Rules for Writing

To start off classes this semester, I had the students sit in groups of five. This meant 5 tables of 5 students each. I asked the students to list each member of their group on the board as well as a detail that might help us to get to know them. After they finished doing that, they listed five “Rules For Writing” that they believed in or had been taught to them in previous classes.

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college writing, composition, rules for writing, teaching, pedagogy, writing studies, St. John's University, Bill Torgerson, English, NCTE, CCCC, ENGCHAT, FYCChat

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Next, each group read a different text written by a writer about writing. On the first day, I used these texts/excerpts:

  • Black Boy by Richard Wright.
  • “Shitty First Drafts” by Anne Lamott
  • Life by Keith Richards
  • Ex Libris by Anne Fadiman
  • “Unlearn to Write” by Donald Murray

The students read the excerpt out loud and answered the following four questions:

  1. What is the writer’s message about writing?
  2. What are some “golden lines” that you think are worth talking about?
  3. How can you apply the ideas here to your own writing?
  4. Does any of what this writer says about writing cause you to rethink any of your own Rules For Writing?

When each group was finished, I counted off by fives at each table. Students moved to a new table and presented the text they had just read to students who had read something different. I want to thank St. John’s University doctoral student Katelynn DeLuca for reminding me about this “jigsaw” method of getting students to move around the room.

In the coming weeks, students will be reading and commenting on texts written by writers about writing. This exercise was a way for all of us to begin to get to know each other and for the students to get acquainted with some of the choices they have for their reading this semester.

 

Feedback and Revision are the Problem

Responding to student writing can be the toughest part of teaching First Year Writing / College Composition. This semester I spent a lot of time writing comments on paper-based texts. I got most of the students to hang on to my comments so they could turn them in with revisions. I do what I can to ask questions and give the students the sort of feedback that leaves them in charge of the draft. However, sometimes something is just wrong. For example, students sometimes italicize quotes. I feel pretty irritated when I give feedback along the lines of don’t italicize the quotes and then I get the revision and all the quotes are still formatted incorrectly. Yes, there are more important issues related to the students’ work, but I’m just giving you one example of how I spend a lot of time writing feedback that gets ignored.  There’s a lot more that I could write here, but what I want is a way to track drafts. The problems I’m writing about today are related to giving feedback to student texts and following the revisions that students do.

There is so much paperwork involved in saving drafts with my handwritten comments, and I think those comments aren’t doing as much good as they could. AND, I will still be faced with reading final DIGITAL portfolios with no access to previous drafts.

I could take you through all that I have tried and thought about that doesn’t work very well, but why would you want to read about that?

My online students do most of their writing on a blog. It’s a pain to either keep track of my thoughts until the end of their post or scroll down to the comments section every time I have a thought. A former professor of mine named Sam Watson used to type his students a letter after reading their work. There’s a lot pedagogically sound about this I think, but many students need examples such as how to write a transition or handle a quote.

I see quite a few possibilities for how I might navigate these problems but none of these solutions has everything I want.

The website Book Country has a way to give feedback that I like:

Book Country, feedback, College Composition, English, Language Arts

 

From what I understand, Book Country is a Penguin community where those who read and write genre fiction can come together and respond to each other’s work. I cut off the name of the writer’s work I copied here. I hope if you’re from Penguin and come across this, you’re glad I’m sharing your community with readers. If not, I’m happy to take this screen shot down.

What I really like about the Book Country set up are the boxes on the right. I can read the text and just write comments off to the side. I think there is also the potential for the writer (or possibly the teacher) to customize what kind of feedback they are asking for. This could put the writer more in control of the text, or if you prefer, you could think about those boxes in terms of a rubric or objectives.

Here’s two ideas I’m considering:

  • We use Digication ePortfolios at St. John’s.  I could have students upload a file to their portfolio. I could download the file to my computer and give feedback via the Word commenting feature. When I give feedback that way, I’m careful to save feedback as a pdf file so the student doesn’t just leave some of what I’ve written in the draft.  The student would upload revisions and we’d both have access to all the drafts. I’m not crazy-excited about all that uploading and saving or all the drafts I might have open on my computer screen at the end of the semester as I try to track what the student has done in the way of revision.
  • There’s Google Drive, used to be Google Docs.  I could access the student’s writing via a link. I type in comments/feedback, but then what happens? Can the students comment there too? Do we have to do our commenting off to the side? Will we be able to track drafts? How complicated is that?

