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Give Me One Tree

posted: 10.4.13 by archived

Usually I start with semester with a short writing assignment so that students can get to know a little bit about each other and get familiar with blogging and so that I can have a chance to talk about specific detail and get a sense of their writing abilities. My students are writing about place this semester (domestic, commercial, and civic spaces), so I started by asking them to write a short description of the place where they live, following the guidelines of this invitation by Orion magazine.

I showed them some student samples from a previous semester and a couple of professional samples that fit the 350-word maximum: the beginning of Joan Didion’s “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream” and a bit from Joyce Maynard’s Looking Back, which described her (and my) hometown of Durham, New Hampshire.

I acknowledged how hard the task is to capture a place in so few words. I asked them to imagine they had six photographs to capture the essence of their town or city, their street or neighborhood. What would those images be? I asked them to give them me those images in words. And they gave me changeable weather, sandy beaches, and colorful trees.

Oh, not all of them. I did get some fine descriptive writing, but too many generic descriptions that could apply to most anyplace. All trees are colorful, I said.

Thinking about this as I drove to school the other day, I catalogued some of the trees I have known. I thought of the exotic magnolia and mimosas down the street from my house whose flowering I look forward to each summer. I thought of the blue spruce planted by my grandfather in our backyard when I was a year or two old, never cut for the Christmas tree it was intended to be because my parents sold the house just after my ninth birthday; in an odd twist of fate, that house was turned into a funeral home, and I saw the tree some forty years later when my father died and was cremated at the house he had built. I thought of this black walnut tree that we had allowed to grow near our vegetable garden and which this year, twenty five years later, has produced its first crop of nuts. It brings me back my father’s voice, talking of the long patience required to grow nut trees but also (in his inimitable fashion, with a mild profanity thrown in) chiding me for not chopping it down when I had the chance (alongside a vegetable garden being no place for a black walnut tree).

When my daughter was four or five, with prompting from her father, my daughter named the trees she loved on our property:  the red oak Sky and big pine tree ABC (companions on the slope behind the apple trees) and PondSwamp ,the massive pine whose roots stretch (as its name indicates) from pond on one side to swamp on the other. She painted those trees years later for her senior art show.

Next semester I will ask my students to describe their tree, to name it and tell its story.

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The Softer Side of My Syllabus

posted: 8.26.13 by archived

With two weeks until school starts (as I write this), it’s time for me to get working on my syllabus. I’m teaching a theme-based course that’s already gone through two iterations, so I know that specific hard-skills content about approach and assignments and calendar will fall into place fairly quickly, once I get going. What I’ve been thinking more about this time are the almost auto-fill pieces about general course policy. It’s in these soft skills areas of getting to class, minimizing text-messaging distractions, turning work in on time that so much of student success is lodged. In short, (pardon the double negative), it’s not that students can’t write; it’s that they don’t.

In reconsidering my standard course policies, I’m thinking through these issues:

  • What’s the connection between what my syllabus says I’m going to do and what I actually end up doing?
  • How does my own personality style influence my choice of policies and how well I enforce those policies?
  • Do my policies embody a sink-or-swim philosophy or something more supportive?


The default department policy is that students who miss more than the equivalent of two weeks of classes can be withdrawn from the course. The issue, though, is buried in the modal auxiliary. Some of my colleagues with a “will” in their syllabi, or a more ominous “shall,” are strict about enforcement, but my syllabus says “may” and in the past I’ve normally given students at least double that many absences before I actually withdraw them. I am one of those free-spirit baby-boomers temperamentally disinclined to limits and conflict (I never set limits on my kids’ television time either or insisted that they eat vegetables before they left the table), but I’m wondering if that flexibility may not serve my students.

What I would cite in my defense: those numerous community-college-student life issues (sick kids, court appearances, job conflicts, car problems) make a hard-line stance seem heartless; some students who miss more than four classes are competent writers and I don’t feel right about withdrawing them if they both can do the work of the course and turn in sufficient work to pass; the weaker students will of their own choice miss information and activities that might have helped them improve their writing, but they don’t need additional penalties on top of that. I wonder, though, if a stronger reason has to do with my own secret sense of guilt, my nagging feeling that student absences are result of my failure to sufficiently engage their interest.

The opposing voice in my head points out that the working world will require attendance and I should be training them in that; online classes are available for those who prefer to work more independently (though I suspect that few students with poor attendance in class would do well in online or hybrid modes); my classes these days are not lectures where missing students will forego my pearls of wisdom but rather spaces and times for more interactive learning, and in missing class students diminish that space and demoralize class members who do show up.

