The march into January means that most instructors are welcoming a new batch of students with different attitudes towards their own writing. Because these attitudes play a key role in how receptive students will be towards the lessons your teaching, here’s one way to quickly get to know a bit more about your students.
Ask students to write two lists. In the first, ask them to list the top five writing highlights. In the second, ask them to list their five worst writing moments. Next to each item, have them explain in a few words why that moment belongs on that list.
As an example, I offer you mine:
- Writing a story for creative writing class about a smart but awkward kid who made up an out of town girlfriend so that people would think he was interesting. The story itself was not great, however, a cute girl in my class put a note on my story that had she known the kid from the story, she’d have gone out with him. As the kid was a thinly veiled version of myself, I was flattered even though she wasn’t single.
- Getting spotted by a classmate from my first creative writing class at a party. Because the classmate also knew the guy I was talking to, he approached my friend and said, “Dude, You know this guy? He’s going to be a famous writer some day!” The classmate was admittedly slightly drunk.
- Writing eulogies for my grandparents and uncle. While the occasion of writing these essays was very sad, I felt like the end of the writing experience yielded something I could be proud of because I was saying something that meant something to me.
- Writing the second to last graduate school essay I wrote. It was for my Old English class and because class was only classified as an undergraduate language course, I was not required to write an overly lengthy paper nor did I need to do research. I wrote a paper that went on for ten pages on a topic that I felt was unique and complex. It was the first time I can remember having more to say than was required of me.
- Writing a post on a fantasy sports blog that was then picked up by the Sporting News and promoted across their site and getting hundreds of hits in the same day.
- Writing my term paper for AP English. This was the first non-five paragraph essay we were asked to do and as I recall, the length had to be around 8 or 10 pages. I remember asking for a model essay to see what a good essay might look like, and my teacher refused. I wrote a crappy, meandering paper.
- Writing my autobiography for sixth grade. As I recall, I was really into this project at the start of it, but then it became a chore to complete. I don’t think I got to do much proofreading on it and got a C for the assignment.
- Writing a note to a girl in my sixth grade class revealing a crush on her that had smoldered for the whole year. Feeling that convincing her to like me was going to be too hard of a sell in my own words, I quoted a song I had heard on the Muppet Babies sung by Young Gonzo to Young Miss Piggy. The note was circulated around the room, though I can’t recall if the ridicule came from the fact that I quoted a cartoon show or from the fact that I had the gall to write the note in the first place.
- Writing my independent project for my DC semester. Perhaps the first indication that grad school would not have worked out for me, I had a semester long project to complete on my own. This meant reading a selection of books on my own and then writing out some sort of large project. I can’t even remember what the argument for this paper was.
- Writing, or trying to write, my article for comprehensive exams in graduate school. This could really be any paper in graduate school. The process for this paper consisted of me knowing I should do some research, putting that off, feeling guilty about putting it off, and then sitting down after it was too late to do any real research and trying to fake it.
The short term benefits of this assignment
Responding to this assignment lets you build an immediate rapport with your students and allows you to coach them on how to prepare for your class. For example, if I was responding to the above lists, I’d note that even in the highlights sections, there is little talk of feeling proud about the work put into projects and more thought put into their reception. This insight combined with the noted troubles the student had with procrastination would encourage me to start a discussion on the reasons why caring too much about the outcome of a paper sometimes leads to procrastination.
These lists also let you see the sins of writing teachers past, which will make you a better teacher. I know that personally I interpreted my 12th-grade teacher’s refusal as a sign that I had to do everything on my own from there on out, which discouraged me from asking for help. Because of this one act, I felt overwhelmed throughout college. In retrospect, that one moment affected both the 4th and 5th lowlight because feeling overwhelmed led to procrastination. Knowing the effect of these small moments has made me a better teacher; if I have to refuse a student help on any aspect of their writing, I’m always sure to explain why and to propose other avenues for helping them figure out what they need.
The class conversation that comes out of this activity can help you talk in productive ways about your expectations of students. Knowing the similarities and differences between your class and students’ past classes can help articulate to students why you take the approach you do and hopefully win them over to your approach.
At the same time, the exercises offers an opportunity for students to clear their own slates. One of the most powerful things you can offer students is the knowledge that their writing past does not have to be their writing future.
Long term benefits of this assignment
If you’re super ambitious, you can create a short profile of each students strengths/weaknesses and use these lists to target your suggestions. If you’re less ambitious, you can have students create their own profile. Either way, this will help you grade more efficiently. For example, if I received a paper that was riddled with silly mistakes from a student who wrote the above lists, I’d be less likely to write a comment that says: “Remember to proofread” and more likely to write a comment like, “I remember from your top five lists that you have trouble with procrastination. This paper looks like it was rushed. Stop by my office, and we can discuss strategies for getting papers done sooner so that you have time to fix smaller mistakes.” Knowing your students’ attitudes towards writing allows you to move away from simply describing their difficulties, and let’s you start providing ways to help them.
You can also use these lists to set up your writing instruction throughout the semester. Unless you’re the first writing instructor a student has had, most of them know what a thesis is, so if you tell them that you’re going to talk about thesis statements, many of them will put their brains in sleep mode. If, however, you walk into class and say that many in the class have noted they’ve been marked down for not having a thesis statement even though they felt like they did have one, then students see your instruction as a response to their specific problems.
Why have students do a list and not an essay
I know many instructors who use an autobiography of their self as a writer type assignment in the first week of the semester. While I love the reflective nature of these types of essays, I feel they’re limited by the essay label. Even when I asked students to simply write a letter to me explaining their strengths and weaknesses, some students see paragraphs and think five paragraph essay. If you get honest, informal answers, it’s likely you’ll get them from students who are already the more sophisticated writers. From the rest of the writers, it’s likely you’ll get vague generalities with few examples.
The list format asks students to focus on the specific examples and then explain each. It also asks for a balance of one highlight for every lowlight. Many writers who have an overwhelmingly negative attitude towards their writing will tend to leave out the positive experiences if they are asked to write a straight reflection. At the same time, if they have trouble filling out either list, it encourages them to think harder. Many students who have had a negative history with writing might have forgotten a time when they might have enjoyed writing and remembering that moment can foster hope that the future might be different.
The set number for each item also asks students to reflect on all their experiences and prioritize them. They might have many negative experiences but deciding which are the five worst really can alert them to what they need to work on in class.
You might be surprised what comes up on these lists. It’s highly unlikely you’ll see comments that say “One of the worst moments in my writing career was the time that I mixed up a subordinate and an insubordinate clause.” Most students want to feel proud of their work and to know how to achieve grades that reflect that work. While that seems obvious to us when we see it, it’s often something we forget when we’re trying to help out students. These lists open up possibilities for setting our own priorities and aligning them with students’.