This portfolio outlines the “make-over” of two of my History courses, Western Civilization and Twentieth Century History, after participating in WID. The portfolio explores both the positive outcomes and the challenges that require further thought and revision.
B. Make-over 1: Western Civilization
i) Informal Writing and Homework Journal
The initial purpose of this journal was to encourage in-class, informal writing activities. Students were asked to write for 5 to 10 minutes on various subjects that were being discussed in class. This was sometimes done before the class in order to get the students thinking about a subject and it was sometimes done after the class to have students reflect upon and/or pinpoint the most important aspects of a topic.
Example: Before our discussion of Witch Burnings in the Middle Ages, the students were asked to write about our society’s ideas about witches and witchcraft today. The students were somewhat puzzled and amused and many wrote comments about magic or satanic practices. After our lectures and viewing the NFB film ”The Burning Times”, the students were asked to look at their initial views and to write about their new understanding of witches and witchcraft. The exercise was useful in helping students see the value of critical thinking and looking at a subject from a historical perspective to gain a much deeper understanding.
I also used the writing exercises to generate class discussion. Students would get into groups and share their reflections with each other.
As the course progressed and I saw that these interesting exercises were taking up a lot of class time, I started to ask the students to do some of their reflections as homework assignments. I also began to wonder how seriously the students were applying themselves to these exercises. While some students seemed to take the exercises seriously, some of the weaker students wrote very superficial comments. One of my goals for the journal was to motivate the weaker students and get them engaged in the writing process and I was not sure this was being accomplished. Therefore, I started to link the homework assignments more directly to the textbook and exam topics. If the students know the exercises might help them improve their test grades, this might increase their motivation. In our WID workshop it was suggested to collect the journals only occasionally in order to reduce correcting time; however, I found it necessary to collect them more often to ensure that students took it seriously and/or did not simply copy from friends after the fact.
I will keep using the Journal format in Western Civ to generate critical thinking, promote class discussion, encourage writing, encourage reading from the textbook and prepare for exam questions. The journal does create more correcting, but I think it is important to collect it regularly so that it is taken seriously.
ii) Essay Assignment: Scaffolding of Essay Assignment, Promoting Lateral Exchanges, Introducing Rhetorical Context
My essay assignment in Western Civ incorporates a number of goals. To learn about oral history methodology, the students conduct interviews with family members in order to gain insight into any important historical events that might have changed the history of their family. To learn about formal essay writing, students then choose one major historical event that came up in the interviews and explore this event using a chapter from the textbook, or a scholarly journal article, or a book. Students are required to use MLA style citations. The assignment is worth 20% of the final grade. Before WID, this assignment was presented all at once to the students and they were given a date to submit the completed project.
After WID, I used scaffolding and required that the assignment be completed in steps. One of my goals in bringing in scaffolding was to help the students avoid the last minute all-nighter essay submission or info dumps which result in careless mistakes, numerous typos and the impression of submitting a first draft. I hoped to make students more aware of their writing process . A second goal was to allow for more feedback. I always felt badly when I read some of the amazing family stories of our Dawson students and realized that these interesting stories were probably going into the recycling bin after I read them. Janet Giltrow, an expert on genre theory from UBC Department of English, addressed this issue during a WID conference our group attended. She drew a diagram which showed 40 (or some number) essays being read by 1 teacher and then SILENCE. This is exactly what I did not like about the interesting oral histories of my Western Civ students. There is only a bit of feedback from the teacher and then SILENCE.
Scaffolding Step 1: Early on in the semester, we discussed oral history and students conducted the interviews. They were asked to record the interviews and submit a summary (a change from my previous question and answer format).
