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This week I am giving myself a reflection assignment. In my last post, All's Well That Ends Well, I described the final assignment I gave to my first semester composition students, who were co-enrolled in either a standard or ESL-focused co-requisite course. I wanted to provide students with space and language to analyze, question, and evaluate their writing experiences, in hopes that such reflective articulation would enhance writing skills for transfer into later courses. Given the obligations of their lives outside of the classroom, most of the students would not initiate this sort of reflection on their own. I cannot fault them for this; after all, with my 3-course summer teaching schedule, departmental responsibilities, a new QEP project, and a joint research project, I find myself relegating reflection to a low spot on my list of priorities—hence, my self-imposed assignment: review and reflect on how students in ENG 111 theorize reading and writing, as demonstrated in their final essays.
Theorizing reading and writing isn’t just for teachers, after all. In her 1997 article, “The Role of Reading in the Composition Classroom,” Nancy Morrow argues that students need to “compose a theory of reading,” just as James Thomas Zebroski recommends that they construct a theory of writing. Looking at just six of the essays my students composed for this assignment, I must ask whether there is evidence that my students are indeed theorizing reading and writing, and if so, how.
The assignment could be construed as an exercise in matching: I gave the students my core principles, and I asked them to explore them in reference to my comments and class activities during the term. Four of the six students approached the essay primarily in that “matching” sense: they took concepts and matched them to specific comments I made during the term. This exercise is not without value; it is important that students recognize how specific feedback is derived from an underlying principle about writing. It is also gratifying for me to note that students frequently selected comments which were conversational in nature (“Does your reader know this context?” or “I’m confused. What does ‘it’ refer to?”), as opposed to directive comments (“You need a citation here”), as helpful to their writing and their understanding of core ideas. Nonetheless, illustrating principles, while necessary and valuable, does not constitute theorizing, as I understand it. To theorize, students must include personal adaptations, expansions, or revisions to my core concepts.
In fact, two students moved beyond illustrating my principles to drafting their own. One student, for example, took two ideas and combined them to create his own precept: a writer can learn to give himself feedback by reading carefully, and such self-feedback can lead to improved composition. A second student, who has given permission for me to quote her work, theorized the role of mistakes in writing, as well as the role of reading in writing development: “Every time I see the comments, I am aware of the importance of reading every day. The more mistakes we make, the more important things we notice. The more writing we do with a lot of mistakes, the more focusing points we can find. So, forget embarrassment. Write out what you want to say. Don’t write usual or ubiquitous things!” This student, who is originally from Japan, took advantage of my comments on English usage in her writing to develop attentional skills in reading and build confidence in her own expression. She theorized “mistakes” as evidence not of failure, but of progress. (Of course, her use of “ubiquitous”—the focus of a class discussion one day--brought a smile, too).
All six of these students could find evidence of my core principles at work in comments and in class activities, and all six celebrated progress and specific achievements as part of their reflective writing. And my own reflection suggests that this assignment is worth keeping, although I will surely hone it for future semesters. But my reflection also leaves me with a question: how can I encourage more students to theorize reading and writing for themselves in future semesters? That question lingers in the back of my mind as I design my summer syllabus. If you have suggestions or assignment ideas, please share them in the comments.
I’ve completed my reflection assignment. I must remember to give myself more such tasks in the future, when the constraints of the job conspire against time for thoughtful review. Maybe if I attach this blog to my faculty evaluation form, I might even get a good grade. But that’s for another post.
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