I decided that I wanted to try to use a website as a teaching tool sometime over the summer so when we began meeting with WID, it became clear that my final portfolio should address how such website might help or hinder teaching writing. The website is: www.historiesofcatastrophicdreaming.wordpress.com At the same time, I wanted to improve other non-virtual methods of teaching writing. The model class for both the blog and the classroom as educational spheres was my Western Civilization. Western Civ, for those in other disciplines, is a core course that all Social Sciences students are required to take. Typically, it is taken in the first semester of CEGEP, otherwise known as the first semester of the rest of your life. My goals, as they developed over the course of the semester, were: to teach two different styles of writing (formal and informal), two methods of correcting drafts (revising versus editing), new ways of reading academic work, and of course all of this within the discursive mores of the discipline of history. In this short teaching portfolio, I’ll explain my thinking around each of the above assignments and how they did or did not work and then I’ll address what will become of these assignments in the semester ahead.
The role of the website in the classroom:
In one sense, the website is nothing more than a highly flexible power-point presentation that can never get lost because it’s nowhere and everywhere, that is, it lives on the internet. This means that students have access to it from everywhere, and so do I. It became an important place to store practice questions and small lectures for my QM students and was useful for gathering together all the strange specificities I’m collecting in an effort to invigorate Western Civ.
Yet, what distinguishes a blog from a website is one thing only: a key feature of most blogs is that viewers can post their comments which are then visible to the site administrator and any subsequent visitors to the site. Ian has suggested that the public nature of such writing provided an automatic incentive for students to improve their writing. I realized that it also provided students with the experience of the academy. By posing them a variety of independent questions, students’ research and thinking had an impact not only on their individual grade, but also on how they were seen by their peers. How is this different, I asked, than the published findings of any other researcher? The most successful feature of the website, then, was the creation of an online discussion, a community whose purpose was to explore the readings in more detail and in concert. Here are the questions I asked them to explore:
B. Formal Writing on the Blog: Here we all go marching in… The Blog Paragraph and Primary Sources
One of the most confusing things for history students is the distinction between primary (produced during the time being studied) and secondary (written/recorded/produced afterward) sources. By using the blog as a platform, the distinction became crystal clear. The permanent sources whose author’s name’s were unpronounceable were the primary sources. The students were the secondary sources and it was their task to address 1 of 10 questions historians ask about primary sources (where did it come from, what form is it in, who wrote it, why, etc). They had to then write up a paragraph and post their discoveries about the audience or purpose or form of the document to a community of their peers, peers who had also read the primary source and had, undoubtedly, come to their own conclusions about the document.
This was the first stage of the assignment, but there was a second stage which I will address in a moment. What worked and what didn’t for the blog submissions? What worked was that 100% of my students participated. Only two of them did it wrong. For the most part, their comments were thoughtful and critically engaged. They showed a good understanding of the questions they had been asked. They engaged with each others’ posts — sometimes agreeing or disagreeing. Overall, through the public nature of this pooling of ideas, my classroom replicated a community of scholars. As had been predicted, the quality of the writing was very high because suddenly they had a large audience and not only their teacher. They engaged in a problem-solving activity that was pertinent to the discipline, learned the difference between primary and secondary sources and began work on their essay (please see the attached outline of the scaffolded assignment). Finally, they took their audience into consideration.
What didn’t work was, in part, just that. Because the audience consisted of their peers, students referred to each other by their first names, used colloquial language, and there were even a few ghastly multi-hued emoticons. These are aspects I may attempt to curtail in future assignments. In particular, I would require that students reference one another using their last names. All of the paragraphs would have to be complete, that is, with topic sentences and citations from the sources. I say “may attempt” because I feel divided about what direction to push this assignment. On the one hand, the natural use of slang and emoticons is an utterly appropriate response to an online discussion. And, making the above questions of form non-negotiable might stifle creative, personal responses. Yet, I favour the use of formal requirements because it replicates the demands of the academy.
The final aspect of this assignment required students to summarize or otherwise comment upon the sum of the comments. This was due, in class, three days after the Blog paragraph was due. Students had to address any controversies that had emerged and demonstrate that all of the blog comments had, indeed, been read. I would enforce the use of last names in this assignment as well.
C. Informal Writing In the Classroom: To Each Her Own Free Writing Exercises
In contrast to the formal assignments I assigned later in the semester, earlier in the semester I taught students to use the free-writes discussed by John Bean in Engaging Ideas as a way to encourage thoughtful, critical engagement with assigned readings. They replaced some of my pop-quizzes and were marked based upon the degree of thoughtful, critical engagement with the reading, but were still done as “closed-book” exercises. If a student could not demonstrate that they’d read the text, they got 1/3. Those who had read it and could repeat its general claims got 2/3 and those who were thoughtful, critical and singular in their response got 3/3. Grammar, punctuation and spelling were irrelevant; free writes were just about ideas.
Similar to the free-write, the paragraph freewrites test a student’s engagement with the text but asked them to make an argument concerning the text, using the text whenever they needed to draw out quotation. I usually gave students a choice of possible arguments or a guiding question. Because of the time limit, slack students couldn’t really benefit from the fact that it was Open Book. Audience: Student and teacher.
D. In-Class Revision Exercises: What does it Do? What does it Say?
This past semester I revised my editing-oriented peer-review sheet to a revision-oriented version. It was mildly successful, but I think that was because they had not yet practiced how to read in this specific way. While some students were intuitively able to separate form (what does it do) from content (what does it say), most found this very difficult. In future semesters, I will try this again, but will be more consistent about the language I use to describe the activity we’re engaging in. By this I mean that I will always use the terms form versus content, and will hope that the distinct meanings and requirements of these words become very clear by the end of the semester. The first version:
The second, revision-oriented version:
But what about the marking, you ask. This past semester I marked all of these assignments, but this upcoming semester I am considering asking students to put together a small portfolio that would consist of their best free-write, their best paragraph, their best reading exercise. I would offer to help them choose between them, but would leave the choice up to them. This would cut down on the marking and permit them to be more responsible for distinguishing good from bad work. The portfolio would be submitted before Spring Break so that they could get feedback on it in time for the essay.
D. And Finally…
On Editing versus Revision:
Earlier in the semester I would emphasize revision, but just two days before the their essay was due I would emphasize editing. We would do a peer-editing workshop. Classroom writing time replaces workshops and group work, which I do only once in the semester and takes up only about 20 minutes of the class time. On Changes I’ll Make In the Future… I have decided to incorporate some version of the primary source forum into all of my classes. In Integrative Seminar, for example, students will post their abstracts so that other members of their group can read them and ask questions in advance of the oral presentations. In my Advanced History, students will be responsible for writing one blog post that poses a question and writing one other that answers a classmate’s question. In both cases, the aim will be to replicate some part of the problem-solving, debate-triggering aspects of academic work. As the site gets more traffic I will start to make these conversations password protected so that they are private to the classroom. Students may always opt to submit their assignments on paper, should they feel any discomfort with the public forum.