close-up image of Charleston Telephone Switchboard, multiple colors and ports and cords

reflections.

 

Over the past five years, I've taught at two separate institutions with two very different writing curricula, teaching classes that range from first- and second-year composition to civic writing to professional writing. I value the input students give me about assignments, readings, and our day-to-day activities, and I don't believe any teaching philosophy is complete without students' voices being represented. On this page, I try to offer a sense of what occurs in my classes on a daily basis and the range of projects students produce.

 

Activities

Below are four "tried and true" activities that I think are useful for meeting particular outcomes, and that students have told me—through informal feedback and through course evaluations—that they have found productive.

 

1. Multimodal Workshop

9-panel image of a multimodal workshop in class. Image shows craft materials (wood blocks, paint, markers), students painting objects, play with playdough, and crafting texts. One student models a mask made in class. 9-panel image of a multimodal workshop in class. Image focuses mainly on texts students produced, including a representation of a disabled athlete, a hat, multicolored silhouettes in a crowd of people.

Influenced by Jody Shipka, one of my favorite in-class activities is a multimodal workshop that asks students to reimagine their written arguments. I do this before we start a unit that involves either translating an argument to a new medium or composing a multimodal project. I bring in crafting supplies and ask students to bring at least 5 objects that they can use to compose an argument, and we spend the entire classroom creating "texts" that reimagine their arguments. Here's how I organize it:

  1. Write about one item that you brought: What is the significance of this item? What is its purpose? What could its purpose be?
  2. Exchange one item in your group: Add an item to the pile in the center of your table/desk clusters, and think about which objects might be most useful for your argument.
  3. Compose: What can these objects communicate that your essay couldn't? What are the potentials and limits of these objects? How can they work together or in opposition to tell a story?
  4. Share compositions in groups: Talk through your process and try to let your peers guess what your argument is.
  5. Reflection (for homework): How did this activity make you rethink your argument? What were you able to accomplish? Did this workshop give you any ideas for how you'd like to reimagine your argument?

2. Research Topic "Speed Dating"

Image of ten students in two rows of five, sitting and facing each other. With laptops on their desks, they are talking with or listening to the person in front of them.

I read about this a few years ago on Profhacker and have used it in all of my research-based classes since. "Speed dating" is a fun way to switch up workshopping and allows students to get a lot of feedback in a short span of time, so it's best for short pieces of writing (like introductions) or for ideas (like research topics or questions). I tend to prefer students to do this with paper for ease of moving around, but the students pictured almost all had their laptops. Here's how I organize it:

  1. First, I write research question criteria on the board: Does it matter? Is it interesting? Can research help answer it? Is it narrow enough? Does it require more than a factual yes/no answer? Does it generate more questions?
  2. I also write down what feedback I'd like students to give. If we're doing research questions, I ask them to think about the rhetorical situation: Who would care about this issue? What concerns might potential audiences have? Is there a sense of exigence (urgency) or kairos (timeliness) to this topic?
  3. Then, we arrange desks into two rows so students are facing each other.
  4. On a piece of paper (or on a laptop), I ask students to write out their research questions and to pay attention to the criteria on the board.
  5. On my laptop or phone, I play music (you could also use a timer to minimize noise during the workshop). Usually a 3- or 4-minute song is plenty of time. When the song starts, students share their questions and provide quick written feedback. Then, they discuss feedback.
  6. When the song ends, everyone moves one seat to the left. We usually do this 4-5 times.

I've also used this to vet topic ideas. For that, I ask students to come to class with three topic idea and to consider the following when giving feedback: Which topic is most or least compelling? Why? What can that person contribute to each topic? What are some alternative suggestions?

 

3. Research Question Gallery

Image shows the backs of three students standing in front of large paper taped to the chalkboard. A female student is looking at a sheet; a male student is writing questions on another sheet. Image shows the backs of four female students actively looking or writing at four large sheets of paper taped to the wall.

This is a great follow-up to either a topic or research vetting "speed dating" workshop when students have narrowed their research questions. I read about this idea in Jay Dolmage's article "Writing against Normal: Navigating a Corporeal Turn" and have found it really useful for getting students to push on their own ideas and interact with their peers' ideas. It does require a little prep: large paper, tape, and different colored markers. These are the instructions I give students:

  1. At the top of the paper, write your research question. Tape paper to the wall.
  2. Next, write down why you chose this topic.
  3. Next, list what you know about the topic already: surprising facts or statistics, the extent of the problem, common misconceptions, observations you've made, important trends, etc.
  4. Spend the next 10 minutes brainstorming a list of questions about the topic that you would like to answer through research. Make this list as long as possible to see the topic in as many ways as possible.
  5. Move around the room, reviewing topics and questions other students have generated. Do two things: 1) Add a question you think would be interesting that is not already on the list and 2) check the one question on the list you find most interesting.

 

4. Usability Testing

Image of three students sitting around a computer cluster. The female participant in the middle is actively engaging with the computer in front of her. Behind her, three students stand observing.

