I’ve added a “Subscribe” feature to the blog, where you can receive blog posts and/or comments to your email. It’s in the sidebar on the left, and let me know in a comment if the settings don’t work for you.
This post is also a comment somewhere else. Sorry for any confusion!
These readings were extremely helpful for me in thinking about how to propose writing assignments. I just returned my first batch of papers and realized I had made a lot of mistakes that I don’t want to repeat. I used the assignment that was on the English 110 website for my class and I made very few changes to it. Because it called for a creative response to my course’s topic, I found myself grading essays that I felt should have been responses to a low-stakes assignment. The assignment was not only difficult to grade, but I feel it did little to prepare students for their upcoming analytical essay assignments. I’m curious how others, especially 110 instructors, are handling this? Are any of your essay assignments creative, and if so, how has that been working out?
In the future, I’d like to encourage creative thinking with low-stakes writing assignments that might be part of class or as a take-home assignment. I taught theatre for a little while and I’ve been really interested in incorporating improvisation techniques into the classroom but am unsure if this will just freak students out. I thought the assignment that called for students to write dialogues in groups was an excellent tactic. Has anyone done this before and how has it gone?
I guess I’m just really curious about how other people have incorporated play into the classroom. And play, in this context, is low-stakes writing that can encourage pleasure in using words but also in getting out of our seats and moving around. This week’s readings were so helpful in concrete ways. I reconsidered my way of both assigning and commenting on essays (especially, as Karen already pointed out, reading through them once before commenting). I wonder if we can’t push these ideas further? I’d be really interested to learn more about the ways that creative writing instructors are choosing assignments that challenge their students’ modes of thinking in their work. I’d also like to know if people play games (I do, but I’d like to play more!) in their classrooms? What games are they? Do they seem to work? And maybe I’m the only one who is obsessed with the idea that the classroom should be really fun, but if anyone else feels this way, what can we do to encourage playfulness in approaching both reading and writing?
I appreciated the array of formal and informal assignments that Bean introduced in these two chapters. The notion that slight variations can produce dramatically different end products is something I’ve felt keenly as a first-time instructor. If anything, I’ve learned to err on the side of specificity – the more concrete, the better. Each week, my students write peer reviews of each other’s fiction workshop submissions. I laid out guidelines in my syllabus in broad strokes, encouraging constructive criticism and demanding textual evidence to support their claims. While typical for a workshop format, I realize now that this sort of assignment lacks the “guiding constraints” that Bean outlines in chapter 5. The work I’ve evaluated in this first month has ranged from concise and reasonable to utterly obtuse and objectionable.
Unfortunately, due to the nature of workshopping in general, I can only set forth so many stipulations for the peer reviews. A few formal assignments will bolster the course and allow me to corral them a bit better (not to sound overly authoritarian). I’ve already seen this in the focused exercises I asked the students to work on – freewriting based on specific prompts relating to character or creative germination. I hope a more “academic” (re: not creative) assignment will further solidify their grasp on the rather amorphous concepts we’ve been batting around. There’s a performative element to this reinforcing kind of work: writing it makes it real.
Exploratory writing seems to be a halfway point between the formal assignment and the unrestricted workshop response. The dialectical notebook, in particular, seems like a good way to spur conversation in small groups. I’m also glad that Bean considers the amount of instructor time required to evaluate such writing. Even without grades, merely keeping track of these assignments is no small feat in itself!
The levels of response to high/low stakes work, as outlined by Elbow, elicited the strongest reaction from me. I understand the necessity for a continuum, but I wonder if the “supportive response” with no criticism can be effective at all. I guess I wouldn’t think that any rational response, even if it is a critique, could cause “harm” to a student, but maybe I haven’t been teaching long enough. The workshop responses I’ve been writing for the students’ stories probably operate at the highest stakes of critical feedback. But here’s my dilemma: am I just killing myself unnecessarily each week since I’m not assigning a letter grade to these work-in-progress submissions? How do I adapt this continuum of grading for a creative writing course?
At this point, I’m starting to feel like I need to raise the stakes for my students. Even if Elbow points out that we should “honor nonverbal knowing,” I’ve been thinking about the importance of verbal articulation. Elbow says that people form judgments of character based on speech. How do we encourage and incorporate the ability to talk about our work in the classroom without alienating students who may be naturally reticent? In addition, he thinks that students “take almost anything we write as criticism.” Has this been true in your experience?
