Designing Writing Assignments: More Writing Assignment Resources

Book Cover of Designing Writing AssignmentsI should begin this post by saying I have not heard from NCTE regarding my complaint that since they have changed their website, they have dropped Traci Gardner’s companion page for this book somewhere. Also, the page for this book still incorrectly links to a page that doesn’t exist. I find this extremely frustrating as I feel that Traci Gardner took some time to gather helpful resources together to accompany her book, and NCTE seemingly is not concerned that they remain available. Gardner begins the final chapter of Designing Writing Assignments with a pointer toward this resource that is no longer accessible. I have sent Traci Gardner a message on Twitter. Perhaps NCTE will be concerned about the issue if the writer says something to them. I’ll update with any responses I receive from Gardner or from NCTE.

The remainder of the chapter outlines several writing prompts that you can adapt for use in your own classroom. The writing prompts are grouped according to type of writing: narrative, informative, analysis, persuasion and literary analysis. I have to say the book is almost worth the purchase and read for this chapter alone. Gardner has some excellent writing prompts. Considering how difficult it can be to come up with writing tasks and performance tasks, I would imagine this chapter reflects a lot of time and hard work on Gardner’s part.

My final assessment of this book is that it is a good addition to any writing instructor’s arsenal, but I think especially middle and high school teachers should read it. In fact, I don’t think just English teachers could benefit. Any teacher who uses writing in his/her curriculum would do well to read it. It’s a very quick read, chock full of practical advice and tips for teaching writing. Highly recommended.

What should I read next? Don’ forget to vote in the poll.

Related posts:

Professional Reading Survey

OK, just for fun, I thought I’d conduct a quick survey. I will finish Traci Gardner’s wonderful Designing Writing Assignments later today. Which of the following books do you think I should read (and reflect on here) next? Vote in the poll. You can only vote for one choice. Voting will close at midnight on July 2!

Which professional development book should I read next?

  • Readicide by Kelly Gallagher (33%)
  • Revisit and finish Write Beside Them by Penny Kittle (29%)
  • You need to finish Blending Genre, Altering Style by Tom Romano (21%)
  • Revisit The First Days of School by Harry Wong (13%)
  • Genre Theory by Deborah Dean (4%)
  • I think you should read something else (suggest in the comments) (0%)

Total Votes: 24

Loading ... Loading ...

Related posts:

Designing Writing Assignments: Preparing for Standardized Testing

Book Cover of Designing Writing AssignmentsTraci Gardner begins her fifth chapter of Designing Writing Assignments, “Preparing for Standardized Testing,” with a sentence that sums up my own feeling about standardized writing assessments: “The prompts that students face on standardized writing tests are the antithesis of effective writing assignments” (67). Seeing as how they haven’t contacted me about it in a few years, I suppose it’s safe to disclose that I graded for the SAT in the first year that the essay portion of the test was added. I did it because I wanted to know what the College Board was looking for. I can tell you that the prompts are almost universally broad and, in my opinion, bad. Students’ guidance on using examples instructs them to draw from their personal experience, studies, and history. The prompts were often a quote from a famous person, and the student needs to respond either agreeing or disagreeing. In addition, students have 25 minutes to craft a well-developed essay. I know more than once I have told my own students, sadly, that in order to do well on the SAT essay, they need to forget the most important thing I’ve taught them about good writing—that it’s a process that requires planning and revision and, most importantly, time.

Gardner quotes Gregory Shafer1, who describes the effects of such testing as causing “students [to] abandon certain ideas about writing and embrace more reductive and less active approaches” (67), which is certainly what I’ve noticed about these kinds of essays. After a while, there was a sameness that crept in that ultimately made it impossible for me to do the job. I was not grading fast enough, and my accuracy (my score compared with the score given on random graded essays that were included to improve score validity) dropped.