For this semester, I’m still weighing my options. I’m not quite ready to go hard-line in enforcing the two-week limit, but I intend to make much more explicit the connection between attendance and success in class. My handy-dandy grading app, which I also use for attendance, makes it easy to send students a warning email, and I plan to do that much more frequently. Also, circulating around the computer lab with my iPad in hand, it’s easier to assign low-stakes credit for work started/completed during class time.

Late paper policy.

My colleagues range from no late work accepted to various staged penalties such as a grade lowered per day late. (I’m not sure how vigorously these are enforced.) My policy reads: “I will grant one extension if you cannot turn the final draft of an essay in on time. In order to receive an extension, you must notify me via email before the essay is due. You do not need to provide an explanation, but you must tell me when you will turn in the essay. Your proposed date must be within a week of the original due date. After that extension has been used, late essays will be penalized one grade (for example, from A- to B+) for each day late. “ However, my enforcement has been sporadic, due largely to my own struggles with procrastination or difficulty in getting started with writing projects myself.

Even when I do enforce these penalties, though, they don’t seem to increase timeliness of submissions, especially for rough drafts when students figure out quickly that no grade attached means no penalty possible. When students adopt the go-for-broke strategy by failing to turn in rough drafts, it wreaks havoc with peer review and makes moot my arguments about the essential place of revision in the writing process.

Following the lead of one of my colleagues who assigns 30% of a student’s grade to what he calls “citizenship” (timely submission of all drafts), I tried an experiment this summer. I was teaching a six-week, fully online course and very concerned about the difficulty students might have with meeting deadlines, so I tied 10% of course grade to on-time submission of rough drafts with a simple one point = turned in on time, zero points otherwise. My results were very encouraging, with 80% or so of drafts turn in on time, so this semester I plan to continue it in all five classes to test it out more thoroughly.

Please feel free to share in the comments below what policies you’ve adopted for these soft-skills and maybe something about how and why you’ve come to those decisions.

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Remixing the textbook

posted: 8.9.13 by archived

With much the same feeling of anticipation I used to have buying my pencil box each August, I now keep checking the course schedule for fall to watch my sections fill with students. I’m taking a break this semester from web-based or hybrid classes, so all of my five sections are labeled lecture. I find myself bristling at that designation, insisting to my computer screen that face-to-face and lecture are not equivalent terms (cf. semester after semester of professional development seminars on active learning strategies). As my classes have moved (mostly) into computer labs, I’ve been trying to move from lecture-based to more active classrooms. Thinking about this and working at getting together my own text for fall, I’ve been trying out this hypothesis: active engagement of both student and instructor requires moving not only away from the sage-on-the-stage model but also away from reliance on a traditional, static textbook.

It’s not the same in all disciplines or for all instructors, but as a writing teacher I’m less concerned with conveying information to my students than with prompting and encouraging and inspiring them to actually put words on paper or screen. Of course, this active learning that takes place in a writing classroom has been mightily affected by technology, in ways we don’t fully understand—not just the shift many have made from pen to keyboard but also how cell phones have affected the amount of writing students do, how google has affected their searches for information, and, more importantly, how blogs (for example) have allowed students to become published writers. I think that we’re only beginning to imagine how it might affect the textbook. A quick search on “hacking the textbook” brought me to this blog post in which Larry Hanley critiques what had been promised as the digital textbook revolution for so far just bringing us “your basic, text-centered book gussied up with some animation and annotation tools.”  The richer multimedia experience that digital textbooks allow is certainly valuable (consider for a quick start how wonderful it is to be able in your textbook to hear and see poets reading their work), but surely these digital texts can be customized in ways that have not (as far as I know) been fully been explored.

This is what I imagine:

Individual instructors (or groups of instructors or departments) construct their own texts made of content they produce themselves (including specific assignments and exercises for the course) along with open-source material and, if desired, copyrighted material for which permissions have been obtained; Hanley describes this as “submerge[ing] textbook publication in remix culture.” The flexible platform adopted could allow instructors to add and edit material as the semester progresses as well as allowing students to customize their own texts, adding content as they see fit and printing on demand whatever material they prefer to read on paper.

Textbook publishers can play important roles in this process, with many of the custom publishing options now available a good start:

  • Publishers could serve as a collaborative hub of teaching materials, curating and hosting lessons, assignments, and exercises contributed by innovative writing teachers.  I’m interested in theme-based courses, for example, so I’d love to see a repository organized by theme that provided reading lists and assignments. For material under copyright, they could handle permissions and clearances (as currently offered in custom publishing).
  • They can serve as advisors, providing both technical help putting together materials (a series of textbook templates, for example) and pedagogical expertise as needed to advise inexperienced instructors on possible course designs.
  • They could construct the platforms required for these collaborative resource databases and for the creation of digital textbooks that allow interactivity, student participation, and print-on-demand options for either the entire text or only certain selections.

