a list off the Web that has terms such as resplendent, epistolary, acrophobia, obsequious, pontificate, and histrionic. Useful? Maybe. Certainly interesting to those who like words. I didn’t mean to choose multisyllabic Latinate terms, but that pretty much describes this quick pick list.

We might think instead about more useful vocabulary, in college and beyond. Math demands control of such terms (or concepts) as random, distribution, normal, exponential, dependent variable, or regression. Scientific terminology is increasingly essential to both scientists and non-scientists: phenotype, homeostasis, cell transport, metabolism, ecotonic, resistance, neutrino.

I suspect many of us could do more in our comp classes to push students into disciplinary forums where they would exercise specialized academic vocabulary. I’ve posted here about several of my approaches, including an assignment on student debt that pushes students toward business and finance, researched papers that put students inside their majors, and final exams that have students prepare for essay exams in their other courses. There surely exists a plethora of assignments that create opportunities for students to write in their disciplines, and in the process, to develop a professional vocabulary.

Comments Off on A Plethora of Words
Categories: Steve Bernhardt
Read All Steve Bernhardt

On Affirmations

posted: 9.16.14 by Steve Bernhardt

An important New York Times article has been circulating that focuses on questions of persistence in college. I called attention to it a couple weeks back on our new LinkedIn group College Writing Collaborative. (Join if you haven’t yet.) The lessons of the new lines of research as represented in this article are important for those of us who teach writing to first year students.

Many years back, Stephen Brookfield in The Skillful Teacher identified what he called “the imposter syndrome,” the belief held by many students that they don’t belong, that others are smarter or better suited to a particular school or program. I used the imposter book chapter to great effect with new grad students at New Mexico State U when I was teaching in the PhD program in Rhetoric and Professional Communication. Everyone related to the feeling that others were better prepared and more likely to be successful. Crassly, others were just naturally smarter. The reading allowed us to talk together about such concerns, to focus on what was under our own control, and to develop both the self-confidence and scholarly habits that would lead to excellent performance.

The news as represented in the studies cited in the Times piece suggests that feelings of inadequacy strongly affect performance and persistence, and such feelings disproportionately affect lower-income students. Students may fit the institution’s admissions profile—they are smart enough and sufficiently prepared to do well. But they are often confused about how to be successful and afflicted with self-doubt.

The good news is that schools can take action to improve persistence and success for low-income students. The Times article details University of Texas programs that treat the target group of students as high achievers and leaders, providing challenging intellectual enrichment experiences. The program has had great success.

But we don’t need to think only about big programs and initiatives. The article also calls attention to the research of David Yeager. From the abstract of his article on interventions, we learn that “Seemingly ‘small’ social-psychological interventions in education—that is, brief exercises that target students’ thoughts, feelings, and beliefs in and about school—can lead to large gains in student achievement and sharply reduce achievement gaps even months and years later.”

I don’t think there is a better place for such interventions—where students begin to affirm their identities as successful college students—than introductory composition. We have the interpersonal closeness, the small class setting, and the focus on writing that make our classrooms a natural fit for such brief interventions. Peer interaction and class discussion can bring out the shared feelings—the fears, uncertainties, and doubts—that affect many college students, allowing them to see that what they feel is widely shared. Yeager’s work is exciting in part because he demonstrates that very brief exercises of 25 minutes or so can have lasting effects on performance.

What might some brief writings or activities focus on? I’d suggest such topics as these:

  • Can you improve your thinking? Can you become smarter? How?
  • Talk to a successful junior or senior. What have they done to be successful at college?
  • Suppose you get a bad grade on a writing assignment. What’s your next step?
  • Write an email to a friend who is still in high school. Based on what you’ve learned since coming to college, offer your friend advice on how to be successful.
  • What are some common stereotypes that might affect how you or your classmates perform in college?

I would not make these huge assignments, just brief writings. Depending on the class climate, students might post in the class forum or exchange writings in small groups. Yeager’s findings suggest it is simply the process of engaging in these types of thinking that leads to changes in behavior, so it is not necessary to spend a lot of time drawing out all the complications.

Some of these writings might lead to more extended pieces, perhaps drawing on primary or secondary research. If real interest surfaces, for instance, on getting smarter through brain training, there are plenty of recent articles out there in brain science that show just how malleable an organ it is. But that is not essential. What’s essential is helping students develop the self-confidence and sense of identity that lead to success in college.

