Should I Force Students to Read Paper Comments?

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.

Force Feed

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.

Save Time By Skipping Comments on Student Papers

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.

Day Dreaming at Work

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?


Teaching With Google Docs

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.

Designing Your First Syllabus

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.

Syllabus Sections

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:

  1. Expectations and Objectives
  2. Assignments and Grading
  3. Policies and Procedures
  4. Course Schedule

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.

Syllabus - Expectations and Objectives


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?


Syllabus - Assignments and Grading 1

Syllabus - Assignments and Grading 2

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.

Syllabus - Policies and Procedures

Course Schedule

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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).
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

Classroom Advice for a New Teacher


All new teachers want to know what to expect. Maybe you arrived at this article asking the same question: What can I expect as a new teacher in a college classroom? What should I do on the first day of class? The first week? How should I grade? How many papers should I assign? What if no one talks in class?

All valid questions and real concerns for a new teacher. Due to the large number of requests I get to answer questions like these, I’ve decided the best thing I can do is create a post series dedicated to new teachers. In this series, I’ll answer all of these common questions about how to prep and what to expect as a new teacher. I’ll cover some of the grading policies I’ve developed over the years (including some that failed miserably), and I’ll also toss in some sample assignments, paper prompts, and syllabi that I’ve had success with in my classroom.

New Teacher Award

This new teacher series will focus primarily on freshman composition for two reasons. One, it’s what I teach. That one’s obvious. The second reason, though, is that freshman comp is by far the most common course taught by new teachers. Almost every student at every university is required to take at least one semester of freshman writing, so you can imagine how many sections that translates to each year. Lots of young writers and lots of young teachers standing in front of them, imparting their writing wisdom.

[pullquote]In the writing classroom, new teachers have to develop interesting paper prompts, create and navigate a grading rubric, facilitate engaging classroom discussions.[/pullquote]

And, furthermore, freshman composition allows more creative freedom to the new teacher than any other course. It’s not like math or science, where the prof can just follow along with the textbook and run multiple choice tests through the computer grader. In the writing classroom, new teachers have to develop interesting paper prompts, create and navigate a grading rubric, facilitate engaging classroom discussions.

So many opportunities for uncertainty and excitement. And, ahem, so many opportunities for a new teacher to crash and burn. Don’t worry about that, though. That’s why you are reading this series. Because you’re going to prepare properly and succeed in your first semester as a new teacher.

A New Teacher Resource Guide

The point is the composition classroom has many opportunities for you to do what you think is best. Which is pretty cool if you’re ready for it. Hopefully this series will help you–and the many others who contact me each week–plan for a successful first teaching experience. Over these next few weeks, I’ll regular add short posts containing advice, tips, anecdotes, and examples for new teachers in the composition classroom.

If all goes well, I’ll turn it into a nice little ebook resource when I’m finished that will help many future new teachers. You can be a part of the experience by interacting with  the articles. Use the comments to ask your own questions, to give advice, or to share your experiences as a new teacher. Also feel free to tweet me with ideas or questions: @josh_boldt.

The more people we get involved, the more comprehensive the resource will be. Hopefully fewer teachers will have to learn the hard way like many of us did.

If you want to keep up with the series, be sure to subscribe to our weekly newsletter. Continue to the next post in the series: Prepping For Your First Day in the Classroom.

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Teaching Short Stories in Writing Classes

Last week, we talked about the benefits of teaching poetry in literature-based writing courses. I explained that, in my writing classes at the University of Georgia, I incorporate four major genres of literature, and I began to make the argument that a semester of literary study can be deeply beneficial for students who are learning to write. This week, we’ll pick up where we left off with the second post of the series: Teaching Short Stories in Writing Classes.

Like poetry, teaching short stories in your writing classes can also cultivate unique skills in your developing writers. Being conversant in the language of the short story will not only help students compete intellectually, but it will also help them develop and hone their own writing skills.

Teaching Short Stories

Teaching Short Stories Helps Students Analyze Essay-Length Works

One of the most common requests from upper level content professors is that students learn how to effectively analyze a text’s theme. When students get into 300- and 400-level courses, it’s crucial that they can quickly pick out the main points of a writer’s argument. Regardless of the text, a student must be able to consume it relatively quickly and determine its key elements.

