I picked up a project I started a few years ago. After teaching writing for four years both at the University of Georgia and at Eastern Kentucky University, I became interested in the ways we teach writing, particularly to students with little or no experience practicing writing in a classroom setting. Composition studies often refer to these inexperienced students as developmental writers.
Back in 2012, as I begun to ramp up my side work in the field of web design, I happened to discover that the domain developmentalwriting.com was available. I bought it, thinking one day I would attempt to create an online learning environment where students could practice the same skills I was teaching in my physical writing classrooms.
Fast forward a few years and I’ve now completely transitioned out of teaching and moved full-time into my new career as a web & graphic designer. And the Developmental Writing domain has sat dormant.
I actually attempted to sell the domain on flippa.com a few times, hoping to pass it along to the right person who would take it and build out the course sequence I once envisioned for it. I had some offers here and there–$100 from one potential buyer. I know the domain is more valuable than that, so I held on to it.
Well, I’ve finally decided to do something with the website. Because I’m no longer teaching and frankly no longer as interested in developing an online tutoring business, I’ve changed direction slightly from my original plan.
Eight Developmental Writing Lessons
Having graded thousands of freshman composition papers over the course of eight semesters, it’s safe to say I started recognizing certain issues that recurred over and over again in the writing of my students.
I broke those common issues down into eight different categories and the plan is to create a lesson on the Developmental Writing website that covers each of those eight categories of common writing issues.
The eight categories are:
Summarizing & Paraphrasing
Introductions & Conclusions
Picking Good Quotes
Signal Phrases and Smooth Connections
So far I’ve written the first two lessons on thesis statements and topic sentences. It’s been fun thinking back over my time as a writing teaching and even pulling out some of my old lesson plans and student papers. I may not be in the classroom anymore, but I still write regularly for the web and the craft of writing is always on my mind and part of my life.
The website also has a Resources page, where I list handbooks and online learning tools for both students and teachers of Developmental Writing like the Purdue OWL, for example. I’ve used most of these resources myself and endorse them. This resources page is how the website will be sustained, as Amazon.com pays me a small commission for everything purchased after clicking one of the links on the page.
I guess I haven’t been able to escape my passion for teaching even though my days in an actual classroom are now over. Hoping the lessons I write based on my own classroom experiences will be helpful to students and teachers of Developmental Writing.
I welcome feedback and ideas on the new website. Check it out at developmentalwriting.com. Up next: lesson three on transitions. Hey, if you’ve taught even one semester of writing, then you know students can never get too much practice working with transitions!
Last week, I wrote about the way I have dramatically reduced my grading load this semester by skipping comments on student papers. As usual, my readers helped clarify my position. I could have more accurately written that I reduced my grading load by switching to a face-to-face commenting structure rather than attempting to write comments on every student paper.
The main problem with trying to comment on every paper is I am inevitably wasting time writing out some comments that are never even read by the students they’re intended for. No matter how hard we try as teachers (or how much we deny the truth), there are just some students who don’t care about the feedback. These students flip to the bottom of the page, check the grade, and toss the paper in the trash along with all those painstakingly-crafted comments.
Maybe I’m too much of a realist—or too cynical—but I can’t bring myself to ignore the truth that a lot of my time as a teacher is wasted. I’m sure part of my perturbation also comes from the fact that I teach part-time and therefore have a lot more going on in my life than just teaching. In fact, teaching is really only a small part of my life. The less time I spend on it, the more time I have to do other things.
I realize that might not be a popular approach to teaching, but that’s the mentality I’ve adopted in order to retain sanity as an adjunct. Teaching is a job and the smarter I can do it, the better.
That being said, a big part of the job is also making sure students are learning and getting better. I don’t want to make dramatic changes that negatively impact my students. I have to find a healthy balance between work flow and student development. So I run experiments like the one I’m conducting this semester in order to discern the best practices that achieve that healthy balance.
On that note, I’ve been thinking more about how I could experiment with commenting on student papers. A few comments on last week’s post suggested ways I might check to make sure students are reading comments.
A comment by unfortunatehabits pointed out that I could make students respond to my comments or compile questions after reading them. Not a bad suggestion, but I’m not sold on the idea of forcing students to read my comments. Unfortunatehabits calls this the “eat your vegetables” style of commenting. I like the name, but I’m not sold on the efficacy of this strategy. Personally, I would probably just resent the teacher for making me do it, which isn’t exactly a good state of mind for learning. But maybe unfortunatehabits is right. Maybe some learning would sink in after several force feedings.
