Often composition classes are booooring.
The students are bored; the teacher is bored. The curriculum is boring: predictably a series of readings on predictable issues with predictable written responses and standard points of grammar instruction. There is an occasional attempt to shake things up with a film, perhaps, or a different type of assessment, but these minor alterations don’t change the essential nature and overall structure of the course as a series of readings and writings in response. Some different strategies, or even perhaps an entirely new methodology and way of looking at writing instruction, have to be employed to engage students in a composition class.
Adopt These Smart Ways to Engage Composition Students
Get to Know Students
From the first day, the instructor should start getting to know students and what is relevant to them and their lives. For example, I taught composition to two radically different classes this term, one to a group of mostly Latino students in a rural and poor area on the edges of Sacramento County. The other was to a class of relatively well-off students in suburban Sacramento. The two classes had entirely different perspectives on such topics as the right to bear arms: because the ownership and use of guns is often a regular part of life in rural America, the former class was much more engaged with this topic than the latter class, who couldn’t relate to it--they and their families did not own guns and therefore the topic was not of importance to them. Knowing information like this about the classes helped me in making key decisions in shaping the curricula.
Make the Class Relevant and Interactive
One of the reasons students respond skeptically to writing classes, or even despise them, is that they have lost sight or have never even been introduced to writing as a means of communication between a writer and reader. For example, a colleague recently laughed at the title of one of my presentations at staff in-service, “Writing: An Act of Communication,” seeing that title as going without saying, but too often it’s a revelation to students. Students, in fact, often see writing as somehow “dead,” an inorganic and rote exercise of regurgitating various reflections related to barely comprehensible essays that were often written in a cultural context far removed from their own. Does it have to be this way? No, absolutely not--the instructor can choose readings related to students’ environment and concerns, such as prison reform, right to bear arms, and causes and effects of terrorism. Students can, with topics such as these, engage in authentic acts of communication through discussion and writing within the class.
Readings and Topics Relevant to Students
George Orwell’s classic essay “Shooting an Elephant” about his experiences as a British military police officer in India is a great meditation on the nature of power. But its context of the last days of the British Empire is far removed from students’ lives. A contemporary essay on our failing prison system, written by a prisoner, accomplishes the same goal of discussion of social status and power in a context that students relate to and results in more engaged discussions. Students should have some input into choosing readings and topics for discussion and writing. I therefore in the first days of class hand out a list of about ten possible class topics and have students in groups number them in relevance. By the end of class, we are able to achieve group and then whole class consensus on about five topics we will discuss during the term.
Foremost in creating engaged discussion is providing a safe environment where basic rules of courtesy are in operation so that students have a comfort level to express ideas that might normally be frowned on in an academic context: e.g., that higher education may not be worth the price tag; that gang members may not in fact be “bad people” by nature but simply navigating the social context into which they were born. Also important in creating productive discussions, besides the comfort level to express ideas, is having something to express. The discussions and readings will emerge from the topics that students have already decided on as relevant to their lives.
Some of the discussion can move to the online discussion threads, if the course has an accompanying website. Often students, especially more introverted students who need more time to reflect, find it easier to express themselves in an online discussion. Students can in this way, also, get more of a sense of their peers’ ideas. For example, on hearing about in class discussion one of her classmate’s research regarding costs of higher education and student debt, a hot topic in the U.S. right now, a student was motivated enough to go look up this peer’s work on the online forum, where works had been posted for review, because the topic was personally relevant to her.
The Class Debate
After relatively informal discussion on relevant topics, students are now prepared to engage in the more formal debate. The students are at this point may have radically different notions of the worth of extending our gun control laws or of how the nation should handle its immigration policy, for example. They can now begin to form tentative teams that will settle on one issue to discuss. From there, they will then divide into pro and con sides with the intent of making a better case for their team than the opposing side In doing this, students have to go out and find relevant research to support their position. It is impossible or at least inadvisable, for example, to argue either side of the issue of gun control in the U.S. without researching the exact wording of the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which first addressed this concern within U.S. culture. The team should as well be aware of major subsequent laws that have either limited or broadened the Second Amendment’s scope. If the team has not done this research, then their presentation will not be as good.
Individual Research Projects and Relevant Writing Students Are Invested In
At some point students are no longer writing so much for the grade but because they have something to say. The returning veteran has something to say on the high cost and relevance (or lack thereof) of higher education; the owner of a poultry farm has something he wants to express on the topic of the health and ethical benefits of vegetarianism. These, again, are topics that students have themselves chosen, have been discussing and reading about much of the term, have debated, and are now invested enough in to further research on their own. At this point, students can choose topics that are--usually--related to material they have been interacting with all term and begin to write their research projects. A couple of students have gone so far as to submit their work to forums outside of the class: letters to the editor, for example, or writing competitions.
Creation of Academic Community
On the last day of class, one of my students exclaimed, looking around at his peers with whom had formed a collegial relationship, “I can’t believe it’s all over!” He was now part of a writing community that had engaged in sharing ideas all term.
Creating an academic community in which students discuss, research, and write about topics valuable to them is hard work, involving knowledge of students and the issues that important to them. But by investing time in getting to know students and their concerns, the writing teacher can create a community that engages in authentic research, writing, and discussion.
What are some authentic writing experiences you engage in with students?
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