Note-taking and outlining are both important skills for students to acquire if they hope to be able to meet standards when it comes to thematic textual analysis. And guess which classes students begin to develop these analytical research skills? You guessed it–freshman composition.

My English 1102 classes (Composition II) always spend at least one day in the library learning how to research. On this day, I schedule an appointment with a reference librarian for a Library Instruction Day. I can’t even begin to describe how useful this day is for the students. Getting familiar with many of the primary online research databases will help them for the rest of college. I strongly recommend you contact your school library and start doing this if you aren’t already.

Our library instruction day is scheduled around Paper 2, which requires students to choose a short story and conduct what is essentially a thematic analysis of that story. In this assignment, students must identify a theme in the short story and show how that theme is revealed in the narrative. Because I want to challenge them to join a critical conversation, I also request that they use a research database like MLA or JSTOR or even Google Scholar to locate a critical piece about their chosen story. They then must engage with that critical interpretation in their own papers.

Students, therefore, are tasked with identifying a theme, interpreting that theme, and crafting an argument that adds a meaningful contribution to the critical discussion of that theme. I call this assignment an “Interpretive Critical Essay.”

After completing this assignment, students have begun to get comfortable identifying and discussing a theme. They’ve also gained valuable research skills and learned several tips and tricks for incorporating quotations and signal phrases into their papers–two skills that will serve them well as they grow as writers.

I believe that demonstrating these skills by teaching short stories is one of the most effective ways we can do it. My students tend to enjoy short stories more. Most of them have grown up thinking fondly about fiction. Beyond that, we’re more inclined to recognize themes in short stories because the stories of our childhood predispose us to look for a “moral of the story” or a message.

Sometimes this tendency to moralize a story causes students to interpret them with cringe-worthy clichés like “don’t judge a book by its cover,” but at least it’s a starting point for our discussion. It’s a ready-made theme that opens the door for a deeper interpretation.

If you design your short story unit and paper prompt deliberately, teaching short stories can be a great way to scaffold thematic analyses and research skills.

Teaching Short Stories Allows Students to See a Variety of Different Writing Styles

I mentioned last week that using poetry in a writing class is a great way to help students develop their own personal writing voices. This is perhaps even more true when it comes to teaching short stories. By assigning readings from a wide variety of writers, students get exposed to several different styles.

Although students may not be consciously mimicking a writer’s style, simply reading stories from different authors subconsciously affects their own personal styles. I’ll never forget the first time I read Faulkner or Denis Johnson or Melville. Everything I’ve written since has been affected by the styles of the writers I respect.

I believe we learn by watching and emulating. On Twitter the other day, Kerry Hasler-Brooks agreed:

As Kerry points out, reading these “profound” voices helps students create their own authorial voices. One of the unique advantages of the writing class is how intimately connected reading and writing are–moreso than in any other class. We read things and we write about them. The writing classroom, then, allows us to read and then mimic like no other course does. It’s the perfect place to develop one’s voice.

In my classes, we read Kate Chopin and Alice Walker, William Faulkner and John Updike, Ernest Hemingway and Sarah Orne Jewett. Students see very different styles and tones. And, although I don’t actively encourage them to emulate those styles, there’s no question that these famous writers sometimes rub off on the young writers. To which I say, “Great!”

Teaching Short Stories Helps Students Concentrate

If you’re of a certain age (like me), then you remember a time when you could pick up a book, sit in a chair with it, and read for hours and hours without interruption. No internet or social media or cell phones to distract you from the text. I didn’t even have a cell phone in college. Gasp!

Times have obviously changed and distraction-free reading is largely a thing of the past. Even I, an English professor, rarely go more than 15 or 20 minutes without looking at my phone. I know, it’s shameful.

And most of our students have lived their entire adolescence like this. Cell phone never moving more than six inches from their bodies at all times. Frankly, I don’t know how they get any work done, but they seem to manage. The point, though, is that the work they do is almost always rife with distraction.