Now that I’ve read this chapter, I will have a different and much better approach to helping my students do well on the SAT. Gardner has students discuss their experiences with timed writings first. The next step is to discuss other types of writing and their processes so they can “identify writing strategies they can use in test situations” (69). In scaffolding the process for standardized test writing, Gardner guides students to see that they “always have a process to compose their texts” (69). Obviously much more helpful than telling them to forget what they’ve learned about good writing!

Gardner’s suggestion of taking class time to understand the prompts through exploring samples in class is excellent. I’ve done that before, and it was great for helping students unpack the prompt so they could figure out what they were being asked to do. Her process for unpacking the question is great:

  • asking students to identify the audience and purpose behind the prompts (going beyond the simplistic answer of the testing company, of course)
  • having students identify what readers will look for and how they can present themselves as experts on the issue
  • demonstrating how to search through each writing prompt for significant words—both those that give clues to the content expected in response and those that suggest the structure and genre required
  • showing students how to find clues to the content and scope required by each prompt as well as to the organization and development that will be necessary for the response (70)

Gardner also includes a great handout that she gives students to help with this process. I would also suggest a book I’ve used in the past that does a good job helping students in this area and also has lots of sample questions on the usage portion of the SAT as well: Sadlier-Oxford’s Grammar and Writing for Standardized Tests.

Gardner also suggests exploring rubrics with students and reading models, discussing the ways in which the models successfully meet expectations set forth in the rubrics. The College Board Web site has sample papers for students to explore for these purposes, and it was a great exercise to discuss rubrics and read model papers when I did it with my class.

Gardner describes helping students construct their own “mental writing kits” for the test situation. They should include what they need, so each student’s writing kit will differ. She shares one student’s writing kit on p. 73. It contains items such as “Begin with attention-getter and end with ‘So what?’” and “A/an for count and the for noncount.” Gardner also suggests that if students are given space for prewriting or notes or are allowed to write in the test booklet, they should write their writing kits down in that space and circle key words in the prompt, which is a another suggestion the Sadlier-Oxford book I mentioned has students employ as part of an exercise. I really do love this idea of a sort of Swiss army knife or toolkit. I created a presentation as part of a Schools Attuned workshop I participated in that uses a similar strategy for helping students be successful in language arts.

In all, I think the processes Gardner describes for helping students prepare for standardized tests are sound and helpful, even if the writing tasks themselves are not. I don’t imagine that standardized tests are going anywhere, and students do need to prepare for them. I would hate to see writing instructors focus on formulaic writing so that students are prepared for standardized tests at the expense of really learning how to write well, and I feel Gardner explains how to avoid that pitfall well. I have one more chapter in this book, and I hope to be able to read it and reflect on it here tomorrow.

1Shafer, Gregory. “Standardized Testing and the College Composition Instructor.” Teaching English in the Two-Year College. 32.3 (Mar. 2005): 238-46.

Related posts:

Designing Writing Assignments: Defining New Tasks for Standard Writing Activities

The fourth chapter in Traci Gardner’s Designing Writing Assignments focuses on “unusual or new alternatives to the standard kinds of writing that students are asked to complete” (48). Some of my best writing assignments have sprung from planning UbD performance tasks with an authentic audience. For example, two grammar UbD units I wrote concern the use of apostrophes and the use of commas. The performance task for the apostrophe unit concerns writing a letter to an elected official in Arkansas who presented a bill before the Arkansas legislature regarding the use of the apostrophe to form the possessive form of Arkansas. The comma assignment involved creating a comma usage manual for a company who lost over $2 million Canadian when a contract was interpreted in a way they didn’t foresee simply because of the placement of a comma. Both performance tasks have been successful in the past, which is one reason I think writing a letter of recommendation for Beowulf could work (see previous post).

