3/10 Writing Assignments

What sort of assignments are most likely to inspire students?

Readings for March 10th:

David Bartholomae. “Writing Assignments: Where Writing Begins” (1982)

John Bean. “Formal Writing Assignments” (2001)

John Bean. “Informal, Exploratory Writing Activities” (2001)

For next week:

“Teaching Task 1: Assignment prompt” (Draft due March 17th)

“Teaching Task 1: Rationale

Example assignment: Explaining Humor

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  1. I find it interesting that Tolstoy’s students were inspired by him doing, what he assigned. He partially left the teacher’s role and stepped into the student’s shoes, and as a result, the students’ response was to step into the teacher’s role and partially step out of the student role. This type of activity allows students to feel in control — in addition, it’s almost a revenge-like situation; the students get to tell the teacher where he needs improvement, and not the other way around. This not only gives students a window to witness the process of writing, reviewing, revising, but also, to see from the point of view of a teacher, and the fact that Tolstoy responded positively to their criticisms, models for the students how they should respond to his. The fact that Tolstoy accidentally discovered this activity is ok . . . it’s actually more than just ok, it’s great! He saw things weren’t working, so he kept trying new things, which is a sign of intelligent, self-reflection, and person who is honest with one’s self-assessment. Just like in writing, where we discover what we’re going to write as we write, in teaching — we discover how to teach as we teach.

  2. I had two major responses to the essay by Bartholomae – my first is to his notion that teachers of writing should not be writing with their students because they should be too busy with their own work. For all of his talk about indoctrination in students, and his theories about how we can motivate, I can’t justify his saying we should be too busy with ourselves for weekly writing with our students. One of the things I have found most helpful with my own students in the past was to do an assignment right along with them, especially if it was one they were having trouble with, to show them not only that it can be done, but also to serve as a role model for them in their own work. In this way, it motivates the students not only to also want to do the work and achieve the same end result as the teacher, but also to feel a connection with the teacher on a deeper level, as an equal who does the same work as the students and who wants to teach by doing, not only by telling. Implying that a teacher is too busy to do something with their students gives the impression that the teacher is too good for the work he or she is assigning to students, and wants to act only as a critique rather than as a true model.
    My second reaction was to Tolstoy’s notion that we cannot teach students how to compose, but only how to go about writing. With this point I must say I agree. We can give students all the necessary tools to write with – the terminology, the grammatical structure, even the motivation or theme for an idea about which to write. But we cannot make them use these tools. It reminds me of the saying “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” For all of our work in teaching students how to write, there is no guarantee they will actually do what we ask of them, or what we model for them. The ultimate decision to actually “write” is up to them.

  3. As I was reading the first John Bean article, I was brought back to my freshmen year of college when I was asked in probably four out of my five classes to pick a topic, any topic, mentioned in class and write a fifteen page paper on it. I had no idea where to start. I had never had a writing assignment like that and it look me quite a while to get used to this type of writing assignment. I wish that my teachers would have given me specific choices or a direction. Now, as a teacher myself, I try to inspire my students to write how they want to write, but also with a focus. We always write about a specific topic, or theme, or book, etc but I always give them a choice about how they want to approach their piece. I find that social and political issues inspire my students to write. For these types of topics I give them a choice to write a journal entry, a poem, a song, a formal essay, a letter, etc. On the other hand, with such an emphasis on state tests, there is little time for my students to be inspired when the focus is on writing the “right” way. By “right” I mean writing the way that will get them a 2 or above on the state exam. Unfortunately, that is the reality in Middle Schools today, or at least where I work.

  4. I find the article by Bartholomae intersting in that while it is being argued that prescriptive writing (writing according to the conventions) should be discouraged , one thing that stands clear in his argument is that students should be allowed to explore their inner abilities and purge their emotions out on paper; however the form with which this purgation should be done is not clearly articulated. The “practical reality” and ”sympathetic imagination” has to be put down in a particular form. What form would that be? That form , no matter how we look at it, will still come from any of the literary genres. These genres as I see them are not ‘natural ‘ because they follow a language that already exists as clearly stated in the article-‘there is then no natural or pure language because the language we use always precedes us,belongs to others, and it,and not the writer,determines what is written” .I would so much want my students to write and discover through writing, unfortuntely, I would still expect them to write using a prescribed genre.

  5. I was really interested by the first bean article “Formal Writing Assignments” because I connected to it in two ways. The first way was because it reminds me how much I dislike when a professor gives the class an assignment and doesn’t give any real guidelines. I have found throughout my many years of schooling that I am the kind of student who is more successful in writing papers when I am given strict guidelines of what the professor is looking for. I find it easier on myself when I am told exactly what the professor is expecting and how to go about it. I believe that, for myself, if I am given too broad an assignment I struggle with maintaining focus. The second way in which I related to this article was in thinking about the assignments that i give to my students. i recently gave them a research paper and I started the assignment by telling my students they were allowed to choose any topic they wanted as long as it was approved by me. However, after this I outlined everything that I expected from them and took the time out to help them individually. I gave them many handouts to help guide them in the right directions. I had what I would consider success in the final products. However, I only have a total of about 80 students and my class sizes are small so I was able to handle the one on one work. I don’t know if I would have been able to do this hand holding with 5 classes of 35 kids each.

