Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Teaching Writing, minus Peer Editing/Teacher Editing- the 1/2-way review

Midterms exams are done and graded and I want to give an update on how  things are going in my 3 advanced writing classes for English majors (3rd/4th year students).

My approach has been to veer away from the traditional approach to teaching writing that consists of endless cycles of teacher and peer editing.  Part of it is that I simply don't have time to do this because I have about 100 students in my writing classes, plus 3 other classes I need to prepare for and teach.  And the other part is that I simply don't think it's that effective or helpful.  Students need to become autonomous instead of just relying on the teacher to correct them.

Peer editing fills class time quite effectively, but I got beyond doing that in my first and second year of "teaching" and now actually "teach."  But, I also don't think it's so effective because it often degrades to just sharing misinformation, especially among the very weak students.  Pairing up the extremely weak with the extremely strong is just an annoying total waste of time for that strong student too.  How can students who are essentially beginners at writing judge whether or not a thesis statement or topic sentence is a good one or not?  Sure, some of my students can but probably less than 1/3 would be able to do this. 

Instead, I've focused most of my class-time on genre analysis-that is looking at quality essays and analyzing them, as well as on crafting good topic sentences, thesis statements, hooks, etc.  We've also spent time reviewing some basic punctuation (a major weakness), as well as significant amounts of time on self-editing.  Also, we do "free-writing" each class in order to get practice writing fluently. 

Results: 90% of the students in my classes have an extremely firm grasp upon the basic structure of the essay and did it almost flawlessly, including parallel organization.  The ones that don't have missed a lot of classes and/or are late almost everyday so obviously they're not so engaged in the class and getting the content.  I feel happy about this because it's a solid skill they can take with them into their lives. 

Punctuation is solid.  Basic grammar is also solid for most of the students.  But, I take no credit for that.  The students that were solid before the class have remained that way.  And the ones who couldn't put together a grammatically correct sentence before the class still can't do it.  But, I'm not worried about that.  If a student, after 1000's of hours of English language instruction can't put together a sentence, how much could I actually help them in 3 hours/week for 14 weeks? 

Vocab/sentence variety-a bit shaky for some students.  But again, I wonder how much I could actually help students in the short amount of time I have?  It's just not my priority.

Of course, for a more "professional view" of things, check out Jeremy Harmer's book on how to teach writing:

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