Tag: teaching writing

Writing by Delighting

        

Demetrius Minnick-Tucker, Writing Consultant

“Gollum threw himself backwards, and grabbed as the hobbit flew over him, but too late: his hands snapped on thin air, and Bilbo falling fair on his sturdy feet, sped off down the new tunnel. He did not turn to see what Gollum was doing. There was a hissing and cursing almost at his heels at first, then it stopped. All at once there came a blood-curdling shriek, filled with hatred and despair. Gollum was defeated.” (Tolkien, 87)

         This is a scene from The Hobbit, written by J. R. R. Tolkien. In context, a Hobbit finds himself in a cave, separated from his friends, with a little, hungry creature named Gollum, ready to eat him if he didn’t solve his riddles. Thankfully, the Hobbit solved the riddles, escaped the unnerved Gollum, and eventually, found his friends. However, as a writer, reflect for a moment. What provided the scenes dramatic nature? Grammar. Tolkien includes six commas to slow down the scene.  He carefully uses the colon — a prelude to the dramatic outcome of the scene. And lastly, he uses the period to drive home the scene. These are the simple beauties of grammar within a model text. Our breath stops for a moment, like Bilbo’s, as we await his escape or demise, and in the process, we are delighted.

         This scene is useful for our main concern: As teachers, what moves can we make to unite teaching grammar and student learning? This question is scrutinized by the best in the field, yet a solution seems elusive. Often, grammar is taught in moves that simply request the  regurgitation of information. However, when our “bright” writers come to writing samples, the findings are disheartening. Students writing shows no sign of improvement and as new students come in, the cycle continues. In the article, Reconceptualizing the Teaching of Grammar, Weaver asserts that learning “seems to be most enduring when the learners perceive it as USEFUL or INTERESTING to them personally, in the here and now.” It seems that Weaver is asserting that we should teach grammar indirectly, through means of delight. Whether reading of the boy who lived or the Sonnets of Shakespeare, both are avenues of delight for a variety of students, proving useful for our ends as teachers. As I reflect, I am reminded of my freshman year in college. My English 102 Professor, Dr. Amy Crider, challenged us to find writers we admire and work on imitating their writing style. As English 101 and 102 courses have a knack for creativity, my interest was peeked. Thus, my search began. As I discovered beautiful writing, writing became more alive to me. “How did Flannery O’Connor paint a world that was darkly comical? How did J. K. Rowling create such gravity in the final scene? What would happen if I remove the commas from this paragraph? Let’s consider syntax.” All these questions bubble up, but why? Indirectly, Dr. Crider was using my delight in model texts as a means to teach grammar. I argue as instructors, we ought to take the same road. Learning the  conventions of grammar is inherently grueling and full of mystery, yet, when we provide students moments to see grammar through lenses of delight, their stance changes.

         In another article, The Case for Rhetorical Grammar, Micciche states “This intimacy with the language of others can be an enormously powerful way to impress upon students that writing is made and that grammar has a role in the production.” Micciche’s claim reiterates the usefulness of model texts. In short, when students analyze model texts they are delighted by – novel, poem, paragraph – a productive space is created for teaching grammar. Why? The student is no longer focused on distant formalities that are required of a sentence. Instead, they are delighted, entering the world of the author, and hungry to figure out how the author made that delight erupt into their reading experience. And notice the subtle change, it is intimate, no longer distant. The writing is beautiful, humorous, or full of wit, and the student is left wondering “how did they do that?” A teacher happily responds: “The writer made intentional choices with their words to bring that effect. Now class, what would we have lost if they didn’t understand the uses of grammar?” As we can see, now students disposition towards grammar changes, as they have become focused on replicating the grammatical moves of writers, because they were required? No, because they were delighted. Grammar is no longer seen as mere conventions and formalities, but the freedom to create beauty. As students push into that reality, I suspect, the teacher to beam with a quiet triumph. Why? The teacher has brought them to their goal: Learning.

Responding to Student Writing to Encourage Revision

Meghan Hancock, Assistant Director for Graduate Student Writing

The University of Louisville Writing Center’s website isn’t only meant for students to make appointments and browse for writing resources. It’s also there for faculty to utilize when teaching writing in their courses. Our Resources for Faculty page provides helpful information from what to expect when your students make appointments at the Writing Center, to how to schedule consultants to come to your class to talk about what the Writing Center does.

We also recently dedicated a section of our website to Resources for Teaching Writing. In this section, we provide some strategies for faculty to think about using when teaching writing in their courses. These strategies grow from topics we have thought a lot about as writing instructors ourselves, and also from common topics we hear our colleagues discussing when it comes to teaching writing in their classrooms.