I see this remixing of the textbook as an important way for me to become more active in taking on responsibility to control the content of my course. It will allow me to construct a textbook not merely as content delivery system but rather as a manual to accompany and support an active classroom. Just how this is going to work remains to be seen…but for me that creativity it will require is not only my obligation but also my delight.

In comments below, please feel free to weigh in on your own experiences with custom publishing (either through a publisher or the seat of your pants) and more generally any guesses or requests you’d like to make about the future of the textbook.

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Categories: Holly Pappas, Uncategorized
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Rethinking textbooks

posted: 7.29.13 by archived

Now that I’ve submitted grades for my summer course, vacation has officially begun and with it, the time to tackle the long-planned project to reorganize my course materials. I’ve been interested to read fellow bloggers who’ve written recently with  suggestions and questions about using textbooks in class. Those posts as well as my own plans have prompted me to reconsider both my use (or non-use) of textbooks in FYC and what I’d like my students to get out of the reading they do for my class.

An aside here: I’m probably influenced by my own experiences as a student. The only books I can remember being assigned to read, through three degrees in English, were works of literature: typically the equivalent of eight or ten novels per class. My writing classes were run almost universally as workshop classes, with the only reading I did being the writing of my classmates. By contrast, in my own department, virtually all instructors require textbooks, though academic freedom allows complete freedom of choice of text (or my option of no text).

I’ve been formulating (if not answering) some questions about my students’ behavior and attitudes when it comes to reading for my first-semester comp class:

  • Do they read the material I assign?
  • Do they need to read that material to pass or to do well in the class?
  • Will reading improve their writing? How so, in terms of both product and process? (Consider the analogy to workout videos. Is the point to learn how to do exercises, to have a sequence to follow, or to improve motivation from the encouraging voice of a supportive coach?)
  • Do students believe that this reading is necessary or beneficial?

I’ve also been examining my own attitudes and how those attitudes should be translated into action.

  • On the simplest level, do I care whether they read or not? (I don’t mean this to be flippant. If it doesn’t help their writing, why should they do it? If it does, shouldn’t this be reflected in their essay grades?)
  • If I think reading is valuable, should I try to “make” them do reading by building it explicitly into assessment?
  • How can I get them to understand value of reading for a writer (i.e., slide their motivation from extrinsic to intrinsic)?

So I’ve started by thinking about the types of reading I typically ask students to do and how I can “encourage” students to do that reading. Though I’ve been considering using quizzes to help students diagnose their own gaps in understanding, for the most part I’d prefer to more closely integrate the reading with students’ writing. Here’s my stab at setting up some categories (always a favorite activity!) along with assessment possibilities:

  • For “how to” information of the type found in a rhetoric, the material most directly applicable to student writing (it seems to me) is invention and revision strategies; such reading could be assessed via reflective writing submitted with rough drafts and revisions that connects the writing to reading done.
  • Students could be required to find grammar information to apply to their own proofreading issues.
  • To assess students’ reading of model essays, which I assign to encourage reading as a writer for both style and writers’ strategies, I could require annotation: crocodoc, which I read about recently, seems like a good possibility here.
  • To help students more effectively read research sources (reading for information), I have started assigning lots of summary practice; I could also ask students practice using material from given sources to write a paragraph developing a reason for a claim or an answer to a counterargument.
  • To assess students’ reading of other students’ essays, I should more diligently comment on and assess peer review.

As I’ve written in the earlier post linked to above, I’ve moved away from textbooks to more open-source materials and online articles, as well as content I’ve written myself, delivered through a course blog. My reasons include cost, flexibility, and the ability to customize and incorporate multimedia. I’m getting to a critical mass of material, though, so that a blog is starting to feel cumbersome. So I’m planning to try a more stable format, which means … returning to something closer to a textbook, but one authored by me!  I’m been scouring around for a platform or software to use, hoping that if nothing else this process will help me see the Big Picture. I’m imagining (or hoping) the move from blog to “textbook” will feel like the shift from PowerPoint to Prezi. In the next few posts I plan to share the process and take you along on the journey.

In the comments below I’d welcome any advice from readers, particularly those who’ve crafted their own custom texts, about platform or process, problems or results.

