My second day of class today. We started working on an essay assignment based on personal knowledge and analysis. Basically, the assignment asks students to analyze their experience of something familiar and to think about it along some specific lines.
It's a good assignment for my English speaking first year writing students because it takes something familiar, but asks them to think and write in a college level way. They don't have to absorb and learn a ton of new material before starting to write and think about a college assignment. And it works pretty well at being what it is.
Writing well is sometimes counter-intuitive; sometimes it doesn't make sense right off the bat.
In this case, I ask students to start by listing some basic ideas. Then I share a list, and get them to work more on their lists. Then we share ideas on the board, and I ask them to add more to their list. They also give each other feedback about possible essay topics. The goal is to get them to think broadly and openly about possible "topics" for the essay they'll write within the assignment parameters. Intuitively, many students want to just grab a topic as quickly as possible, and start in.
But, counter to that, sometimes the writer makes a better choice after mulling a bit. It's hard to convince students to take the time to mull, though. In class, I do it by having them pre-write about several potential topics. Sometimes, they seem to think I'm nuts. But sometimes it works.
I learned a lot teaching today's class. We went a bit slower than I expected, because I needed to take time to explain some vocabulary on the syllabus and the short reading for today. That's important, and well worth the time, but I hadn't accounted for it fully. So we didn't get as far freewriting and pre-writing for the essay assigment as I had hoped we would. So I gave homework: take another thing from the list and freewrite/pre-write about it.
The class nodded when I gave the assignment and asked if they understood. All nods. And then about half the class came up afterwards to clarify one or another aspect.
So, obviously, I need to be clearer in giving the basic assignment! I sometimes need to be clearer with English speaking students, too. It's always something I work on.
I think it's especially hard because the assignment is counter-intuitive; it's asking them NOT to get started on the essay writing in any obvious way, but rather to step back and do "other stuff." IF I do my job well, then the "other stuff" does actually help them get started, but there's a sort of leap of faith in an instructor to doing that work in good faith. And then it's luck if it pays off quickly, rather than at some later date.
So, I'm taking it as a hopeful sign that they were willing to clarify the assignment with me, because it means they're willing to try that leap at least once. I hope I am worth the try.
What else I learned? All of my students have these amazing little computer dictionaries! WAY cool! And once I got them started at the beginning, they were really great at asking about vocabulary and such they weren't sure of. And really good at helping each other through my explanations. (The winners of today were "monstrosity" and "sprawl." You have to imagine me trying to explain "monster" along the way to "monstrosity." Yeah, I'm nothing if not graceful and suave in the classroom.) (One of my profs did the most amazing coelemate worm impression when I was an undergrad. He somehow got a whole hydrostatic "skeleton" thing going. I aspire to be half as memorable!)
They also had really cool sounding lists going once the got into the sharing phase. I hope that bodes well for interesting essays!
I'm aiming to play tourist in the imperial city tomorrow, and to visit something called the Path of Philosophy. Sounds cool, doesn't it?
I'm planning to take my camera along, hoping to take some pictures of some of they WAY cool birds I've been seeing!