This weeks readings leave less to debate or question, it seems, more to practice and through trial and error, determine what works best for our teaching styles and our students. A lot of Bean and Elbows’ remarks on the importance of incorporating low stakes writing–to develop student ideas, help students find their clear, energized voices, reflect and process readings, lectures or class activities, take intellectual and expressive risks, and find their own language for ideas that exist in another foreign discourse–make perfect sense, represent pedagogy I have been taught to use, and I love the results. I only wish there was more time for more in-class writing. What I am realizing is that students are not bored when they are quietly writing away in their notebooks. I did dialogic journals in partners last week. They wrote, read each other’s notebooks, responded in writing, and then reflected on the response in writing for about 45 minutes straight. When I surveyed them for feedback the next class about the helpfulness of that exercise, almost all students said they really enjoyed getting to think through the questions and getting to read another student’s writing to learn their respective.
I think the two more difficult or not-obvious aspects of the readings have to do with responding to writing and crafting essay assignments. Despite the fact that I completely overhauled my assignment handout after reading Kerry Walk’s advice on clearly stating the prompt and having a clear reference to what they need to answer or address, my students have been very confused about what their first essay is really about. I cannot tell if this is more to do with the task of close reading which is rather mysterious to them still, or if it’s that my prompt is actually unclear. Perhaps it is problematic to assign writing that expects students to both display a particular critical thinking skill that is new to them and make an argument that responds intelligently to the readings they’ve done around the class theme. This gets back to the content-skills debate. I think Bean’s suggestions about writing formal writing assignments is quite on point–however, I feel kind of stuck given the framework of my English 110 class, the readings available, etc., to produce a clear, engaging assignment that will lead to strong formal essays. In K-12 education I learned a lot about backwards planning–I wish I had written the assignments, at least the framework, I wanted my students to do before laying out the sequence of readings. These formal assignments, as evidence of learning outcomes, should, in retrospect, drive the syllabus.
As far as responding to writing, I very much appreciated Elbow’s break-down of levels of teacher response, and his assessment of the psychology at play for students, to realize that there is more damage to be done than help at times. It is so easy in the time-crunch of reviewing student work to forget their emotions or the time honored dictum, if you don’t have sometime nice to say, don’t say a thing–the 5:1 rule is psychologically tested, supposedly, good to bad–what we are capable of truly hearing. In terms of giving reduced feedback, or only positive feedback, I think it is key here to tell students when handing back work, your rationale for your system. For example to say, “I drew a line under what I thought would clear, engaging thoughts.” I also appreciated his reminder not to write in comments as you read drafts but to assess afterwards which problems are worth commenting upon.
There are many good take-aways from these readings–many kinds of writing assignments I’d like to experiment with. As far as discussion, it might be useful for us to share our first essay assignments with each other and discuss how we would revise for next semester.
The following points were brought up as possible topics for class discussion:
John Maguire’s “The Secret to Good Writing . . .”
Many of us liked his essay. Now how do we go about helping students be more “precise, specific, and object-oriented in their writing and thinking (Danica)?”
Danica could explain more about her “Demonstrate and Explicate” exercise
Focus on verb choices – preferably strong, specific and clear ones (Karen)
Help students become comfortable with academic language but “be relieved from the need for it to be natural (Paul).” Sometimes they think they’re not good writers but are underestimating their own abilities.
Encourage students to emulate other writers and give mini-lessons on structure (Jonathan)
What exactly do we mean by specific ideas? “If we define things, ideas and objects in an article, are we losing sight of something more fundamental (Heather).”
Creative Writing vs. Analytical Writing
Many of the essayists we read seemed to view this as an oppositional either/or debate – you’re either in one camp or the other. Why must academics privilege one above the other, in many cases, instead of finding ways to effectively combine the two? The “answer lies somewhere in between (Eric)” or as he suggests, perhaps one means of synthesis is to ask students in a creative writing class to write a paper analyzing a poem or a section of prose.
On one hand: You need to learn the rules before breaking them and poetry can sometimes alienate students, as well as awaken them (Mike). And form shouldn’t be viewed as “some horrible rote exercise (Beth).”