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Categories: Holly Pappas
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Remembering what’s important: revision

posted: 7.15.13 by archived

I don’t always have the time I’d like to respond to posts of my fellow Bits’ bloggers, but one post I keep coming back to is Doug Downs’s Priorities. In that post he claims that for college writing students “the biggest growth needs are conceptual,” identifying the three areas of revision, collaboration, and contingency. In the face of those frightening statistics about how much and how quickly people forget what they have “learned,” it’s been a challenge to me in my six-week class this summer to think about what is most important for my students to remember:  the “adjustments” I hope they have made in how they think about writing. On a practical level, I’ve been trying to address more deliberately how what I do as a teacher, what I ask students do to, and how I assess their work contribute (or don’t) to those adjustments.

For me, the most essential change I hope for concerns students’ attitudes towards revision, which I’ve written about here and here.  But I wonder how much of what I say and do gives students mixed messages. Though I try to promote revision as the core of writing process (parroting the oft-quoted “All writing is rewriting”), what I grade is the final product. To what extent does marking “grammatical error,’ whether on rough or final drafts, persuade students of what some (may) already suspect: that in the end it’s all about correctness?

My methods of encouraging revision have changed somewhat over the past decade. In the past, one of the main topics of the first or (more likely) second week of classes was a standard lecture on “stages of the writing process” (which is still, as far as I can see, one of the most common ways that writing textbooks begin); now, as part of my efforts to make my classes more active, I’ve minimized that sort of talk, choosing to start instead with student practice in making observations and asking questions. (for some useful resources, see the Right Question Institute’s site). In the past, I would collect rough drafts in paper and meticulously annotate them with comments, questions, and corrections; now I give global comments for student rough drafts as posted on their individual blogs, and I make more local comments on style and grammar on final drafts, collected either on paper (using my favorite green or purple thin-line Gel pens) or via email (using Word’s comment feature).

Students’ revision efforts, on the whole, are minimal, as if they were operating with tweezers to try to disturb their words as little as possible.  They refer to final drafts as “corrected” or “fixed” essays, despite my wincing insistence that revision is a larger and messier process. In the spirit of trying to promote revision, I allow students to revise essays still further, trying to insist on “substantive revision” beyond “mere” proofreading, but most of the time the message doesn’t get through, as students carefully go through my comments one by one.

I need to try some other strategies, and I’ve made a start this summer. On the course blog I’ve added a section, with a drop-down menu of options, of Revision issues. I didn’t get a chance to fully implement this, but my plan was to assign each student one of these options to read, based on the most pressing issue I found in their rough draft: focus, development, coherence, organization, research, grammar, and style. (After I set up this break-down, I remembered Donald Murray’s wonderful classic The Craft of Revision, which I used as a text some years ago until I had qualms about its cost; his chapters similarly go through a variety of issues writers might consider in revision.) In my not-fully-realized plan, student would then revise their essays using (or not using) that information, and as a separately graded piece turn in a reflection detailing the decisions they made as they revised (to keep as is or add or delete or restructure or reword) and connecting those decisions to information they read and/or to feedback they received from me or other readers.

I’ve been considering some other possibilities as well:

  • To convince students of the value of revision, Doug suggests that students “need to experience writing tasks that are ‘bigger than their brains.’” That idea intrigues me, but I’m not sure how I could implement it.
  • An interesting few pages in Murray’s book are titled “20 Ways to Unfinal a Draft”; perhaps I should consider requiring students to perform some radical acts of revision. Doug uses the metaphor of revising as building, but perhaps students might also benefit from seeing revision as sweeping clear, tearing down and starting fresh (and coming to understand that a blank page or screen does not imply an empty mind).
  • I wish that I had the time to study the revisions students do: what is the connection between degree and types of revision and particular modes of instructor/writing tutor/peer feedback? One of my colleagues sometimes asks developmental students to map their own changes as an essay evolves, using color-coding or some other visual or quantitative representation. That might be a start.
  • Finally, my thoughts on revision were challenged by a recent article in the Boston Globe, Craig Furman’s “Revising Your Writing Again? Blame the Modernists,” which prompts the question of what to do if essays seem to require little revision.

If you’ve gotten your students to embrace revision, please share in the comments below any advice or suggestions you can give.

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If we build it, will they come?

posted: 6.28.13 by archived

When I first started teaching at a community college in 2002, I was an adjunct who (except when I was in the classroom) felt isolated, invisible, and voiceless. Blogging, which I began a couple years later, helped to give me a voice and connect with a few people I had never met in “real life”; though I gradually found other ways of chatting with colleagues, I kept hoping to find ways for technology to deepen and broaden connections between the faculty in my department who seldom seemed to have time or opportunity for as much conversation as I craved. It seemed especially important for faculty in my department to be able to talk because the culture of academic freedom was so firmly established that our courses were so varied; with no common textbook or approach or assignments or syllabus, we were just bound by catalog course descriptions. As a new adjunct in the department, I worried about how my course requirements and grading standards matched the department norm, and later, as a more experienced full-timer, I worried about how the department could ensure some kind of consistency or standards.  Our Portfolio Project is one way we try to do this, while celebrating academic freedom, but I kept thinking that a way to share assignments, at least, in some kind of online space could be another.

