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: