Synthesizing Class Discussion and Essay Assignments

“I was able to construct my syllabus and assignments so that the ‘talking about the book’ portion directly teaches about essay-writing.”

In my class on children’s literature this week, I assigned their first essay of the semester: a close reading paper (loosely defined). The assignment:

Choose one item from Freak the Mighty. Track that item through the text. Find two or three moments in the text where that item has a significant role or comes under discussion by the characters or the narrator. Write a 2-3 page paper analyzing the item within the context of the text. 

For my first few semesters of teaching literature, I didn’t spend a lot of time teaching students how to write. They learn that in Intro to Literary Studies, right? That might be the idea behind sequenced courses. But in reality, we know that just because students took a class on writing, that doesn’t mean they can thenceforth write brilliant papers on command. As with any skill, it requires practice.

So for a while I amended my syllabus and started devoting one-hour sessions to peer review and revision sessions. But that didn’t work either – I needed to teach them how to write before asking them to write. And I then needed to give them a chance to revise. And I foresaw my literature class turning into a writing class…

After months of talking to my mentors and colleagues, I was able to construct my syllabus and assignments so that the “talking about the book” portion directly teaches about essay-writing. And so far, I am more than pleased with how it’s working.

Here’s how it went down this week:

The text for this week (a 2.5-hour long class that meets once a week) was Freak the Mighty. As I always do, I started class with a “Write Now” – a prompt on the board that students come to expect. It works well as an opening activity because 1) I can direct students to thinking about specific points I may want to raise, and 2) it allows latecomers to catch up.

This week’s prompt was:

Many objects and ideas are repeated throughout the text (knights, books, bionic bodies, remembering, etc.).
1. Think about an object or idea that you connected with / that made an impression on you, either intellectual or emotional.
2. Find a passage (a few sentences) in the book about that object or idea, and copy the passage onto your paper.
3. Free-write about the object and passage. Why is this object significant? Why did you choose this passage?

After about ten minutes of quiet writing, I asked students to put that sheet of paper away. We went on with the lesson, talking about multiple aspects of the book with a focus on realism as a genre, and dis/ability studies.

For the last hour of class, I assigned groupwork. Each group of 3 students chose one character from the text and tracked that character. The instructions were to first find a few key passages where that character talks, acts, or is talked about, and note the citations and some impressions of characterization. Then, each group talked about what they had found and tried to answer whether and how the character changed and/or our perception of the character changed.

I circulated among the groups for half an hour, guiding and correcting and making sure students stayed on track. We then came back together as a class and each group shared their results. I asked each group to structure their “presentations” by beginning with a thesis (their conclusion/argument about whether and how the character changed), following it up with evidence (the passages they cited), and finishing with a conclusion (a repetition of their argument to remind us what they just proved).

Two groups who had chosen to focus on Gram came to very different conclusions, so I started with those groups.

One group argued that Gram changed from being apprehensive about Max to being affectionate and loving. For evidence, they used the moment at the beginning of the novel when Max says Gram touched him with a light, feathery touch; and the moment at the end of the novel when Max says Gram hugs him really tight.

The other group argued that Gram did not change, but Max’s perception of her did change – that Max thought she didn’t love him and was terrified of him at first, but ultimately came to accept her love. They argued that through examining the character of Gram, they were in fact able to gain more insight into Max’s character. For evidence, they used the same moments as the previous group…

I began with these two groups because I knew they had different theses (from my rounds during groupwork), and I wanted to use that to demonstrate that the same text can be used to argue completely different things. Later, the same thing happened with two groups that had tracked Max’s levels of confidence throughout the novel.

Each group presented their findings, and I insisted on the structure: first the thesis; then the evidence; then the conclusion.

In the last 15 minutes of class, I distributed the essay assignment sheet. In addition to the essay prompt above, the sheet includes a “WHAT” and a “WHY section:

WHAT: A close reading asks you to narrow your focus to ONE aspect of a text. 
WHY: 1) Trying to analyze an entire text can be daunting. Narrowing your focus and analyzing a single aspect of the text helps you get at some ideas more easily. 2) Any larger analysis of a text needs to use concrete evidence from the text. Having the skill of close reading will help you do that. 

After the prompt, I provided an example:

Example:  Books. You might track the dictionary that Kevin makes for Max and the blank journal that Kevin gives Max. Looking at the significance of each scene, you might conclude that the dictionary demonstrates the pair’s thirst for knowledge and the journal demonstrates the pair’s desire to be remembered and to have an impact on the world. You might then note that the first gift (a dictionary) helps Max learn words, and the second gift (a blank journal) invites Max to write his own words. Your thesis might then be something like this:  

“Kevin and Max are both seen as outsiders in the world they live in. They both want to be remembered and leave an impact on the world. Kevin’s two gifts to Max, the dictionary and the blank journal, indicate that given the right tools, anyone is capable of expressing themselves and leaving their mark on the world.” 

Your essay will then analyze these two gifts, and make a case for how each represents a step in learning self-expression, etc.

I pointed out to my students that they had already used the skills necessary for this essay: they had tracked characters and analyzed them, and the essay asks them to track objects and analyze them. And they already had some ideas of which objects seem significant to them, from their “Write Now” exercise.

