That moment in the semester had arrived. You know the one: the point at which, having received their grades from the first assignment of the term, students were beginning to panic about their final writing tasks. Even though I, as a historian, write quite a bit, I sometimes find it hard to teach writing because it’s difficult to articulate the rules I inherently know. I also think that it can be tricky to teach in an engaging way. Because I can be a competitive person, I decided to teach my first-year students about writing through a contest of sorts.
In writing this post, I want to pick up on Michael Hattem’s post from a couple of days ago and talk about what happens once students have submitted those essays. Last semester, I treated my students’ first assignment as a tryout. Although students knew what they had to write about and how many words they could deploy to accomplish that task, I gave them little other writing advice because I wanted to see how they performed without it. I also needed their unedited sentences for the purpose of this editing contest.
Next, I offered further training in the form of a writing and grammar style sheet that I circulated among my students. This document, which I update periodically, contains a number of pieces of writing advice, targeted toward the most common mistakes that students seem to make. It includes general instructions about proofreading, comma, apostrophe, and semicolon use; examples of confusing homonyms; and advice on avoidance of contractions and passive voice. It is shamelessly plagiarized from past history teachers.
I also include advice about how students can avoid several of my writing pet peeves. My pet peeves include a list of tics that don’t necessarily count as errors, but that make students’ writing less fluid. For example, I urge students to find ways to smoothly integrate quotes into their paragraphs; I suggest that they may need to break some quotes up, rather than leaving them whole. The former technique tends to force students to more thoroughly analyze quotes, and makes their writing more readable. I ask them not to use “I,” or “my” in their essays. I tell them to avoid the use of “etc.” when making a list, as employing the term suggests an unwillingness to thoroughly research all the components of that list. I also attempt to get students to eschew a technique I’ve come to think of as the “dangling this”: the use of the word “this” at the beginning of a sentence, when the subject is not immediately apparent. Finally, I tell them that although they should write about historians in the present tense, they should write about primary sources and history itself in the past tense.
Once I distributed this style guide, I asked the students to read the document carefully before we met for seminar.
Upon arriving in class, I explained that during the next portion of the exercise students would divide into groups. Each group would head to a station around the room; multiple copies of an essay sat at each station, and each station housed a different essay. I’d taken their first assignments and chopped them up sentence by sentence, adding in some additional errors and excising others. I compiled the different essays into composites that contained all the content they needed to cover. These essays presented multiple examples of errors in writing and grammar that I hoped they’d be able to identify. I’d turned on the “line numbers” feature in my word processing program so that within each essay, every sentence corresponded to a number.
I asked students not to write on the essays, but to assemble an external list of the writing and grammatical mistakes, along with the line numbers on which errors occurred. Each group got three minutes with every essay, and then the groups rotated to the next station. I told them that after cycling through the different stations, we’d go over the mistakes in each essay, and the group that identified the greatest number would win a prize.
I wanted to offer a small bribe because there are only so many instances in which learning about writing rules might seem enjoyable—this exercise was not really one of them. Because of the way assessment works in England, there’s not much leeway to offer adjustments to grades, so I needed a carrot that would still appear attractive. Maybe making this whole assignment a competition seems a bit like pandering, but I am willing to pander if it gets students to remember the things they’ve taught themselves once they leave my classroom. As a reward, I settled on giving the winning groups (one for each class section) a pass on our end-of-semester exam review. Before that meeting I asked students to identify the key terms that would enable us to carry out our review, but the winning groups were able to show up and benefit from their fellow students’ preparation.
Once all the groups had cycled through each essay, I opened my document of the essays on the classroom projector screen, and appointed someone in the class as a recorder to keep track of points.
I asked the first group to start with the essay they’d looked at first, and to describe the errors in it. As we went, I approved or vetoed the gaffes they’d identified, and the other groups crossed off the same mistakes that they’d found from that essay. Once the first group had finished, I went through all the other groups, giving them points for any errors they’d caught that the first group has missed. I then moved to the second group and asked them to identify the errors in the first essay they’d examined, and asked each group in turn to describe the mistakes the second group hadn’t caught. In an ideal world, we’d have had time to go through all the groups; in my 45-minute class, we made it through four of the essays. It didn’t matter for the sake of counting points, as by then there was already a clear winner.
This lesson plan was not the one I’d intended to teach for the week. Initially, I’d planned a seminar that discussed a reading from the syllabus, and so in pursuing this different session some of the content from my class got short shrift. But once I’d graded that first round of essays, I realized that my students needed a session on writing.
As I muddle through my first year of teaching, I’m coming to realize that teaching method is just as important as teaching content.
There were multiple reasons for running this exercise. The first was to show students that even an essay that hit all the essential content points still contained errors; in other words, that historians must write well in order to most effectively make their points. The second was to demonstrate that not all writing rules are hard and fast, and that where one person used a comma another person might not. The third was to encourage students to be more mindful when they write their final essays. I hope that by making mistakes readily apparently in these assignments, they will learn how to recognize them in their own writing in the future.
I also think I’ll tweak several aspects of this lesson the next time I run it. For one thing, I will hand out my writing sheet at the start of the semester; maybe not during the first class, but soon thereafter–and in any case, before students’ first assignment is due. I now have conglomerate examples of essays, so don’t need to borrow them from my students, and I don’t think it was helpful to ask students to write blind. During the exercise itself, I will encourage students who I know are slow readers to act as recorders for their group so that they participate without feeling poorly about needing more time for an in-class reading assignment. I would also like to make time to not only identify errors, but also to get students to comment on how they might correct awkwardly-phrased sentences.
This exercise has invoked a small personal crisis here in England. I’ve had to acknowledge that I cannot force my students to adopt the Oxford comma, or to employ double quotation marks. I’ve had to make peace with moving my punctuation marks outside of my quotes. I will also admit that I had to carefully check my style sheet and print it out more than once, as my unfamiliarity with British grammar resulted in some unintentional errors on the first draft.
Finally, I remain acutely aware of the fact that I sometimes ignore these directives, especially when I’m writing for more informal venues. In the end, though, I know that students need to learn these rules before they can bend or break them. And if teaching writing involves the creation of a competition, then I will invent one in order to get my students to play along.