Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Part 1: Teaching Composition

We return with information from last semester's Seminar on Teaching. The first session covered Teaching Composition, and we explored methods for teaching a writing component in a literature class, traditional composition classes, and business writing classes. This session ended up being more of a round-table where we exchanged ideas and went over previous teaching experiences. Much of this advice will depend on your individual campus, department, and course goals.
Some Starting Points:
1) Familiarize yourself with the course descriptions of the classes that you will teach as well as any department policies regarding those courses.
2) Familiarize yourself with the requirements and standards of the prerequisite classes for your courses - it is helpful to know what your students may have covered before coming to your class (but this is not a guarantee).
3) Examine available resources. For example, we have posted a long list of teaching/writing resources here. Additionally, ask around - your fellow graduate students and faculty most likely have helpful resources saved that they would love to share with you. Finally, look to your campus - what resources does it offer? Get to know your writing center director (how can you encourage your students to utilize this valuable resource?); check out the library for applicable workshops or library introduction programs; check with your campus writing program to see if they offer workshops for writing teachers or if they can give you access to their databases. If you are a GWU teacher and would like a copy of a very useful writing handbook (with helpful handouts and advice on teaching writing, please email us and we will pass it along).

Two of the biggest questions that our participants had were - How do you balance teaching "big picture" (structure, argument) writing skills with "small picture" (grammar, MLA) writing skills? How do you incorporate teaching a writing component in a literature class effectively?
Some thoughts:
1) Whatever class you are teaching, approach writing with your students as a "process" and not an end goal. Some ways to do this is to design your course so that your writing assignments build off of each other or toward a larger writing project. For example, you could assign a shorter close reading paper that they must revise and expand into a research paper.
2) Get to know your students' writing strengths and weaknesses - some teachers like to evaluate them right away with a writing sample on the first day.
3) Be clear about your expectations - for example some teachers draw up a list of their "zero tolerance" writing mistakes and then graduate to more complex writing concepts as the semester continues. One professor uses the first formal assignment as a "test drive" wherein all errors are highlighted and students have an option to revise and resubmit to avoid a grade penalty. Whatever you end up doing, consider carefully both your expectations for students and their current writing skills.
4) Drafts - Should you have rough drafts? How many? Should  you do peer review? Some of these questions can be answered by the policies and course goals of your particular class, but you still must decide on the most effective way to deal with these questions. Ask yourself what you want to accomplish by allowing rough drafts or by mandating peer review. A few of us considered how to use peer review without sacrificing a whole class - using blackboard is one option here. One teacher offers an unlimited draft option up to the due date - the idea being that if students plan ahead, they can revise until they are satisfied with the final product. Consider these questions carefully, and trial and error will help you shape your draft/revision policy.
5) Peer Review - What makes an effective peer review session? How should you incorporate it into your class? If it is a literature class, should you sacrifice one whole session for peer review? All of our speakers had different approaches to peer review, and most of them agreed that it can be a helpful exercise. However, most of us have had trial and error experiences with using peer review because each group of students is different, and each approach produces different results. One suggestion was to create "stations" in the classroom for revision - students go from station to station to focus on specific aspects of the writing process. If you do a more traditional peer review session, you could match two students together or create small groups. You could have them focus on "large picture" issues or "small picture" issues. Another approach is to save the class period and perform the peer review over blackboard - pairing students up to review each other's work. Some inevitable difficulties arise: students give "incorrect" feedback on a student's paper, a student feels the review is useless because they are not paired up with a student who can help them,   and/or students bring incomplete drafts. There are different ways to handle these, but keep them in mind as you design your peer review approach.

A few closing thoughts on composition-based classes:
1) Be clear with your students about the applicability of their writing skills and assignments. They will take it more seriously if they know they can use these skills in their majors or these documents in their academic careers.
2) Consider your primary texts - what textbooks does your school want you to use for these comp classes? How useful are they? While you should always consider the expectations of your department carefully, do not feel like you are trapped in a bad textbook either. You may have to do some research to find alternate materials or come up with them on your own, but do not feel bound by one single text.
3) Take advantage of networking opportunities. As a new teacher or a teacher new to composition, it can be tough making these decisions without support. Sometimes you just need to vent or ask for an example handout - find out what opportunities for networking your campus offers. Some campuses have teacher brown-bag presentations (try to attend!), some have social events or happy hours (try to participate!). At the very least cultivate a relationship with a mentor or colleague - they can be life-savers.

If you have additional advice for composition classes, please email us or leave a comment below - this is just a starting point, and we would love to learn from your experiences as well.

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