But so far all of the technology-mediated forums we’ve tried over the past ten years have not worked. Here’s what we’ve tried, with corresponding results:

  • A free-for-all discussion board on WebCT: three or four participants contributed a few posts before activity rapidly dwindled to nothing
  • A “toolkit” of resources for our gateway courses, in the form of a community group in our LMS: this was a static site of general tools (rubric-makers, graphic organizers, and the like), moderated by an instructional designer and largely ignored by department
  • A wordpress group blog for faculty to share tech and other pedagogical strategies: faculty who wished to participate needed to request user name and password—the last substantive post is mine from September of 2012
  • An English Department Facebook page, with about half a dozen administrators: this does get several posts per week, but normally in the form of links out to writing , literature, education-related articles or sites, with little conversation

Why don’t these things work? Because no one has the time? Because people want to do their own thing and don’t want to talk teaching? Because they prefer face-to-face to online interaction?

Whatever it is, energized by portfolio assessment at the end of last semester (with the opportunity to see other faculty members’ assignments and the chance to talk a bit), I decided we should try again. So three or four us us got together at the beginning of the summer to decide on a plan of action: what we wanted in a site, whether it should open/closed, where it should be hosted, how it should be organized, who should control it. We decided to start small, with a simple repository for assignments to be hosted as a community group in our LMS. We decided early on that it was imperative that everyone in the department (who wanted to participate) had course editing privileges. I’ve set up a basic folder system, with a folder for each of our three composition courses (developmental, Comp 1, and Comp 2) and within the Comp 1 folder (the primary course I teach and the one I know best) folders for the different approaches used by faculty (modes-based, genre-based, and theme-based). Several of us are uploading assignments so that in the fall we can demonstrate the site and (we hope) get the buy-in of other people in the department. It’s crucial, I think, to get a critical mass of assignments posted and, as we get started, to outreach effectively to adjunct faculty and to encourage them to see this as a way to share their own work, in addition to seeing the approaches of other people.

For any readers who have experience with such a site, how it is organized and how do you keep it active and useful? I’d love some free advice in the comments below!

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On Screencasts: Something Familiar, Something New

posted: 6.24.13 by archived

When I first stumbled upon Jing, a free tool for recording and storing screencast videos, it made a kind of intuitive sense to me right away. Jing offered something familiar and something new.

As an undergraduate English major at UNH in the early 1990s, I had had an instructor who used audio-tapes to provide feedback to me and my classmates on our writing. I had experienced, first-hand, the process of sitting down with my paper and hitting “play” to hear my teacher’s assessment of my work and then trying to revise accordingly.Thus, when I first encountered Jing, I knew from first-hand experience that talking to students about their work instead of writing comments in the margins was an effective way to give (and receive) feedback.

But Jing offers something more than just the opportunity to talk to students about their work–it offers the opportunity to show them things…like what a particular comment means or how to actually edit/revise a particular section of text. This, I think, is something entirely new–something with great promise for writing instruction.

In this post, rather than work through the potential benefits (and limitations) of using screencast software in writing classes, I’d like, instead, to think through the ways I am already using Jing in the Paperless Writing Class. If I am to be honest, it’s all a bit hazy for me at this point. While I like the tool and use it often, I don’t yet have an official “policy” for myself on the use of screencasting. Rather than think it through carefully and cautiously from the start, I sort of just jumped in with Jing a few years ago and have been experimenting with it ever since. This blog post will give me the opportunity to begin thinking through my existing practice.

The first thing I note as I take stock of my use of Jing over the past five years is the haphazard nature by which I use the tool itself. As I look back at the full range of introductory, general education, in-major, and graduate courses I have taught, no pattern seems to emerge, in terms of when I go to Jing to give feedback and when I stick to the more traditional method of inserting marginal comments and writing a letter at the end of a draft. In some classes, I don’t create screencasts at all. In others, I create screencasts for just one assignment. In no classes have I shifted to Jing entirely to provide students with feedback. This leads me to my first question about the use of screencasts: When (and why) do you use them?

