Posts Tagged ‘basic writing’

by writing classes at Blue Mountain Community College, in Eastern Oregon.

…when you take a writing teacher who thinks it’s more fun to teach a class when veggiesyou don’t go through the same frigging song and dance every single term, and who is either a Renaissance Woman (as her friends in college maintained) or just plain scattered (as her Not FriendsĀ  have suggested). At any rate, this woman (who shall remain nameless, since she’s me), keeps body and soul together for herself, The House Leroy, The Boy, The Girls (our formerly feral cats who now mostly like to lie on their backs and have their tummies rubbed), and the Magic Dog by writing, designing, and illustrating books when she’s not teaching. So long story short, there’s something of a talent pool there just waiting to be tapped, and by golly, was it ever tapped for this bad boy.peppers

This term we talked about Comfort Food–those foods that remind us who we are, that are a part of our history. I don’t know if you know this, but writing classes are structured around a variety of writing styles. One of those styles is the “How-to” paper. Everybody brought a family recipe for that. And then we talked about processes, and how to write about them, and how to edit, and how important it is to provide clear, concise instructions, and oh, all sorts of things. And then flourthe real work started. I made a boatload of illustrations (all of these are my own original work, so if you like them let me know and we’ll work something out), and then designed a book that reflected something of my own history withmilk comfort food–the yellow and white tiles remind me of my grandmother’s kitchen. And then we printed it up, and part of the money this baby earns (if any) will go to support future projects like this with my classes.

(For the record, next term we’re talking about Finding Home–how traditional houses reflect the culture and climate that give birth to them, and new ways of thinking about houses and how to make them.)

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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…

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