Students were excited at this and pulled out their free-writes from the beginning of class. Wheels started turning, and students asked me about specific ideas and potential thesis statements.

It was the most productive essay assignment session I’ve ever had.

Syllabus Hunt

On the first day of my English 101 class, I had my students do an activity I called “Syllabus Hunt.” The goal was simple: get students used to looking for information in the syllabus.

This was the earliest possible class: 8am on the very first day of the fall semester. Every student is required to take English 101 in their first semester, and this is a community college, so I was 99% sure that all my students would be entering a college classroom for the first time the morning of my class. I asked them if this was true, and all but one student said yes – they had never been in any college classes and had never seen a college syllabus before.

Assuming students know how to read a syllabus and what kind of information they should expect to find there is always a bad idea, in any level class. But going over the syllabus, reading it section by section, is a monumental waste of precious time. It does nothing to propel the class along, it’s boring, it puts students (and professor, usually!) into a stupor.

Confession: there were at least four goals I had in mind for this activity. Yes, the first goal was to get students used to looking for information in the syllabus. The second was to set the tone for the semester, by showing students that their minds would need to be active, that they should not get used to being passive recipients of knowledge. The third was to get them talking to each other, because discussion in English 101 is so important. And the fourth was to begin giving them practice in citing, as well as using citations to find information.

The activity accomplished all of these goals.

I tried this activity in my upper-level class the next day, and it worked okay, but not as well. That might be because students in an upper-level course have all seen syllabi before; it might be because I had other groupwork that accomplished the other goals in that class; it might be because that class is a 2.5-hr evening class rather than a 1.5-hr early morning class… Whatever the reason, I didn’t attempt it in my third class of the semester the next day, another upper-level evening class.

Here’s how the activity went:

  1. First of all, I went over the course info and course description with them. We took a brief look at the reading and writing assignment schedule, and spent more time on it afterwards. This activity was really all about the policies and resources.
  2. I had prepared four scenarios and put two scenarios on each half-paper, forming two “groups.”
  3. Each student got one half-paper at random. I asked them to put their name at the top, and to add their email if they were comfortable giving their email to a classmate.
  4. They then read their two scenarios and tried to find the page on which they could find the answer. They were instructed not to write the answer, just the citation for the page where the information can be found.
  5. Once everyone was done, I asked them to get up, mingle in the center of the room, and find someone from the opposite group with whom to switch papers.
  6. With a new paper in hand, they sat back down and used their classmates’ citations to look up and write down the answers to what to do in each scenario.
  7. Finally, we reviewed the answers as a class and I took questions on the whole syllabus.

And okay, a fifth goal: They now had a classmate’s contact information, so if they miss class or are confused about an assignment, they can ask a buddy or form a study group and save emailing me for a second or third option…

The two sheets of paper, Group A and Group B, with scenarios whose answers can be found in the syllabus.

The Fun Begins: Fall 2019 Syllabi

There’s just about a week left before classes start. I’m teaching two classes this semester: a survey of medieval and early modern literature, and a class on children’s literature. I’ve taught both these classes before, but I’ve completely revamped both syllabi.

For the medieval and early modern survey, I’m trying to actively resist the canon (I disappointed myself by using enough texts that exist in the Norton that I could justify assigning Volume A). The three times I taught this class before, I used the most obvious texts, working from the Norton instead of thinking about what I wanted to accomplish in the class. This time, I worked the other way around. It was far more challenging to plan and prep this way, but I sincerely hope it will be worth it!

I’m also not following chronological order. I loosely organized the syllabus around genre, supported by themes or topics I want to discuss. I’m going to rely heavily on a timeline during my lectures so that students leave with a sense of the history. But one of my weaknesses as a teacher is emphasizing history at the expense of literary analysis, so I’m also hoping that this rearrangement helps.

For my children’s literature class, I reorganized by reading about a million Middle Grade books over the summer. It’s been fun! I’ve taught this class only once before, and while I was very happy with how it went, I had a few self-criticisms. Most of them stemmed from the fact that I was trying to teach the historical development of children’s literature as opposed to its current state. While that is a worthy goal, it doesn’t fit my students’ expectations or needs – many English majors at Lehman are also education majors. So maybe I’ll get my department to give me a topics elective where I can teach that… For now, I’m focusing on recent texts.

This one was also a challenge to plan. I mapped out the genres and issues I wanted to cover, helped by a few textbooks and teaching guides: 

Then I requested a shitton of books from the library, and read or skimmed as many as I could. I tried to find books which can do double-duty in helping me teach genre and issues. I actually managed to find one book – The Witch Boy – which does triple-duty: we’ll be talking about fantasy, graphic novels, and gender that week.

Both syllabi are below. I’m hoping to blog now and then about the individual lessons and assignments throughout the semester.

English 335: Critical Approaches to Childrens Literature

English 301: British Literature, Origins to Early Modern

Revising Syllabi and Assignments: Picture Books

It’s the end of the semester, and I’m waiting for final papers to come in so I can do some grading. So, naturally, I’m looking at my syllabi for fall…

I’m teaching two classes in Fall 2019:

  • English 301: British Literature, Origins to Milton
  • English 335: Critical Approaches to Children’s Literature

I’ve taught both these courses before, but I’m making drastic changes to both syllabi. I have a lot of thoughts about even just the name of the 301 course (origins? okay then). But I’ll save that for another post (maybe). Here I want to focus on one aspect of the 335 syllabus: the picture book assignment.

