Catherine Payne

 Part I: Why WID?

When I was a student in university, I never gave much thought as to how my classes were taught.  In retrospect, I had a child-like belief in the infallibility of my teachers (sort of like the Pope) in their respective disciplines.  If I didn’t ‘get’ a concept, theory, or assignment I would assume it was because I didn’t understand the question or problem and go back to my books and notes and earnestly try to find the answer.  It never occurred to me that perhaps some of the courses I took in school were badly designed, poorly explained, or worse, had nothing to do with the actual course content.  I remember one of my undergraduate courses was Shakespeare’s tragedies, one of which was King Lear.  My final term paper asked us to write about Edward Bond and his relationship to King Lear.  Who was Edward Bond?  It was a good question because none of us students had ever heard of him.  It turned out that Edward Bond was a British playwright who re-wrote the King Lear story in the 1970s and told it from a 20th Century, totalitarian perspective!  The problem wasn’t Edward Bond.  The problem was that his name had never come up in any previous course discussion or lecture.   Another zinger was the irritatingly generalized, maddeningly opaque essay topic such as “Feminism and the Bronte sisters – discuss” or “Write an essay about the Romantic poets and their relationship to nature.” From my perspective as a student and novice, I accepted that this was the way learning worked; fumbling around in the dark until by some magical flick of a switch, you would make the transition to teacher and expert.  How you actually made it there was a mystery.

Several years later, I realized that my university professors knew what they wanted from the students and had an underlying purpose, but frequently that purpose wasn’t stated.  For example, the Lear assignment was actually a good idea.  The professor gave us the basics and then wanted us to further our skills by doing some independent research.  The problem wasn’t the idea; the problem was that it wasn’t explained to us.  The communication gap that happens between instructor and student really hit home when I started teaching composition as a graduate student and I began to realize that much of my journey as “clueless in academe” (to coin Gerald Graff) arose from poor articulation of ideas and lack of understanding as to how learning works.  I honestly had no idea how to teach English when I first started but I approached it much like a mathematical equation (x+y=z), the noun goes here, the verb goes there, add an adjective or preposition and . . .  congratulations! You can now write a sentence!  Wrong, wrong, wrong.  Although I couldn’t articulate it at the time, to paraphrase Bean, I approached writing as an isolated set of skills that could be separated like tools in a tool box (17).  I know now that the art of writing doesn’t work like that.

As a new teacher at Dawson, I relied heavily on the traditional five-paragraph essay (three per semester) model.  I leant towards extended lectures in class and then assigned topics and would be baffled when the students didn’t perform to expectations.  Over time, I have come to see that a lecture based approach doesn’t really work when it comes to the actual practice of writing.  You need to actually write in order to improve (sound obvious right?).  I was looking for new ideas and new ways to teach and I heard about WID.  My office-mate had taken the program and spoke highly of it and I have to say I agree with him.  WID has shown me new and exciting ideas when it comes to writing, thinking, and learning.  Here are some ideas/thoughts on that have come out of my WID experience.

 

 Part II: Critical Thinking Combined with Low-Stakes Assignments

As an English teacher, most of my assignments tend to focus on the thesis driven, argumentative style of writing.  I have wrestled and fretted about many students’ tendencies to produce work that Bean refers to as the “and then” (24) writing process.  Briefly, “and then” is a student’s summary of a work rather than an analysis.  The student writes an essay that explains (sometimes very well!) what happens in the text as opposed to proposing an argument or presenting a debatable thesis.  I really liked Bean’s comments on what he refers to as “cognitive dissonance” (29) or, in other words, a deliberate attempt to turn the tables on students’ assumptions and beliefs by challenging them with a question or a problem.  I started presenting these assignments as in-class writing exercises.  In the course outline, I reserved 20% of the overall grade for informal, think pieces to be done in class.  As they are spread over the course of a semester, the individual writing pieces are benign in that they are only worth a couple of points.  Thus, students are given a fairly complex problem within a low-stakes arena.  The idea is that students can explore the issue freely without the stresses of a major assignment.