Next, as I review a sample of the screencasts I have made, I realize that, for the most part, I use this tool to respond to student writing. But this morning, I used Jing for a different purpose. In all my classes, I try to post “models” for each of the essays/reports that I ask students to write. Usually, I take the time to go over the model in class, but there isn’t always time for this, especially during summer sessions. So this morning I made a screencast video of myself talking through a model essay and explaining what students should notice about it and try to emulate (or avoid). This experience leads me to a second question about the use of screencasts: What do you use them for?

Finally, my research on my own screencasts reveals that I use this tool in different ways as I talk to students about their work. At my most pedagogically ineffective, I have the student’s paper open on the screen and I tell the student there are two or three issues I’d like to address and then I address them, often getting side-tracked by niggling problems that come up along the way. I think such recordings reveal me at my worst. As I watch them, I, myself, get lost. There is no roadmap–it’s just someone talking.

In other cases, I have already commented on a paper or created a written list of topics to discuss at the end of the paper and I run through this list, point by point (sometimes I have the list in an email, which I send the students, along with the link to the screencast, when I am finished). I notice that when I create a kind of “agenda” or itinerary for my screencasts and share that with the viewer in the beginning and then refer back to it throughout the screencast recording, I am perhaps at my best–most able to follow myself.

These observations about the “how to” of a program like Jing lead me to a third question about the use of screencasts: What is the most effective way to create accessible and actionable recordings?

While I’m guessing that there is some research out there that can help me answer these questions I’ve found that, at least around my campus, it’s a lonely world our there for screencasters. I know of very few, if any, faculty experimenting with tools like Jing. In a workshop I gave on screencasts a few weeks ago, my sense of the room was that I wasn’t getting much buy-in. When I pointed out that if screencasts seemed like too much to tackle, one could just experiment with the “insert audio” tool that comes with all new Mac computers, folks seemed to perk up right away. That somehow seemed more doable to members of my audience (e.g. “You mean, instead of typing the marginal notes I insert in student’s papers I can just speak them and the computer will type them for me???!!! That’s AWESOME!”).

For now, I’ll continue to experiment with screencast tools and think through this familiar yet new teaching practice. I welcome your comments, questions, and observations if you have experience with creating screencasts in your teaching.

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A Confession

posted: 6.18.13 by archived

One afternoon this semester in the Writing Center, I saw two different students from the same professor with essays vigorously and colorfully marked up, much like the samples Nedra Reynolds showcases in a recent blog post. To my mild expression of amazement at all of the feedback, one student groaned that she didn’t even want to read all of the comments, so discouraged by all of the “mistakes” she had made. As a tutor I felt similarly overwhelmed as I struggled to make out the unfamiliar handwriting apparently the result of numerous passes through the essay, and I wondered with the same guilty sense of recognition I felt reading Nedra’s post whether my students feel the same discouragement when I return their essays. I too am an over-marker.

So I thought it would be a good idea to spend a post reflecting on why and how I have been commenting on student work and how I might improve.

As I’m trying to construct my pitiful defense, I would offer as rationale a few motivations. My main goal in commenting on student writing is to make students more conscious writers, to bring them to the understanding that as they write, they are making choices and that revision is their chance to articulate and rethink those choices. Many of my comments are intended not as corrections but as possibilities. In addition, what I’ve come to see as over-marking is meant to be a demonstration of my engagement with their writing (which clearly backfires if, like the students I tutored, they see comments as critical attack).

My comments seem to have four or five different functions:

  • Conversation. Here I’m connecting to the ideas of the essay, by mentioning related information or noting connections or apparent contradictions within the essay itself.  (If students are expecting me only to mark “good” and “bad” things in their essays, they may not understand my intent.)
  • Appreciation. This involves pointing out praiseworthy aspects, typically such things as sharp details, clearly expressed or provocative general assertions, engaging leads or conclusions that go beyond summary.
  • Identifying writing “problems.” Here I’m thinking of typical writing-rubric concerns such as focus, organization, development, coherence.
  • Stylistic suggestions. For example, I may suggest ways to tighten prose, with what I hope are polite square brackets around words and phrases that could be omitted, or to combine or break up sentences.
  • Proofreading. I figure that part (a small part) of what I do involves helping students to write more correct Standard Written English, so I need some way of indicating errors or, better, patterns of errors.

My current practice does incorporate a few strategies designed to cut down on my over-marking tendencies. My students post rough drafts on their own blogs, which encourages (forces) me to focus my comments on global issues and keeps those comments respectfully (I hope) outside the boundaries of the students’ work. Also, as I’ve probably mentioned before, I’ve been using a minimal marking system for identifying grammatical and usage errors; I do this on “final” drafts, though, which may not match students’ experience with teachers whose rough draft comments are limited to errors to be fixed. (I do encourage students to revise these final drafts, though merely fixing grammatical errors does not usually result in a substantially raised grade).