The last time I taught the class, in Fall 2018, I had students write two essays, an annotated bibliography, and a picture book. There was an essay that explored a children’s book award and one book that won the award; an annotated bibliography of children’s books focusing on either a genre or a time period; and a traditional literary final paper.

I thought of the picture book as a “small” assignment, and was astonished when students told me they were spending lots of time on it. I had envisioned it as a fun end-of-semester activity. I emphasized many times that stick-figure drawings were fine – as long as the picture book achieved its purpose of demonstrating that students had grasped some of the concepts we had discussed throughout the semester.

But I had erroneously been counting on students understanding pedagogical strategies.

Sure, I could know in my own mind that I would not grade the quality of art or construction of the book (beyond that there was some art and that the book was held together somehow).

But for students, when I ask for a picture book, the assignment is monumental. Coupled with their final paper, which I assigned to overlap with this “fun” assignment, they were understandably very overwhelmed.

Doing this assignment also made me aware of benefits I hadn’t even thought of. I had done creative assignments before, but they had been obviously smaller. In my early British literature surveys, I ask students to write a short poem or create a composite digital image (among other options) related to one text or theme of the course. But the picture book assignment – which I had designed based on other professors’ assignments I had seen – was actually far more complex and beneficial than I had realized.

I had left the picture book assignment for the end of the semester last fall because I had planned to read picture books with my class throughout the semester. I teach the class once a week, for 2.5 hours each session. I had planned my syllabus chronologically, providing a historical overview of the development of children’s literature. I intended to discuss one Middle Grade book each week, and then read and discuss one picture book each week. The idea was not to require students to buy picture books – we could have “reading circle” where I or a student would read the book aloud and show the pictures.

That didn’t work, for a number of reasons. First of all, doing a chronological study necessarily foregrounds white colonial children’s texts, and I was not happy with the way that turned out. We also had so much to discuss about each Middle Grade book that we didn’t get to the one-a-week picture book. Instead, we did a few focused activities using four or five picture books twice during the semester, and I set aside time in class for students to workshop their picture books at multiple stages.

For Fall 2019, I’m planning to do a unit on picture books at the very start of the semester instead, with students creating their own picture books at the end of that unit. I’ll assign the picture book in place of the first essay, and I will incorporate more direct instructions and limitations, thus allowing students to approach it the same way I intend it (or, more accurately, intending it the same way I know students will approach it).

Below are some samples of the books my Fall 2018 class made (used here with their permission). They show some great skills:

  • rhyming
  • image and text
  • page-turners
  • silliness
  • dealing with common fears
  • …among others

Using PowerPoint Projects to Teach Essay Skills

When I teach literature, my focus is on enabling students to make strong arguments about the literature and writing strong essays based on those arguments. Although I of course have specific things I want my students to learn from each text, my goal for the course as a whole is that students learn how to make any argument they want about any text.

This semester, I found that my students were able to engage in classroom discussion about various aspects of each text. But when it came to writing essays, they struggled with moving beyond summary into analysis. Their first essay of the semester was a close reading, and it went fairly well. But for the second essay, when I asked for an analysis of one of the texts we had discussed, the essays were almost entirely summary.

For a short-term solution, I set aside half a session of our once-a-week class for an in-depth lesson on the difference between summary and analysis, methods for understanding when an assignment requires one versus the other, and strategies for formulating a thesis (and an essay) that provides an analysis rather than a summary. I allowed students to revise their essays once more time for a new grade, and that worked in the short-term.

For the long-term, I added activities for future texts that would support and enforce the lesson on analysis. Since this is a Writing Intensive class, and since our class meets in a computer lab, I was able to build all of this into the lessons without adding extra homework for my students (almost all of whom work and have families).

One of these activities was a collaborative PowerPoint presentation, based on Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. In a stroke of luck, technology on campus was down on the first day of our discussion, so I had to revert to old-school material. It was frustrating at first to rush out and print worksheets instead of having everyone logged on to BlackBoard and Google Slides, but it actually worked in our favor!

Here’s how the two-week activity went:

Each of my lessons begins with a “Write Now” – a term I borrow from my years as a middle-school teacher. In regular classrooms, students write on papers which I collect. In computer classrooms, students write on BlackBoard’s Discussion Board. The immense benefits of this are that I can read their responses in real time, they can read each other’s responses, they can refer back to their responses all in one place when writing their papers, and – perhaps most importantly – we can use their responses immediately in that day’s lesson.

The “Write Now” assignments range from open-ended prompts like “choose a quote from the book and free-write about it” to more specific questions that guide students to more complex ideas, often asking students to consider theoretical underpinnings that we had previously discussed, like gender theory or the functions of various genres, in conjunction with the text.

For The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, I asked students to respond to one of three questions:

  1. This book is narrated in the first person (the narrator is the main character, using “I”). How does this choice affect the book? How does it affect the way the story is told? How does it affect the way the reader experiences the story?
  2. Junior is an amateur cartoonist, and this book has little drawings and sketches sprinkled throughout. How does the addition of images affect the way the story is told? Do the images simply illustrate what’s already said in the text, or do they add something else (content, mood, interpretation, etc)?
  3. The tone of the book (especially in the beginning) is very sarcastic. Why does Junior’s voice start out so cynical? How does the cynicism and sarcasm affect the way the story is told? How do they affect the way the reader experiences the story?