Here is an example of an attempt to create cognitive dissonance in my students by challenging their assumptions about a figure in Jeannette Walls’ memoir The Glass Castle.

  •  Most people regard Rex as a wholly bad father and husband because of his alcoholism.  However, this simplistic belief disregards certain important aspects of Rex both as a parent and a husband.  Write a letter to a family member or friend that acknowledges Rex’s shortcomings but also argues that he has redeeming qualities as well.

 

Part III: Drafting, Backwards Design, and Formal, High-Stakes Assignments

As a student in university, I only remember one teacher who encouraged students to think of writing as a process instead of an end-result in and of itself.  It was the one time I remember drafting and re-submitting papers to a professor.  It was hard work and I remember being very reluctant to throw out ideas that were pointed out to me as not working, but ultimately, it was rewarding as I could see how my writing refined and improved with each successive draft.

I vividly remember this experience because for the first time I was looking at writing not as a top-down, lecture-orientated end product but more as what Bean refers to as a “brouillon” (18), a deliberately messy, disorganized journey which I quickly forgot about as I made my way from student to teacher.  My own early teaching experiences were the traditional, pedagogical based methods.  Here is the topic, present an outline for approval, go and write the essay, and receive a grade at the end of it.  It was only when I took the WID program in the winter of 2013, that I was reminded of “brouillon” and the essential messiness of writing as a process.  I instinctively recoiled because I am a tidy, methodical, structured person so any reference to disorganization makes me nervous.  However, I came to appreciate the importance of drafting in the writing process, especially when it comes to high-stakes assignments.  Logically, the first draft is never the best one.  It is the one where we make mistakes and present ideas that are half-thought through and incomplete.  Therefore, why would we grade a first-run paper as though it was an end result?  Many of the one-run only essays tend to be extended summaries that don’t present an argument or a valid thesis but the students don’t get a chance to improve and correct ideas because the assignments are designed as one-shot only projects.  This doesn’t make sense if we look at backwards design.

Generally, when I think about backward design, what I tend to do is look at the Exit profiles required and work from there.  A Literary Genres 102 Exit profile requires that students be able to (among other things) “develop a critical analysis that is distinct from personal reaction or plot summary.” The challenge becomes then, what needs to happen in order for students to start developing this skill?  The one-run only paper doesn’t help them cultivate the ability to analyze.  Moreover, it actively discourages them to think of writing as a process because it is presented as a finite structure instead of an evolving, maturing process.

In addition, I have spoken of the difficulties a number of students encounter when it comes to distinguishing between summary and argument.  I found that Marc McLeod’s assignment design particularly useful in creating what Bean refers to as problem-focused / topic-focused tasks (102).  By designing problems instead of topics, I find that it encourages students to look at the assignment as a puzzle that needs to be solved instead of writing a report about the text as a whole.  I also appreciated the comments Bean made about the design of writing assignments as opposed to the amount of writing.  For example, Bean divides effective assignments into three parts:

  1. Interactive components (brainstorming, drafting, feedback on drafts etc.)
  2. Meaning-constructing tasks (students think for themselves about problems in the text)
  3. Clear explanations of writing assignments (what is clear to the instructor is not always clear to the student)

What follows is an attempt to construct a high-stakes assignment that encompasses the three components of effective design:

 

Literary Genres 102 – The Memoir

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

35% of Overall Grade

Breakdown of Grade:

 