To avoid the problem of SILENCE, I introduced Giltrow’s concept of lateral exchanges (or student interactions). I divided the class into groups of five. I selected the groups from the attendance sheet to avoid the usual problem of friends sticking together. The groups of five told their stories to each other. Instead of evaluating each other, they were asked to write in the informal writing journals about what they found most interesting in each story and also to note something new they learned about history from each story. This was really successful as all the students were very engaged and listened to each other with a lot of interest. It was rewarding for the students because their stories were heard and led to discussion and feedback instead of only SILENCE.
Scaffolding Step 2: The students were given their formal essay assignment instructions and asked to write four pages about one of the historical events which had influenced their family history. They were required to use MLA citations and their source had to be the textbook, a scholarly article or a book. Drawing upon our WID discussion of the importance of making students more aware of the process of writing in the disciplines, students were asked to bring the article, book or textbook chapter to class. Using the informal writing journals, the students practiced writing their bibliographies and MLA style citations in the journals before beginning their assignment.
Introducing Rhetorical Context: Bean suggests we create “meaning –constructing tasks” by introducing rhetorical context. We can give our students a RAFT (Role or purpose, Audience, Format or genre, and Task) and a TIP (Task as Intriguing Problem) to make their assignments meaningful (98-100). We had a discussion in class about genre, exploring different ways the essay could be approached. Instead of simply writing all about (Bean 26) the historical event, students were asked to imagine that they were writing a letter to their extended family explaining what they had learned about the impact of the event on their family history. Introducing the context of audience helps to prevent students from writing only for the teacher. (In future classes, I might ask the students to imagine they are writing a newspaper article or preparing a conference presentation).
Bean places a lot of emphasis on drafts and revision. This is an excellent idea but presents impossible correcting loads when we have 150 to 160 essays to correct. Dividing my assignment into two steps already created more correcting time and I found it was impossible to ask students to write drafts, correct them and then resubmit. As with most aspects of our teaching, WID probably works best with classes of about 20-25 students, so we need to improvise and adjust with our classes of 40. In lieu of drafts, I did give the students a final chance for peer revision (Bean 36). When they brought their essays to class on the due date, I asked the students to exchange papers in pairs. The students were asked to read each other’s papers and underline in pencil any errors they found. Each student was then given a chance to correct these errors in pen. Also, I have always given students the option of submitting one week early with the chance to revise, but few students take up this offer. I am not sure if I succeeded in avoiding last minute work, but the scaffolding definitely helps to reduce the problem and gives students more of an opportunity to reflect upon the writing process.
C. Make-over 2: Twentieth Century History
i) Informal Writing and Homework Journal
I introduced the journal to two sections of Twentieth Century History: The West and the Rest. The goal was very different as the students in this class had already taken Western Civ and had chosen history as an option. They were, therefore, more highly motivated and interested. My goal was to encourage critical thinking through informal writing. Moreover, my goal was to encourage the students themselves to do the critical thinking instead of me doing it for them in lectures. Students were given in-class or homework assignments which demanded reading the textbook and analyzing various questions and topics.
For example, their textbook defines the Cold War as a war between Communism and Democracy. This definition was challenged and students found examples in their textbooks where democratically elected governments were overthrown with the help of the USA and western democracies which then installed and supported dictatorships friendly to western interests and investments (Allende/Pinochet in Chile, Patrice Lumumba/Mobutu in Congo, Mosadegh/Shah in Iran etc.). The students then suggested a revised definition of the Cold War as a war between Communism and Capitalism. The journal was also used to help students prepare for essay questions on the tests.
ii) Essay Assignment: Scaffolding of Essay Assignment, Promoting Lateral Exchanges, Introducing Rhetorical Context, Alternatives to the Thesis-Governed Paper
I decided to introduce more informal writing and thinking exercises into the essay assignment. (I also used this assignment for my Colonization and Decolonization course with my North South students). Scaffolding was used and the assignment was divided into four steps which built upon each other. The first three steps drew on Bean’s discussion of Rhetorical Context (98-100) and Alternatives to the Thesis-Governed Paper (115-119) and the fourth step required a formal analysis of a scholarly journal article. The assignment was graded on 100% and was worth 25% of the final grade.