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Below, you will find what we have provided for strategies to help you when you are thinking of ways to respond to student writing in your classroom.

Instructor comments on students’ writing is an important part of helping students become effective academic writers, and can provide the productive feedback a student writer needs to revise a particular assignment. Responding to student writing can be a challenging task, however, particularly when deciding what feedback to include in a response. Too much feedback can be overwhelming for students, while too little feedback can leave students feeling they don’t have a clear direction for revision.

At the University Writing Center, our consultants work with students to help them understand instructors’ responses as well as come up with plans for revision based on instructors’ responses. Here are some strategies, though, that may help when structuring and formatting commentary on student writing, as well as in prioritizing types of feedback.

Some forms of comment have proved to be more effective than others.

Research on student writing has demonstrated that a draft covered in corrections and cryptic comments such as “vague” or “needs more detail” is not as effective as fewer, more detailed comments. Explaining what kind of detail is needed, for example, is more helpful to students. Also, students report that the comments they find most helpful to their writing are those that point them forward to how best to revise the next draft (or complete the next assignment) by suggesting new ideas, strategies, or questions, rather than only making criticisms on the current draft. Finally, pointing out to student how and why a piece of a draft or paper is effective also helps the student learn to recognize and potentially replicate the writing in future assignments.

Different comments can serve different functions in response.

End comments commonly take the form of a letter written to the student about overall or more holistic strengths and weaknesses of the writer’s paper, as well as what productive directions for revision the responder would recommend. Marginal comments are your chance to point to specific places in the paper. These places could be anything from a thesis statement that needs work, to an unclear sentence or paragraph, to a quotation that needs more explanation. End comments can also be a chance to explain how marginal comments play into the bigger picture of the response. In other words, try to refer to some specific marginal comments in your end comments as examples for what the student can work on in a revision.

It helps to distinguish in comments between higher- and lower-order concerns.

Higher order concerns, like overall organization, whether a paper has a clear argument, what kinds of examples the writer is using for evidence, etc., are the most effective places to begin in responding to student writing, as these conceptual issues are much more challenging for writers to address in a revision. Although problems with grammar and style can be frustrating to read, correcting those errors for students is not an effective approach to either revision or teaching grammar and style. Instead, respond to these issues by telling the writer what patterns of error you are noticing in their writing (for example, run-on sentences, subject/verb agreement, or comma use) so they can be more conscious of them in the future.

Explain to students your approach to response.

Different instructors can use very different approaches to responding to student writing. Comments can vary in emphasis, length, and detail. It can be helpful to students to explain how you approach reading their work and what you will emphasize in your comments. Such explanations can be included in the assignment if you wish. In addition, it can be helpful to have students respond to your comments, both to ensure they have read them and to engage in a more dialogic process. For example, if you have commented on student drafts, you might ask students to send you an email in which they explain their plan for revision based on your comments. You can check such email quickly and see if the students plan to address your concerns.

Use other forms of response such as conferences or audio comments.

If time allows, try conferencing individually with students to discuss your written comments with them as well as give them the opportunity to ask you questions if any of your comments are unclear to them. If this isn’t possible, try to dedicate the last ten or fifteen minutes of a class meeting for your students to read your written comments and ask you questions or raise concerns. Some instructors also find success using audio comments that can be recorded digitally and even attached to student texts. For an example of how to use audio comments, see this link.

Try responding at different points in the writing process.

Responding at different stages in the writing process can both save time and offer students clearer direction as they work on the writing. For example, asking for a brief proposal for a paper, or responding to the first two pages, can help catch issues of focus and analysis early in the process and takes less time than reading longer papers.

Read the paper first, before commenting.

Jot down some notes on a separate piece of paper instead, focusing on common themes you notice that you might want to address in your response. This will keep you from commenting too much and will allow you to prioritize what you comment on when you read through the paper the second time. Also, if you are handwriting your comments, try not to use a red pen if you can help it. Many students associate this color with past negative responses to their writing in school and it may cause anxiety for them.

Encourage students to visit the University Writing Center.

We often work with students to help them plan how to revise assignments based on instructor comments and would be happy to work with your students.

Here are some links that might also be helpful when thinking through how to respond to student writing:

Responding to Higher Order Concerns and Lower Order Concerns – The Purdue OWL

“Beyond the Red Ink: Teachers’ Comments Through Students’ Eyes” (Video) – Nancy Sommers

“Responding to Student Writing” – University of Delaware Writing Center

“Using Audio Comments to Respond to Student Writing” – University of Wisconsin- Madison Writing Center

“Responding to Writing of Non-Native Speakers of English” – University of Minnesota Center for Writing