Think about how we’ve learned to consume content on the internet. We read differently on the internet. We look for subheadings and bullet points. We skim. We skip around. Our eyes travel up and down and even right to left. Reading on the internet is the most distracted kind of reading, if we can still call it that.

That’s why I like teaching short stories. From a good, old-fashioned short story collection. With real pages. Short stories use rhetorical devices that nonfiction does not. Foreshadowing, suspense, symbolism. If a student skips sections or doesn’t finish the story, he’ll probably miss key plot points (We don’t learn how to do that until grad school. Ha.). With a nonfiction essay on the other hand, a student can wing it and still have a pretty good idea what’s going on.

So I assign short stories to help students develop some of those important concentration skills that the outside world is constantly undermining. Once we get a few pages deep in a good short story, we might decide to stick around for a while.

These are some of the reasons I’m currently teaching short stories in my writing classes, but what about you? Do you teach short stories? Why or why not? What’s your favorite story to teach and/or read?

Teaching Poetry in Literature-Based Writing Courses

This post on teaching poetry begins a four part series that explores literature-based writing classes. In this series, we’ll explore the concept of literature-based writing courses and how we, as writing teachers, can use literature in our composition courses to teach writing.

In order to gain a full perspective on this discussion, I’m going to break our exploration into four different parts, each focusing on a popular genre of literature: poetry, short stories, short film, and drama. Because I use each of these genres in my literature-based writing courses, much of this discussion will focus on my own experiences in the classroom. I’ll tell what has worked for me and give some examples of effective assignments.

But, I also want to use this series to open a discussion. I’d love to hear from you. Do you teach a literature-based writing course? What works or doesn’t work in your composition classroom?

Teaching Poetry in Literature-Based Writing Courses

At the University of Georgia where I teach, the second semester of freshman composition is literature-based writing. We use various forms of fiction to help students both generate interesting topics and also to provide for them models of engaging and effective writing.

We discuss the works, of course, but not quite in the same way you would in a literature seminar course. After all, freshman composition is still primarily about writing. Therefore, I use the literature to help spur discussion and to catalyze critical thought in a way that’s a bit different from what students do in their first semester, which is more focused on analysis of nonfiction.

In my classes, we spend a few weeks each with poetry, short stories, drama, and short film, and I use each of these genres to teach different elements of good writing.

Literature-Based Writing Class

Using Poetry to Teach Writing

1. Teaching Poetry Helps Students Open Up

Students in my English 1102 classes begin the semester with a poetry unit. I always get some initial resistance to the study of poetry, but I’ve found that opening with this form really breaks down walls that would otherwise stand in the way of the meaningful discussion I attempt to foster in my courses.

And that’s actually the first advantage of using poetry to teach writing. It encourages openness and vulnerability and helps establish a classroom culture that prioritizes personal expression and reflection. Because I use drafting and peer review heavily in my writing courses, it’s crucial that my students quickly embrace the idea that we will be both giving and receiving advice that may sting a little. I need them to recognize that it’s okay to put ourselves out there a little bit–even if that means we might be opening ourselves to critique. Because that’s how we get better–by making ourselves vulnerable to people we trust and by accepting constructive criticism on works in which we’ve invested ourselves.

Thus, reading and discussing poetry helps establish a classroom culture that preps students to open themselves and make themselves vulnerable in order to get better. When I assign a 200 word reflection on Ezra Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro” on Day 1, I give them no direction and I tell them there’s no wrong answer. On the second day they must share their reflections with the class. I’ve found that this really scares some students who have been trained (by AP English teachers?) that poems have a “correct” interpretation. No student wants to be wrong. Especially not on the second day of the semester in front of the whole class.

Little by little, they begin to recognize that I never correct anyone’s interpretation of Pound’s poem. They can write anything the poem speaks to them and I will accept it and encourage them to explore the thought in more detail. In this way, the students gain confidence and become more willing to share their thoughts and ideas. Exactly what I’m going for.

2. Teaching Poetry Encourages Close Reading and Creative Critical Analysis

The second major advantage of teaching poetry in literature-based writing courses is the way it instinctively trains students to read closely and think critically. It’s basically impossible to discuss poetry without conducting a close critical reading.