As I recite the Writing Center’s mantra that our goal is to help create not better pieces of writing but better writers, I’ve been thinking about what other tactics I might use in my rehabilitation from a life of “criminal commentary. “

  • Using my voice. Hearing feedback rather than reading it may be less discouraging to students and give me the chance to use tone in my voice to convey encouragement and support. Because of time constraints I haven’t done much conferencing with students (outside of short in-the-classroom conversations), but I’m considering trying it out again, at least on a limited basis. For my online class this summer, I’m planning to try some audio commenting (which I’ve had on my to-do list for quite a while).
  • Personalizing feedback. I usually suggest that students write a Note-to-readers (both for me and for peer reviewers) if they have any information about future plans for the draft they’d like a reader to know or any specific questions they’d like a reader to address. Few take me up on it. It might work better to ask students, after the fact, to let me know how they felt about comments I (and peers) gave them, so that I could adjust comments in the future to more closely match students’ needs and personalities.
  • Asking students to read and reflect. I’m still working out the details of this option, but what I have in mind is a system where I identify for each student a key issue (or two or three) for them to work on in revision. I would then link them to some resources to read to help with those issues, both material I’ve written as well as web pages from Writing Centers or videos or maybe some tips from previous students. As part of the revision process, I’d require students to write a short response to the material they’ve read and a reflection on how they did (or didn’t) use that information to help in their revision.

How do you resist the tendency to give too much feedback on student work? If you’ve got any suggestions for me or my fellow over-markers, please share in the comments below.

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Categories: Holly Pappas
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Reading Student Work in the Paperless Writing Class

posted: 6.10.13 by archived

In their book, The Elements of Teaching Writing, Katherine Gottschalk and Keith Hjortshoj argue that along with the actual instructions we create to guide our students through the writing assignments we give them, the feedback we provide on their written work is among the most important kinds of writing we produce in our classes. It’s hard to disagree. In our comments to students, we construct a persona for ourselves–one that may or may not match up with our actual, face-to-face classroom persona–and we establish the terms by which we will relate to or interact with our students. In short, there is a lot riding on the ways in which we talk to students about their written work. Grading papers is never just “grading papers.”

One might also argue that there is a lot riding on the means by which we talk to students about their writing. Do we give feedback on paper copies that students have printed out and handed to us in class or on digital copies that students have uploaded via the Learning Management System (LMS)? If the former, do we use pen or pencil to comment, black or blue or red or even a highlighter? If the latter, do we use the “track changes” or the “insert comment” tools in MS Word or do we create elaborate commenting schemes using the highlight tool (e.g., “green means you said something interesting here”, or “blue means that this is an awkward sentence,” etc.)

And what about face-to-face feedback? At the University of New Hampshire (UNH), in the early 1990s, when I was an undergraduate there, all instructors of Freshman English were required to meet with every student in conference on a weekly or semi-weekly basis to discuss his/her writing. I’m sure these instructors wrote comments in the margins of their students’ papers and probably edited them, too, but what strikes me now about this rare and enormously time-consuming conference-based approach is the extent to which it was focused on oral conversation or talk–a kind of feedback most college faculty rarely give but which, ultimately, may be of the most use to developing writers who are often challenged to interpret and understand the many things teachers write on their papers.

It’s hard to imagine, at this stage of my career, designing a weekly schedule where I would conference for 15-20 minutes with each of my students. For most college faculty, writing faculty included, meeting with students weekly is simply not feasible. I’ve been learning, over the past several years, how to build conferences into my teaching at different moments during the semester, usually during class meetings, and in this way, I’m finding it’s possible to retain a good deal of the pedagogical usefulness that comes from the conference method without drowning in outside-of-class responsibilities.

What about other ways of providing feedback–for example, screencast videos or mp3 files where you can literally speak to your students about their work and then share the recording you’ve made with them?  Bits Blogger Jay Dolmage did a post a little ways back on using video to give students feedback. I’ve recently stumbled onto a technology that, among many college faculty, continues to be novel and perhaps under-utilized: screencast recordings, using a website called Jing.  (Jing’s novelty is given further credence by the fact that when I share screencasts with students, few, if any, report that they have ever received feedback on their writing in such a fashion before). Screencasts are an interesting hybrid, somewhere between the standard method of marking papers and the perhaps ideal but less manageable practice of weekly conferences. Screencasts via a technology like Jing offer great possibilities for writing instructors who want to personalize their feedback and deliver that feedback in novel and interactive ways that meet the needs of 21st century learners. While I don’t use Jing to give feedback on every assignment my students hand in, I do use it at some point in the term in almost every course I teach. In my next post, I’ll talk a bit more about Jing and my experiences creating screencasts to provide students with feedback on their writing.