Since we didn’t have access to computers for this activity, I printed the questions and students wrote answers by hand. It detracted from my ability to see what was going on, but the next activity I had planned for the day – a “jigsaw” activity – allowed me to continually check in and ensure students were on the right track.

A “jigsaw” activity allows students to become experts on a single aspect of a larger discussion, and to then teach the aspect they are experts in to their classmates.

To start, I divided the class into six groups of three. Each group was assigned one question to consider. I asked them to start by discussing their own initial responses to the question, and to then move on to asking questions of each other’s responses, whether they agree, disagree, have more to add, etc. Finally, I asked them to make sure that they had citations from the book to support their answers.

Each topic was discussed by two groups. The second stage of the activity was combing the two groups who had discussed each topic for a broader analysis. At this stage, I asked students to make sure that each student was able to convey the group’s discussion and conclusions to their classmates who had not discussed this topic at all.

For the last part of the “jigsaw” activity, the class divided into groups of three, consisting of one student per topic. They each taught their topic to the others, which naturally led to a discussion of overlapping themes and connecting thread. (And where it didn’t naturally happen, I nudged them along…) Finally, we came back together for a full-class discussion of everything they had learned during this process.

For the PowerPoint activity, I had pre-created a Google Slides presentation and pasted the link on BlackBoard. Since we did not have access to computers, I printed the slides out for each student. After our mid-class fifteen-minute break (it’s a 2.5 hour class…), I asked students to jot down as much as they could for each slide, which was based on their previous discussions and/or questions from the Discussion Guide at the back of our books. They were not formally paired or grouped for this part of the lesson, but I encouraged conversation and collaboration. I asked them to each draw one sketch as well as writing bullet points.

Due to technological limitations, I had to improvise the next steps. I collected all the notes my students had written down, and I added them to the Google Slide presentation myself, consolidating only when points obviously repeated each other. I also took photos of some of the sketches and added them into the appropriate slides.

I then organized the first slide, which had been titled “Title and Cover.” There were enough details from my students’ notes to warrant dividing that first slide into two separate ones.

I left the rest of the slides a mess of bullet points, no organization at all.

In the following class, I divided my students into groups and assigned each one a slide with the mission of organizing it all. By the end of it, we had a full set of notes on most of the topics I wanted to discuss for this book.

After all that, I assigned the final essay of the semester… A joy! But I pointed out that we had been practicing all the skills that would help them do well on this final essay: note-taking, formulating analyses, organizing those analyses, and creating outlines.

We finished it all with one final slide. During the second week of our discussion of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, we had focused on the two basketball games between Wellpinit and Reardan. The question I had posed to the class was: How do these two scenes function within the text as a whole? In groups again, students discussed the two scenes and wrote a one-sentence (and in one case, a two-sentence…) “thesis.”

We’re off for spring break now, and I’m looking forward to reading my student’s drafts when we get back in May. After this, I’m hoping that my students will have improved in the areas of analysis, thesis, and organization.

Comics as a Tool for Summarizing and Understanding Essays

Sherman Alexie’s essay “The Joy of Reading and Writing: Superman and Me” includes a paragraph about paragraphs:

I still remember the exact moment when I first understood, with a sudden clarity, the purpose of a paragraph… I realized that a paragraph was a fence that held words. The words inside the paragraph worked together for a common purpose. They had some specific reason for being inside the same fence. This knowledge delighted me. I began to think of everything in terms of paragraphs. Our reservation was a small paragraph within the United States…

As the first assignment in The College of Staten Island’s English 111 Essay Sequence is a reflective narrative, this essay was perfect for my students to read and discuss. Not only is it actually a reflective narrative so that we could analyze the components of this genre; it also explicitly addresses the form of writing! I used this paragraph to discuss how and why we use paragraphs, the function of this element of an essay, when to start a new paragraph, etc.

I assigned Alexie’s essay for the week after my students had written a first draft of their reflective narratives. Last week, we had read two reflective narratives from the textbook Language Awarenessand we had discussed the genre and the essay assignment. They had submitted a first draft (with encouragement to “make it a shitty first draft“) on Tuesday, which gave me enough time to read and comment on their drafts before Friday. One of the major issues I noticed in their essays was a tendency to write their whole essay as a single long block of text – or at the most with an introduction, a very long body paragraph, and a conclusion. So in fact, the Alexie essay was perfect for this moment, when they would read my comments and prepare to revise their drafts.

And because Alexie talks about reading Superman comics before he could read text, I was led to thinking of an exercise that incorporates comics…

We started in class by zeroing in on the paragraph where Alexie talks about seeing the world in paragraphs. I asked students to define a paragraph in simple writing terms, and we then analyzed each of Alexie’s “levels” of paragraphs. We talked about how his reservation could be a paragraph of the “essay” of the United States, how his house could be one paragraph of the “essay” of his community, how each of his family members could be a single paragraph of the “essay” of his family… We talked about the comparison of a paragraph to a fence, and concluded that a paragraph break sets boundaries within the essay, marking the end of one idea and the beginning of another.

