Clowning Around in Model Texts

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Gardner_Feb16_213.jpgWhenever possible, I use texts written by former students (with their permission, of course) to talk about the expectations and strategies for writing assignments in my classes. Sometimes, however, using student texts may limit my current students. My solution is clowns. Seriously. Clowns. But let me give you some background first.

When I am teaching professional and technical writing courses, I ask students to write about their majors and career paths. If I share a student text for one major, I fear that I put students in other majors at a disadvantage. Logistically though, it’s impossible to share an example for every possible major and minor represented in a class, let alone every possible career path those majors and minors may take.

At the same time, I worry students in a major that matches the model will not think beyond the example. The cookie-cutter mentality can take over, and students will adopt the same format and approach that the model text uses. They won’t even try to find unique ways of presenting their information.

In some classes, I might use my own writing as an example by sharing my CV or website. That approach also comes with challenges. An English teacher’s job application materials aren’t very relevant for engineering students. Even if I am teaching some education majors, the materials of a veteran teacher are probably out of reach for pre-service teachers.

Those worries are what brought me to clowns. None of my students aims to become a clown. I may have a few class clowns. There could be a student or two who can juggle. These students want to be Android developers, mechanical engineers, and veterinarians—not clowns. So I began using clowns as my example career, creating model texts written by a fictional clown (stage name, ROFL the Clown) who aims to become a professional performer. Along the way, she is creating the various texts that a student in one of my professional and technical writing courses would compose.

Here’s an example of the strategy in context. For their job application materials, students research the options for their career path and then write a Proposal for the Job Application Materials they will create to meet their goals. For instance, an Android developer might propose to create an online portfolio of her completed projects with details on her qualifications. A chemical engineering major who wants to pursue graduate education might propose to create an academic profile on LinkedIn with a well-developed CV. The work students do is driven by choice and their own goals. I originally talked about this assignment in a post from April 2014 on Choice in Writing Assignments.

Students working on this assignment use ROFL the Clown’s Example Proposal to see the kind of information to include in their proposals. In her proposal, ROFL explains that she wants to apply to attend Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College. In this excerpt, ROFL explains the decisions she has made and the work she intends to do to create a showcase video to include in her application:

Although the topic is lighthearted, the content is quite serious. ROFL explains her decisions and even relates them to the research she has conducted. To create the example, I had to do a bit of research on clown college and then fold that information into the fictional scenario I was creating. Admittedly, I found some parts of the task dull, but in the end, it had the additional benefit of helping me better understand the assignment. As I was writing my fictional example, I found myself going back to modify the assignment itself, to add clarification and details that I realized were missing when I tried to follow its instructions.

All in all, creating my fictional clown and having her complete the course work has been a great decision. Students have examples that they would not have otherwise, and no one gets an extra advantage or disadvantage. Beyond that, I have to admit that I had a lot of fun making up the world of my fictional clown.

How do you handle example texts in class? Have you written responses to your own assignments? Did the process work for you? I’d love to hear how some others have tried this strategy, whether you use clowns or not Please leave me a comment below and let me know.

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[Photo: Detail from Internet! Here is some clown by tengrrl, on Flickr]

About the Author
Traci Gardner, known as "tengrrl" on most networks, writes lesson plans, classroom resources, and professional development materials for English language arts and college composition teachers. She is the author of Designing Writing Assignments, a contributing editor to the NCTE INBOX Blog, and the editor of Engaging Media-Savvy Students Topical Resource Kit.