It got me thinking about WHY I struggled with these issues. And to me, it came down to teaching. I taught high school for 12 years. I adjuncted at a community college for two. I have a Master's in Education. So I have experience, both academic, and practical, in what works in a classroom, and with instructional design, and why it works.
I am a firm believer in choice in a writing classroom. I believe that an assignment should have clear guidelines and expectations, for example, I have my students write a research report in ENGL 101. I give them clear guidelines as to what a research report should contain, but they are allowed to write on any topic they want. They are allowed to choose an argumentative or expository paper. They have choice. And the tone, audience, and purpose of their paper comes from this choice. I think this allows students to explore who they are as writers, as well as take risks, and figure out for themselves what certain things mean. It also forces students to internalize these choices because they have to justify why they made the choices they did. This does not mean that I let them sink without help, we do a lot of mini-lessons in class, and look at different models of different types of research reports as well as a lot of workshopping/peer editing in class.
I do not think students learn all of these things if instead they are given a specific prompt that robs them of all agency.
Imagine you are a staff writer for the New York Times. Your boss has assigned you a recent technology topic to research and report on for the Science section.
This assignment, while specific, denies the student any chance to explore their own thinking, writing to think, or using research as a form of exploration.
Instead, what if you assigned the student a research report as the genre, and made clear all the conventions of that genre and then, you let the student decide the rhetorical situation? Have them explain what it was in detail in a writer's memo to you that they turned in with the assignment?
A lot of this comes back to Understanding By Design, that you have to start with the end in mind. What do you want students to learn (not what will you teach) by the end of your course? Why are you assigning certain assignments? These are two questions that I think can get lost in the FYC classroom.
For example, let's say your university teaches a genre approach, and the following are the approved genres to teach in ENGL 101:
- Rhetorical Analysis
Now, let's just ahead for a moment and look at the approved genres for ENGL 102:
- Genre Analysis
- Rhetorical Analysis
- Argument/Position Paper
- Research Paper
- Review or Evaluation
- Literary Analysis
Literary Analysis --- Rhetorical Analysis --- Argument/Position Paper
- I want students to be able to analyze a work of literature. So I scaffold these skills by having them analyze non-fiction works, with smaller assignments that look at the rhetoric of artifacts or ads. I introduce students to these concepts by starting them off with the argument/position paper, so that they can learn the basic strategies and elements of argument and use them in creating their own argument. This preps them for examining these same elements in other texts.
Report --- Review --- Memoir
- I want students to end the course with basic research skills. They should know not only the correct formatting for a paper, but also how to use the writing process, and how to organize their thoughts and interact with sources, not just paraphrase them. I also want them to use some sort of media/graphics in their report. So I start with the students writing a memoir. I do this for several reasons, it allows students a low risk, high confidence topic to write about for the first time in class. I ask them to write a memoir that focuses on an interest of theirs, and I ask them to base their memoir on a picture they have. This introduces students to writing focus, and using media to accomplish their purpose. The next assignment is a literature review of four articles or a book in a field they're interested in. I stress that it can build on what they wrote their memoir on, but does not have to. I use the rhetorical precis model for the review, asking the students to identify what the works are saying/arguing. This preps them for their research report, which they can write on any topic, but again, I stress it can be on the same topic they've written on before. It can be argumentative or expository. The choice empowers the student, while still teaching all the skills I think are important.
So you have your assignments, how do we grade them?
I will tell you, I am not a big believer in rubrics. I think that they teach students that writing is a set of checklists, and does not encourage the critical thinking skills we always argue writing builds. I also believe that most rubrics are not understandable to students, so they can't internalize the lessons you want. I also think that students can make great moves, take interesting risks in their writing, yet score poorly on a rubric. However, if your university requires them, there is a way to work around them. And again, we start with what you want your students to get out of the feedback you give. With my students I want them to:
- Answer questions about why they made certain decisions in their writing
- Understand where they may have omitted or not fulfilled requirements of the genre
- Understand what they did well
- Realize that writing is thinking
- Internalize these changes/improvements
This rubric is divided in a way that students can understand- most of them have an idea of what an "A" paper looks like versus a "D". So right off the bat, it's an improvement. Students can understand the rubric. The rubric then breaks down for students some specific differences between each grade. Notice that the language addresses elements, but is general enough to be used for all major writing assignments throughout the semester. This goes back to allowing students to create their rhetorical situations. You can give the students this rubric and tell them it's the rubric you'll use all semester. You can have discussions about how it will be used to grade- perhaps a student scores low on style, but does some really cool things otherwise (style points) and their other grades fall into the A or B range. Your comments would clarify this, pointing out what they need to work on/improve for their next assignment. If you have low stakes writing assignments in your course, perhaps based on student performance you want to incorporate assignments that specifically focus on organization or style, using this rubric as a guide.
You'll notice that on this rubric is a built in reflection piece. The students are required to submit a cover letter for each assignment. You can alter this for each assignment, but at a minimum the students should say what audience they were writing for, what their purpose was, and why they made the choices they did. If your university requires you to have students reflect on Student Learning Objectives, this is also where they can reflect on their progress towards those objectives.
I think that every teacher needs to figure out what kind of teacher they are, especially if they are new to the FYC classroom. However, while feedback and genre writing can be important focuses, I believe that there are some pedagogical basics that FYC teachers need to examine and think about when designing their curriculum.