Alexie’s essay is particularly suited for this discussion because all of its paragraphs fit the standard description. Many other narratives include dialogue or single-sentence paragraphs for effect, and that would confuse the issue with unnecessary complications at this stage.

After that discussion, we focused briefly on Alexie’s use of the Superman comic, the way he vividly describes a single panel of the comic (Superman breaking down a door) and refers to this image at the end of the essay without actually mentioning Superman. We talked about how a comic strip functions similarly to an essay with paragraph breaks, with each panel serving as its own paragraph. (You could also argue that each panel is a sentence within the “paragraph” of a page or something similar, but I kept it simple for now.)

And then I assigned a group exercise:

There are eight paragraphs in Alexie’s essay. In groups of three, draw a comic strip consisting of eight panels – one for each paragraph. Discuss each paragraph with your group, figure out what the main point or main idea of each paragraph is, and then choose: images; text above the image; speech bubbles; and/or thought bubbles.

The class was at first delighted, then worried, about doing this exercise. But as soon as they started, they began 1) having fun and 2) really understanding the essay.

I circulated while they worked, helping them think through some of the paragraphs. I also had to nudge them along, reminding them of the goal of the exercise, as some groups got caught up in agonizing over how to draw a specific detail or whether their images were recognizable as what they were supposed to be. (Many weren’t! but that was fine because the purpose of the exercise was not to showcase artistic skills…)

The results were magnificent (see images below). In each of my two classes, I asked students to display their comics as a gallery on the desks at the front of the class, and invited them to circulate and read their classmates’ comics. They engaged in a lively gallery visit, chatting and picking up the papers to discuss with each other.

We briefly discussed how this exercise helped them understand the essay better. I explained that I had essentially asked them to write a summary of the essay, but since they were using images rather than words, it was far easier to cut out the unnecessary details. If they had included more details, they would have immediately seen that the images were cluttered. When they write textual summaries, it’s sometimes harder to see how many extra details wind up in there.

This exercise was set aside for a while after this. We switched to talking about their essays, reading one student’s essay together (I got permission before sharing their draft with the class) and talking about specific details to focus on while revising. I pointed back to their comic strips as we discussed how to incorporate reflection within each paragraph, rather than first telling the story and then writing a “here’s what I learned” section. After all, their comic strips contain almost exclusively narrative even though Alexie definitely reflects – because the reflection is embedded within the narrative, and the narrative is dominant in this genre.

To end the day, I asked my students to try drawing their own essays as comic strips. I emphasized that these would be different from the comics they had drawn from Alexie’s essay because their own essays were still in the process of being written and revised. “Start anywhere,” I advised them. “You don’t have to start at the beginning. Just choose an event or a moment and start drawing. You’ll reorganize the panels afterward, once you have something on the paper.”

In both classes, though they struggled to start, within ten minutes the class had fallen silent and the air was filled with intense concentration. I let them work in silence for a while, sitting at my desk so as not to disturb (after first circulating to make sure they were each confident about what they were doing). We’re in a small classroom, so I was able to continually scan the room and make sure they were all working.

Finally, I interrupted them and asked: Is this helping? The unanimous answer was yes. How? I asked. Their responses, with additional analysis from me:

  • Drawing each event or moment as an image forces them to remember details about the event or moment that they can now transfer to their writing. While they struggled to see how each event could be expanded in writing, drawing it made that very clear.
  • Drawing each event or moment as an image also made it very clear when a new paragraph was needed. In text, it’s easy to smash multiple moments together and not see how they each need their own fully-developed paragraph. But when you try to draw the story, sequencing it as a comic strip forces you to see each moment separately, and you can begin to separate the many individual moments and ideas.
  • Sequencing the story as a comic strip made some of them realize how disorganized their storytelling was in their essays. A number of them had jumped back and forth chronologically in their drafts, often repeating themselves because they had written essentially as a stream of consciousness… This exercise helped them see how often they doubled back on themselves, and made it clear that they need to cut and paste parts of their essay for better organization.

A few students commented that when they think of “telling a story,” they think of images more than text. I asked them if they meant comics, or if perhaps they were thinking of movies. They agreed that it was movies they were thinking of. I suggested that this is another method they can use when revising: think of your essay as a movie (with a voiceover if necessary – they enjoyed that) and make sure it makes sense that way.

I wrapped up for the day by pointing out that this drawing method is something they can use to annotate as they read for next class as well.

The whole exercise was a fun activity, took a lot less time than I had expected, and was immensely beneficial.

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(Images out of order – I’m not that expert at this! But it gives you the general idea, I hope.)

Syllabus Creation: A Nightmare Within a Dream

When I was offered a course on Critical Approaches to Children’s Literature at Lehman College for the fall semester, I was super-excited to get started on my syllabus. There’s so much I can do in a course like that! And then as I started putting it together, I got more and more frustrated with it: there’s so much I can do in a course like that…. How will I ever figure out which books to use and what issues to focus on?

It took quite a while, but I’m pleased with the final results. Just for fun (and because I kept exclaiming on social media as “things are falling into place!” and as they fell… out of place), I’m sharing a few drafts of the syllabus in various stages, including versions where I was going to require that my students read chapters from a textbook in addition to one children’s book each week (what on earth was I thinking??)