Take for example ee cummings poem “next to of course god america i.” I teach this poem precisely because cummings’s strange syntactical arrangement forces students to focus on the poem’s words. The clichéd phrases are jumbled and out of order. The poem lacks proper punctuation and the enjambed lines require multiple readings in order to be understood.

Students not only recognize the importance of grammatical clarity, but they also begin to understand that sometimes we have to read a piece several times in order to truly understand its meaning. Not to mention the poem’s theme always catalyzes a lively discussion. Every semester, a couple students pick this poem to analyze more deeply in their first papers.

A second exercise I like to use during our poetry unit which encourages creative critical analysis is a comparative juxtaposition. I assign two poems to be read the same day. Two seemingly very different poems that turn out to be more similar than one might think: Anne Bradstreet’s “To My Dear and Loving Husband” and Sherman Alexie’s “Reservation Love Song.”

Written four hundred years apart, these two poems seem to be as disparate as conceivably possible. But once we start digging into the works and comparing them, the class begins to see these striking similarities that were previously invisible. We discuss the sincerity (or lack of) from each narrator. We explore the concept of honesty. We try to decide if each piece is an example of “true love.” We explore some of the cultural landscapes that produced each of these works.

By the end of the day, we’ve all begun to recognize that these two poems that once appeared to be binary opposites are actually quite similar and even inhere within each other. This lesson teaches students the ever important concept of the binary and how we can use opposing ideas in nature and society in order to conduct a deep analysis of the concepts those ideas represent.

3. Teaching Poetry Introduces Authorial Voice

The Bradstreet/Alexie juxtaposition–in addition to the many other poems we read–also illustrates vastly different authorial voices, which is another important element I hope to teach in my literature-based writing classes.

By this second semester, I want students to begin identifying their own writing voices and teaching poetry gives them multiple examples from which to draw. I’ll pick this discussion of voice back up in the second post of this series when I discuss short stories, where authorial voice becomes even more clear.

Poetry, then, kicks off my literature-based writing classes for several reasons. One, it creates a classroom culture of openness and vulnerability. Two, by its very nature, it forces students to read closely and analyze critically. And, finally, teaching poetry allows students to start thinking about their own voice and writing identity, which becomes even more important during the second unit when we begin reading short stories.

What about you? Do you teach a literature-based writing class? How do you teach poetry in your classes?

Read the next post now: Teaching Short Stories in Writing Classes.

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Teaching Without a Plan

Teaching without a plan makes the classroom exciting and a little dangerous. In a good way.

Dangerous because it’s a bit of a gamble. You never quite know for sure what will happen. Sometimes the house wins and you go back to your office and close the door, wondering what the hell just happened. These are the times that teaching without a plan leaves you flat on your face. Students don’t engage or you don’t ask the right questions. You get blank stares and throat clears.

But when teaching without a plan works, it’s amazing. You beat the odds and your classroom ignites with energy and passion. These are the times that you go back to your office and close the door, wondering what the hell just happened. Wait, is there an echo in here? No, you read that right. Teaching without a plan usually lands you in the same position at the end of the day, regardless of the outcome.

Teaching Without a Plan

This “go big or go home” mentality isn’t for everyone, but it works for me. I’ve always been something of a gambler. I thrive in “make or break” scenarios–that’s when I feel most alive. I’m willing to risk a few faceplants on the path to lift-off. For me, that’s what makes life fun. And, for teachers willing to create this “dangerous” classroom culture, teaching without a plan can make education fun, too.

Let me give you an example.

In my freshman composition classes, I require three major assignments. The first two are papers–pretty traditional and straightforward literary analyses. In the past, I’ve tried a few different things out for that third major assignment. Everything from another paper to my Film as Composition assignment, where students work in groups to produce a multimodal composition piece.

This semester, though, I decided to mix things up a little. To teach without a plan.

Teaching Without a Plan: Designing Assignments

I started telling my students a couple weeks ago that I wanted some input from them about this third project. I told them we were going to spend some class time discussing the assignment and trying to reach some kind of consensus as to what we might do. Well, yesterday that time came.

