Posts Tagged ‘Paragraph’

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The Super Secret Formula: Still Super If Not So Secret

posted: 11.6.09 by Barclay Barrios

When I think back on all of the little class activities I’ve developed in my time as a teacher I don’t think any have spread or persisted as much as the Super Secret Formula.  It’s on my mind because one of our former teachers (now in Georgia pursuing her PhD) mentioned using it with success in a recent e-mail.  That same week the waiter at my favorite breakfast place (who also happens to be a freshman at school) also mentioned loving it.

So what is the Super Secret Formula?  Well, simply, it’s

Cl > I > Q1 > E > T > Q2 > Ce

Students start their paragraphs with “Cl,” a sentence that states the claim of the paragraph.  Then with “I,” they introduce a quotation from the first author, adding a sentenced that explains it (“E”).  The next sentence makes a transition (“T”) to a quotation from a different author, “Q2.”  Finally, students take a sentence or two to explain the connection between the two quotations (“Ce”) and how it supports the argument they’re making in the paper.

The concrete structure of a “formula” provides a good scaffolding for students to build a solid paragraph that works with quotation use but the risk is, of course, that all their paragraphs will becomes (literally) formulaic.  When using this exercise, I start by having groups use the formula to make a sample paragraph.  Then I challenge groups to come up with other formulas for working with quotations.

This is my Golden Tool of my Lore Bag—it always seems to work and students love it.  I think of course they love having a concrete pattern and set of instructions to learn how to think connectively and thus to synthesize while working with quotations.  But I always find that taking the writing class out of the writing classroom has some near magic effect.  There’s something about a scientific-looking formula that taps into some other region of students’ brains and bypasses any anxiety they may have about writing.

So, still super if not so secret.

(If you’d like to see more ideas for working with quotations, read my older post “5 ways I help students to work with quotations.“)

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Categories: Assignment Idea, Integrating sources, Student Success, Working with Sources
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New to Basic Writing? Dr. Ribble's Advice

posted: 8.13.07 by archived

Teaching Basic Writing is challenging and rewarding. Taking on a Basic Writing class with little to no background can be overwhelming. Since many adjuncts are hired at the last minute, and many Basic Writing classes are staffed by adjuncts, it follows that a number of Basic Writing classes are staffed by adjuncts new to teaching or to teaching Basic Writing.

To offer some insight and experienced advice, I turned to Marcia Ribble of the University of Cincinnati. Her experience as an adjunct and long-term Basic Writing instructor yielded some great advice.

What are the most common issues adjuncts new to Basic Writing face when preparing for their classes?

The most important issue new Basic Writing adjuncts face is often derived from a lack of knowledge about basic writing and basic writing students. Because of this lack of knowledge they often grasp onto basic writing textbooks that are focused on sentence, grammar, paragraph levels like Grassroots, or those that simplify writing to the Five Paragraph Essay level, or those that focus on literature essays for students who desperately need to learn business writing for their jobs.

Some schools do a good job of introducing new adjuncts to the field, while others just hand them a textbook, a couple of sample syllabi, and a list of the semester’s dates. The students I worked with had taken a course in teaching basic writing, and shadowed me for several semesters before they were placed in a classroom on their own. They had a strong support system and tended to do very well as teachers. I’ve been in other situations where the support was less useful or even absent entirely, with teachers left to figure it out themselves.

The uncertainty about what to do and how to do it is the biggest problem most new adjuncts face. As the National Writing Project discovered about high school teaching of writing, faculty can usually teach better if they are active writers themselves and have a better notion of problems writers face on a day-to-day basis.

I’d suggest that folks read Derek Bok’s new book Our Underachieving Colleges for a solid understanding of why teaching writing is challenging. They might also read Victor Villanueva’s book Cross-Talk in Comp Theory, Mina Shaughnessy’s Errors and Expectations, and David Bartholomae’s The Tidy House. Villanueva’s book will help them understand that there is no single “right” way to teach basic writing with plenty of disagreements. Shaughnessy’s will help them to understand that not being a great writer as a basic writer doesn’t necessarily mean they aren’t going to become strong, capable writers. Bartholomae’s personal story about his introduction and struggles with basic writing and basic writers will increase their patience with themselves as teachers.

Basic Writing classes often generate a lot of paperwork that requires time, attention, and feedback. How would you advise staying on top of the work without foregoing sleep for weeks?

When I was in graduate school at the University of Utah, Dean Rehberger advised me to focus on helping the writer to resolve only one problem at a time, cutting down a lot on the tendency to mark every error. If folks are going to take this advice they need to explain this approach to students, so they won’t be as shocked when they correct problem A, only to have their teacher bring up problem B. I try to focus on that one problem which, if it were resolved would cut the error rate for that student down to the point where their paper will receive a better reception, or which they will need to go to the Writing Center for help with (a good decision when the problem is one that’s likely to be relatively permanent such as missing articles in the writing of some students who are English as a Second Language learners), or when the problem is one that learning just one strategy is likely to cure. Note that I don’t always follow that advice myself, but it’s good advice.

The second part of my response here is to understand that new Basic Writing faculty need to take care of themselves in order to respond well to student writing. When I was a part-time freeway flyer, I learned that I had to go out on Saturday evening to listen for three hours to live jazz played in a funky bar with an upside down Christmas tree hanging from the ceiling. Listening to jazz gave me enough energy to grade papers from the 6 or 7 classes I was teaching each term (18-20 a year).

In your experience, what kind of assignments do you think generate the greatest student interest?