What I’m not showing here: the many lists and configurations of books and assignments. What you see here, in the images below, is just a sample of how I played around with the structure of the semester. (Links to screen-readable PDFs above each set of images.)

child lit schedule draft NOT USING

Note: The purpose of this draft, and the next, was to figure out the trajectory of the semester. I was never going to assign this much reading!!

syllabus playing around 1

child lit schedule draft NOT USING 2

syllabus topics 1
syllabus topics 2

child lit schedule draft 2

syllabus 1 - 1
syllabus 1 - 2
syllabus 1 - 3

Bernstein_English 335_Fall 2018_syllabus

syllabus final 1
syllabus final 2
syllabus final 3

Release and Relief on the First Day of Class

Yesterday was the first day of class for my two composition sections at College of Staten Island. Both sections meet once a week for four hours each week – a grueling schedule for any class, and even worse when the point of the class is learning how to write, and when four (FOUR) essays are required, with drafting and revision required for every one of them.

My first-day classes are always designed to get students to relax, to show them that while I expect them to show up and do the work, I also want them to enjoy themselves; I understand that my passions are not theirs; I am there for them; and I actually want them to do well.

We usually don’t do any grueling work in the first class session, which is devoted to going over the syllabus (boring but necessary, as I tell them) and a fun ice-breaker exercise that also results in some writing that they hand in so I can begin to get a sense of their various writing habits and voices. The grueling part starts after the second class – after they’ve had a chance to go home, decompress after the nerves of starting a new class, read a bit, and come back prepared to get to work. By the end of that second class, I assign a more intense writing assignment – usually the first draft of their first essay.

In a class that collapses the whole week into one day, I can’t do that. I had to rearrange some of my expectations. Even within the class session, I rearranged my expectations numerous times.

First, that was simply because the computer classroom which I had requested had numerous problems (including locking me out of the main computer so I couldn’t project anything on the board, and then locking some students out of the computers so I had to ask students to double up in order to look at the syllabus and couldn’t ask them to submit anything through Blackboard as I had originally planned).

But even without the technological problems, I had to continually adjust my expectations for how long first-semester students could sit and how much work they could do in a four-hour period. I gave them a fifteen-minute break halfway through the class, but in both sections they returned listless and tired after the break, so I ended class early and scrapped one of my planned activities while re-configuring an assignment I had wanted to work on in class to be done partly for homework and partly in next week’s class.

The main point of the first class session still worked, though – largely due to this cartoon I found on Facebook not too long ago and decided to include in my first day PowerPoint. (Not being able to project the PowerPoint, I instead uploaded it to BlackBoard during the 15-minute break and had students access it on their own computers.)

Cartoon by Kasia Basis

Reading the cartoon together in class had a few effects:

  1. It relaxed students’ worries about reading academic texts. It showed them that the texts we read and take seriously are not all academic essays. We can seriously read and analyze a cartoon or graphic story or essay as well.
  2. It forced them to try to pronounce a word in a language they’re unfamiliar with. 
  3. It allowed them to curse in class. I had underestimated just how much delight they would take in this, to be honest. I always assign “Shitty First Drafts” in composition classes (this was the activity that was pushed to the second week here). And the purpose there is to show that more relaxed language is okay, as well. But for reasons I’m still puzzling over, both sections reacted with delight and a bit too much enthusiasm to the cursing. (In one class, a student asked me if it’s okay to curse during discussion, and when I said “within reason, and get used to hearing me curse sometimes to,” asked me to define how much is okay. I was a bit alarmed at her enthusiasm, and tried to explain a bit about cursing can affect a conversation. I may have tone-policed a person of color as I did so [the student is a poc] and I tried to dial that back, and still regret how I responded to her, but… yikes. She’s not the only one in that class who showed a bit too much enthusiasm for cursing. I am on alert now…)
  4. It relaxed their worries about their own writing. This fun cartoon gave me a chance to show how and why their grade is only marginally based on spelling, grammar, punctuation, etc.

In both classes, before we read the final panel, I asked the class: “Is this true? Should her points be taken less seriously because she doesn’t know how to spell?” To my surprise, in both classes the initial response was “Yeah! She can’t spell, her argument is worthless.” But I didn’t even have to say anything, just waited a few seconds, and I saw their faces shift as they heard what they had just said… And then they all forcefully said NO. 

It gave me an opportunity to talk about the logistics of my grading, which is based on argument far more than mechanics, and also about the larger concept of separating language performance from ability to make logical arguments.

I always stress to my students that first drafts can be messy (or “shitty”) but I don’t think they fully grasp how much I mean that. After having read this cartoon with my students, I think I can expect shittier first drafts this semester – which makes me happy! Because that means they will be focusing on their arguments rather than on their grammar and spelling.

At the end of this discussion in one section, a student very sincerely thanked me for sharing the cartoon and the message that skill in grammar and skill in argument are two different things. (Incidentally, this is the same student who asked about the rules for cursing in class…)

The first day of classes was stressful, and went almost entirely wrong, with nothing working the way I planned. But this went right.

