How does one learn to teach writing? (the teacher reflects)

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You may have noticed that some of my recent blog post titles are alike. That’s because the last paper assignment of the semester in my freshman English course is to write an essay that answers some personalized version of the question, “How does one learn to write?” I received great papers on how one learns to write thesis statements, how one learns to write through their mistakes, how Kanye learns to rap and graffiti writers in Style Wars learn how to bomb, etc. And in working on this project with my students (lesson plans for which I have yet to put up), I began thinking about how I learned to teach writing. Because this was my last semester teaching at U of M, at least for a while and likely for a long while or forever, the question seemed pressing and I began taking notes. Given that I’ve blogged lesson plans all semester for the expressed purpose of reflecting, taking a moment to formally reflect seems apt.

The list I ended up with is a combination of stuff I’ve learned to do, assumptions I’ve learned I hold, and activities or practices I want to incorporate in the future. I’ll split them up that way.

1. Assumptions I’ve learned I hold

  • Put the argument up front, in the introduction. Have a thesis statement. Have topic sentences and conclusion sentences that relate that paragraph’s work to the thesis. Hell, have paragraphs. Don’t relate your argument to the world. Just get in, prove what you’re proving, and get the heck outta there.
  • Group similar topics of conversation together in the paper; i.e., the same quote or source shouldn’t be discussed on different terms in different places, if it can be avoided (and it usually can).
  • Words can always be cut out.
  • Papers that went through multiple drafts are always better than those that didn’t
  • On a related note, you don’t fully know your argument until the end of writing–writing involves more discovery. Ergo, take that argument you found and draft it back into the beginning of the essay
  • Close reading is contextual: what you find should depend on what you’re looking for, and what you’re trying to prove
  • The difference between a (sophisticated) essay and a(n unsophisticated) report is the former’s acknowledgement of and critical approach toward its source material
  • The difference between “specific,” “explicit,” and “precise”: say a student writes, “Kanye’s verse holds a lot of emotion.” Asking them to be specific entails the questions, Which verses? Which words, which emotions? Then say they revise to, “Kanye’s words “X Y Z” are really important because they contain a lot of strong emotions about how he feels about problems in his community.” That is pretty specific, but it is not explicit. Which emotions? Which problems? Precision is when the author says, “Kanye’s words ‘X Y X’ and ‘A B C’ both connote strong anger” and I ask, can you be more precise, i.e., shade the differences in emotion between the two? Two moments are never identical, only more similar than different.
  • Complexity is crucial. Don’t ignore difference, incorporate it.
  • Don’t speculate, close read. Don’t moralize, illuminate.
  • Never use these words you used in high school: credibility, flow, counterargument. Replace them with truth, logic, complexity.
  • Writing has to be about something. You can’t prove a claim about the world or hiphop or writing or the University of Michigan in five pages, but you can prove something about that text, that song, that video (or their conjunction). And this small expansion of the documented universe is what we call scholarship.

2. Things I’ve recently learned to do (and want to do more of and refine my practice of):

  • Model argumentation by blogging my lesson plans for use in class
  • Use short creative writing assignments to teach students empathy not just with other ways of living but also with other ways of writing
  • Keep records of class and online participation  so that course participation grades are meaningful
  • Use rubrics, which I used to hate, so that students can see their feedback in the context of what better and worse work looks like
  • When students come to office hours, ask them to articulate their papers’ strengths and weaknesses before I read it, so that they develop reflective skills and I don’t give an impression of my omnicience and their dependency
  • Use the scientific method to describe the writing process, where planning and drafting involves making hypothesis, testing them against the evidence, tabulating results and drawing conclusions
  • To state the obvious, I’ve learned to teach writing through hiphop and plan to continue doing so. I’ve learned to do this through organization around a single album, and in a more cross-chronological survey fashion. I hope to refine both. I really want to teach a Ready to Die class. And a hiphop studies survey course. One day!
  • Use reflective writing to help students engage with their own writing practice

3. Things I want to do or want to do better

  • Use research questions as the first step in every writing project
  • Have students engage with real web texts more, through assignments like editing Wikipedia or Rap Genius, or writing blog comments
  • Teach close reading better and more thoroughly at the beginning of the semester
  • Have a discussion about quality and criticism at the beginning of the semester so that students don’t think my rules are arbitrary but instead see recognizing quality as a project for them to actively participate in
  • State these assumptions clearly at the beginning of class!
  • Start an online journal for students to publish and edit their awesome papers
  • Use wikis or google docs for students to collaboratively write documents that will outlast our one semester

So, it’s not enough to ask the question–I made my students answer it, and I ought to do the same. I think one learns how to teach writing by teaching writing. That’s where all these notes came from–teaching writing is the only crucible that works for this difficult and necessary task of learning how to be a better teacher. If I were one of my students, the above would have only been my first outline: now would begin the process of going back through old lesson plans, finding quotations to document how my teaching practice has changed, and crafting all those quotes and claims into a gorgeous argumentative paper that proves I learned to teach writing through teaching writing. Luckily, I’m the teacher – so I’ll just stop here.

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