Thursday, October 06, 2011


That's me.

You know, it's really interesting talking with faculty from a variety of schools and fields, as we have here at the Abbey. At times, it makes me realize how much I've learned. At other times, it makes me realize that I have a whole lot to learn.

One of my colleagues here was talking about her disatisfaction with her students' writing skills in her class, which is designated as "writing intensive" in her field. (At her school, students have to take several courses designated "writing intensive" as part of the effort to get students to write better.)

She's telling me that these writing intensive classes give students lots of writing assignments, and it's really frustrating to read and grade the resulting papers.

So I asked, and it doesn't sound like she's teaching them writing skills at all.

And she hasn't yet made (nor has her school) the jump to realizing that it's not enough to just give writing assignments and grade them. Yes, some students will improve some from that, but if you really want students to improve as writers, you have to focus their practice and help them learn about writing in and for whatever field you're in.

But (and this is so familiar)she doesn't want to give up "content" to teach writing.

In the interest of sanity, though, wouldn't it be better to focus at least some time on writing in order to suffer through the grading so badly?

There's also the other elephant here: she doesn't feel confident about teaching writing. And I totally understand that.

And here's where her administration needs to step up: if you want faculty to focus on teaching students writing skills, then you have to put in some serious faculty development to helping them learn to do that effectively in their contexts without it being onerous. And you have to convince faculty that this can work to make student writing better and faculty work more fulfilling. (Let's face it, smacking your head against the wall of teaching without seeing some results is just so frustrating!)

Some of my students have a paper coming due next week. During the last class period, we spent some time freewriting and talking about ideas together. Today we'll do some bubble mapping. And it will take away from the literature we're reading. But it will help them learn about what they're writing about, and it will help them write better papers, and it will help me be less frustrated when I grade them.

The thing is, if you do this with people who are already pretty good writers, they improve WAY more (at least in my experience) because they're ready to put the new tools to work more effectively. And maybe they've forgotten about some of the strategies, and reminding them at a different point will get them to actually use them for real.

I know. I sound like a convert, don't I? Bleargh!


  1. Here at Gothic Revival U, all students have to take a course specifically geared to teaching them how to write in their first year. It's taught by graduate students who have to take a course in how to teach students how to write before they're allowed to teach it. I'm a pretty big fan of it, really.

  2. Totally agree here. I'm moving back into having students write papers, after years of not doing so. I'm not a writing teacher, but I am a teacher rather than somebody who gives assignments and grades. I like that you've made that distinction - I wish more people would.

  3. Amen! Sing it, sister!

  4. I wish there was a ton more support for teaching how to do things like writing and reasoning and learning how to study effectively mush, much earlier, so that by the time the kids get to college they have more of the tools they need to learn effectively.

    I wish my guys were getting this sort of training; in 5th grade, as far as I can tell so far, they are simply given a vague writing assignment subject, told to write a paragraph and that's just about it. If the parent doesn't have a clue, the kid sure isn't going to get one. It's scary, really, how little actual instruction they seem to be getting on the more practical aspects of learning and communicating. The teachers are required to give so much instruction towards the mandatory tests, and getting scores above a certain level in order to get funding, that there doesn't seem to be much time left for much else.

    I wish I was better equipped to teach them those skills, but you talk about feeling insecure about trying to teach writing... I can flounder and try trial and error, but I wish there was a better system in place.

  5. Funny, we had our assessment meeting yesterday, and one of the things we talked about was that we needed to teach the students we have, not the ones we wish we had. Our frustration about writing was important, but even more important was our feeling that we didn't know how to address it. (There are two pieces to this -- the mechanics, spelling, punctuation, etc. as well as clarity and felicity of expression. This we don't know how to teach.

  6. Really interesting! You make me think that we have a great opportunity at SA to work with our colleagues in History. I wonder how similar our approaches to teaching them writing are. I wonder how much time they take away from content to teach writing. Must find out.

  7. I was thinking about retoolingy comp class for next fall. What I've been teaching for years isn't working for these students, and the reason why is because they are traditionally aged students. I've been teaching people older than me for too long. I feel put of touch with what 18 year olds need in comp.

    What I'd like to do is throw out the text books altogether and just do workshopping of papers all semester. I think that might get boring after a while. But it might make them learn how to use a comma or form a thesis. I don't know. We'll see what I come up with over the summer. But I know that something really needs to change.

  8. Sorry for typos. I'm commenting on my phone.