Over the years I’ve been teaching writing, students have liked best those assignments that allowed them to focus in on something they cared about. Under those conditions, many of them devoted hours to conducting solid research, wrote significantly longer papers, and maintained better attendance. So my answer is inquiry with lots of input from the teacher to help students avoid the generic paper on any frequently addressed topic. For example, one of my students started out thinking that he wanted to write about the use of steroids in sports (he played football). I asked him about the battle of Marathon in Greece. His final draft was an incredibly interesting paper on the origination of the Olympics following that battle, and the runner who brought the results by running 26 miles and then died of exhaustion. This can be fun for both teacher and student.

To the adjunct who has never taught Basic Writing before, what are the three things that you think they need to know about their students?

That always depends on who the students are and where they’re located. But a commonality, across all the many different demographics and locations I’ve taught, is that many students are giving their hearts and souls to succeed. I’ve had students come to class after miscarrying, after signing divorce papers that morning, after losing a 15-year-old friend who was shot the night before, after throwing up blood in the bathroom from a bleeding ulcer. I’ve had students in ankle tethers who come to class from jail, and some who can’t read, but think we can perform miracles. Some are terrified that you will confirm their feeling that if they weren’t stupid they should have been able to write as easily as others seem, to them, to write. Here I’d suggest the wonderful Richard Haswell and Min-Zahn Lu book COMPTales for the stories of other writing teachers. If you believe in your students, and they believe that you are on their side, they’ll do more and better than you could believe might be possible given their histories in school.

What do you say to the adjunct who has the impression that teaching Basic Writing is less scholarly/ prestigious than teaching college-level composition or English Literature?

Teaching Basic Writing requires greater professional knowledge and depth of commitment and compassion and understanding of how writing works for many different kinds of brains. We need to know that if the pedagogies used in the entire K-12 years of grade, middle, and high school haven’t worked for our students, they may need a pedagogy that hasn’t been tried yet, and it’s up to us to figure out what that pedagogy might be. One size doesn’t fit all in teaching writing. Most of the faculty I am working with today to teach Basic Writing have twenty or more years of experience and choose Basic Writing as their primary preference in teaching. We aren’t frustrated English Lit folks, but men and women who’ve made working with basic writers our main passion in life. And many of us are poets, fiction or nonfiction writers ourselves. For me, my first exposures to basic writers forced me back to grad school to learn more about the students, the pedagogies, and the theories.

I had encountered a student and was told that Basic Writing students seldom write more than a couple of paragraphs. I gave my students a story frame to write about. This student first turned in 7 typed, single-spaced pages of a story that was totally unique and incredibly complex, but asked if he could finish it. The finished story was 15 typed, single-spaced pages of a story that controlled plot, voice, language, psychological depth, character development, etc. at a professional writer’s level, but was loaded cheek by jowl with spelling and grammar errors. I had to find a way to explain extraordinary writer/ basic writer in one person. He wasn’t an anomoly, just a young man with learning disabilities. Awesome experience!


It is the middle of the term. The Basic Writing course seems to be going fine. What do you think the new Basic Writing teacher needs to remember while the seas are calm?

Spend the extra time reading about Basic Writing, and use some of it for tasks that they won’t have time for later to ease their lives. Precooked and frozen reheatable real meals can be a godsend when even stopping at the grocery store on the way home is too much to handle. I cook big batches of chili, spaghetti, etc. that tend to taste just as good thawed and heated.

We also use that time at UC to schedule whole days for one-on-one student conferences that our research shows our students love. Each of my students gets a 1/2 hour conference, although some faculty have four students in at a time which would work better when there are larger class sizes, or more
classes.

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Categories: Adjunct Advice, Basic Writing, Gregory Zobel, Professional Development & Service, Teaching Advice
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Cut and Tape

posted: 11.20.06 by Barclay Barrios

Ask students to take a copy of their current draft, cut it up into individual paragraphs, place the paragraph slips in an envelope, and bring it into class. Bring a roll of tape to class and then, in groups, have students trade envelopes. Each peer reviewer needs to read all the individual paragraphs, determine what their order should be, and tape them back together. When students get their taped-together papers back, ask if the drafts came back in the right order. Use this as an opportunity to discuss organization and transitions, turning to the section on transitions in the handbook to help students review tools they can use to make sure the order of their paragraphs is always perfectly clear.

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Categories: Assignment Idea, Drafting, Grammar & Style, Learning Styles, Peer Review
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Topology of Topic Sentences

posted: 11.6.06 by Barclay Barrios

Have students review the section of the handbook on topic sentences before class. Ask them to bring in a copy of their current draft with all of the topic sentences removed. In peer revision groups, share these drafts and have the peers craft topic sentences that would work in the paragraphs. The student should then compare these to her or his original sentences. This exercise has a number of advantages: students get practice identifying the topic sentences of their own paragraphs (or learn to recognize when their paragraphs do not have them), they get practice writing these sentences for peers, and finally they get a sense of whether or not their paragraphs are clearly focused, based on whether or not the topic sentences they get back accurately reflect what they feel is the content of the paragraphs.

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Categories: Drafting, Grammar & Style, Peer Review, Revising
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Introducing…

posted: 9.11.06 by Barclay Barrios

Have students review the section of the handbook on introductory paragraphs or introductions. Use this to open a discussion in groups about what makes an effective introduction, what elements are required by this course in particular, and what variations might be effective. As a class, create a checklist for introductions.

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Categories: Assignment Idea, Collaboration, Drafting
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