Gardner suggests six questions you can use in framing alternative assignments:

  • Who will read the text? Can I choose an alternative audience?
  • What stance will students take as writers? Can the assignment ask for an unusual tone?
  • When does the topic take place? Can the assignment focus on an alternative time frame?
  • Where will the background information come from? Can the assignment call for alternative research sources?
  • Can students write something other than a traditional essay? Can the assignment call for alternative genres or publication media? (49)

Gardner includes a helpful table on p. 50 that lists potential authentic audiences for writing tasks. It would be a great starting point for any teacher creating a writing assignment or a performance task in another subject area. Gardner describes an audience that caught my attention in terms of being able to adapt it for an assignment in my class: how would one of Chaucer’s pilgrims react to the topic for the assignment? Gardner describes a new rule at school, but it could be adapted for a variety of purposes. How would Chaucer’s pilgrims react to some headline in the news? To a major event in politics? To a work of literature? I teach parts of The Canterbury Tales to students: the Prologue, “The Knight’s Tale,” “The Miller’s Tale,” and “The Wife of Bath’s Tale.” It would be fun for the characters to comment on each other’s tales. I know there is some of that in the prologues to some of the tales, but not in all of them. I have traditionally had students write a compare/contrast essay. I could tell that assignment didn’t go over so well this year, so maybe next year this small adaptation of looking at the stories from a different audience angle could generate more enthusiasm.

In exploring different tones, again Gardner provides a helpful chart on p. 53. Some ideas for adaptation to the Chaucer assignment could be curious, condescending, discouraged, furious, injured, irritated, offended, resentful, shocked, or upset. Of course, some of the characters might feel more amused, which isn’t a choice in the list, but would be good to include in the assignment. Giving students some ideas about possible positions to take would be good exercise for voice and tone, and I have to admit, I don’t build in a lot of opportunities for students to explore different tones. I think I generally ask students write in a formal, scholarly tone, and it’s no wonder they don’t understand tone very well. They don’t get to explore different types of tone enough. In any case, as Gardner notes, I would need to “spend time unpacking the different stances on the list with the class” (52). I really like Gardner’s idea of putting these positions on a continuum given a scenario (such as not receiving a refund for a defective product) in a class discussion—students ranking the positions could see irritation as less extreme than anger, which will inform their writing.

Next, Gardner underscores the importance of freewriting to gather ideas when writing from other perspectives. With interactive notebooks next year, I plan to build in more time for journals and freewrites, and these will be good springboards for writing assignments.

In considering when the topic takes place, I am thinking again of the Beowulf assignment. One of the issues I want to explore when my students study Beowulf is the notion that though we have some ideas about heroism that are different from those held by Anglo-Saxons (or the Danes and Geats of Beowulf), some ideas have remained the same. Joe Scotese has a great exercise on his site that explores the way in which Beowulf is related to 9/11 and how one small act of heroism (that is even murkier because some translations do not highlight it or ascribe different motivations to Beowulf)—saving Brecca—is greater than killing Grendel.

I love Gardner’s idea for a cause/effect essay on p. 57:

If you could look in your crystal ball and determine the most significant thing that happened to you this week, what would it be? Write a cause-and-effect paper that explains what the event is and predicts how it will affect you.

It would be great for ninth graders writing a cause/effect paper. I also love the process of modeling and unpacking she describes for the assignment. I am definitely going to steal that assignment. With so many changes at the beginning of 9th grade—new school, new friends, new teachers, new expectations—early in the year would be a great time to do this assignment. It might even make a good first essay.

The list of alternative genres and subgenres for assignments on pp. 62-63 should be a good springboard for exploring different kinds of writing aside from the standard essay. In fact, Gardner mentions a recommendation report on p. 63, which may be how I can get out of my sticky problem with the Beowulf assignment. If Hrothgar is writing a recommendation report rather than a letter, it might not bother students so much that Beowulf dies at the end. I know writing a letter of recommendation for a deceased person would seem awkward, but a report might be less so.

Related posts:

New Features

When I remembered today that WordPress 2.7 enabled threaded comments, I decided to try to implement them here on this blog. While enabled threaded comments within the content management system involved only checking a box, I realized my theme didn’t support threaded comments. I tried to follow instructions for modifying my theme that I found online, but I messed it up somehow, so I checked out Cutline’s Web site (that’s the name of the theme I use), and lo and behold, they had created an updated version with support for threaded comments. I updated the theme. Now you can reply to commenters as well as to me, and it will be perhaps a little more clear who is being addressed in comments.