Another idea I had was to use the Track Changes function in Google Docs or Microsoft Word in order to ensure students are at least engaging with the feedback. I could require students to accept changes and resolve comments. Resolved comments could be responded to directly in Google Docs and disputed comments could be discussed in the margin, as well. I guess if I really wanted to get serious about it, I could sneak in a ringer comment or two that would show me if the students were paying attention. Grading these responses would be one way to force students to read my feedback.
I can’t help but point out, though, that this would be adding even more work to my already sizable grading load. It goes back to finding that balance between what is good for the students and what keeps me from spreading myself too thin. I haven’t found the perfect ratio yet, but I’ll keep trying new experiments and tweaking my strategy. I believe classroom innovation is crucial to both advancing student learning and alleviating teacher burnout.
I’ve always assumed students enjoy reading feedback on their papers about as much as I enjoy writing it. But that’s never stopped me from continuing to give it on every paper. Each semester, I take my stacks of student papers and work through them one by one, adding comments in the margin and coming up with some kind of end note that lists a couple positive comments and a couple suggestions for improvement. And each semester, I hand them back, not knowing if anyone cares about my advice or even reads it.
What if most students aren’t even reading my notes? Frankly, it would be a terrible waste of my time. I could grade papers much faster if all I have to do is slap a grade at the end.
Of course, that wouldn’t necessarily be the most responsible way to teach writing. Personally, I would feel like I was shirking my duty to the students. Like I was shortchanging them somehow. Surely there are some students who actually do care about becoming better writers.
But as any adjunct who teaches multiple low-wage sections of composition knows, efficiency is king. The faster I can burn through papers, the better chance I have of earning a living wage. Some adjuncts have even argued that adjuncts should do the absolute bare minimum in order to maximize their usually sub-par pay. I don’t quite go that far because I take pride in my work and I always try to do a good job. However, I definitely understand the sentiment of that argument and I think it’s worth considering.
Ideally, adjuncts (and other teachers) could find a way to fulfill their responsibilities to the students and also to maximize their efficiency by not wasting time on futile exercises. To that end, I came up with a new strategy this semester and, so far, it’s been working pretty well. Rather than simply assuming every student is equally interested in my detailed feedback on their papers, I instead made the opposite assumption—that no student is interested in my feedback.
The No Comment Approach to Grading Student Papers
Here’s how my little grading experiment works. For each paper, I put barely more than a grade, and under that grade I write: “Feel free to make an appointment during which we can discuss specific strategies for improvement.”
This way students can easily learn more if they’d like by coming to the office. If, on the other hand, they care only about the grade, I don’t waste my time writing out comments.
I have followed this strategy for every student paper this semester that earns above a “C.” Any paper that earns a “C” or below still gets normal feedback. In my mind, these students need the most help, so I actually feel guilty not commenting on their papers, regardless of whether the student chooses to read those comments.
Aside from the time saver, I’ve found that paper comments work much better as a discussion anyway. Students can hear my tone and understand my perspective better. And they can respond to me, which is something we never got with static comments. This way, my feedback becomes a two-way discussion. I can hear the student’s thought process and confirm whether or not he understands the advice I give.
Surprisingly few students have actually come to my office to discuss their papers. In the single digits. I’ll let you decide for yourself if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. That being said, I’ve still had more students in the office this semester than I usually do, so that’s probably a victory in some way.
From the teacher’s perspective, this experiment has been a huge success. I’ve saved dozens of hours by leaving the comments off student papers. There’s no doubt in my mind that this grading style makes my life easier.
As for the students, well, I can say those who have come to the office to talk have certainly received more specialized help than I’ve ever been able to give students in the past.
It’s hard to say how the absence of comments affects the students who received no direct feedback from me all semester. I admit to feeling a little uneasy about that outcome, which feels like a dereliction of duty somehow. But, then again, maybe these students never would have read my comments anyway.
All in all, this experiment appear to be a net positive. I’m curious what you think, though. Have I gone too far with this strategy? Is there a better way to save time and also continue to improve the writing of my students?
If you have been reluctant to make the switch to Google Docs, it’s time to go for it. Last week, Google released a series of “add-ons” for Google Drive that make using gdocs much easier for teachers, students, and writers.
I have been wanting to incorporate Google Docs into my writing classes for a couple years now–basically ever since I started using them in my own writing. However, the lack of a few basic functions have prevented me from doing so up until now.