  • Brainstorming (2.5%)
  • Think Pieces (2.5%)
  • Draft # 1 (10%)
  • Peer Review (2.5)
  • Individual Consultations (2.5)
  • Draft # 2 (15%)
Think back to the Philip Larkin poem “This Be the Verse” at the beginning of the semester and his message about family in general.  As Larkin mocks the family unit along with all its dysfunctions in his poem, The Glass Castle is essentially a family’s individual and collective attempt to deal with trauma.  Walls’ story involving herself and members of her family is frequently painful and disturbing in that it deals with some ugly truths about human nature.  Although her revelations may seem strange and even outlandish to the casual reader we need to keep in mind that however unlikely her experiences may be, the emotions and feelings she describes are universal in that they are felt to a greater or lesser degree by all of us.  Using The Glass Castle as your only reference, write a 4-6 page (typed, double-spaced, stapled) essay answering one of the questions below.  This is a scaffolded assignment in that there are several components.  Brainstorming and think pieces will be done in class, individually and in groups.  Draft # 1 is to be written at home and is due March 6th.  Peer reviews and individual consultations will take place in class (date to be announced).  Draft # 2 (final draft) is due April 8th.   Assume that you are writing an academic paper.  Also assume that your reader has picked up the paper because of the interesting title.   Please make sure you follow MLA style guidelines.1. Faith is a subject that weaves its way throughout The Glass Castle. The idea of ‘faith’ does not remain static or frozen but evolves.  How does this shifting notion of faith mirror Walls’ development as a person?2. One of the most destructive emotions that a human being can feel is that of shame.  For this problem, address the ways in which shame makes itself apparent in The Glass Castle. 

3. One of the more problematical issues in The Glass Castle is the concept of values.  In her narrative, Walls demands that the reader question his or her preconceived notions about right and wrong.  What methods does Walls employ to achieve this?

 

 

And, below is an example of a Peer Review (Adapted from Bean, Engaging Ideas, 297)

 

Peer Review Sheet for Draft # 1In-class assignment (2.5%)
  1. Locate the thesis statement and underline it.  In your own words, what is the student’s central argument?

1. Is the paper clearly organized around the thesis statement?  Do all points relate back to the thesis?

2. Does the writer use evidence from the text to support his or her argument?  Which are the strongest and which are the weakest?  Why?

3. Highlight or underline any passages that you find confusing or that you had to read more than once.

4. What specific advice would you give this student in order to improve his or her essay for the second draft?

 

 Part IV: Grading Student Writing

I have had many a sleepless night trying to figure out ways in which to grade student papers.  I have flip-flopped between grading with rubrics and grading without rubrics, I have worried and fretted about which is ‘best.’ I have listened to a dizzying array of opinions as the pros and cons of ‘sheet’ marking VS ‘instinctive’ marking and I think both have merit.  Generally speaking I don’t really like rubrics that are too precise with numbers.  I have used them before, and I find them too constricting.  However, I do like to use rubrics with my assignments and I agree with Bean in that I like to tailor them according to the task at hand.   I also find it useful to explain to students what an ‘A’ paper looks like, what a ‘B’ paper looks like and so forth.  Below is a description of how I define numerical grades in my classes:

  A (Excellent / Superior)

(90-100)

 An “A” paper meets the standards in all of the grading scheme areas and excels in one or more of them.  The paper has a clear purpose and treats its subject and thesis in a thought-provoking and original manner.  The paper is clearly organized.  Paragraphs are coherent and fully developed with detail that supports the paper’s thesis.  Sentence patterns are varied, and the paper contains very few, if any, errors in grammar and punctuation. 

 B (Very Good / Strong)

(80-89)

 A “B” paper meets the standards in the grading scheme areas.  The paper as whole presents an interesting subject and approaches it in a consistent and careful manner.  The paper does display some insight although without the originality of an ‘A’ paper.  The organization of the essay is suitable to its purpose, and its tone and vocabulary are also appropriate.  Paragraphs are generally coherent, adequately developed, and successful in supporting the essay’s main idea.  Sentences are, for the most part, easy to read due to relatively few errors in grammar and punctuation.

 C (Acceptable / Adequate)

(70-79)

 The paper as a whole presents a subject or main idea, but the treatment may be trivial, clichéd, or vague.  The purpose and organization are adequate but inconsistently carried out.  Some paragraphs lack coherence or supporting detail or may be only loosely linked to the main idea.  Some sentences may be excessively wordy, vague or otherwise incorrect.  Vocabulary may be inadequate or inappropriate for an academic essay. 