Although professional writing has a rep for being more straightforward and formal, there are still plenty of opportunities for students to workshop writing and to engage with each other's research. For our instructions unit, students collaboratively wrote instructions for a process, created visuals to illustrate this step-by-step process, and designed websites to house the instructions. We did some in-class usability testing for students to observe how users experienced their websites and how effective their instructions were. Though there are multiple ways to structure this, the main prep was beforehand. Here's what I ask students to do to prepare for usability testing:

  1. Formulate testing objectives: What do you want to know? Why? Will your realizations lead to a better instructional design?
  2. Write down your assumptions: Which steps of your instructions do you believe are the strongest? Which steps seem confusing? What are the visual aspects of your website that make following instructions difficult? Are your images confusing?
  3. Select two methods to collect data that will help you address your objectives. I suggested choosing an observation (silent observation, participant-observer, or talk-aloud protocol) and an exit interview.
  4. Standardize your data gathering process. You are welcome to take notes, use audio or video recording equipment, or screencasting software. The easiest way may simply be to just take notes on paper, paying attention to time and the actions of your participants.

On the day we conduct usability testing, I pair groups based on how much time I think their tasks will take. We do this in a computer lab so they can test their websites, and I ask each group to prepare the following:

  1. Bring up your website at each computer.
  2. Have your exit survey ready. (I showed them how to do this using Google Forms, although some groups chose to do paper surveys.)
  3. Be prepared to take detailed notes: when users pause, go back a step, do a step incorrectly, how long each step takes, comments users make about the process, etc.
  4. Make sure someone is in charge of a timer.

We rotate observers and participants until each group (in a class of 20) has at least 6 participants.

 

Student Projects

In my teaching philosophy, I noted that I value a writing pedagogy that is meaningful for students, that challenges them intellectually while accommodating their learning needs and interests. I try to enact this by situating writing within contexts beyond the classroom, encouraging students to be ethical producers of texts, and creating an accessible pedagogical space. Here, I offer three samples of student work (with brief excerpts from their reflections) to provide a sense of how the texts students compose connect with my goals as a writing instructor.

 

Image of a poster. In large black letters, the world disabilities is broken up, with statistics in between the letters. In blue, 48% relates to the smaller text on the right that reads, "of children wanted to participate in sports." In red below it, 38% corresponds to the smaller text on the right that reads, "of their parents reported that no such programs existed."

 

After writing a research paper about the (lack of) opportunities for disabled athletes, particularly in school settings, this student created a poster for her translation project. What I think is most successful about this poster, aside from the fact that it's a polished and visually appealing document itself, is the student's critical reflections about her choices. She acknowledges here that she chose this medium because it was meaningful for her as a design student, and even in this small excerpt, she reflects on the visual and rhetorical choices she made, as well as her ethical considerations about representing the disabled community.

 

Student Reflection:

This project was fun for me to do because I have a passion for design and like to portray a message through a well thought out piece of design. I am happy with how this poster came out because I think it has a very clear purpose and a clear voice. It is clean and tells the audience the direct issue at hand. It is important when designing to understand the culture you are designing for. I did not want to illustrate the disabled community as upset or victims because they do not have as much athletic opportunities as other kids do because I do not think the disabled community wants to be pictured as helpless. Instead I wanted to solely convey a message in a clear and obvious manner that allows the viewer to take it as they will.

Image of a student-created newsletter. The newsletter has a header with the name of the school, an image of the school mascot, an image of the font of the school, and the school's logo. Below these images is background text about inclusive education.

 

This student created a 4-page newsletter exploring inclusive education in a local high school. She thought carefully about creating a text that has meaning beyond our classroom, reflecting on the specific audience she thought would benefit from this information. She paid attention to how the layout and combination of text and graphics would provide for "easy reading" and appeal to community members who have frequently overlooked disability. This project was meaningful for her as someone who graduated from the high school, and she included an extensive Q&A with a special education teacher from the school to include "credible information" from a figure people in the community know.

 

Student Reflection:

This newsletter was produced in order to show our community how inclusive education is succeeding in the Baldwinsville School District. The school district has established astonishing classroom settings and teachers that they take pride in. Since the newsletter would be sent by mail, the majority of the community would read it; most are interested on a quarterly basis about what is happening at C. W. Baker High School. [...] I think that we need to inform the community involved with and around the school that a 50/50 mix of inclusive education works well at Baldwinsville High School. This issue is important to me because when I attended C.W. Baker, the disabled students didn’t have many options for inclusion.

 

Image shows 4 bumper stickers. The first three are black with white text and read, "texting while driving causes 5,000 US deaths every year," "46% of teens text & drive. put ur phone down!" and "49% of adults txt and drive. what kind of example is that?" the last one is black with white text for the top line that reads, "no text is worth your life" and white with black text that reads, "put down the phone"

This is one of the texts that a student created for the advocacy portfolio. Acknowledging that many people know that texting and driving is bad but disregard it, she sought to create texts that would make a difference. In her reflection, she notes that many of the statistics she encountered actually reveal that adults text and drive more than teenagers, but most anti-texting materials target teenagers. Her texts and her reflection indicate critical rhetorical awareness.

Student Reflection:

I created a series of four different bumper stickers, each designed to target a specific audience. One bumper sticker says “texting while driving causes 5,000 US deaths every year.” I believe that if a person sees this bumper sticker while driving, they will be less likely to pick up their phone if they hear it ring. Another bumper sticker has the message “49% of adults txt & drive. What kind of example is that?” This bumper sticker seeks to target the adult audience. Usually it is adults who are preaching to kids about the dangers about texting and driving. However, statistics show that adults are just as likely to text and drive.