Posts Tagged ‘essay’

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“Never Going to Make You Cry”: Why Students Should Choose Their Own Topics

posted: 3.5.12 by archived

When I was in high school and university, I dreaded writing assignments that didn’t allow me to choose my own topic and approach. As soon as I got a writing prompt in an English class, I would read through the different questions the teacher had provided, scanning for that crucial statement: “choose your own topic” or “write about a theme of your choice.” I realize some of my peers would never have wanted to choose that option; they liked being given clear parameters; and they would be uncomfortable if forced to choose their own subject material.  That didn’t make them lazy, less creative, or less confident writers.  It just made them different from me.

I try to remember this when giving my own students writing prompts. The difference is that I now start with the idea that all students can choose their own topic, but I provide extra help for students who need assistance doing so. I hope that I am accommodating all types of students this way.

A few weeks ago, there was a photo of a student essay making its way around the Internet. In the photo, a student highlighted how, on an essay  submitted for a class, he or she had started every single line with a few words from the lyrics to the Rick Astley song “Never Going to Give You Up.”

[read more]

Comments: (2)
Categories: Assignment Idea, Jay Dolmage, Uncategorized
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Finding a Subject: Fall Edition

posted: 10.28.11 by archived

I tell my students that finding a subject to write about is half the battle. The longer I teach the more I think we may not spend enough time at this crucial invention stage.  That’s the problem with procrastinating, I say, that you don’t give yourself time for your subconscious to get to work in collecting up some details so that you can to consider and assess various possibilities.

Instead of focusing on the writing process via thesis statement, outline, topic sentence, transitional device (terms that can make even my eyes glaze over), I try to talk about a thinking process that goes something like this:

Seeing. Start with getting out in the world and looking, as I did last summer in my wildflower post. I use the purely visual here as metaphor for the nontrivial tasks of noticing, listening, collecting up scraps. My students don’t find it easy to cultivate this attentiveness, with family and work obligations filling their schedules and cradled cellphone screens filling their fields of vision.

Naming. Once they manage to focus their attention, it’s another challenge to find the words to describe what they see.  I try an exercise. Look at this and describe what you see:


First attempts look something like this: “It’s a decent size store with things all over the walls and things stacked on top of each other in many different colors and sizes. “ So what’s wrong with that, I ask? [read more]

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Categories: Assignment Idea, Holly Pappas, Writing Process
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Thoughts on the “Paper” Load

posted: 10.13.11 by archived

It’s about a month into the semester, and as usual I’m starting to feel buried by the by the pile of essays that are waiting for my comments. It is the most essential part of my work, but oh-so-time-consuming as any two writing teachers, in conversation for more than thirty seconds, are sure to remind each other. Over the past week or so, I’ve talked to several colleagues about their practices, and it’s prompted me to reconsider how I’ve been handling the load, both of papers and of guilt for what I see as my chronic tardiness.

I see each student’s essay at least twice, in rough draft and final (i.e., to be graded) form. In the past I’ve had students set up individual blogs to post their rough drafts, so they receive both peer review and my feedback as comments to the post. This ensures global comments (appropriate for the way I’d like to see students approach revision), but these comments are not always easy for students to apply to the rethinking (and not just “correcting”) that I try to encourage. And on my end, the global comments take some time to formulate, compared to more immediate sentence-level scribbles. At final draft stage (which up until this semester has been in paper form for face-to-face classes and electronic files for distance learning), I provide, along with the requisite grade, closer comments on style and sentence-level issues; for issues of grammar I follow Richard Haswell’s minimal marking approach. [read more]

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Categories: Community College issues, Holly Pappas
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Keep It Simple, Stupid

posted: 2.25.11 by archived

That was the message from my class when I tried to implement my grand scheme of turning the “simple” personal essay assignment into a collaborative Anthology project. We had already visited a computer lab where students set up individual blogs in order to post rough drafts and journal-type reflections, and we had figured out (haltingly) how to get students access to a Google docs space for sharing anthology ideas, but when I tried to introduce MS Word’s commenting feature as a way for them to share drafts to help each other proofread, their eyes started to roll back in their heads. One brave soul voiced her objections, and others soon chimed in. It took me about thirty seconds to acknowledge that they were right.