I also added some sharing and saving capability. On the bottom of each post, you’ll see a new button with a few familiar icons: the share icon (or at least it’s used by Shareaholic, the Firefox add-on), Delicious, and Facebook. If you mouse over that button, you’ll discover lots of ways to share and/or save the post. Just about every kind of social bookmarking, networking, and note-taking service is included. You can also e-mail the post or bookmark it directly in your browser. I removed the Feedburner FeedFlare, which enabled sharing by e-mail, Delicious, and Facebook, from each post. Essentially the new sharing/saving feature does much more in the way of allowing for users to save and share content that I decided it wasn’t needed. If you care, the plugin I used to create this button is called Add to Any.

The new theme handles a few tiny details differently. For instance, there is now a frame around images inside posts. I kind of like it, so I left it there. If there is some element of functionality you miss that I’ve forgotten to implement again after the upgrade, please let me know.

Related posts:

Designing Writing Assignments: Designing Writing Assignments

Designing Writing Assignments Book CoverThe title of this post is not a typo or hiccup. The third chapter of Traci Garder’s book Designing Writing Assignments is titled “Designing Writing Assignments,” too.

In this chapter, Garder addresses the reason why students might fail to meet our expectations: we didn’t communicate what we thought we did. I am guilty, as Gardner says, of simply trying to provide an assignment sheet, but we need to do more. First of all, when I define tasks, I’m not sure I have thought of “suggest[ing] steps in the process that students can complete” and “indicat[ing] different ways that students can work,” though I do usually “schedule multiple opportunities for students to write as they complete the assignment,” particularly if it’s a lower level or lower grade—9th graders versus 11th graders, for example (36). I think I should give all of my students more opportunitys to write in class than I currently do. It’s all about the balance of time, isn’t it?

In helping students comprehend our expectations, Gardner suggests we

  • unpack the meaning of the assignment, as described by Jim Burke, by explaining the assignment to create a shared understanding of the activity
  • provide model responses and demonstrate how to read and compose example texts
  • share rubrics, checklists, and other resources that highlight the requirements and goals for the assignment (36)

I do share rubrics, but I need to be more consistent, particularly as I use rubrics to grade. Checklists, my students also have. Models are an area in which I feel I’m weak. I do some modeling, but usually after the first draft. When I asked students to write a poetry explication, they asked me for models, and though I pointed them to one I found on the web, it didn’t appear to be enough. Over and over students told me they weren’t sure what to do. Jay McTighe describes a teacher who had a target on her bulletin board. A-papers were in the middle of the target, and B- and C-papers were farther out. Students could see exactly what they needed to do to earn the grade they wanted. On the other hand, does that encourage too much imitation and not enough creativity? It’s something I wrestle with when I use models.

Next, Gardner describes the importance of support and resources. When I have designed UbD units, my performance assessments have typically been really good in terms of support and resources, but I haven’t done it for all of the essays. And why not? I have a blog and a wiki! I can gather all kinds of resources for students to use with Web 2.0 tools.

Gardner models the process for creating three types of writing assignments, ending each vignette with an assessment of how well the assignment meets the criteria set forth in the General Writing Assignment Design section (defining task, expectations, and support and resources). In the vignette on expressive writing, Gardner mentions blogs. It sounds like she has used LiveJournal (she describes being able to add emoticons and what music the writer’s listening to, both LJ features) with students, but Ning would be great. It can be closed or open, and students can all be blogging in the same space. I can’t decide if I’m going to do some blogging with all my classes. I am already launching interactive notebooks, and I just don’t know. I don’t want to do too much that’s different or I’ll go crazy, but Gardner makes a good point about the audience for expressive writing being narrow if it’s just the student and me who read it. I really like commenting, too. Now if my students all had the same note-taking tools (like Curio, perhaps), we could probably make the interactive notebooks more of a shared item. I don’t know. I’ll have to think about it.

