In-Class Activities for Teaching Writing
by Derek Bruff, CFT Director, cross-posted from Agile Learning
I’ve been teaching my first-year writing seminar on cryptography off and on since 2010, and yet I still feel like a rookie when it comes to teaching writing. I’ve learned a lot, certainly, but there always seems more to learn. That’s why I was excited about the theme of the second day of the Vanderbilt Center for Teaching’s recent Open Classroom event: teaching writing. For the event, we recruited experienced instructors around campus to open their classrooms, inviting other faculty, staff, and grad students to sit in on their classes and observe. The teaching visits aren’t meant to be evaluative; instead, the visits are meant build community among teachers at Vanderbilt, and to generate rich discussions about teaching and learning around concrete shared experiences.
I appreciate the event because I get to see my colleagues in action, and I always come away inspired. This year’s event featured a different theme each day: teaching large classes, teaching writing, and teaching inclusively. I did a good enough job clearing my schedule that I was able to attend three classes that focused on teaching writing, and each provided me with new strategies I can take to my own writing seminar.
One visit was to the classroom of Bryan Lowe, assistant professor of religious studies, who is teaching a course called “Buddhist Literature from Buddha to the Beats.” That’s a great course title, and Bryan has been involved in a few CFT programs over the years, so I was excited to see him in the classroom. His students were gearing up for a paper comparing two texts: Life of the Buddha, a second century text by Aśvaghoṣa, and Siddhartha, a 20th century novel by Herman Hesse. Lowe brought a fair amount of structure to what could have been a free-flowing discussion of the two texts. He started class with a think-pair-share activity that asked students to map similarities and differences in the two texts. Thanks to the “think” and “pair” phase of the activity, the “share” phase went well, with at least ten of Lowe’s 15 students contributing something valuable to the conversation in the first five minutes.
It was later in class that Lowe provided some explicit writing instruction. He asked each of his students to draft a potential thesis statement for their upcoming paper based on the class discussion that just occurred. The paper asks students to make sense of the two texts, so there was a lot of alignment between the in-class discussion and the upcoming writing assignment. After giving students a few minutes to draft thesis statements, Lowe asked for a volunteer to share their draft statement on the white board. No one volunteered, so Lowe had a little fun spinning his pen to select a student at random. It was clear that Lowe had a good rapport with his students, something I’m sure he’s been intentionally cultivating all semester. That helped keep this cold-calling situation from being stressful.
After the randomly selected student wrote her statement on the board, Lowe led a class discussion analyzing the statement, focusing on what made it effective and how it could be improved. Lowe drew on a conversation he had led the week before with his students about the elements of a good thesis statement, using the sample on the board to reinforce those ideas with questions like “Could someone argue with this thesis statement?” and “Are these verbs specific enough?” I appreciated the analytical approach Lowe took with this activity, as well as the fact that it was an all-skate activity, since each student was invited to draft a statement before participating in the discussion about the statement on the board. Although only one student got feedback from the entire class, each student could compare their draft statements with the class analysis.
Earlier that day, Paul Kramer, associate professor of history, also shared student writing samples in his course “Writing for Social Change.” The course explores the practice of narrative, nonfiction writing for social change, the kind of writing that journalists might use in a New Yorker piece or a book exploring some social issue. Kramer wanted his students to start practicing this kind of writing early in the semester, so he asked them to find someone on campus or in the city they didn’t know, interview them, and then write an 800-word profile of that person. The goal was to practice the kinds of writing moves that invite a reader into the life of an interesting person.
During class, Kramer shared a sentence or two from each student’s profile, highlighting something that really worked in their writing. He would post the name of a student on the projector screen, then invite that student to provide a little background on the interview they conducted and profile they wrote. Then Kramer would share an excerpt from the profile and discuss elements of narrative, nonfiction writing that the student used well. Over the course of the activity, Kramer discussed irony, storytelling, interview techniques, word choice, sentence structure, alliteration, and more, all through exemplary student work. Illustrating each of these elements with concrete examples worked really well, both for clarifying the elements and providing ways that students could implement them in their own writing.
After three or four student examples, all featuring strong writing, I wondered if Kramer was going to show examples that needed work. Nope. Every single student got a showcase for their writing, and that was by design. At the end-of-day discussion, Kramer noted that it wasn’t easy finding great excerpts from every student, since some of their profiles weren’t strong. But he knew this was a new genre of writing for most of the students, and they needed encouragement to jump in and practice it. So he made sure each student got a chance to shine during class. I love this strategy! We spend a lot of time in my writing class analyzing student work, trying to make it better. But there are writing moves that students struggle to make, so taking the time to share examples that work is important to help students see what they’re capable of.
Brooke Ackerly, professor of political science, hosted a visit to her “Feminist Theory and Research” course. She started class by reviewing the procedure for her students’ upcoming midterm. It wasn’t a midterm in the traditional sense; instead, it was an opportunity for her students to consider their final paper topic through the lenses of the dozen or so scholars they had studied during the course. This was one of several design choices Ackerly made to structure the whole course around her students’ development as writers. Even the ways she framed her in-class discussion questions were useful to her students as writers. At one point, as students were discussing the readings for the day, Ackerly asked, “How can we help these authors make their case better?” That’s the kind of thing her students will need to do in their final research papers, so it made sense to practice it during class. And I appreciated the positive framing of the question, in a course that involves a lot of critique.
Ackerly brought a lot of generosity to the class conversations, even as the conversations got hard. Topics for discussion that day included the role of men in feminist activism, the nature of pedophilia, and the current Supreme Court nomination hearings. After a somewhat tense exchange among a few students, Ackerly reminded the class that in these critical conversations, “all the vocabulary we have is the vocabulary we have.” That is, as we critique entrenched power, we’re often limited in using vocabulary that comes from those broken systems. Finding and creating better words is hard, and so we have to give each other a little grace. I thought it was a powerful moment in the classroom.
At the end of class, Ackerly wrapped up with a conversation about student-submitted discussion questions that she didn’t use during class. Her students complete “reading sheets” before class, and these often ask students to create and submit potential in-class discussion questions. As she talked about the strengths and weaknesses of some of the unused questions, she reminded students that a good discussion question is often the start of a good research question. Yet again, Ackerly was taking the chance to prepare students for their final research paper, thought a small class activity.
My takeaway from the day is that teaching writing requires this kind of course design. That is, learning to write is hard, complex work, and students need lots of opportunities to practice pieces of that work. All three professors designed a variety of small in-class and out-of-class activities into their courses to give their students that practice, and to provide feedback on that practice. I finished the day with a lot of ideas for my own writing seminar, and a renewed energy around designing the seminar to intentionally build my students’ writing skills. I’m thankful for Bryan and Paul and Brooke for opening their classrooms, and for my colleagues at the CFT for organizing such a fantastic set of teaching visits.
One more tip: During the end-of-day discussion, Brooke Ackerly described her approach to office hours in a writing course. I paid attention, since I had just finished my own office hours, and I didn’t think I did a particularly good job helping students with their paper revisions. Ackerly said that during office hours she invites her students to listen in as she works one-on-one with other students. Each student’s writing is different, of course, but she finds that all of her students can benefit from hearing how she works with their peers, since many of them are facing similar challenges in their writing. As she described this approach, I realized that it’s how I handle office hours when students need help on problem sets. I tried this approach the very next day with my writing students, and it made for a more relaxed and collaborative environment, with students learning from each other as well as from me. Thanks, Brooke!