Grading in gdocs has always been particularly difficult. With no track changes function like the one provided by Microsoft Word, it was nearly impossible to leave feedback on student papers. This was the biggest detractor for me and it kept me from using gdocs with student papers.
But that has all changed as of last week. As far as teaching with Google Docs goes, the new Track Changes add-on is easily the most exciting addition.
Students who use gdocs will be happy to see other new add-ons like EasyBib, which generates bibliography pages and streamlines the research process.
Table of Contents is an add-on designed for writers which creates a hyperlinked list of section headings or chapters.
I’m still playing around with these new add-ons, but I feel pretty confident that they will be the final step I needed in order to go Google Docs-only in my classroom.
I will probably use this summer to redesign my writing classes according to the gdoc platform and to make sure I’m comfortable especially with the new Track Changes feature.
I’m a bit apprehensive about the idea of requiring students to use a third party platform like Google Docs in class, but at least it’s free. Even the student version of the Microsoft Office suite costs about $100. Avoiding that cost will be an added incentive.
Many of my students already use gdocs anyway, so it won’t be too difficult to make the switch. Besides, I feel confident that most students will be happy they started using gdocs once they get going with it.
For a more detailed description of the new Google tools for teachers and students, check out this recent article at The Chronicle of Higher Education’s Vitae.
Some teachers think I’m crazy, but I happen to enjoy designing my syllabus.
I know plenty of teachers who dread writing their syllabus, putting it off until the last minute until finally, the night before classes start, they sloppily crank out just enough to make it look like they know what they’re doing. I even know one teacher who only gives his class one or two weeks of the syllabus at a time. Might be cool if he did it consciously in order to keep the class flexible or keep the students guessing or something. The truth, though, is he procrastinates as badly as his students and it’s pretty likely that his classes suffer as a result of his poor planning.
As I said in my last piece, flexibility is always important in the classroom–especially as a new teacher. But poor preparation and intentional openness are two different things.
All this is to say you will be much better off (and so will your students) if you allow yourself some time to think about the syllabus before writing it. Just like you might teach your students to prewrite and draft, so you should also. Your syllabus should go through multiple drafts before it lands in the hands of your students.
Designing Your First Syllabus
The good news is once you have a strong basic outline for your syllabus, you can reuse a lot of it each semester. Once you get the language worked out in some of those important sections, you really won’t need to alter it much. Only a few minor changes here and there as you begin to find your classroom persona and learn what works and what doesn’t.
And here’s another tip. In case you haven’t figured it out yet, there are thousands of syllabi online. A quick Google search will turn up dozens of hits in your field–especially if you’re a composition teacher like I am. Take advantage of the knowledge base that has come before you.
If you intend to design your syllabus around a certain theme, search for those exact words and chances are someone else has already created the same course and posted the readings and paper prompts online. Most teachers like to share materials. Most of us are big proponents of the open source movement that empowers everyone to build on the collective database of human knowledge by picking up where someone left off and making their resources even better. The open source movement posits that knowledge should be free and that our society gets stronger as a result of this open exchange of intellectual thought.
The point is the information is out there for sharing. Find it, adapt it, make it better, and share it again for the next person. These existing resources will likely be your best tool as you design your own syllabus.
Your syllabus will likely be divided into a couple different sections. It might be helpful to draft the document in phases, writing it one section at a time.
Think about the syllabus your professors gave you. Get a couple of them out and look them over. What major sections do you see? What do you like about them? What do you dislike? What ideas might you be inclined to borrow?
Like I said, writing in sections can be particularly helpful to first time teachers. I’ll use my syllabus as an example. The course I most often teach uses the heading ENG 1102 at the University of Georgia. Freshman Composition II. My basic syllabus for ENG 1102 is divided into four major sections:
Expectations and Objectives
Assignments and Grading
Policies and Procedures
Each section has important information for my students. I try not to include any unnecessary or redundant details. I’ve seen 10-page syllabi, but personally I don’t go for that style. I want my students to actually read the thing and understand it, so I’ve trimmed it down to only the absolute essentials.
Expectations and Objectives
This first section of the syllabus is like a brief introduction to the course. It tells students what they’ve gotten themselves into by signing up for my class. My contact information, the classroom texts, and my desired learning outcomes are all found here.
You can see at the top of the page that I list all necessary contact information. I prefer students communicate with me via email and I leave my office hours open to appointment. Some universities will require you to state specific office hours on your syllabus, but I always explain to my students that I’m in my office pretty often during the week and all they need to do is send me an email so I can make sure I’m in when they drop by.