As I read Garder’s process for reflecting on how she has met the criteria for designing assignments in each of the vignettes, I’m reminded again of the UbD process for designing any assignment—the filter in particular. If you want to see one of my filters, I created one for Beowulf when I wrote my UbD unit plan. As a side note, what’s great about the essential questions for that plan is that when I discovered Joe Scotese had some good close reading assignments for Beowulf, I was able to use them to explore the same questions even deeper. I need to revise my unit to include Joe’s ideas. I actually had an idea as I read Gardner’s description of her persuasive writing assignment. I have asked students to write Beowulf’s résumé in the past; I think a persuasive essay in which they are trying to convince someone to hire him on as a hero, perhaps even written from the viewpoint of King Hrothgar? Something’s always niggled at me about that résumé in the past. I worried that though it’s an authentic task, it wasn’t all that challenging, which is why I added annotations. A persuasive essay would definitely make me feel better about the performance task and make it more of a writing exercise. What do you think? If I remember right, Jim Burke even has a great graphic organizer for constructing an argument that would work well.

Let’s see, this kind of assignment would include an authentic audience—someone in need of a hero who has asked Hrothgar for a recommendation. Students are experts: they’ve read Beowulf and seen him in action (of course, he dies, so I could ask students to complete the assignment before we get to that part or they’ll bring it up for sure). Then again, I might be able to get around that snag by having Hrothgar write to the Geats to explain why Beowulf should be made king. It will set the letter more firmly at a certain place in the story. What do you think? They’ll need to interact with the text to provide examples of Beowulf’s heroism. How about choice? Well, they need to decide which acts are heroic enough to include and leave out things they don’t find heroic. Models. I don’t have any models on this particular assignment. I could provide them, but given the narrow scope, could I get away with sharing recommendation letters? I can include suggested steps in the process on the assignment sheet, and I can create peer review sheets that help the students with structure and audience/purpose. Graphic organizers and a cheat sheet for the grammar handbook students use might be helpful support as well.

I think I have just begun planning a writing assignment.

P. S. If you are a regular visitor or even a vistor whose been here before, you may notice a few differences in this site’s functionality. I was going to tack the description of some changes I’ve made to this post, but I decided they really merit a separate post, which is forthcoming.

Related posts:

Designing Writing Assignments: Putting Beliefs Into Practice

Purchasing Designing Writing Assignments last November prompted me to introduce “NCTE Beliefs About the Teaching of Writing” into my department meetings as prompts for discussion. You read this important article at NCTE’s Web site.

Gardner begins the second chapter of her book with a discussion of these beliefs and includes the expanded article in an appendix.

One frustration I am having with the text is that Gardner helpfully references ReadWriteThink lesson plans that correspond with the lessons she describes in the book, but when I visit the link given in the back of the book, http://www.ncte.org/books/10850/, I receive an error message. Knowing NCTE moved things around some months back, I tried searching, but I was still unable to find the content. I can’t even access it using the Internet Archive. I did find a link to all of Gardner’s plans at ReadWriteThink, which at least narrows down the search for plans. I don’t blame Gardner; it’s one of the frustrations of dealing with the Web. On the other hand, if it inhibited a serious Web user like me, I imagine it will utterly prevent less-experienced users who will likely give up upon receiving an error message to the URL. I sent a request to NCTE explaining the problem, and I hope they’ll address it soon. I will let you know here what response I receive.

Gardner describes a misunderstanding she had about the word secular. In one essay, she used it interchangeably with religious, thinking they were synonyms, and she says that all she learned from the experience was not to use the word secular. Ever. Even to this day, she says, “I still have no confidence whatsoever in that word” (12). What a diplomatic way of saying a teacher tore up her paper and made her feel dumb. Writing teachers have a lot of power. When we see errors in student writing, we need to educate our students, but we need to do so in a way that helps rather than hurts. I myself can remember similar incidents in my own education, and if I’m being completely honest, I may have caused such incidents for my own students. Sometimes I cringe when I think about my first few years teaching.

