Wednesday, February 15, 2012
On teaching students how to write
Who here has had any luck teaching students to write? Come on, be honest. And if so, please tell me how you've done it.
Every semester I start with the best intentions. I'll go over writing for several days. I'll let them do re-writes. I'll painstakingly edit their papers. Every semester the numbers get me down. There's too much to do. How much content can I sacrifice to teach students to write? Reading forty 5-6 page papers once is enough, but the re-writes too? Come on.
This semester I'm trying something new. Taking a page (if not a chapter) out of Lendol Calder's Uncoverage, this semester I'm teaching my "Religious History of America" class around a series of chronologically progressing questions. I've discussed the method before, but what's emerging is the opportunity to work with students on writing.
The class structure lends itself to it: five separate three-week sessions, with each section requiring a short 3-4 page response paper. This gives me ample time to work through content (the first two weeks of each section), then primary sources (the first two sessions of week 3) then writing (throughout, although each session is capped by a 3-4 page response).
The short papers do their part too. Writing 5-6 pages per essays is a bit of a bear for students (one I remember from my undergraduate days, long before TXT messaging). Equally compelling: they are easier to grade.
Plus, the students are forced to fine-tune their arguments, learn how to substantiate a claim, and be brief. Brevity, of course, forces them to think through their essays beforehand and then edit them afterward. We'll see how far they/I come with this, but I think I'll come farther with this class than with any before. And I won't sacrifice too much content to do it.
I'm doing this again for sure. I think.
Oh, and if you're wondering, the first question was: "Were we founded as a Protestant nation?" The second: "Was the Market Revolution or the First Amendment responsible for the tremendous religiosity on display in the first half of the 19th century?"