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September 01, 2004

I read a good article

I read a good article on how to teach, "Teaching Student Writers to Be Warriors" by Lauri Mattenson, 2004 from the Chronicle of Higher Education, August 6, 2004. Here are excerpts, with my comments interspersed in italics.

When my husband goes to hapkido class, he bows before stepping on the mat. On the wall, the Hapkido Creed reminds them that they are studying much more than combat technique. It reads:






Indomitable Spirit

Perfection of Character

Those who study hapkido, aikido, or judo practice "do" (pronounced doe) -- the way. Not just the way of the sword or the way of the fist, but a way of life. Shodo (calligraphy), kado (flower arranging), and chado (the tea ceremony) offer some of the same benefits. Brush or sword -- both demand supreme focus and clear intention. Similarly, the study of yoga is much more than doing headstands and backbends. A devoted yogi initiates acts of service, disciplines his or her senses, and engages in self-study and the study of yogic scriptures, among other things.

That was a good list. Ought I to post it at the start of my classes? Students would, of course, think I was weird, but my purpose isn't to get students to think highly of me; it's to teach them.

Our university students, too, are learning a way of thinking and thus a way of life. Even if a college class teaches primarily technique or method, it still teaches students how to be students. Unfortunately, they are learning that success means mastering the system rather than their own impulses; that they should seek money, not meaning; and that as long as they shut up and figure out what the teacher wants, they'll get their stamp of approval. "A" almost never indicates accountability.

Wonderful writing! The only criticism I might make is that these three phrases are so good that it's a shame to put them all together--- they could have been three climaxes for paragraphs. But it's just a short article...


Below is what she tells her students:

"...Writing is an art form, but it is also a discipline that requires practice. Having said all this, I acknowledge that we are both part of a system that requires a final grade. So grading in this class will be a dialogic process. If you want to know how you are doing, make an appointment and come talk with me. I will first ask you to evaluate your own work, and then I will offer feedback. We will discuss it. You might not always agree with my assessment, nor I with yours, but at least we will communicate and thus bring a heightened sense of consciousness to the evaluative process. If you never make the effort to discuss the grade during the quarter, do not expect me to respond to post-quarter grade complaints. E-mail me anytime you wish to make an appointment."

Students in my classes tell me that no other teacher has ever asked them what they think of their own work. They are so accustomed to looking to teachers and parents for answers and standards that most of them have never bothered to create their own set of criteria, much less articulate them.

I don't think I'll try this, but the idea intrigues me. It is, of course, much closer to how we teach doctoral students whom we are advising (that is, who are writing dissertations, having finished their classes). The basic idea of this essay is very good, though: Teach the students that they should have their own standards, independent of grades.

So when they turn in their first papers, I ask them to look carefully at individual sentences rather than the paper as a whole. First I ask them to select the most powerful line -- only one. Then I ask them to define "powerful" on the back of the paper. For some of my non-native speakers, the most powerful line is the one they know is grammatically correct. For others, it might be the most poetic line, the most sincere line, the most convincing argument, or a particularly astute point of textual analysis. Students then read aloud their best lines, and we slowly shape a set of criteria we will use all quarter. Then I ask them to identify the weakest line in their own papers. We read those aloud and discuss what does not work -- for example, the passive voice, purposeless or repetitive sentences, run-ons. Since all of our examples come from their papers, they are engaged in the process and can apply our collective standards to their first revisions.

This probably works. I don't know if I could stand inflicting that kind of embarassment, though. It's not that the student would be embarassed by being asked to find his weakest line. I've done that, and it works very well, and the student sheepishly admits that if he'd spent more time he could have done better. The problem is the best line. I think many students would choose an embarassingly bad line, and I'd have to tell them that their best line is still substandard. In fact, I bet most of my students don't even know which their best line is-- a kinder approach would be for *me* to pick it for them. And I do in fact try to comment if I see a good line.

Sometimes I ask students to select the best and worst lines in each paragraph, or to exchange papers and do the same for a peer's writing, then re-exchange and edit the weak lines together. Other times they score their papers on a scale of 1 to 10 for content, organization, and style, and then offer brief explanations for the scores they selected. Those exercises make subsequent individual meetings much more productive. Instead of starting the conversation by explaining my red marks, I look at what the student has marked, offer suggestions, and then add others. More often than not, the students are able to identify at least some of their own patterns. After they turn in revisions, I meet with each student again and ask her or him to grade her or his own paper before I tell the student how I would grade it. When I first started this practice, I assumed they would all give themselves A's. On the contrary, they are often harder on themselves than I would be, and many sit for quite some time and reflect in earnest before they tell me the grade they've selected.

I like the paragraph exchange idea.

"My standards are with you for 10 weeks," I tell my students, "but yours are with you for the rest of your life." Slowly it sinks in (I hope), and they start to look internally for guidance before they look to me for approval or judgment. It is a significant shift. They usually see good grades as rewards and bad grades as punishment. Creating their own standards helps them to break free of that dualism. They also turn more toward each other. Class discussions become more honest and spontaneous, and peer critiques are sharper, more effective.

In my G492 course I found that. Debate and Hunting make learning more fun and more effective. I find this for myself when I am learning things as well as for students.

By the end of the quarter, students are able to identify, before I do, weaknesses in their own essays: gaps in argument, awkward phrasing, unorganized sections of prose, inappropriate tone changes, an ineffective thesis. And sometimes they come to me, look me straight in the eye, and say, "This is my best work." And then they tell me what makes it so good. In these days of "yeah, um, like, whatever," that is infinitely satisfying to me.

Of course it doesn't always work. Some students just want me to assign the grade so they can decide if they need to revise (anything less than an Ausually inspires revision), and they're not really interested in a discussion. A few students are so intimidated by the whole process that they avoid making an appointment until the end of the quarter. And every once in a while, the discrepancy between my grade and theirs is uncomfortable. But for the most part, they know that I will take seriously the grades they give themselves, and they start to approach their own work with a little bit more integrity.

That bit about integrity is important. It is not that students cheat, but that they don't respect their own work. Student papers actually can be good, but they are almost never written with an eye to anybody but the professor reading them. I try to convey the idea that somebody else-- an employer in the future at least-- will actually want to read what they write, but this is hard for students to believe. This is perhaps an argument for why students should write for the campus newspaper-- their *own* standards will be higher, no matter what level of editing they get.

Posted by erasmuse at September 1, 2004 12:26 PM

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