  6. It seems to me that when it comes to inspiring students to write, and having good expectations for students’ writing in general, teachers need to depend on and implement the Goldie Locks rule. Students cannot have too much freedom/zero guidelines and they can’t have zero freedom/an overload of guidelines. They need just the right amount of each in order to produce something that is successfully discoursive. As Bartholomae discussed in the example he gives about Tolstoy and his students, the teacher had to use trial and error at first before hitting on a subject that took his students’ interest, and only once he modeled how he wanted them to discuss/analyze the proverb, he found that they were even more discoursive thinkers regarding the subject than himself.
    I also found Tolstoy’s statement about the impossibility and absurdity of teaching children anything (as they are naturally more in touch with the state of mind that adults long to reach) both very inspiring and frightening. The concept both undermines the role of a teacher and reminds us that we are not above our students.

  7. The article , “Formal Writing Assignments” by John Bean, takes a look into assigning writing assignments with a specific of general guideline. Giving student a general writing assignment is great. It allows creativity and exploration. On the other hand it could be a total disaster depending on how and what the student talks about. It sometimes find it very useful when given a guideline. The guideline allows the student a model of what is expected. It helps focus on the points the students have to make, in turn it will help give a starting density to the assignment of what is expected. I like to have guidelines when I write because it gives me direction of what is expected of me. It allows me to focus on what the paper is looking for ,so that my development of a thesis will be on the right track. How do we expect students to write a certain way when they all develop there own theory and view? I believe it is how they develop this theory and view by giving an organized explanation of what they write about.

    Bartholomae, talks about teachers of writing being to busy with their own work being unable to work with students on their writing. This is unfair, students should be given the opportunity if they wnted to write with their teacher. In this way it helps them get a broader view on how different people write. It can be intimidating for the student to write with their teacher but the end result can make them stronger. In giving a a writing assignment with the teacher able to help them can comfort the student. The help on the writing assignment by the teacher can give the students confidence to do better.

  8. Thanks for your comments so far. The Goldie Locks Rule — I like that, Dalit.

    I’m most intrigued by the objections you had to Bartholomae’s piece, in particular his statement that he doesn’t think it’s worthwhile for teachers to do writing assignments along with their students. Teachers should be writers, he says, but if they are teaching right they’ll be too busy writing their own work, and writing things to give to the students, to write with them. I’m also not sure I agree with this. I think, for one thing, that collaborative writing, or even just enacted writing — writing so that another person can watch you do it — can be very illuminating for all parties concerned. It enhances one’s self-awareness as a writer. In addition, attempting an assignment yourself is a great way of gauging how much you are asking the students to do and how they are likely to go about it. That said, I don’t often follow this practice when I’m teaching, except during in-class writing exercises. If you ask your students to write a paper, do you write the paper yourself? Given that you have to carefully design as well as read and respond to all their papers, do you have time to also write it yourself?

  9. Queens College
    Professor Corey Frost
    ENGL 703
    Response # 5
    George Festin Lorenzo
    3/10/2011

    David Bartholomae’s text, “Writing Assignments: Where Writing Begins”, was a fine read in that it spoke a lot about how students write and their habits that go along with it. Now, one part of the text that I found interesting was when it was written, “Because writing – – or writing that is not report or debate – – is the invention of such a project, writing is also, as we are fond of saying, a mode of learning” (Bartholomae 43). I completely agree with this statement and believe that is what makes writing such a creative and unique learning experience, compared to other methods. Math requires memorization of formulas, other subjects such as anatomy and psychology may require pure memorization, but writing is just writing. But that’s good enough. When you read a book, and have to put that book’s summary, or review, or whatever, onto paper, as you read, you may learn aspects of that book you had no idea about until you begin to write it, just out of sheer reviewing of the book.
    I wanted to comment on what Jen wrote in her blog, “I try to inspire my students to write how they want to write, but also with a focus. We always write about a specific topic, or theme, or book, etc but I always give them a choice about how they want to approach their piece. I find that social and political issues inspire my students to write”. Although this is not a statement directly, I would definitely agree with using that teaching method to encourage students to write, and write effectively without making it seem like a chore, or forced. Although I graduated with an English degree, that doesn’t mean I like to do nothing but write. I hate writing sometimes but the second you get me to write on something I want to write on, I can’t be stopped. I would like to believe that is how most students would also feel. If you aren’t interested in a specific topic, but you are forced to write on it, then of course students will feel disappointed. However, when you give them a choice, this encourages them to write and most students (I would like to believe), would be more than willing to do a 10 page paper, with no question. This is whenever I am given a paper to do, and the topic is my choosing, I will do my best to make sure whatever I’m going to write on is to my liking, as best as possible.
    John Bean’s, “Formal Writing Assignments” and “Informal, Exploratory Writing Activities” were also two unique set of readings. What stood out to me was just the way Bean detailed his ideas within both texts but particularly his second text, “Informal, Exploratory Writing Activities”. In that text, it discussed journals and how it is beneficial to students. This is such perfect timing for me because for the first time ever in my teaching career, I just assigned journals to my students yesterday, and required that they write in their journals at least four times a week, preferably everyday, about their journey through Lent in 2011. There was a line in there that stated, “The journal becomes a kind of record of the student intellectual journey through the course” (Bean 106). I am really hoping that fact is true because that is one key aspect I spoke about when assigning the journal’s to the kids, saying that over time they will see their progression.