 D (Pass / Weak)

(60-69) 

 The paper generally presents a poorly defined or inconsistently treated subject or central idea and displays little insight.  Paragraphs lack coherence and contain little supporting detail or detail that is unrelated to the main idea.  Sentences are often incorrect in structure, vague, and /or wordy.  The paper may display serious errors in grammar and punctuation and/or frequent minor errors that can interfere substantially with meaning.

 F (Fail / Unacceptable)

(Below 60)

 The paper as a whole does not have a thesis and has no apparent purpose or plan.  The subject and main idea may be defined and treated in a way that does not meet the requirements of the assignment.  Paragraphs may be incoherent and present ideas unrelated to the main idea.  Sentences are faulty, vocabulary is poor, and diction choices are often incorrect.  Frequent, serious errors in grammar, punctuation, and spelling indicate an inability to handle the conventions of written English.

 

When I settle in for a marking session, I divide the papers into subjects (assuming there is more than one essay problem), and give them a quick read over without marking them or otherwise making any comments.  As I read them, I separate the essays into ‘A’ piles, ‘B’ piles and so forth.  I would like to point out that this is preliminary and based on first impressions; the grade may change after I read through a paper again.  After the once-over, I start making comments on the margins of the essays along with recommendations as to how they can improve and give it a ‘final’ grade (I normally allow and encourage revisions) so the ‘final’ grade is rarely set in stone.  I then add the rubric to the back of the paper and repeat the process with the next essay.

This semester, students in my Literary Genres 102 course wrote about Jeannette Walls’ memoir The Glass Castle.  To grade the first draft, I adapted a rubric in Bean (283).  I like it because it is simple and task specific:

This semester, students in my Literary Genres 102 course wrote about Jeannette Walls’ memoir The Glass Castle.  To grade the first draft, I adapted a rubric in Bean (283).  I like it because it is simple and task specific:

 

 

Literary Genres 102 – The Memoir

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

 Grading Rubric for Draft #1

Your essay is supposed to provide a reasoned response to one of the following issues:

1.  Faith is a subject that weaves its way throughout The Glass Castle. The idea of ‘faith’ does not remain static or frozen but evolves.  How does this shifting notion of faith mirror Walls’ development as a person?

2.  One of the most destructive emotions that a human being can feel is that of shame.  For this problem, address the ways in which shame makes itself apparent in The Glass Castle.

3. One of the more problematical issues in The Glass Castle is the concept of values.  In her narrative, Walls demands that the reader question his or her preconceived notions about right and wrong.  What methods does Walls employ to achieve this?

As I grade your first draft, this is what I will be looking for:

Have a clear, defensible thesis statement

  1. Support your thesis with effective arguments and textual details
  2. Write your essay so that its meaning is clear to the reader

 

Criterion 1: Does your essay have a clear thesis statement in the introduction that addresses the problem or question in The Glass Castle?

 

No thesis or unclear thesis                                                           Clear thesis
2                          4                               6                         8                    10

 

Criterion 2: Is your thesis supported with strong arguments and use of significant details taken from the text?

 

Weak argument and/or lack of details                   Strong argument and good details
2                          4                               6                         8                    10

 

Criterion 3: Is your paper easy for a reader to follow?

 

Paragraphing and transitions
2                          4                               6                         8                    10

 

Varied and correct sentences
2                          4                               6                         8                    10

 

Accurate mechanics: grammar, spelling, punctuation, neatness

 

2                          4                               6                         8                    10
 

Source: Dr. Dolores Johnson (in Bean)

 

Conclusion:

Participating in Writing in the Disciplines has been an eye-opening and gratifying experience overall.  I have learned a lot about new and alternative teaching practices, methods of student evaluation, and how to position myself as an instructor of English Literature.  I would highly recommend this program to anyone seeking to enlarge and enrich their teaching experience.

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