A Little Organization Goes a Long Way

I recently helped a friend who was struggling in her undergraduate classes. Her writing is excellent; she’s brilliant. But her organization was a mess. As soon as we sat down to begin working, she sheepishly admitted that her organization is terrible, and apologized profusely as she struggled to find the assignment sheet in her email, on Blackboard, on her computer, in her Google Drive…

As I watched her navigate through the various files, I sympathized. Yes, she needed some advice on how to keep her own files organized. But it wasn’t entirely her fault that she couldn’t find the documents – every professor’s Blackboard site was organized differently, and every professor’s file-naming system was different. One professor’s system was so sloppy that two folders had the identical name! She had to open each folder to see what files were in there, and she had to open each file to see what text was in there! It was a nightmare.

And it got me thinking – how many times do we fail our students by assuming they have skills like this? What if we took the time to very carefully guide them through our own organization systems and teach them how to create their own?

Obviously, we can’t standardize a single organization system that every professor would be required to use. But we can give our students skills so that when they’re taking four or five classes a semester, they can easily navigate through four or five different professors’ organization systems.

The first thing my friend and I did was talk about how she can download and organize every file in her own system. This is useful, because it eliminates the need to remember multiple different organization systems. It’s also useful for students without access to a laptop or a home computer, because every file can be downloaded to a school computer, and then uploaded to the cloud. CUNY schools now offer free access to OneDrive and Microsoft Word, so students can create their own folders and host all their class materials in one spot.

The system I use, and taught my friend:

  1. Create a new folder for each semester.
  2. Within that folder, create a new folder for each class.
  3. Within that folder, save the syllabus and any miscellaneous items.
  4. Create another folder for each assignment in each class, for easy organization of potential sources. Download each source rather than simply reading it online!
  5. Rename every document as soon as you download it.
    1. For research sources: “AuthorLastName_Title_Year.” If you discover that a source is not actually going to be helpful to you, rename it by adding another tag: “Author_Title_Year_IRRELEVANT.” Make that last tag all-caps so it catches your eye and you can easily tell that you should skip it.
    2. For documents like syllabi and assignment sheets, and for the documents you create on your own: “YYYY-MM-DD_YourLastName_Title_Class#_ClassName.” All the info you need is there for easy finding, your name is there for when you submit to your professor, and if you put the date first your folder will be sorted chronologically.

Some tips for professors:

  1. Separate out assignments from the syllabus. One of the things I noticed while watching my friend navigate three different styles was that some professors include assignments directly in the syllabus and some include a separate sheet. I myself have done both in the past, but it hadn’t really occurred to me how confusing that can be. From now on, even if I include full instructions for each assignment in the syllabus, I will add a separate document for each as well – not only for the major papers but for things like a reading log as well. It helps if a student knows exactly where to find the instructions for the task they’re sitting down to complete, rather than having to scroll through the whole syllabus to find it. When I used a class blog, I had separate tabs for each section of the syllabus (requirements and grading, reading and writing schedule, resources, etc). It’s a bit more work on my part to do that on Blackboard, creating separate Word docs or PDFs and uploading each separately – but worth it in the long run.
  2. Rename each folder in Blackboard/Canvas/etc. The folder names that Blackboard and Canvas provide tend to be generic things like “Course Materials” and “Information.” Some professors put the syllabus in Course Materials, and some put it in Information. Each one makes sense to different people for different reasons. But if you rename them, students will know exactly what is in each one. I tend to rename mine to “Syllabus” (which includes only one file at the beginning of the semester, and any updates or revisions to the schedule as the semester progresses); “Reading Assignments” (which includes PDFs or links to any non-textbook reading); “Writing Assignments” (which includes all assignment sheets as well as links through which to submit them). You can also rename the Discussion Board / Forum to reflect whatever you call it on your syllabus and in assignments. For example, in my composition classes this semester, that tab is titled “Writing to Discover” because I’m using that feature from the assigned textbook. In my literature class, that tab is titled “Reading Log” because that’s what I call the weekly response in my syllabus. It’s a small thing with monumental effects on a student’s ability to quickly and easily find it for each class.
  3. Keep your files in chronological order! Take the extra time to move your files around after you’ve uploaded them to Blackboard, putting the first week’s reading / writing assignments first, and keeping them all in order. It will make it so much easier for students to find the correct file if they can just scroll past the ones they’ve already done until they hit the new one.
  4. Walk your students through your Blackboard on the first day of class. Don’t assume that it’s self-explanatory, even after making your organization as clear as possible. Remember that your students may not be familiar with digital files – yes, even now, not everyone has access to a computer as often as you think! And if they usually use their phones to write papers (not ideal, but it happens – so roll with it!) they really do need to be taught how to navigate folders etc.
  5. Spend time with your students setting up their own files and folders. If you have a computer classroom, you can do this on the first day of class. If you’re teaching first-semester composition or the freshman seminar, this is especially helpful. If you don’t have a computer classroom, you can still show them how to set it up and assign that as homework, or you can request to use the computer lab for one class session and do it then.

My main point here: Students struggle enough with the work itself. With minimal effort on our part, we can eliminate the hurdle of getting to the work in the first place, and allow them to devote all their energy to doing the work itself!

Setting the Bar Low: Teaching Students to Draft

As the summer begins to wind down for me (what, it just started? ah well, it’s almost over too), I’m beginning to put together my fall syllabi in earnest. I’m teaching two sections of first-year writing at a new campus, the College of Staten Island, and as with every campus, I need to tweak my usual syllabus to fit their unique requirements.