  10. I thought the Bartholomae article was interesting, probably because the kind of writing that he advocates does not really happen in my classroom. I agree with Bartholomae when he says that “the struggle of the student writer is not the struggle to bring out that which is within; it is the struggle to carry out those ritual activities that grant one entrance into a closed society”(35). That’s what high school writing is: can you fulfill this task which is esoteric to the requirements of your high school education? Have any of you ever written a critical lens essay after your junior year in high school? Of course not.

    Yet, I must respectfully disagree with Bartholomae when he says that all writing should come from within. I thought that the assignment that he described, the one where students studied the patterns in their own journal writing, was indeed a very valuable opportunity for students to explore their own writing and their own value as narrators of their own experiences. But where does learning of new material fit in?

    Do you think that most students would go out of their way to write about what they’ve noticed about the natural world around them? Of course, SOME people did– thanks Isaac Newton– but will most people? School exists to awaken people to new ideas that they probably have not thought before. Writing is one way to cement these ideas and to interact with these ideas. To assume that all students are motivated enough to notice the patterns in things would mean that there would have been thousands of Isaac Newtons.

    I think the point that I’m trying to make is that I really like the ideas that Bartholomae is bringing out in his article, especially the idea that the teacher is literally a cog in the wheel of learning to write critically, but I don’t see myself giving up the five paragraph essay on the literary techniques used in the text we’re reading.

  11. After reading Bartholomae’s article on where writing begins I found myself agreeing with his concept of challenging teachers/professors to focus on the content used when giving writing assignments. Personally when I was teaching I always found myself fixated on the students performance in writing and rarely spent time on changing or improving the subject matter they were writing about. The exercise he mentioned where students kept a journal and then wrote about the change over time when looking back at their journals, would be successful in the classroom and I would love to try it out on my future students.

    John Bean’s articles on formal and informal writing in the classroom was refreshing to read because many articles that we have read up to the point have been about crucial topics when teaching writing but never offer helpful exercises. I am not one to assign journals to my students, I personally never enjoyed journals when I was younger. However Bean’s argument of how detrimental journals could be for exploratory writing made me take a second look. I now consider how I can present journals to be helpful and also interesting to my students. I really enjoyed the different assignments/exercises being listed for formal writing. I think far to often thesis work in the classroom has a negative connotation. These different exercises would benefit the environment in the classroom by adding variety in a subject matter that many students find boring.

    Ultimately, I think Bartholomae’s interest in the content or what the students are writing about is an appropriate concern. Many different exercises and assignments can be composed to mask the fact that students are doing writing for the teacher. However, in shifting the subject matter and allowing the content to be completely student centered is a far greater challenge but might turn out to be an effective solution.

  12. While reading this week’s assigned readings, I could not help thinking of the book and movie “Freedom Writers”. I have always love the idea of journal writing, because students are able to express more in journals than they would on a paper that determines their final English class grade. Journals also provide students with the opportunity for critical thinking.

    I agree with Bean that “when designing formal writing assignments, instructors should consider carefully the kind of writing they hope for and the processes they want students to follow. Sometimes slight variations in the way an instructor designs a writing task can cause significant differences in both students’ writing and thinking processes and in their final product.” (Bean, p. 75)

    Also, instructors need to stop placing full emphasis on the final product and focus more on the processes that needs to be taken in order to get that final product. How can a student produce a great final product if he or she is not thought the processes by which one can get to that final product? Therefore, by teaching “exploratory writing, focusing on the process rather than the product of thinking, deepens most students’ engagement with course material while enhancing learning and developing critical thinking.” (Bean, p. 118)

    In regards to David Bartholomae, I agree that “assignments must lead students throught successive approximations.” The movements through successive aproximations is a cycle of expectation and disappointments. There is no clear-cut developmental sequence here; students do not move easily from one level of mastery to the next.” (Bartholomae, p. 36) And this is what instructors fail to realize. We need to be open minded and allow the process to flow. If during the assignment, it is noticed that the process is not going to be productive, then we guide the student.

    I also agree with Bartholomae, that teachers should write along with their students. Students are more motivated when they see that their teacher is doing the same assignment as they are. Often times students work harder because they think its a challenge and this in turn develops their thinking skills.

    Bartholomae also makes a good point that students need to spend time on a subject. We cannot assign different topics each week, and expect students to master them. We need to devote enough time to a given topic so it can be beneficial to the student’s learning experience. I always believe that practice makes perfect, thus, students need to use repeat and on-going effort on a given topic in order to for that topic to be of value.

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