I like what Gardner says about helping her students think like writers:

I encourage students to write for themselves as they discover and explore their topics. I ask them to write directly to me about the topic, their progress, and any concerns or questions. I ask them to write to each other, writing questions for the peer readers who consider their drafts. I encourage students to add sticky note annotations to their drafts as well as to the books that they are reading. (14)

It seems to me various Web 2.0 tools would be great for various aspects of this process. Gardner notes that “Students should never be forced to follow a single process, because no two writers are the same” (15). I wholeheartedly agree, and it’s one of the reasons I don’t usually ask students to turn in prewriting and outlines for a grade. I think it’s because I never make outlines when I write, and my prewriting mostly happens in my head. I remember having to turn in those kinds of assignments when I was in school. I almost always did the outline and prewriting after I’d written the assignment, which completely defeated the purpose my teachers had in mind. They were well-meaning, I’m sure, but they also enforced a single process that didn’t work for all students. I do think exposure to different kinds of planning is beneficial. I will never forget one student I had whose writing process utterly changed after he learned webbing in my class. Different systems of planning works for different students. Gardner is right that many times rigid requirements regarding writing process produce “forced or formulaic” writing (16).

I recognize an area where I need to do work. Gardner states that “We have to be explicit with students about what we really want: effective writing that pays attention to the audience and purpose we intend for the activity” (20). I think I probably emphasize writing conventions more than I should, which is not to say that they are unimportant. However, I need to target areas for minilessons so I’m not spending time seeing errors in papers. Collins’ writing method has focus correction areas that serve this purpose. When I attempted to implement focus correction areas, I found that method too constraining. Sometimes a student could address only the FCA’s and still produce a paper that did not really meet expectations for good writing. I know the theory is that over time you work on each common error as it comes up. Maybe I was too impatient. In all, I think the method would work very well for beginning writers or ELL students, but I’m not sure I felt it was as effective for my students, who tend to be more advanced writers. I also need to build time for writing conferences. I give too much feedback after the writing is done and not enough at the beginning of and during the writing process.

Some of what Gardner says about multimodal writing reminds me of the multigenre research paper concept. Students choose different artifacts to display their learning about a topic. Such projects allow for students who don’t have the same access to technology as others to show their learning. I teach at a private school and am always able to get into the computer lab (it should be a A LOT harder to do!), so my students typically have access to technology, but it’s an important point to remember. Virginia Tech, my grad school, requires all students to have their own computer. I’m sure VT isn’t the only school with this requirement. We are moving into an age when access to technology must be a given; how we ensure access is addressed in a variety of ways. One-to-one laptops are one way. I liked the idea of the OLPC project, too. I’m not sure how great the digital divide is anymore or what teachers can reasonably expect regarding access to technology, and I’m sure the answer varies widely depending on who and where you teach.

I love the idea of students writing letters of reflection about writing pieces and including those letters to help me focus on areas they have identified as needing attention. I think this sort of regular reflection could help students really think about the writing they are turning in. One question that kept recurring to me as I read this chapter is how many writing assignments is enough? I am thinking of major essays here because journals and other types of writing that my students do are not assessed in the same way and often do not go through the same process as an essay. I kept thinking of the writing workshop process on every major assignment, and while it’s good and worthwhile work, time would be a major issue. Or am I overthinking it? Porfolios could certainly address part of this issue with time.

Related posts:

Happy Birthday, Blog

Fourth BirthdayToday is the fourth anniversary of my blog. In light of that fact, here are a few facts and statistics:

The first post on this blog was a review of Constance Weaver’s Teaching Grammar in Context. Since that post, I’ve made 564 posts (including this one).

The first commenter was Ms. Ris, who commented on my post about The Teacher’s Daybook by Jim Burke. Since that time, this blog has received 2,004 comments. Some were lost when I had a problem with a Web host.

