Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Developing a writing course on the run

By Katy Miller

I'm teaching writing to non-English majors (international business students) who are now second year, and taught a writing course to university teachers last semester. I developed the course on the run as I'd never taught writing before and did the course at short notice, and am still not sure if I'm "doing it right", but I'll share the things that I did and that worked well.

Most classes combine a bit of group discussion with writing. One thing that worked well was getting them to write a paragraph in class about "the most important thing in the world" (it could be any essay topic).

The students then swapped their paragraph with another student, who read it and wrote their comments. Then they swapped with a third person. When they received their own paper back, they considered the comments and expanded the thing into an essay as homework. I did that because at first the students were obsessed with getting grammar right, so they fretted over correct grammar while sometimes their writing was devoid of any real content. So I focussed on getting depth into their writing and getting them to see the ideas as being as important as the form.

I did a lot of creative writing too. Once I got them to close their eyes and imagine an island, and then write a descriptive passage detailing what they saw in their imagination. That worked - instead of getting "it is very beautiful" we got "there are giant orange flowers and rivers with black water" etc.

With story writing I got them to dream up a character, then got them into groups of 3 or 4. Each group shared their character and wrote a story together based on what would happen if their characters met.

For business writing I really focus on getting the students to think the process through before putting pen to paper; ie: cover letter for a resume. What kind of person would the employer be looking for? What sort of information can you give briefly in the cover letter about your skills, qualities, experience, etc. that they would be interested in?

So lots of the time I introduce the topic, they discuss or we discuss it as a whole class, then they write. I get them to aim for brevity and effectiveness. We do lots of brainstorming to start the process. We're going to do things like note-taking and editing later on, too. I'd also like to organise a web page to put some of their writing onto, because they're learning how to do webpages in another class and it would be a good way to kill two birds with one stone.

For the teachers I didn't set homework - they wrote in class time as they had so little time to do it. If we didn't finish a task in class time I got them to complete it as homework.

I'm tougher on my undergrads as a lot of them tend toward laziness. They have to keep a diary (not a lot of work - just three entries a week and they don't have to be long). I also have assignments they're working on consistently - at the moment they're just about ready to hand in the "stories of success" assignment where they had to interview a person they consider to be successful(they can interpret "success" any way they want) and write an article about how they became successful. Basically, I make it so they write a little most days if not every day.

Beware of homework assigments which are too general. I had real problems with plagiarism last semester, when I, perhaps stupidly, set a take-home exam. There were a few choices in the exam, and one or two topics were too general. So out of a class of 45 students, about 20 or 21 plagiarised - some out of a well-known textbook, some from newspapers, from a wide range of sources. I was pretty astonished by that!

I would maybe expect it from some undergrads, but not from so many university teachers. They simply didn't see what was wrong with it - the important thing was to "get the right answer", not to submit your own work, good or bad.

I was too surprised to be outraged, actually! You can combat that by making the topic a little weird so that it's too difficult to find material to copy. One of the options in my exam, which some students chose and did very well in, was "write a story incorporating a frog, an old newspaper, a storm at sea, and a pair of boxing gloves". That was fun and you can bet they weren't plagiarised. They liked that, too.

We had a successful lesson doing haikus and limericks. They thought that was fun. There, I just wanted them to get an appreciation of using language for beauty in the case of haiku, and fun in the case of limericks.

As a time-filler, they also like that game where you get the person in the front row to write half a sentence on a sheet of paper, then fold it over so the next person can't see it. The person behind him completes the sentence and begins a new one, then folds it over again, and gives it to the person behind. When everyone in the file has written a part, someone reads out the whole story - usually delightfully weird. Takes a while to explain but after the first time you can use it to warm up or to finish a gruelling lesson. It can be done in ten minutes depending on the size of the class. They did really enjoy that (me too).

You have to write on the board something like "first person should finish with "and", second person should start with a proper noun and finish with a verb, third person should start with an article and finish with an adjective, fourth start with a noun..." so it makes some semblance of sense.

Main things I try to stress then are: thinking about what to write before beginning (audience, structure, ideas); generating a concern for content; controlling the language in its written form rather than the language controlling them; achieving more depth and 3-dimensional-ness to the writing which tends to be very "flat" if the student is overly concerned with correct grammar; and writing as communication. I do talk about grammar when necessary - particularly tense which is a problem in writing.

A lot of my students enjoyed the classes and started producing some pretty good stuff - but there was one who wrote in the final exam "we haven't made any progress because you didn't understand what we needed to learn" which, he argued, was correct grammar and a broad vocabulary which can only be learned through repetition and memorisation. He argued that the basis of writing is words, of which they didn't know enough.

I disagree - I think the basis of writing is ideas, whether in your own language or another. I used to tell them "there's no such thing as practice" - if you're writing something, always write something "real". Ah well, you can't please everyone! The essay was well-written so I gave him agood grade. I look forward to reading other people's ideas and experiences of teaching writing. I actually prefer it to teaching speaking.

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