Comments Off on On Affirmations
Categories: Steve Bernhardt
Read All Steve Bernhardt

On Using the Handbook

posted: 8.20.14 by Steve Bernhardt

I’ll be visiting the University of Wisconsin-Lacrosse (and perhaps University of Minnesota-Duluth) next week to talk with their instructors about using Writer’s Help. Lacrosse was an early and enthusiastic adopter; Duluth’s decision to use WH was much more recent.

It would be a shame to adopt a book and not get good value from it, but I know that happens a lot. You may remember when we used to require that all students buy a college desk dictionary such as Merriam Webster’s (and many arrived with such graduation gifts for their dorm rooms), but we seldom did much with the dictionary. We presumed students would use it as needed. I don’t think that works. Students increasingly wait to see if they really need to buy the assigned textbook, and only about 1 in 3 do (1 in 4 for first year students). For a fine elaboration on this topic, see Marc Parry’s Students Get Savvier about Textbook Buying, in the Chronicle of Higher Education (Jan. 27, 2013). Some get their books through illegal downloads, others share through social media, and some just get along without.

I have a good colleague in Chemistry at the University of Delaware, Sue Groh, who has figured out that if students are going to engage with the chemistry book, they will have to use it, not just be told to read it. So Sue gives students problems that require the knowledge in the textbook, but they have to figure out where the information is, what’s relevant, and how to apply the textbook knowledge to the problem at hand. Her problems are deliberately complex, and any solution requires knowledge that is spread across various chapters. In addition to the required textbook, Sue keeps a set of used textbooks from various publishers in her classroom cabinet, and students can consult these sources as well. Sue has figured out that students will consult textbooks when confronted with a problem and when they can articulate a set of learning issues—topics they know they need to learn more about.

That’s my primary message when I go on campuses to talk about how to use Writer’s Help: we need to put students in the position of knowing what they need to learn. The name of our product reflects our design goal of creating a useful help system for writers. The corresponding instructional goal is to help students become independent learners, writers who can identify and solve their own problems, who are aware of their own learning issues. If instructors adopt the goal of creating independent learners, they will create opportunities to help students realize what problems writers typically face, how to seek answers, and how to apply advice to one’s own writing. They will also help students realize that different writers have different learning issues and that it helps to know your own needs.

When I teach Intro Comp, just as I remind myself that we ought to be writing in class each day, I remind myself that we ought to be defining learning issues and consulting the help system each day. We ought to get in the habit of looking up what we need to know. If we do this consistently and frequently, with increasing levels of success at defining learning issues and finding solutions, then we instill in students certain habitual behaviors that will serve them well throughout their careers as professionals who write.

Comments Off on On Using the Handbook
Categories: Steve Bernhardt
Read All Steve Bernhardt

Language "Decline"

posted: 7.15.14 by Steve Bernhardt

After teaching English for 40 years, I’ve grown accustomed to the predictable responses I get when I meet someone and reveal my occupation. Many say “Oh, I better watch my grammar,” while others say “That was never my best subject.” Increasingly, the response I am getting goes something like this: “Isn’t it something the way students have lost the ability to write a decent sentence? They do so much texting and tweeting that all they know how to do is write shorthand messages, full of internet slang and acronyms.” I get this response from people outside the academy, but also from instructors in other disciplines.

The temptation is to agree, since the person who says that to me is empathizing with me over the challenge of my work. But I can’t resist being honest, perhaps even disagreeable. So my quick response is always something along these lines: “Well, to be honest, I don’t see that as a problem in student writing. I rarely encounter students who use inappropriate net language in their writing for my classes.” I respond this way for at least two reasons. First, it’s true–at least in my experience. I teach a lot of writing classes, but I can’t think of a single time a student inserted an internet slang acronym in a class paper, unless it was for ironic effect. Second, I’ve always felt the impulse to defend my students. I think they are bright, well intentioned people. I think they are clever enough to adapt their language in ways appropriate to the situation. They know when they write a report or a memo for me that they need to call upon a school register. So I don’t take much pleasure in bashing students.