Although readership is kind of hard to track, and I tend not to get caught up in readership stats for that reason, Feedburner reports that I have 683 subscribers to my RSS feed. Feedblitz reports that 57 people subscribe to posts by e-mail. If you want to subscribe, click here. I don’t check site statistics that often, so I was interested to learn that since I installed Statcounter (and I confess, I can’t remember at all when that was, so this next bit is fairly useless), my site has received 809,143 page views. Now, many of those are for subdomains that serve other areas of interest and many are for Google searchers who landed here and probably were not looking for my site. That number has nothing to do with readership. That much is evidenced by the fact that 68.9% of the last 500 visitors only stayed for 5 seconds or less. Then again, I haven’t updated in a few days, and some of those visits may in fact be regular readers who are checking to see if I’ve updated. (You can save yourself the trouble if you subcribe!)

I began this blog using Movable Type. Here’s a peek at what my blog looked like back in those days. Some time after I started this blog, I had a major problem with my Web host at that time (see a page I put up in the interim until I could fix it). Some time later, I came back with WordPress, and older readers might recognize this design. I have not changed the look of this place many times. My blog has only had those two looks and this current one with the exception of some slight experimentation that never lasted long.

If you are a newer reader, you may not have seen some of my older posts. Here are some of my favorite posts over the past four years:

In this time when some folks are saying blogging is dead, I have to say that nothing I have done for myself as an educator has helped me learn more and be a more effective teacher than starting this blog. Nothing else has contributed as much to my reflection and enabled me to connect with other teachers and learn from them like this blog has. Starting it was one of the best decisions I ever made, and I am glad and humbled by those who visit and find it useful for their own learning as well.

Happy birthday, blog!

Related posts:

Some Thoughts on Twitter

I was cleaning house on Twitter today, and as I made some decisions, some thoughts occurred to me.

Reasons I might not follow back:

  • You follow so many people that you can’t possibly be keeping track of all your conversations unless all you do is read Twitter.
  • You don’t share valuable information or links.
  • You’re obviously scamming for followers and are hoping I automatically follow back, even if what you do and what I do are in completely different spheres.
  • Even if you’re not scamming for followers, you and I do completely different things—I primarily use Twitter to learn from colleagues and follow very few people who aren’t in education (most of those people are personal friends, some are celebrities).
  • You followed me at a really busy time for me, and I haven’t yet had a chance to check out what you have to say. Give me some time before you decide to unfollow me—unless, that is, you are following me only in the hope that I will follow you.
  • You have protected your updates, and I don’t know you, so I’m not sure whether or not your content will be valuable to me.
  • You’re a business, and I need to watch for a while to see if what you tweet is valuable to me.
  • I don’t recognize anyone in your replies or retweets, which tells me we’re not really tweeting in the same circles.

Reasons I might unfollow you:

  • You stop tweeting.
  • You tweet too often, especially about information I don’t find useful or valuable.
  • We never engage in conversation. I am not sure either of us is really listening to each other.
  • You are more often negative than positive. We all need to vent sometimes, but all the time is excessive for me.
  • You are rude or confrontational (not necessarily to me, either).

Reasons I might block you:

  • You’re on Twitter to advertise your webcam/dating/porn site.

Not good reasons to unfollow (in my opinion):

  • You don’t follow me back. If I find your content valuable, I follow you. Period. I’m not looking for a backscratch.
  • We sometimes disagree. If we always disagree, maybe, but some healthy difference is OK.
  • You don’t always reply to me or acknowledge retweets. I don’t always do either of those things.

Ergo, some reasons I might follow:

  • We have the same interests.
  • You provide valuable content.
  • You regularly converse with people I follow, so clearly we’re tweeting in the same circles.

