A year ago I started teaching two basic writing classes at my local community college. My first term I stuck pretty close to the sample syllabus I got–just tweaking the tiniest bit.
Before I started my second term, though, I made two minor renovations that have changed everything about the way I teach.
The first is that, rather that focusing on teaching the “modes” of the various essays and on grammar exercises, I switched to a “sequence” format. Here’s the difference:
Teaching “modes” means focusing on essay format. Subject matter becomes secondary. Grammar and punctuation is taught as a series of worksheets that bear little relation to student writing.
Teaching “sequences” places subject matter front and center. The various essay forms become different ways of exploring the subject, and grammar and punctuation is done in the context of student writing.
That was the first change–I chose a subject, and wrote my assignments to prompt students in writing about it in the various forms required for state standards.
My second innovation is more far-reaching–I allow infinite rewrites, as long as the first assignment has gotten in on time (deadlines are important, after all).
I’m spending a lot of my time reading and commenting on papers these days. Why would I do this, when it makes my life so very much busier? I’m doing it because of my real world experience in writing, editing, and publishing. I have yet to find any writer who can produce something worth reading in two rounds of revision. Seems to me asking beginning writers to do it is unrealistic–and it also deprives us both of a powerful teaching opportunity. Students learn best in the context of their own writing–and by allowing multiple revisions I’m giving myself the opportunity to guide them through the process of really writing, from content revision to structural revision to style revision to grammatical revision.
And it’s working. I’m getting boatloads of papers in. More important, though, is that my students are not only learning how to write about a subject in various ways–they’re starting to think about things that really matter. Last term the sequence was about food. We talked about how humans have various nutritional needs, about how environment, wealth, climate, and culture shape how those needs are filled, and about how the food of the poor in a culture becomes the “comfort food” of a nation. And then we talked about how understanding what people eat, and why, can become a powerful tool in bridge-building between cultures. I gave extra credit for students who actually cooked an old family recipe and brought it in to class. Not a class went by that we didn’t have something to eat. And I watched my students begin to move past the cultural barriers in our small town.
This time we’re talking about homes, and about how values are reflected in the homes we choose, and how we shape them. Our first three essays have been where each of us live, and what it says about us. The last three essays will be broader in scope. We’ll compare homes from different cultures, look at how they reflect climate and culture–and then look at how those differences can affect the way we see each other. And we’ll look at how the sharply increasing problem of homelessness is changing us.
So far, it’s going well. But as I say, I’ve got a boatload of papers to grade. And so to work…