What I think is much more interesting about our students are the many ways that writing has assumed primacy as a communication medium. I recall John Slatin at the University of Texas arguing years ago, when we were first integrating computers into writing instruction, that for written literacies to improve, it would be necessary to return to an epistolary culture.  At the time, it was conventional to talk about secondary orality (a term from Walter Ong), based on the notion that our culture had been reliant on writing and print (books, letters, newspapers, formal speeches and sermons), but that with the advent of radio, telephone, and TV, the culture had returned to an earlier reliance on the spoken word. I think Slatin would be surprised at the extent to which we have become an epistolary culture. Texting takes over from voice calls, news readers write comments and engage in written dialogues, people tweet and retweet, keeping written texts in circulation, accompanied by an accretion of commentary.  We email instead of calling, and we browse the net instead of watching the nightly news.

So, no, I don’t really think we have declining skills, and I don’t think students, or other people, are apt to use inappropriate language in some unthinking way. That said, we ought to help students think explicitly and reflectively about how they can adapt language to situation. We can do so by creating assignments that ask students to repurpose writing for different situations or different media. When students work to transform an existing text for a new purpose or audience, they must think about register—about how stylistic choices are influenced by medium, audience, and situation. In such assignments, students can use what they know intuitively about how writers choose an appropriate register, given what they are trying to achieve with language. With such assignments, students can focus on reworking existing content, instead of having to invent new content. Transforming existing content is good preparation for the kinds of writing demanded in various workplaces. It’s frequently the case that a writer reworks an existing text to make it suitable for changing circumstances—updating an older report, reaching a new audience, or moving a text from print to online. Revising an existing text can be as valuable as creating a new one. Working with students in such ways will give them a real advantage as writers.

I don’t know what my readers think about this issue of perceived language decline, but I would welcome a written exchange of views. (But don’t call me because I never answer my phone.)

Comments Off on Language "Decline"
Categories: Steve Bernhardt
Read All Steve Bernhardt

Writers as Class Guests

posted: 5.20.14 by Steve Bernhardt

Teaching can be an isolating profession, as Dan Lortie underscored in his classic Schoolteacher (U. Chicago, 1975, reissued 2002). Teachers tend to be isolated inside classroom walls with only their students. But classrooms can also be connected—the walls can be porous.

Three guest speakers joined my Introduction to Professional Writing class last week, and I think we all connected. Our guests were two writer/editors (Nicole Gabor and Donna Brown) and a media specialist (Kevin Keane) from Kids’ Health,  a very successful Web site (Kidshealth.org) sponsored by the foundation associated with Nemours/Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children, in Wilmington, Delaware. My students were able to gain an insider’s perspective on what is involved in creating aninformative and interactive Web site. Kids’ Health attracts a million visitors per day, providing a full range of information about health, disease, nutrition, sex, and behavior. It is the most successful Web site for children’s health.

The speakers immediately focused on their rhetorical strategies for reaching their three key audiences: kids, teens, and parents. They emphasized an early decision to cultivate a plain English style, with a voice that is familiar and comfortable to each of their audiences. It is this plain, yet lively style that distinguishes their site from many health and disease sites. The site explains such topics as why we have boogers and how the nose works, why feet stink and how to keep your tootsies dry.

The speakers highlighted a range of genres for reaching their audiences: animated cartoons, posters and flyers, informative exposition and advice, videos of people speaking to their own bodily conditions, quizzes and surveys, and various data displays. What is in English can be switched to Spanish, and what is written can be spoken with a simple click. Throughout the presentation, the speakers focused on the situation of their audiences: kids with cancer or genetic diseases, teens with anxiety disorders or hormone disturbances, a mother tending a sick child in the middle of the night. It was a wonderful demonstration of what it means to know your audience and to reach them with empathetic information.

My students got to hear discussion of the writing process, including how to choose a topic, how to brainstorm for important content and put that content in “buckets,” where to go for reliable research, how to develop multimodal texts, how to storyboard a video or animation, and how to edit toward a finished product. All term, we’ve been discussion what it means to be a writer as well as a designer, how we might use technologies to our advantage, and how to reach diverse, multicultural audiences. Everything our speakers said reinforced our classroom discussions, projects, and readings.

Most importantly, my students met three professional writers who all felt lucky to be in their current positions, doing important work, and enjoying being part of a strong production team. The students got a glimpse of working professionals who found great satisfaction in their careers as writers and designers. They gained some perspective on how to establish a career goal and what skills and behaviors to develop. They learned something about the often irregular path toward one’s ideal job. And they discovered the could identify with individuals out there, beyond the classroom walls.

Comments Off on Writers as Class Guests
Categories: Steve Bernhardt
Read All Steve Bernhardt