Most schools require you to spend at least one hour per week in the office for every section you teach. I’m sure you’ll be in there much more frequently–especially during your first few years as a teacher. It usually works well for me to arrive at the office one hour before class and stay one hour after class. Those are the times most students will want to meet with you.
As for texts, I just list every book they will need to buy at the bookstore. If you’re teaching a course like freshman composition, the campus bookstore probably will not create a space for each of the many sections offered. If you plan to use readings other than the standard texts, you’ll want to make that explicit.
Notice that some of my texts are marked “optional.” I make key readings from these expensive texts available online. It’s up to the student if he or she wants to spend the money to have a hard copy of the reading.
The course expectations and objectives have undergone many changes and revisions over the years. What do you want your students to learn? What outcomes do you hope the course achieves? Do you have any definitive “rules” that are non-negotiable in your classroom? The bottom line here is: What will your students have accomplished by the end of the semester and how will they accomplish it? Feel free to use some of my bullet points as ideas while you begin to develop your own.
I also include the spiel about Collaborative Learning in this section because we do a lot of group work in my classes. I want students to know on the first day of class what will be expected of them. If they aren’t down with the “decentered” learning model, then they won’t like my class. Some students prefer teachers who tell them what to do and they do it. We don’t really do that in my classes. Some students drop after learning this on the first day.
This is a good place to include any special information about your course. Is it a service learning section? Will students be keeping a daily journal? Do you require multiple class presentations? Anything that might surprise a student later in the semester could be addressed here. It’ll save you a headache later. Also be sure to mention this section on the first day when you go over the syllabus.
Assignments and Grading
You want to make it very clear how each student’s final grade will be determined. Any chance you get to detail your grading process is important. One day, you’ll have a student who appeals his grade and you will need to justify yourself. Everything will be fine as long as you can prove that the student knew the grading process and that you awarded the grade based on a calculated system.
List every assignment in this section and show the percentage breakdown for the final course grade. What will students be expected to do? Will they turn in assignments daily? Weekly? Is participation important?
As a side note here, I’ll tell you that I am revising this section beginning next semester. Previously, I allowed students to complete two extra credit journal entries. Going forward there will be a total of eight possible journal entries. I will require five and they will have the option of completing one additional for extra credit. Frankly, I was spending too much time grading journal entries last semester. Always keep in mind your grading load–especially if you are teaching more than two sections. Seventy-five to 100 entries a week is crazy. Don’t do it to yourself.
Policies and Procedures
The policies and procedures section is required by my department. You will likely have similar language that you’ll be required to include, as well. I won’t dwell on this section, but notice the attendance policy of the first-year composition department. More than four absences and the student is automatically dropped from the course. Sounds harsh, but I love it. No attendance problems in my classes. I wish every school did this.
If your college does not have a strict attendance policy, consider developing one of your own. More than four absences and the student earns a zero in participation would be a good place to start. Unfortunately, attendance is a big problem now, so plan accordingly.
The fourth section of my freshman composition syllabus is the course schedule. Discussing this section requires it’s own article, so I’ll focus on that in my next piece.
These first three sections of my syllabus have evolved over time. I used trial and error to determine what works best and I weeded out unnecessary language or failed assignments. Your first few teaching years will undoubtedly include the same kind of culling. If they don’t, then you aren’t monitoring your process well enough. In order to grow as teachers, we need to continually try new things and cut those strategies that didn’t work so well.
A couple final things to consider as you prepare your first syllabus:
Will you read the entire syllabus on the first day? I strongly recommend that you do. That way no one can claim they weren’t aware of your attendance policy or the group work that you require. In a later chapter, I’ll focus more on things to do on the first day of class.
Will you hand out a hard copy of the syllabus or will you go all digital? Personally, I like to give out one hard copy on the first day. This allows us to go over it as a class. Any duplicate copies or revised copies must be printed by the student or accessed online. I always keep a digital copy available to students for downloading (more on this later).
How will you handle revisions to the syllabus? Chances are your course schedule will need to be updated later in the semester if you get behind or make changes based on student response. I usually go over revisions in class and then tell students to print a new copy of the revised syllabus on their own.
Remember: Your syllabus is a work in progress. You will almost certainly revise it every semester. Do your best on this first one and make adjustments. Take notes in the margin during the semester so you remember what works and what doesn’t.
In the next article, we’ll discuss the fourth section of the syllabus: Creating a course schedule.