For Step 1 (10%) students were asked to choose a historical event and find a photograph which represented the topic. They had to write a paragraph under the photograph explaining why they found this photograph to be interesting and poignant. On a second page, the students had to suggest a research question which they would like to explore and suggest two or three possible answers to the research question. I found the students had a difficult time narrowing down the topic to a research question. They tend to want to write all about the historical event, which is not possible in four pages and is not analytical. I addressed this problem both in individual comments on their papers and in the class in general. This step proved very useful in helping students work on the issue of generating a research question.
The photographs were used to generate group activities or lateral exchanges, avoiding the SILENCE referred to previously. Students were divided into groups and presented the photographs to each other explaining their significance. There was a lot of interest in the photographs. In the future, I would like to put up the photographs as an exhibition in the classroom as I found the students made excellent efforts in finding interesting photographs and presenting them artistically.
For Step 2 (15%) the students were asked to write a one page biography of an important historical figure related to their topic and research question. This was presented in one page with a small photo of the person. Students were encouraged to be creative with this step of the assignment. Students were allowed to use internet sources and they were required to compile a formal bibliography citing all the sources they referred to. This small assignment also generated a lot of interest. It could be used for classroom activities such as those described in Step 1.
Step 3 (25%) was a two page timeline of the historical event. Students were allowed to use internet sources and each entry of the timeline had to have a MLA citation. The goal of this timeline was to allow students to get an overall understanding of the event. Another purpose was to avoid an all about final paper.
For Step 4 (50%) students were required to use a book or academic article to answer their specific research question. The goal was to teach the students formal academic writing. Students used formal MLA citations and were required to submit a photocopy of the article or of the pages of the book cited in the essay. In spite of the previous practice with citations and discussion in class about citations and plagiarism, many students did not do this correctly. Without correcting and commenting on each paper, I raised this issue in class, demonstrated examples of mistakes (such as citations for quotes only) and gave students a chance to revise and resubmit if they had not done their citations correctly. A few students had found their information on Wikipedia or other internet sites and then found a scholarly article which vaguely corresponded to the information. They did not cite Wikipedia, but rather put in citations from the scholarly article which did not correspond. I pointed out that to avoid being accused of plagiarism, they would have to have citations to the internet sources and use the academic article in a legitimate way. A number of students seemed to feel there was no problem with proceeding this way (with no acknowledgment of the internet sources) and four students finally received a grade of zero on Step 4 for cheating. I have come across this before and will try to address the problem more directly in the future.
Overall, the students seemed to enjoy the alternatives to the formal essay. However, this created a lot more correcting and in one section I could not return Step 4 before the end of the semester. The biggest problem overall with my WID make-overs was the increase in workload. Scaffolding and informal journals increase the correcting load quite a bit and I am not sure how to resolve this problem. On the positive side, I found that the introduction of these WID concepts was beneficial to the students. The WID innovations increased interest and motivation, increased the amount of time students spent writing, generated class activities and encouraged critical thinking.
In the future I would like to experiment more with Bean’s ideas about alternative genres and alternative formats. I like the idea of students imagining themselves acting and writing in different communities, disciplines and genres. The informal writing journals and scaffolding of the essay assignment both allow for the incorporation of alternative genres such as “dialogues, interviews, magazine articles for popular audiences, pamphlets, op-ed pieces….poems” etc. (Bean 65). Bazerman remarks that one of our goals as teachers is to encourage “remarkable performances” (6) and WID techniques are a great tool in trying to realize this goal.
Bazerman, Charles. “The Life of the Genre, the Life in the Classroom.”
Bean, John. Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom. San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 2011.
Giltrow, Janet. “Landscaping with indigenous species: How to replace quizzes, exams, term papers (non-native species) with species native to the research culture.” Presentation. McGill University, November 8, 2012.