I tend to give people a fair chance once I’ve followed them. I like to get to know who they are through their tweets. If I’m still not learning from you after a while, or if any of the other issues here apply, I might unfollow. Sometimes I think long and hard before I do it because a lot of people are sensitive about that kind of thing. The last thing I want to do is hurt anyone’s feelings. On the other hand, my time is valuable, and I need a return on its investment. I tend to think people are generally too hung up on followers, and not just on Twitter, but everywhere you see social media. You need to engage in social media because of what you get out of it.

Related posts:

Designing Writing Assignments: The Essentials of an Effective Writing Assignment

Last November at the NCTE convention, I purchased Traci Gardner’s Designing Writing Assignments with the intentions of reading it much earlier than I have. I find it helpful to reflect on my professional reading here, so I hope you’ll pardon me if this kind of thing isn’t why you visit the blog (why do you visit, anyway? I’m curious). I don’t intend to rush through the book, but I do have several professional books I want to read this summer.

As its title suggests, the first chapter discusses “the essentials of an effective writing assignment.” Gardner notes that the problem with the language we use in constructing writing assignments is that we typically use academic language the students have difficulty “unpacking” (6), or we use vague “stripped down” language that invites “extremely general responses with unclear purposes and audiences” (1). Gardner cites several research studies and articles, including Storms, Riazantseva, and Gentile (2000); NAEP/NWP (2001); Nelson (1990); Nelson (1995); and Yancey (2004) in support of her argument that one factor in students’ inability to meet expectations for writing assignments is ineffectively written prompts. Based on the NAEP/NWP study, Gardner suggests four essential characteristics of effective writing prompts:

  • The content and scope asked students to focus on critical thinking, rather than reiteration, by interacting with a text.
  • The organization and development provided scaffolding that supported students’ writing process.
  • The audience for the writing assignment focused on communication with an authentic group of readers regarding a topic on which the writer was an expert.
  • The range of choices for students’ focus was balanced with support and direction so that students could engage in the process as equal partners, rather than be directed to complete teacher-driven tasks. (Peterson qtd. in Gardner 2-3)

One area in which I can improve is creating more choices for students. UbD has really helped me think about how to create authentic performance tasks that address audience, and on reflection, I have to say my most effective writing assignments are performance tasks created as part of a UbD unit. I could do more with the writing process. With my lower level students, I build in a lot of in-class writing with the requirement of peer editing, and I think that scaffolding is effective, but it could be more effective if we went through the writing process in a more formal fashion. I noticed a key word in that sentence, too: we need to provide scaffolding for the students’ writing process. To me, that means it’s ineffective to require students create a formal outline as prewriting if a web, jot list, drawing, storyboard, or just plain plunging in and drafting works better for that student. I think construction of questions that focus on critical thinking is at the heart of UbD.

Gardner quotes Kathleen Blake Yancey’s Teaching Literature as Reflective Practice (2004), describing three (often different) curricula in the classroom. The “lived curriculum” is based on students’ prior experiences and knowledge; the “delivered curriculum” is “the one [teachers] design”; and the “experienced curriculum” is the result of the students’ prior knowledge and the delivered curriculum (qtd. in Gardner 5). Garder describes the experienced curriculum as a mashup of the other two types—a term I liked for its connotations with Web 2.0 interactivity. I think it’s important to remember that students don’t always make the connections we think they’re making or learn what we think they’re learning, but we can do more to enhance what Gardner calls overlap between the delivered curriculum and the experienced curriculum: “expand the writing assignment in ways that help students construct a reading that matches the goals for the activity” (6).

One of my favorite quotes from the chapter, which I tweeted in two sections earlier this evening: “Because all readers come to a text with different experiences and prior knowledge, all readings are different and none is absolutely identical to the writer’s original intentions” (6). Gardner isn’t suggesting that all readings are correct or that any interpretation goes, but I have a better answer for students who challenge my or their classmates interpretations of texts than I have in the past. We have all, at some point, been asked by a student if the writer intended something or other we have found in a text. My answer in the last few years or so has been close to Gardner’s, but her sentence captures the essence of what happens with interpretation so much more eloquently than I have been able to do thus far.

Related posts: