Saturday, December 18, 2004

One Helpful Portfolio Cover

Hearing faint echoes of complaint in clc's posts about portfolios, I'm writing on evaluation at quarter or term's end — particularly so since in noting "meta-cognitive" work on writing, clc seems to be seconding something I've long assigned. For my final, two-part writing assignment encourages a few wider, deeper thoughts, thoughts meant to induce reflection on larger concepts. Students often find my assignment helpful. Yours might, too.

Part one is a regular, out-of-class essay assigned with a common title form. It aims to promote understanding of writing as an "art." To that end, I ask students to add two other, self-chosen concepts framing suggestive ideas like "Punctuation, Rhythm, and the Art of Writing," "Concepts, Connections, and the Art of Writing," or — as in Jason Johnson's fine title — "False Rules, Conventional English Teaching, and the Art of Writing." Here is Jason's lead:

For me high school English was a bore and the writing was always a very arduous process; never did the teachers let us students write what we wanted, how we wanted to write it. Rather than teaching us how to use our language effectively, my English teachers were always too busy setting up rules and guidelines to follow for our papers. Book reports and story summaries were about the extent of it, work that could be easily checked to its source to make sure the information was correct, leaving little attention on the writing itself. A quick check is performed for contractions, sentence fragments and other errors that should "never" be in a paper; once the papers were not-so-thoroughly checked, a grade was slapped on. Little did I know that college English would take my definition of writing and change it from a chore-like task into a truly liberal art.

Though Jason's a star, he's representative, surely able to reflect on what he's himself stressed. And so with my other students; they all have some good things to say. So I try to shape them in my assignment's next, second part — a final, reflective bluebook essay on a paragraph from their essays. Here's my common rubric, part of a larger exam:

Writing style is a matter partly of principle and partly of personality. It's the precise conjunction of the two that most often marks a good style. Pick a stylistic principle you think marks your own writing, illustrating it with a paragraph from "_________, __________, and the Art of Writing," explaining how your own personality and that principle intersect, and trying then to reflect on what their conjunction means. In reading your essays, I'll be looking for signs that you can shape ideas, offer illustrations, and develop implications. Strive for clarity, coherence, concision, and completeness. Develop several, fully-formed, coherently-focused paragraphs, trying to analyze and evaluate your own good style.

Naturally, though not all students can rise to my assignment's full challenge, most in fact do, providing a useful check on final grades. That's the main purpose of portfolios, provided, as I think, students reflect on their own learning. I hope you might agree. My work tries, in any case, to frame at least one helpful portfolio cover.


At 2:15 PM, Blogger clc said...

I like what you are saying here, Styles. Your reflective piece seems to focus more on style (pun intended) than my idea, which I think is more about process, but we are in agreement about the value of asking students to think about what they have done in their writing at semester's end; I don't think there is any better way to "test" what students have learned in a writing course. For those who disagree, and who feel the need to do a grammar check as an exit requirement, having the students do the meta-text as an in-class assignment or final exam, if you please, can fulfill that, too.

I broke with my department this semester on our traditional in-class piece and did my own reflective piece instead (just needed a break from a process I feel has been stifling me). I asked students to write in class about whether they felt the portfolio process best demonstrated their achievement as writers, whether they would prefer an in-class essay exam, what they would change about the portfolio process and what they would change about the course. I found their brief essays to be, for the most part, thoughtful, self-aware and helpful to me as a teacher.

At 1:39 PM, Blogger Rosa G. said...

"Conjunction" of personality and principle, is a way of looking at writing that I am going to be chewing on for awhile. I especially like that your prompt ends on a positive note, that your students have a good style, and all that's left is for them to analyze and discuss it. Thanks, Styles.

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