I’m being completely honest when I say that I walked into class with no idea what was going to happen and no structure for our discussion. I was unequivocally teaching without a plan.

I know this isn’t for everyone, but I got a real thrill from it and I could sense the class felt the same way when I admitted, “Look–full disclosure here–I’ve never done this before and I’m not quite sure what will happen.” I was genuinely nervous about what might transpire.

The only ground rule I laid was that whatever we decided had to have some connection to the process of composition and had to be tied somehow to the general rubric we use for grading in the composition department at the University of Georgia.

At first, everyone was a little quiet. I asked how many people would rather just do a traditional paper, because it was less anxiety-inducing and more clear cut. A few hands raised. I expected that.

Next, I asked if any of them had ever made films. We spent a few weeks discussing short film earlier in the semester, so this was a fairly reasonable question. More hands. Some general buzzing beginning to pass through the rows.

Then the questions started. “If we did films, what would they be about? How long would they be? What kind of equipment would we need? How would they be turned in?” Whenever possible, I tried to direct the questions back to them and let the students set these parameters.

Some students had other ideas. “Do we have to work in groups? What if we want to do something on our own? Can we do a piece of creative writing? Can we instead just write a paper about a film?”

I was feeling the energy and the class was fully engaged in the discussion now. Some questions I answered, some I redirected, some I just left alone for the time being.

We ended up deciding on three possible options:

  1. Conduct a traditional literary analysis of a film
  2. Make a film using what is essentially my previous prompt for the multimodal composition project
  3. Create a “Choose Your Own Adventure” project (one of my students named that one and I like it)

All three options will require a detailed project proposal which will be due next week. In the proposal, individual students or groups will propose a plan to me, tell me exactly what they will do, how they will do it, what each person’s role will be, and how it relates to the composition classroom. This proposal will function like a pre-write or a rough draft, and I will either approve it or give further advice and ask for a re-submission.

This time around, teaching without a plan was a win (so far). Can’t wait to see the proposals they come up with and especially to see the final products. At the end of class, I asked if anyone was really uncomfortable with the fast and loose structure of this assignment. Only one had raised: mine.

What about you? When has teaching without a plan worked (or failed) in your classroom?


Breaking Down the Five-Paragraph Essay at Education Week

Read my five-paragraph essay piece, Should We Teach the Five-Paragraph Essay?, published at Education Week.

I often reach out to my colleagues in the blogging community to see if they’d be interested in sharing posts. That usually means other English teachers or folks who write about education in general. It’s part connecting with the community and part promotion of myself and my work. Occasionally, I’ll find someone who is in fact interested in having me write a piece. About a month ago, I contacted Nancy Flanagan, who writes a blog called “Teacher in a Strange Land” for Education Week. Nancy is a teacher herself (former Michigan Teacher of the Year) and a digital organizer for IDEA (Institute for Democratic Education in America), and as her bio reveals, her writing focuses on “the inconsistencies and inspirations, the incomprehensible, immoral and imaginative, in American education.” We clicked pretty quickly.


Nancy Flanagan and I both seek to expose truths in American education, so I assumed I would write a controversial piece for her about labor organizing or education reform, but oddly enough we decided on the more politically benign topic of the “five-paragraph essay.” I know–I never really talk much about that topic here, but as I began to write, I found I actually did have quite a bit to say on the matter.

Nancy kind of planted the seed by relaying to me that she has a friend who also teaches freshmen composition and who despises the five-paragraph essay. I mean hates it. Nancy asked if I would write a piece excoriating the five-paragraph format. I knew the five-paragraph essay was a pretty commonly taught form in high schools, so I recognized that although my topic would not be as politically charged as many of my posts, I could still stir up some controversy. So, I decided to take it on.

My five-paragraph essay piece was published this morning at Education Week. Just thought I would share it with you. Head over and check it out. See if you agree or disagree. By the way, in case you were wondering, Education Week was started by Corbin Galtney and other members of Editorial Projects in Education (EPE), which is the same group that started The Chronicle of Higher Education back in 1966. Education Week has been the “market leader in K-12 American education news for the past 31 years.” I’m honored to have had the chance to write for them and I hope to write another piece for them soon.

So please, if you’re interested, head over and read my five-paragraph essay article, support me, and join the Education Week discussion here.

Attack of the Robot Graders!

Michael Winerip’s recent New York Times piece entitled “Facing a Robo-Grader? Just Keep Obfuscating Mellifluously” basically just confirms everything we already knew about computer grading. Nothing to see here. Keep moving.

Still reading? Oh. Fine then. The article is about the new “e-rater” by the Educational Testing Service (ETS), which can grade 16,000 essays in 20 seconds. Winerip pits the ETS e-rater against MIT writing director, Les Perelman, who systematically disembowels the robot grader and its proponents. Two days later, Winerip appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered to discuss his article. According to him:

The automated systems look for a number of things in order to grade, or rate, an essay, Winerip says. Among them are sentence structure, syntax, word usage and subject-verb agreements. “[It’s] a lot of the same things a human editor or reader would look for,” he says.

Enh! Wrong.

In my grading rubric (and the grading rubric of most contemporary composition instructors), sentence level and grammatical issues are pretty much at the bottom of the list of priorities. Of course, if a paper is riddled with these “local errors” to the point that it effects the paper’s coherence, that’s clearly an issue that needs to be dealt with. Incidentally, these are the students who need a real teacher the most. So, pawning these students off on machines would be one of the most irresponsible educational decisions imaginable. Thus, the e-rater fails the test for evaluating students with real developmental writing needs.

But what about students who are decent writers looking to polish their essays? Well, that’s not going to work either. Papers with only a moderate number of local errors can (and in my opinion, should) be evaluated differently. Personally, I care much more about my students’ ideas and overall structure. Like whether they craft strong thesis statements, transition smoothly, and support their claims with appropriate and well-documented evidence. Let’s see how the computer grader weighs in on these issues.

“You could say the War of 1812 started in 1925,” Winerip says. “There are all kinds of things you could say that have little or nothing to do in reality that could receive a high score.”

Oh, really. Interesting.

As NPR’s Melissa Block points out, “they truly don’t understand what they’re reading.” Because of this, a computer will never be able to effectively evaluate a sophisticated and multi-faceted piece of writing. In order to fully appreciate a student’s writing process, one must be capable of understanding what one is reading.

Aside from that, how can a student be expected to improve as a writer and a thinker without ever receiving any constructive feedback beyond how many commas he misused? What that does is teach a very formulaic, cookie-cutter style. A style free from “error.” A style with no room for creativity or personal voice. Think for a minute about the great Americans who have made this country what it is. Inventors, Artists, Writers, Entrepreneurs, Thinkers. How many of them would you say colored within the lines? How many of them would you say believed creativity was an unnecessary nuisance that should be stifled whenever possible?

Why Robot Grading Doesn’t Work

Grading is necessarily a dynamic process. It is interactive. Improving student writing requires that teachers enter into conversation with their students. If we really want to make students better writers, we have to talk to them about how to get better, whether that is through comments or in conferences. We can’t just assign a grade and wash our hands. Anyone who disagrees with this either doesn’t care about improving student writing, or is lying to himself.

Personally, I believe the proponents of computer-grading predominately fall into the latter category. Many are administrators who want to streamline the process and make it more efficient and of course, cheaper. Others are teachers who are burned out and tired of grading, which I totally understand. I really do. The efficacy of effectively evaluating 100 essays in a week is equally as questionable. I would love to turn my grading over to computers and have that most difficult weight of teaching lifted from my shoulders. But, I know it would be irresponsible and it would be a disaster to student improvement, so I won’t do it.

I know everyone is up in arms right now about these recent developments in computer-grading, but it just isn’t even something we should be discussing at this point. In the NPR interview, Block astutely points out that she isn’t “sure [she] can see a value beyond speed.” Exactly. Machine grading has absolutely no value beyond speed. None. Surely, this isn’t what it has come to.

Move on. Nothing to see here.