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Categories: Michael Michaud
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Peer Review in Practice in the Paperless Writing Class

posted: 5.24.13 by archived

This is my fourth (and last) post on the topic of peer workshops. I have written more about this practice than I anticipated and yet, I find I have a bit more to say. In this post, I’ll try to describe the process I actually use to facilitate peer workshops in the Paperless Writing Class. I don’t claim this sequence to be unique or even terribly innovative. But this hybrid method has been working for me, combining, as it does, elements of face-to-face and online interaction.

Step 1: Students write a draft of their assignment and then a) upload a copy to the learning-management system (LMS) and b) bring two hard copies to class.

Getting students to complete a full draft of an assignment when that draft will not be graded can be a challenge. I have found that having students upload drafts to the LMS works as a kind of Jedi-mind-trick: it somehow makes the process seem more official and most students actually comply.

Step 2: In class, I model how to give effective feedback and clarify my expectations for the assignment by reading and reviewing one student’s draft prior to the peer workshop.

I think this step is crucial to the process–before students get into groups to talk to one another about their drafts, I want them to hear me talking about one students’ draft, so they have that discussion in mind as they read through their peers’ work. I am both modeling how to give feedback and providing a way of talking about the exigencies of a particular assignment.

Step 3: Students arrange themselves into groups of three, exchange drafts, and read their work aloud to one another.

Some groups go to the corners of the room, others go out in the hall or outside if it’s a nice day. If there are empty classrooms nearby, I send groups to them. And then I leave them alone. Entirely. My only role during this part of the process, as I see it, is to keep them on track and make sure that each group member actually does get the chance to read his/her paper aloud. This step takes a good deal of time and really doesn’t work well with longer papers, but there is nothing better that I have found for showing students how sloppy and riddled with errors and unclear sentences their first drafts usually are.

Step 4: Students take copies of their classmates’ drafts home and, for homework for the next class, reread them and post a feedback letter to the Discussion Board for each of their groupmates.

I grade the feedback letters (check, check-plus, check-minus). I usually give these instructions:

      Write a brief letter (250-300 words) to each of your groupmates which answers the following questions (be sure to start your letter “Dear…” and end it “Sincerely,”):
      a. Given your understanding of the assignment, what is working about the writer’s first draft. What is good? What do you like? (Point to three specific aspects of his/her draft that are working or “good”).
      b. Given your understanding of the assignment, what in regard to this draft needs work? (Point to three specific aspects of his/her draft that can be improved).

Step 5: In class the next day, students read one another’s feedback letters, discuss where necessary, and get to work revising their drafts.

When we return to class, the students take the first ten minutes or so to read their groupmates’ feedback letters and then post a summary letter to me, detailing the feedback they have received from their peers, posing questions, and devising a plan for revision. I then allocate the rest of the class period to a “work day” and sit down with as many students as possible to review their summary letters and discuss their revision plans.

I like this sequence for a number of reasons:

  1. On their own, students don’t usually take the time to review their work or read it aloud, a key strategy for catching sentence-level problems with their writing.
  2. Separating the peer workshop into two parts (in class and at home) forces students to take more time to consider their peers’ work (and by extension, their own).
  3. Writing feedback letters to their peers (and being graded on doing so) produces, I’ve found, more thoughtful responses than just off-the-cuff oral comments in the classroom.
  4. Because students’ feedback to one another is written down and because I have access to it, I can use their work to talk about how to give effective feedback, drawing on passages from sample letters to illustrate feedback that I feel is useful or not so useful.
  5. Following these steps BEFORE I look at a student’s draft ensures that by the time I sit down to look at drafts, everyone is doing the assignment I’ve given and not something else (I’ve found students to be pretty good in pointing out to one another when they have fundamentally missed the purpose of an assignment).

As I said above, this is my final post on peer review. What have learned? That it’s a complex process. I can see why faculty who do not think of themselves as writing teachers are reluctant to try out peer review workshops. At the same time, a psychology professor who participated in our annual Summer Seminar for the Teaching of Writing (SSTW) tried out peer review for, I believe, the first time last summer and now swears by the practice. Are there certain disciplines that lend themselves to this kind of work more than others? Are there certain personality types or teaching types? And is there any cold and hard data showing that peer review is effective at improving students’ writing? There is, perhaps, a good deal more to consider about this practice that so many of us take for granted.

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Categories: Michael Michaud
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