I want to navigate the cycle of write, comment, revise, and collect to be managed digitally next semester. Can you give me some feedback on my ideas? Do you have a great system I need to learn about?

 

 

NCTE 2012 Handout: Twitter in the Writing Classroom

Dear Colleague,

I use a metaphor gifted to me by a former professor to think about my professional life. It goes, Writing Floats on a Sea of Conversation. In the fifteen years I’ve been in writing classrooms, I’ve come to believe it’s important for me to help students navigate all of the conversations they are having in digital spaces. Much of the reading and writing my students do is on the screens of their devices. There is a lot of power up for grabs in these spaces: votes will be garnered and lost, money will change bank accounts, and voices will be heard and suppressed. I originally introduced Twitter into our classroom because I thought it might help with student engagement during class discussions. That didn’t go so well. Students seemed to become lost in the worlds of their screens and the classroom fell silent.  I’d been leaning toward scrapping my use of Twitter until something happened during a conference with a student. Our conversation caused us to enter the student’s major–speech pathology–into the Twitter search box. What we found was a tweet from a speech pathologist about a job opening. For the student, who had always characterized herself as a reluctant user of technology, this was a moment where Twitter was transformed from just one more messaging system she needed to keep up with to a powerful tool that might impact her future. For the next semester, I decided that I’d have students try and find professionals within their field who tweeted. What has happened since then, is that I’ve come to see possibilities for students related to research, gathering news, and building a sense of community in the writing classroom. I see Twitter as one place students can experience a tangible example of how they might situate themselves within a conversation relevant to their lives. As someone who values that sort of  conversation for my own professional growth, I hope you’ll take the time to connect to say hello, note an observation, or ask a question. I’m including some notes below relevant to my experience with Twitter so far. Thanks for reading!

Best,

Bill

Some thoughts related to Twitter in the writing classroom:

  1. Students can decide to what degree they want to be known on Twitter. If I’m “Writer89,” and my profile picture is an apple, I don’t have to be easily identifiable. Teachers should  at least keep a private record of what student is connected to which Twitter account.
  2. What might students tweet? golden lines from readings or classmates’ writing, questions, notes of encouragement, reflections, or highlights from group work.
  3. You can lose the attention of students to their gadgets. I find myself asking students to open their laptops or get out their phones and then asking them to put those devices away. You might use Twitter as a place for work outside of class time.
  4. I’ve had students write digital literacy narratives. This has worked well.
  5. Twitter has become one more way for students to engage with the classroom community. Some students speak up in class, some do well in small groups, some write emails, and some tweet. Students send tweets to me and each other.
  6. Twitter can be a place for student research as they identify people who tweet articles and links related to conversations that are important to them.


Here’s an excerpt from a student blog that highlights what I think is possible for student research and professional connections through the use of Twitter:

After reading about nuclear pharmacy jobs on @Pharmacy_Job, I decided to search on Twitter more specifically on nuclear pharmacy jobs and I found a page @NuclearPharmacy. According to the description provided, nuclear pharmacy jobs consist of nuclear Pharmacist, radiochemist, health physicists, chemists, pharmacy technicians, and radiopharmacist…I can definitely see myself using this Twitter page! Some interesting articles that I have found on this page include topics concerning diabetes, heroin drug use, and updates from the FDA.  Searching in Twitter has made me realize that the most popular jobs are still in retail and in hospitals. However, other fields and roles are slowly becoming more and more popular as well. These pages will certainly help me find a job when I graduate!

Here are some examples of the sorts of tweets my students publish:

  • I have no clue what to do my documentary film on…
  • Prof. Torg, you’re right when you say that college is a place for trying new things. An example of one of those things is this tweet.
  • Going vegetarian all this week as an experiment for my latest documentary #wishmeluck
  • I found a twitter page titled New York Internships which can help me get an internship in my major
  • social media will soon over take media outlets as time goes on we are beginning to rely more on each other than a third party
  • “The exemplary DJ is a model of rhetorical excellence, and even the everyday DJ is a model of rhetorical agility” Digital Griots
  • my summary of the article i read for hw: the internet is not only changing the way we read, its changing the way we THINK#wow
  • wat do lebron james and professor torg have in common? Hairline.