I believe there are several potential causative factors for this technology revolt:  my attempts this semester to introduce more collaboration to my composition classes; my teaching schedule, which includes both f2f and online classes; and my own excitement about exploring different technology tools (an interest not necessarily shared by my students).

This whole experience has once again raised a host of questions about how I can best use technology with my particular community college students. (For now, I won’t try to define how “community college” impacts the technology issue except to say that the very diversity of the CC student population is the most significant complicating factor.) Here are some of my questions:

How much? Several of my students expressed nostalgia for the system they were accustomed to from their high school English classes: papers passed back and forth between student and teacher in a private way, teachers marking mistakes, students correcting them. I’m not going to do that in my classes. Just as I insist that my students turn in word-processed essays, I require blogs as a way to make student writing public. Is that my electronic line in the sand? Is it a reasonable one? Can I ask that much? Should I require more? [read more]

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Categories: Community College issues, Holly Pappas, Writing Process
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How Do I Write a Passing College Essay? A Template Story

posted: 2.14.11 by Susan Naomi Bernstein

“How do I write a passing college essay?” asks a worried-looking student in Developmental Writing. It is midterm. She anticipates the final assessment that will determine her status as “developmental” or “college level” for the next term. Her financial aid and her timely graduation depend on writing this elusive passing essay. She tells you that nothing in class has helped: not models, not mini-lessons, not free writing, not peer review, not conferencing, not feedback on drafts from you and from the writing center—nothing.

You see her progress, and you try to explain her improvement with specific evidence from her writing. But that explanation, the student says, does not help her. She needs to understand how to write an essay. She asks for tips, hints, and suggestions that will work for her each time—like the formulas she consults for algebra, the bone charts she memorizes for anatomy.

From the student’s point of view, her request certainly seems reasonable. She wants to know how. You realize that your class has been focusing on why. Why do we write? Why are reading and critical thinking important for writing? Why do audience and purpose matter? You have learned over the years that why questions provide students with opportunities to gain agency and motivation as writers. You have seen such transformations over and over again.

You remember that Aristotle stresses observation and persuasion. Aristotle conceived of rhetoric as “a method to discover all means of persuasion on any topic whatsoever.”    Perhaps you can rethink the student’s question as a request for a “method to discover” all available means for writing an essay. [read more]

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Categories: Writing Process
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Going Paperless

posted: 2.8.11 by Steve Bernhardt

I wonder how many of us run paperless writing classes? I tend to teach hybrid writing classes, meeting some days in a computer classroom, other days in a traditional classroom. Students are welcome to bring their laptops to either setting. Whatever the class—first-year composition, tech writing, business communication, editing—we do it without paper. I first went paperless in a class on texts and technologies; I liked the ironic twist—no paper in a writing class.

My reasons are partly matters of sustainability and economics. Printing is a major campus computing cost. It’s not just the paper and toner, but the maintenance kits and replacement costs. We can push those charges around by instituting printing fees, and many students have their own printers. But the cost is still there. It’s worse when students (or faculty) are using expensive color ink cartridges.

I used to teach students to edit on screen, use print preview, and avoid printing multiple drafts. My mantra was to avoid unnecessary printing. I now believe that an important and useful primary skill is simply knowing how to work with texts online, from initial planning through research notes, drafts, and revisions. Students adjust quickly, beginning on the first day when I let them know that instead of a paper syllabus, there is one online at the class Sakai site. [read more]

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Categories: Teaching with Technology
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Personal Essay as Anthology

posted: 2.4.11 by archived

Despite the backlash against expressivism that sees personal writing as narcissistic, I still begin my first-semester composition classes with the personal essay in one form or another. I have many reasons for doing so, especially at a community college where a too-hasty rush towards academic writing seems inappropriate for the more than 50 percent of my students who will not transfer to four-year institutions.

I want my students to at least start with material that they care about, material over which they have some authority, even—or especially—if they still need to discover that they do indeed have the authority to speak about their own lives. I’d like them to start with material that facilitates their development of a natural voice. Finally, in personal writing I think they have a greater chance of seeing that writing can be not (just) drudgery but also discovery, as new realizations about their own lives pop mysteriously onto the page or screen.

