How to teach freshman composition

Or at least how I do it.

Teaching writing:

Much of my college level teaching experience to date has been teaching writing:  developmental studies, freshman composition, business writing, and advanced composition.  I prepared to teach these courses through the primary area in my doctorate, Rhetoric and Composition.  I have taken twenty-four graduate hours in the theoretical and practical aspects of composition as well as an additional twelve hours in communication.  I enjoy teaching writing and believe that writing is an important skill for my students to learn and that it is essential to enhancing the quality of their education and their life beyond college.


Introducing writing:

In introducing writing, I offer examples from life to show that the assignment is not just useful for a grade in class but is also relevant to work after school, since students sometimes have the impression that college and the learning they do there is separate from “real life.”  For example, when introducing audience, one example I give for the importance of knowing your audience is the memos sent by the main engineer for the nuclear power plant at Three Mile Island and his inability to alert management to the impending problems because of his lack of audience awareness.  In discussing plagiarism I present the 2006 case of the Washington Post blogger, whose excellent high profile job was lost because he had plagiarized in college.  In the introduction to a paper on definition and illustration, I discuss the Challenger explosion and the misunderstanding generated by two different definitions for the word “secondary.”

These sorts of examples bring possible future implications home and help focus student interest. 


Practice and revise:

In writing, I believe that practice makes, if not perfect, at least more competent; therefore I give many written assignments in my composition classes.  The positive aspects of this are two-fold: the student is learning by doing and if the student does poorly on an assignment, the student’s grade is not lowered catastrophically.  In addition, I believe that giving the students the opportunity to rewrite papers helps them to learn what is wrong with their individual papers, by applying grammar they may theoretically know quite practically to their own writing, and learning how to correct their mistakes before turning in the next paper.  Finally I offer my students the opportunity to write their papers early and bring them to me so that we can go over them together before they are due.  If a student is willing to work to improve, I want to give all the help I can.


Overcoming difficulties:

In the past I have found that the research paper can overwhelm students.  Partly that is because many have never done such a major assignment and they often are not prepared for the amount of out-of-class work required.  One way I have responded to that is to divide the research paper into smaller components. 

The students get a library introduction and pick their topics. They write a one to two page paper on what they know about their topics and why they chose them. 

Then they find articles and take notes.

We go through how to write a Works Cited and then, using the articles they have brought to class with their notes, the students each write one citation on the board.  In this way, other students help them recognize errors.  Although that can be embarrassing, they respond well to this exercise and appear to enjoy it.  At the end of that application, everyone in the class has written at least one citation and as many of the students use citations from similar sources, they have seen multiple examples of the types of citations they need to create. 

After that we work on possible organization for their papers by creating outlines. 

Then they write a short paper each, which eventually becomes part of the research paper, where they present one of the arguments on their issue.  I mark these and return them and they then have a portion of their papers written. 

Finishing up the preliminary writing is much less frightening at that point.  Next they turn in three copies of the paper.  Students do peer editing on two copies and I give the other a quick (two to three minute) read and mark major difficulties.  Then the students do a final revision of their research papers based on both the peer editing, which are usually more in-depth than mine, and my marks and turn them in. 

Students tend to feel better about the research paper and their work improves throughout the project because it is broken into smaller steps.  And presenting the research paper in these smaller pieces models for the students how they can reduce an unmanageable project into reasonable size sections.


Modeling writing:

Modeling writing can be hard for a teacher to do because either we prepare beforehand and the students are overwhelmed by our speed in doing the assignment or we run the risk of being embarrassed by our own slowness in the classroom.  However, I have found that modeling assignments similar to what the students are required to do is beneficial to the students.  After having given the parameters of an assignment, I will often discuss how I would approach the writing.  I will model my thought process and make notes on the computer or board so the students will see how what I say works out in what I am doing.  Then I will begin writing the assignment. 

In one class, I was modeling a definition/illustration paper and I was so quick to come up with my next point that students were frustrated.  One of them mentioned awe at how quickly I worked and I explained that the particular assignment I was writing had been an example for several years; my quick writing was the result of years of prewriting.  I realized my speed was frustrating them, because they could not imagine ever being that fast to prewrite and write.

So I chose another topic, one I had not modeled before, and began the assignment again.  This time I was much slower and when I was caught without a third strong example, I modeled my thinking process for what I might do and came up with a solution.  While the students were completing their assignment before the next class, I also rewrote mine and presented them with the finished project, showing where I had changed sentences and even that problematic third example, which in the new version was a strong and relevant example.  They liked the fact that I had done my ‘homework’ too. 

The best part of it was they also saw, although they may not have realized it, how revision is necessary, even for a professional.


Updating a writing class:

Many people think that a writing class is stagnant- once a plan has been made, a syllabus constructed, there is no reason for review, except when a new textbook is adopted.  However, I think that my classes should adapt.  I have added online reading assignments to my writing classes; these cover everything from how to succeed at college (Dr. Mom’s site), an important question for first-generation college students particularly, to how test taking improves memory (LiveScience article).   My students read the latter and said that they appreciate quizzes now, which was an unexpected bonus.  They are not as enthusiastic about the quiz I give over how to take tests, but it does reinforce the lesson on test-taking, a skill that not all students have previously developed. As I learn and as the world changes, so do my writing classes.


Goals for freshman writing:

My ultimate goal is that, when the students leave my freshman writing class, they will know they are able to write any paper assigned in college.  I also want them to be confident that they can learn to write any kind of composition because they have successfully achieved that goal in my classes. Many students are hesitant about their writing ability when they begin freshman composition and my classes are designed to help them grow in skill and confidence.