I hope you’ll take the time to say hello, offer an observation, or ask a question!

Tweet to me @BillTorg or write me an email here: William.Torgerson@gmail.com

NCTE 2012 Twitter in the Writing English Language Arts Classroom

Who Will the Students Follow on Twitter?

NCTE_Twitter
The idea is that my students will follow tweeters within a topic that interests them. This worries me in that I’m sure I’ll have lots of Yankee fans who will automatically want to follow the team’s outfielder and frequent tweeter, Nick Swisher. I don’t object to students following Swisher, but as far as the class goes, I want the students to ask themselves a few questions:

  • Why am I a student at St. John’s?
  • What am I interested in learning about?
  • What are my intellectual curiosities?
  • What’s my plan when it comes to the reading and writing I will do in this class?

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Given those questions, who do the students think they should follow? If the student aspires to be a Yankee beat reporter, then maybe Nick Swisher is perfect. If the student hopes to work in finance or publishing, perhaps they should find someone else to follow.

Take for example a former student of mine who is a speech pathology major. While getting ready for a panel discussion, she and I happened on wondering about putting “speech pathology” in the Twitter search box. Among the screen full of tweets that contained the phrase from the past few hours of tweets, we saw a posting by a speech pathologist about a job opening in her office. This is not the first time a student and I have stumbled mostly by accident onto something that works well. When this happens, I try to take notice and organize an environment where this good thing is more likely to happen. Because of this particular moment with a student in my office, I want to have students identify tweeters in their area of interest and see what they find. I know they will find something. Maybe more of them will find leads on an internship or job opportunity.

I know from experience that when I tweet and read tweets, I find many teachers using technology in interesting ways. I imagine if I was a basketball coach, I’d find coaches tweeting about game strategy. Well, I don’t have to imagine too hard: St. John’s University’s own Coach Lavin is a regular tweeter. I’m confident that a student writing about studying abroad could find other students tweeting about a similar experience. Do you see any potential problems with this? Do you have ideas of your own for using Twitter in the classroom?
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Is This a Problem? Twitter in the Classroom

Each student Tweeted a reaction or question they had about the syllabus. Most of the students stared at their computer or cell phone screens. From my walking around the room, I saw that students were reading each other’s Tweets and responding to them. I had the website Tweetchat up on the projection screen with everyone’s Tweets. What stood out most to me at this moment was the silence. The only noise in the room was fingers punching the keys of laptops.  There was a chuckle or two. Several students nudged one another to point out something on the screen.

NCTE, Twitter, writing, Las Vegas, English, Language Arts

I took most of what I could observe as positive with one major exception: I’d thought Twitter might facilitate classroom discussion, and although that may have worked virtually, what stood out to me was the absence of audible discussion and that the students weren’t looking at each other.  I’m not sure this matters.  Is it better to have your head up and talking with others than have your attention on a screen reading and responding to texts? I want to be careful to not conclude what happened as ineffective just because it was different.  Do I have to have a noisy classroom to have an effective one?  Maybe…

I do take time to have students write in class because I know the likelihood that they’ll try it outside of class is low. So given that pedagogical choice, perhaps the silence that goes with giving students a chance to experience Twitter isn’t necessarily negative. Will the administrators who observe me see this as student engagement?

Several of the students’ tweets were missing from the Tweetchat screen at the front of the room. In most cases, this was because the students had tweeted through Twitter and not Tweetchat, even though I’d suggested the site and shown students how to get started.  The students who used Twitter had forgotten to add our hash tag “#torgchat.” Why would the students resist my suggestion to use Tweetchat?

I don’t think it was resistance at all. It was that the students hadn’t heard me suggest the site. I can’t stress this lesson enough about teaching: when a teacher (or anyone?) talks, there’s a large majority of the audience that doesn’t hear what is said.  It’s difficult for at least some people to sit still and concentrate on someone speaking. I imagine this always being a challenge but is it more of a challenge than ever because there are so many options for our attention spans?  (incoming emails, texts, and messages; TV, ads)

Rather than getting on the students all the time about not paying attention, I just try to figure out what I can do in order to get them more engaged. So I’m trying Twitter.  So I’m asking myself all the time, “What can I have the students do that isn’t sitting and listening?” I wonder, what are some of the best ways you have found to get students / colleagues to “hear” what you are saying?