I’ve written in the past, though, about problems I’ve had with the personal essay assignment. I want students to move beyond the notion that “it’s interesting because it happened to me!” I tell them that to interest the reader they need to connect their own particular experience to something more universal, to set their reader to remembering or questioning something that happened in his or her own life. I’d like them to start to see their writing as entering, in some small way, into a conversation of other writers about such human concerns as family ties and moral dilemmas. [read more]

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Categories: Community College issues, Holly Pappas
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Scavenging for Assignments

posted: 1.21.11 by archived

As a writing teacher, I do a lot of reading. Much of it is student work, of course, but I also read (or scan) more professionally published essays and articles. I read these as a scavenger, looking for topics my students might read and talk and write about and for forms my assignments might take.

For the past few years, I’ve used a typical summary-and-response assignment (disguised by the more poetic name adopted by UMass-Amherst: the text wrestling essay) each semester. I typically select four or five articles for students to choose from—both so that I can set the length/difficulty level of the articles and so that I can be reasonably familiar with them (to help students identify main ideas and any paraphrases too close to the original). I select articles that are available online, from sources such as the New Yorker, Harper’s, the Atlantic, the New York Times Sunday Magazine section, and Arts & Letters Daily, trying to pick a range of accessible topics.

But it’s the reading I do that provides me with ideas for assignment forms, or genres—I’m not quite sure of the best word here—that most interests me. Here are two old assignment examples, plus the brand new one I discovered this past week. [read more]

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Categories: Assignment Idea, Holly Pappas
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WAW and Mindfulness: Some End-of-Semester Ruminating

posted: 12.23.10 by Elizabeth Wardle and Douglas Downs



As our composition program at UCF has moved toward full implementation of writing about writing, I have had the opportunity to see how thousands of students complete similar assignments, and whether they seem to be achieving the same outcomes that I hope my own students achieve. One of the assignments that has proven particularly interesting to watch in this way is the autoethnography. This assignment, one of the major ones at the end of Chapter 2, is intended to push students to seriously consider what their own writing processes are like, what is working for them, and what might benefit from changes. In essence, this is an assignment intended to encourage mindfulness. But at the end of the day, mindfulness can’t be taught; it can only be prompted and encouraged.

Looking at some of the autoethnographies that students from dozens of sections are writing, I see some genuine mindfulness as well as some, well, less genuine efforts. This circumstance brings up a lot of unanswered questions for me. If students appear not to genuinely engage now, is there still the possibility of a benefit down the road? Is there still a value in asking students to “walk through” the assignment and go through the motions of reflective activities? For example, the WAW book includes a feature called “meta moments.” These “moments” are intended to encourage reflection and transfer, but it is entirely possible for students to simply make up quick answers to these prompts that are not meaningful, mindful, or particularly genuine. A teacher can’t really grade the level of engagement or mindfulness in a student’s response. [read more]

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Categories: Writing about Writing
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The Great Challenge

posted: 12.22.10 by Barclay Barrios

The assignment sequences in our program follow a general pattern: the first paper works with one author, the second paper with two, the third paper with three, and the fourth paper with two. That third paper is always a challenge for students—they just start to figure out how to work with two texts and suddenly we’re asking them to work with three. But I think it’s an important challenge. In asking students to work with three authors we give them a first glimpse of how knowledge is produced throughout the academy. As they move into their majors and disciplines they will often be asked to work with multiple sources; this third paper assignment gives them early practice with those skills.

We also try to broaden the scope of this assignment to move beyond the texts of the classroom and back into the world in which we live. What does such an assignment look like? Well, here’s the one we came up with this past fall:

HIV/AIDS continues to be a global epidemic. In “AIDS, Inc.” Helen Epstein examines HIV/AIDS prevention programs in Africa, finding that not only are conversations about the disease important but that certain kinds of conversations are particularly essential. To what extent can her insights be used to help in the fight against HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases here in the United States? Using all three essays we’ve read so far, write a paper in which you propose strategies for halting the spread of HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases in the United States and across the globe. [read more]

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Categories: Working with Sources, Writing Process
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