I’m lucky not to have taken a complete break from teaching over the summer. Though I’m not teaching a college course, I continued to work with the high-school student who I tutor in literature and writing throughout the year. And as we work together one-on-one, in a style of teaching that is necessarily very different from running a full class of 20-25 students, I am learning new tricks and strategies that I can now use in my college classes.

One of these is encouraging students to fully embrace the drafting process.

In the past, my college students have dutifully submitted first drafts, but as often happens, their revisions for the second and third drafts are minimal. They fix what I commented on, but no more. If I point out a logical flaw in one sentence, they will fix that sentence, and not much else.

The problem is that they think of their first draft as “nearly-done.” I don’t. I don’t even want it to be nearly done! I want to see their thoughts and nebulous ideas early on, I want to see their messy thoughts, so I can guide them in the early stages to better and stronger logical arguments. As Professor Mark McBeth says to his graduate students (me included), “send me pages, no matter how messy and chaotic. I want to see your process” (paraphrased!).

Although I of course scaffold my assignments and have students do initial low-stakes work, their first drafts ought to be messier than they are. This will result in far stronger final drafts, which seems counter-intuitive to them. I even read Anne Lamott’s “Shitty First Drafts” with them, but they’re still afraid of submitting sub-par work.

So how to encourage students to turn in imperfect work?

I may have stumbled on a method while dealing with a slightly different obstacle that my high-school student was struggling with.

My student and I work together on her essays. Her drafts work differently than my college students’, because I can give her more direct and immediate guidance than I can provide to 25 students at once. She can write her paper section by section, if need be, and build better and stronger sections without having to wait for my feedback. We can slow things down and really get into the outlining and organization and sources etc., in far more detail than I can with a full class.

But when the time comes to write something – anything! – she becomes paralyzed with fear of not getting it right, and she has a hard time beginning to write. At the end of one session, I told her I wanted her to write an introduction in preparation for our next session. I saw her hesitation, and asked how she felt about that.

“Okay, I guess…?” she said. “I just think it’ll be horrible.”

I seized on that and said, “Okay, you know what? That’s your assignment! Write a horrible introduction!” We had a good laugh, I revised her written homework assignment, and she sat down later with gusto to write a “horrible” introduction.

Was it horrible? Heck, no. It was nearly perfect. But she had had fun with it! And when I pointed out one issue and taught her how to correct it, she was more relaxed – after all, I was critiquing a paragraph she had written to be horrible! She didn’t have to take critique of a paragraph she had attempted to write perfectly. We adopted this method for a few weeks, joking about how her task was to write “horrible” drafts, and to then polish them up – but remember to make them horrible first!

After a while, she casually commented to me that somehow, it’s easier to write when she thinks her task is to be bad. I laughed about her phrasing of “being bad.”

“It’s liberating to be bad, isn’t it?” I joked. And her face lit up. Yes! It’s liberating!

Seriously, then, I explained that yes, it is liberating to expect our work to be bad – if you’re not aiming for perfection at the first try, you’re freed to actually write and perfect it later.

And that’s when it occurred to me that I could adapt this method – which I discovered accidentally! – for use in my first-year writing classes.

I have two activities in mind:

Activity 1: I will use this McSweeney’s piece to show my students the typical essay gaffes. I have used this in the past, and my students found it hilarious and good-naturedly ‘fessed up to being guilty of using many of the tired cliches. It’s difficult to get through even the first paragraph without recognizing tics that many of them use, and it’s so over-the-top ridiculous that it induces ridiculous laughter:

Since the beginning of time, bullshit, flowery overgeneralization with at least one thesaurus’d vocabulary word. In addition, irrelevant and misleading personal anecdote. However, oversimplification of first Googled author (citation: p. 37). Thesis statement which doesn’t follow whatsoever from the previous.

After reading it and hopefully becoming more relaxed through laughter and camaraderie, students will then be put into groups and tasked with writing an essay about the theme of the class – but making it as horrible as they can, with as many cliches as possible, using the McSweeney’s essay as a model.

If all goes well, this should be a side-splittingly fun activity. I expect the room to be loud and boisterous.

Since both of my sections this fall will be one-day-a-week, four-hour-long sessions, I am trying to build as much fun and physical activity into the lesson as possible, to break up the monotony and to keep energy levels high. I also want to do this activity on the first day, when everyone is new to the class, to each other, and to me. If all goes well, in addition to being fun it will help create a cohesive group and set the tone for the rest of the semester.

The result of this will be at least four essays that are ridiculously shitty. I will post these essays to the (private) class blog so that students can revisit them throughout the semester.

Activity 2: I will assign a first draft of their first essay, reminding them that their first draft should be shitty. I will stress that it should not be ridiculous and cliched as their fun activity was. Rather, the point is not to worry about avoiding those cliches. The focus should be on getting the ideas down and having something to rip apart and redo for the next draft.

I hope that by that point, my cheerful “now go home and write a horrible first draft” will have the desired effect, and that students will feel more free to play with ideas in the first round so that we can begin to polish them up for the second draft!

Update to come in September…. 🙂

Postscript: As with any planned series of activities, I will have to gauge how the first one goes before I decide whether or not to implement the second. If either class doesn’t respond well to the “horrible essay” assignment, I will of course not go on to use that language for their first essay draft.