On the other hand: All of us seem to agree that creative writing is important and worth incorporating. There’s value in having a strong, negative reaction to a poem and Lasky is “advocating poetry as a way of drawing students’ attention to language (Alexa).”
Also, is it unfair to expect academic writers to also be “creative” writers?
The Common Core standards (Imanje)
Pros – writing across the curriculum
Cons – continued emphasis on test results as a measure of academic success
The article, “The Writing Revolution,” claims that New Dorp’s emphasis on writing produced “an extraordinary blossoming of student potential across nearly every subject.” Though I don’t doubt that such increased attention to writing across the curriculum is highly impactful, I’d like to question the means by which the article measures this success. Despite looking toward new and innovative ways of engaging students with writing, test results are still given huge importance. The Common Core standards, which have been hotly debated across the country, are applauded and the focus on analytic writing as early as elementary school goes unquestioned. While I think it’s extremely important to teach writing across disciplines, this new design does not need to go hand in hand with increased federal control of teaching standards or reliance on standardized tests as sufficient gauges for academic success.
Even those who resist the focus on analytic writing over creative writing put their resistance in terms I find questionable. The article quotes high-school teacher Kelly Gallagher as claiming that “the secret weapon of our economy is that we foster creativity.” Perhaps I have utopian dreams about the impact of education, but I think the desire to embark on a PhD might require such an attitude, so I’ll keep complaining. The logic that creative writing should be taught because it is good for the economy completely omits the personal impact that education has on the young person. So much of what we’ve been reading is founded upon the assumption that people go to school to make money in a capitalist economy and if we continue to make arguments that don’t question that foundation, then I think we’re allowing for education to be further commodified than it has already become.
What do others think about that? Is there a way to think about our classrooms as spaces where we can question the notion that students are meant to become mere spokes in the wheel of the current system, or is it our job to prepare students for the “real world?”
What does a classroom look like that aims at the whole person instead of the person as future/current worker?
Is this resistance to preparing students for the current economy ultimately performing a disservice, especially at Queens College, where many students don’t come with the same privileges as many of those who attend expensive liberal arts schools?
Also, as a completely unrelated note, I really liked the object-orientated way of thinking about writing in “The Secret to Good Writing: It’s About Objects, Not Ideas.” I would love to hear other thoughts on how that method of thinking could be used in the classroom.
“As new teachers enter New Dorp, for example, they might be told to teach this writing ‘program’ without having engaged in the intellectual work of searching for and responding to the most pertinent needs of their student writers And it can’t be assumed that the student of New Dorp five years from now will be more or less the same as current students and in need of the same kind of instruction. . . a new crisis will emerge that only committed and empowered teachers will be able to solve.” – Creativity is Not the Enemy of Good Writing
“Worst of all is the category of problem that many English teachers just call “awk”. . . this happens when kids simply haven’t mastered enough linguistic structures to express anything by the simplest ideas. This is why basic narrative writing is easier for these kids: You only need on kind of sentence structure to tell your readers what happened first, next and last.” – I’ll Have What They’re Having
“Kids are more likely to become engaged, thoughtful writers if they feel comfortable and competent with language. But at present, we expend too much effort trying to get children to ‘live the writerly life’ and ‘develop a lifelong love of reading.’” – How Self Expression Damaged my Students
The three passages above caught my attention while doing the reading for this week.
I think the first is the most important and the one that most closely resembles my own concept of pedagogy (obviously on my mind since we’re writing our philosophies). As new(er) teachers, the most difficult experiences in the classroom are usually because of the disconnect between what we thought our student issues would be and what our student issues are. Or, perhaps put more precisely, the difference between the ideal student we imagined as we wrote our syllabus over the summer and the students who were sitting in our classroom on the day we arrived to teach for the first time. Each time we finish a lesson or an activity, I think it’s safe to assume that all of us are reasonably sure what it is we would do different next time. Because of our “newness” we’re trying to figure out how to really address the problems we’re running into. However, once we’ve gained confidence as teachers, we’re more likely to teach out of habit than to be continually responsive to the needs in the class. I think this is especially true for adjuncts who teach 4 or more classes, sometimes at different institutions, and (like our students) simply don’t have the time to be as critical on a daily basis of what and how we are teaching our students.
The second and third are more closely related, but look at the issue from opposite sides. The second quote is a perfect example of the difficulty teachers, who have shown competency with academic language, pinpointing exactly what makes “good” academic language. There’s a lot more to say on this point, but I think I’m trying to tackle too much in this post already. I think I just couldn’t edit this out since I liked it so much.
I generally hated the piece from which the final quote is from. I think it had a frighteningly racist bent. However, I think the quote acknowledges two important ideas: First, that students are rarely competent in language of academia and second, that students come to our classroom knowing they are not fully competent and this affects how they write. I had a student express to me today that she was “not a good writer.” When I asked her more questions it became apparent that she felt she was not a good writer because it didn’t come naturally, as she felt it did for her siblings, she didn’t use “big words,” and because she “never liked reading, even as a kid.” We determined through more discussion, that her “issue” with reading was attentiveness (she often indulged in opportunities for distraction via her phone, she never took notes on her readings, etc.). Further, in her previous schooling she had regularly produced writing above the standards of this class. I had before me as student who had demonstrated proficiency in what I was asking, was sure she could do the work, was insightful in class and yet had decided she was “not good” because it didn’t feel natural. I think it’s important that we help students become comfortable with the language of the academy because it is a language of power, but also to be relieved from the need for it be natural. Most of us as instructors are not even fully competent (isn’t that what the dissertation is for? And don’t those memes of Feminist Ryan Gosling and Academic hand gestures point to our discomfort engaging in this discourse?).
The article that I found most compelling was John Maguire’s “The Secret to Good Writing…” which argues that students often need help making their writing less abstract and more concrete. This is not necessarily a contentious issue, but I imagine that it is relevant to our situations teaching both creative and expository writing at Queens College. Actually, in my own teaching, I aim to teach students some hybrid of the two: creative expository writing that demonstrates a knowledge of academic writing conventions but it also textured with stylish prose and exciting insights. I agree with Maguire that we need to teach students how to move between local, specific, descriptions and more abstract, theoretical concepts: “abstractions are what you get when you pull back from (or abstract from) concrete reality — from the world of things” (3). One exercise that worked well in my classroom was a college version of show and tell called “Demonstrate and Explicate.” Because our course is framed around theories of creativity, I had them bring in artifacts–“things you can drop on your foot” (4)–and one page typed descriptions of how their artifact exemplified creativity. In class, I had them share their artifacts and responses in groups and then come up with collective theories of creativity based on their artifacts. I designed this activity to explicitly address the problem Maguire identifies. Although this activity generated some excellent class discussion, students quickly reverted to speaking and writing in vague abstractions. In my comments on their writing, I tried to point out the excellent moments in which they transitioned from the specifics of their object to a larger theory of creativity that might apply in more than one context. Beyond this, and thinking alongside Maguire, what can we do to help students be more precise, specific, and object-oriented in their writing and thinking?
I also appreciated the emphases placed on teacher training in both Wallace-Segall’s “A Passionate, Unapologetic Plea for Creative Writing in Schools” and Fecho and Jones’ “Creativity is Not the Enemy of Good Writing.” I chose these essays because the theme of my composition course is creativity, and I’m always looking for ways to incorporate creative writing into our classes (and to get students thinking about that elusive line between creative and expository writing). Both of these essays argue that in order to teach students in a way that effectively combines self-expression and the mechanics of writing, teachers need training in the specific skill of connecting creative and fictive writing practices to rhetoric, argumentation, and grammar: “Empowering teachers to engage their professional knowledge and intellect and take charge of their teaching and learning is the revelation we see in Tyre’s article” (Fecho and Jones 2). Similarly, “If young people are not learning to write while exploring personal narratives and short fiction, it is because we as educators need more training” (Wallace-Segal 2). Beyond my unconditional endorsement of this idea, I would like to ask the less romantic and more pragmatic questions about how we are supposed to obtain the skills we need to be effective reading-writing teachers, in any way besides the “pedagogy of experimentation ” I brought up in my previous blog. Given the constraints of our schedules and the reminders we repeatedly receive to put our own work ahead of our students (the controversial idea of sacrificing your current students for your future ones): how can we learn to teach the interconnectedness of creative writing and critical thinking in a less haphazard way than the frantic self-teaching sessions that (at least for me) occur before each class?
Spam prevention powered by Akismet