There was a discussion earlier this semester on the Composition and Rhetoric listserv about the transferability of the skills we teach in the writing classroom. To a certain extent, we are valued for and tasked with teaching students a broad skill set that is supposed to support them in the rest of their college careers – and hopefully, as educated citizens, the rest of their lives (a tall order, to be sure!). This is why every student is required to take writing and pass an independently evaluated portfolio. Being a good writer is deemed essential for success in the university and beyond. I want to suggest that if we teachers of writing keep students focused on the skills themselves—if we get them to play the meta-game—we can maximize the effectiveness of our assignments, highlight the transferability of our teaching, and make the most out of our very precious and limited time with students.
Transferability is one of the things that makes teaching writing unique. Another, closely tied to this idea, is that writing is perhaps the least content-driven class taught at the university. In biology and chemistry and history and psychology there are facts and theories to memorize and be tested on. There is, I suspect, a reasonably consistent content taught in microbiology classes the world over. Not so in writing. We don’t even give exams.
To teach the things that lead to “good writing” there are as many strategies and curricula as there are writing teachers. There is no set of essays that every budding writer must read – there are multitudes of wonderful and engaging possibilities. There are endless potential topics for assignments and there are even many potential types of assignments. When I first started teaching writing, the sheer breadth of possibility sort of freaked me out. Where does one begin?! Now when I’m grading portfolios it is a source of wonder and pleasure to see all the different ways in which good writing teachers inspire their students.
So if we have no set curriculum in the writing classroom beyond certain outcomes we want our students to achieve and demonstrate, how do we make sure that the skills remain the focus and our particular assignments the vehicle for achieving those aims? In my classroom, I always have two parallel classes going on: the content I am teaching at the moment and the meta-content; the particular assignment I am asking the students to work on and the awareness of the skills and goals that assignment is meant to help the student learn or achieve; the class and the meta-class.
It starts at the very beginning of the semester with a discussion of what we value in good writing. I dig deep here, trying to get students to go beyond what they think I want to hear. I ask questions like: what was the last thing you read that wasn’t assigned, whether it be book, blog, magazine, comic book, whatever? What kept you reading? If you stopped reading, why did you stop? What grabbed your attention in the first place? How did the writer hold or lose your attention? And so forth. This discussion develops into a semester goal setting session. I ask each student to keep in a safe place (I usually suggest the last page of their notebook so that it is separate from their class notes) several specific goals for the semester based on what they know about themselves as writers and students. They can draw from our discussion of what makes good writing or they can develop new goals.
But the goal setting is not put away and forgotten. It becomes part of the meta-class. When I read the students’ writing diagnostic in the first week of the semester, instead of grading it the only end-comment I write consists of one or two goals I have for them for the semester. Maybe it is, “John, you should work on providing concrete examples for your assertions” or “June, add ‘improve transitions’ to your list of goals.” I then ask students to add my suggestions to their list of semester goals, in addition to noting for myself what I need to be sure to give extra attention in class.
It doesn’t stop there either: we continue to return to the goals throughout the semester. For each paper we add the particular skills we are trying to demonstrate to our list of goals. Perhaps for a personal essay we might add “use telling details effectively,” or for a research paper “contextualize research.” In peer revision sessions and as students gear up to perform their own revisions, they return to their goals. They share them with their peer review partner, so the partner has a sense of what skills in particular the writer is working on. Before students hand in their papers, I always have them be the first ones to make marks on them. I want them to get the sense that I am not the last word in whether their writing is “good” or “poor,” but that we are collaborators. Usually I ask them to write two things on the draft they are handing in for a grade. First they revise a sentence or two based on whatever grammatical concept we have been studying in class. I mostly teach sentence combining and using phrases to increase sophistication and variety and to teach punctuation. I might ask them to combine two sentences that repeat information using whatever type of phrase we’ve been working on (or they can add a phrase to include a new detail if they can’t find a good place to combine sentences – the trick here is to improve a sentence not make it worse!). Students are a little uncomfortable at first with the idea of writing on their nice clean draft. They are incredulous that I want them to mess it up. But it allows me to stress that this is not a “final” draft, that it is something we are still working on, practicing, and learning from.
The second thing I ask them to write plays even more directly into the meta-class. This time on the back of the paper I ask them to reflect on the process of completing the assignment and reflect on how it has helped them achieve their semester goals: how did they demonstrate the skills the assignment is asking them to demonstrate? What was difficult? What was easy? What goals were they focusing on? Where can I see that they have made progress on achieving their goals? And so forth.
Finally, when drafts are returned, we return yet again to the semester goals and to reflecting on how well they were achieved. Perhaps we add new goals or recommit ourselves to old goals. It sometimes happens that a student thinks s/he has done a really good job of achieving a certain goal, but I find that it is still not up to snuff. This is a crucial teaching moment! I need to convey to the student why it falls short and what s/he needs to do to continue to improve. And I need to do that without discouraging the student. Having the student’s reflection helps me better tailor my responses to individual needs. I know when a concept is not getting through and it’s time to try something new. Without the reflection, I might just think a student was being lazy and not revising. With the reflection I have a better idea of the students’ understanding of the skills I’m trying to teach. In these ways the meta-game helps my teaching as much as it helps the students’ writing.
The meta-class is also a part of my everyday instruction. I always try – how successfully, you’ll have to ask my students – to convey to the class how everything we do fits into our bigger picture. I’m as direct as, “We are doing X today because it will help us practice skills A, B, and C that we identified on day one as being integral to being a good writer.” I usually write the skills we’re addressing on the board.
There are many ways to practice the skills of writing and thinking. And we could no doubt have an engaging discussion about which skills in particular are the most central. The important thing to me as a writing teacher is that the skills themselves always remain my focus, and I try to keep in mind that everything else, the assignments I choose, the classroom activities I develop, the readings I assign, are always in service of those skills. Finally, I make sure the students are aware of the connections between the work and the skills. Because if we can engage the students in the meta-class, then the day-to-day class is that much more effective.