Monday, December 20, 2004

BW Portfolios: What I'll do Differently Next Time

Now that my students and I have made it through the first semester of portfolios-in- Basic Writing, I can relax and look back on what I'm going to change. This is stream-of-conscious thinking, so be forewarned:

1. Develop the notebook portion of the course. The notebook is the working tool of the course, while the portfolio is the place for putting the special documents for me to grade. Why do I do this? Well, it saves me from developing bursitis at midterm and finals, and that is no joke.

Specifically, the notebook has been a folder (with grommets), divided into several sections: class notes, affirmations, journal, writer's toolbox and "etc."--on the cover, students create collages that depict who they are, so the notebooks are very much personalized.

The portfolio is a college-printed folder (in need of revision, but that's a whole other blog post)in which the students place their midterm essays and their final essays. Even with rough drafts, the heft is not as weighty as the notebook.

2. I teach writing in a computer lab. Why are my students even printing out papers? Why don't they hand me a disk at midterm and finals? Oh, let's not go there, at least, not yet. Most of my students can word process, email and IM. Most can surf the web (for automobiles, clothes and music). Still, some of them prefer to hand write their papers and others prefer to print out drafts and revise by hand.

3. But I said that I wasn't going to go there just yet.

4. Grammar. This semester I taught sentences and how to punctuate them, as well as concepts like person and voice and so forth. By the semester's end, many, but not all, of the class were talking about writing as grammar correction, and seemed to be flogging themselves for their lack of skill. All I wanted was for them to know the terminology and be able to use it--and I am not, not, not talking about teaching a comprehensive course in grammar, honest.

Generally, the students who were too keen on correction were also the students who were leaning on canned, formulaic writing. Of course.

If I ruled the world: no mechanics or grammar for a semester, then introduce it once the writers are confident enough in their voices so that they stop viewing writing and grammar instruction as correcting a flawed self.

5. Notebooks as graded documents. I've used them as a form of writing to be graded for several semesters, and while I am happy with the results, I am also aware that every semester I promise that I'll collect them and grade them at intervals. Fat chance. I collect them before midterm and find that after midterm, too much is going on that needs to be graded, and the notebooks become a memory.

I'm changing notebook-keeping to a two-week assignment which will be graded. Here's why I even require them: BW students are not always the most organized students to begin with, and notebook -keeping is one way to get them in the groove, so to speak, of being in college. The assigned notebook has certain constraints: copy down the class plans for the day (because the agenda may change from the monthly plans.); take notes on what goes on in class and include any inclass writing activity. I'm flexible in that I encourage students to use tape recorders or the computer if either system works better for them.

There's more to say about the prepilot-pilot, and I will, in future posts. I'm deriving a great deal from reading clc'sand Style's experiences and would value hearing from others who have or are using portfolios in any course.


At 1:58 PM, Blogger clc said...

"If I ruled the world: no mechanics or grammar for a semester, then introduce it once the writers are confident enough in their voices so that they stop viewing writing and grammar instruction as correcting a flawed self."

I guess I'm wondering why you don't have the ability to control this? Is it mandated somehow that you teach grammar early in your courses?

Our basic writing students come to us with this notion of a "flawed self" already pretty firmly engrained, and we have to do everything we can to undo it, I believe. As I think I said in an earlier comment (but maybe not, since I talked about this with someone IRL, so I may be confused ;-)), despite the lack of attention I pay to grammar explicitly in my classes, my students still at the end equate writing with grammar, and thus, how good they are at writing with how good they are at grammar. They have clearly spent a good many years being trained to believe that the two are the same, and that their propensity for error marks them as "bad writers."

This doesn't mean we can entirely ignore a student's difficulty with grammar, but it does argue for not devoting classroom instruction to it. Basic writers need to develop confidence in their ability to think and put ideas on paper; for those who exhibit persistent habits of error, we should work with them one-on-one, in the context of their writing, and then, I'd say, only with the really distracting errors: sentence boundary errors and verb tense and agreement errors. Beyond those, I'd leave it for freshman comp.

Another option for those who believe grammar must be taught (and we can argue about whether it CAN be taught--Patrick Hartwell, anyone?) is to do what my college has done: develop a one-credit grammar course which students could take while they are taking basic comp (or freshman comp). Let the writing class be about developing voice and learning about making rhetorical choices, as it should be, and put the grammar instruction elsewhere.

And before anyone flames me about creating false dichotomies between grammar and writing, please note I am talking about grammar INSTRUCTION.

At 3:43 PM, Blogger Rosa G. said...

I like the idea of the one-credit course very much. In EN 001 and 002 we're not supposed to teach grammar except as a refresher, and the old test was created with the Evergreen textbook, so we taught Evergreen grammar in 001. I wanted to see how teaching sentences and their punctuation would work, and I don't know whether what we did will carry over to the next semester. I wanted the students to leave the class with the ability to craft an essay, to respond to other's writing beyond the "it was nice. It flowed" level, and to begin to associate grammatical terms with their own writing. If I could the right metaphor to present the grammar and mechanics ideas, I think I would sound less pedantic in these posts and more useful to my students. That said, whenever we looked at a grammar concept, we also looked at it in their own writing, which is vital to their understanding of grammar as being part of the process/product and not a stand-alone subject that exists solely on worksheets and tests.
"Looking" is the metaphor that I'd use to describe my overall aim in BW--looking, seeing and paying attention. A zen bell. A wake -up call. Thinking about what we're looking at.
Anyhow, thanks for your response, clc.

At 9:23 PM, Blogger sharon said...

It sounds like you are doing what we all do.....constantly refining. One of the great joys and challenges of this work is that every time a new group of students walk in the door, they bring a unique set of abilities and concerns. They also bring their own phantom teachers from the past who whisper in students' ears. This makes the grammar issues (and how / when / with what approach) like navigating in a snowstorm. You just don't know what is around you, so you make your best choices as you decipher the clues your students can provide.

After years of teaching (nope - not gonna say how many - you might faint) this is where the thrill lives. Just when I think I have it all figured out, the next class thorought the door requires different techniques and approaches. For some classes, short spats of direct instruction has been so helpful students thank me. Of course, the next section I teach generally has students who would scream and melt like the witch in The Wizard of Oz if I even mention the dreaded "g" word. Knowing when and how to show students that grammar is a tool of good writing - a map of the choices that can be made - now that's one of the ways we constantly stretch ourselves as teachers.

At 1:01 AM, Blogger clc said...

Rosa, I hope I didn't sound bitchy about the grammar. I didn't mean to be critical of you. It seemed to me you were expressing dissatisfaction with a curriculum you had to teach. Sorry if I misinterpreted and then sounded dictatorial myself in the other direction ;-)

I really don't have the answer for solving the grammar "problem;" I just know that lessons and exercises don't seem to get me anywhere. It's only time-consuming, energy-draining, one-on-one work with individual students that seems to help, but until composition classes have reasonable enrollment caps, not all students who need this help will get it.

At 4:36 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting conversation! One note about grammar- On my EN 101 final, I typically give my students 12 short paragraph answer questions- they are free to choose 3 to answer. Most of the questions are open ended, and I am looking for how they answer as much as what they say. One of the questions I use is: Which is more important in an essay, grammar or ideas? I am surprised each semester take 90% of my students choose this question. It is an interesting exercise to get their views on grammar at the end of the semester!


At 11:08 PM, Blogger Rosa G. said...

clc, thanks for the apology, but the truth is that in this kind of medium, I like to give folks the benefit of the doubt. And let's face it, mentioning grammar is a hot button in teaching writing. Sharon, how do you do a mini-lesson and keep it from becoming a macro lesson? For instance, if I want to show students how to place a comma in a sentence with a dependent clause followed by an independent clause, isn't it easier to explain if they know what a clause is? Would you be willing to write an entry about how to do a mini-lesson? I really, really want to know. And Sam, your exam question interests me a great deal because you teach in the same department as I do, and some of your students have come out of BW.
I'd like to think that the grammar review I do paves the way for the students to understand concepts or how to begin to figure them out--I don't think that they should be A+ grammarians when they leave the class. I would be interested in hearing about how their perception of grammar changes in 101/A--what brings it about? The amount of reading, the level of writing, maturity? How do they "get" it? I feel that sometimes in BW, the students are so focussed on error reduction as writing, that despite the multiple drafts, the multiple tasks, the reading, etc. , they always come back to grammar errors because grammar is easy to correct, and because of high school experiences, writing-as-grammar is the language they speak.

At 11:43 PM, Blogger jocalo said...

Rich discussion these past few days. Y'all have exemplified what the blog can encourage--the hive mind with each contribution making a whole no one of us could produce.

The grammar discussion is indeed tricky. I might even beg the question and say we shouldn't use the term grammar at all, because it's so loaded and layered. Let's talk about language details that writers find useful. I do a lot of this "avoidance behavior" in BW classes. I avoid the term "thesis" because it seeems to paralyze half the class as soon as it's invoked. "Grammar" has a similar effect. We have no idea what particular misery a given student carries from earlier encounters with a picky parent or a rule-wielding teacher. I've yet to be in a broad discussion of college English teachers where "grammar" has a clearly shared meaning.

Since I'm going into a portfolio process for the first time next term, I'm thinking through how to adapt my current approach to assessment. We do lots of pieces of writing and then I ask for more formal papers. For these, I use a rubric with about 18 features which are rated NI (Needs improvement), OK, and GOOD. I tell students their goal at term's end is to have no NI and a few GOODs. Since the course is CR/NC, I don't need to produce distinctions between A, B and C, which is also a blessing.

I think I'll need a simplified rubric for the pieces of writing that go into the portfolio. Our committee has developed some drafts, but right now it's open for each of us to experiment (this whole year we are calling a PILOT).

So I'm going to school on all your good ideas and practices.

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