Determining Writing Superlatives

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Picked up a fat stack of paper from my previous tax person, by Alper Çuğun, on FlickerSo far this fall, I have focused on what I am doing to increase participation in my classes. This week, I want to turn to another one of my goals for the new school year: giving students more choice.

I have always supported choice in student writing activities, both to increase student engagement in learning and to encourage student ownership and agency in the writing process. This year, I want to make choice the cornerstone of the courses I teach. Students should have the opportunity to choose the best kinds of projects to work on to reach their goals as writers and professionals.

I started on the path to this more open approach two years ago when I opened up the job application materials activities in my technical writing course to give students the opportunity to write whatever they needed for their particular situation. This term, I am increasing that kind of choice by asking students to choose several of the projects that they write for the course, based on their investigation of writing in the field.

I’ll share more about the assignment I am using next week, after I have had a chance to read students’ related proposals. For now, I’d like to talk a little about the process I have used to set up the activity. After completing their classification tables on writing in their fields, I wanted students to return to that information and reflect on the kinds of writing. Just telling them to reread and reflect didn’t seem adequate. I needed to frame their reflection to have them do the kind of critical thinking that would help them make the best choices for the rest of the course.

I decided to ask students to reflect on their classification project and respond to this list of superlative categories:

  1. Your intended career field
  2. Longest kind of document someone in your field writes
  3. Shortest kind of document someone in your field writes
  4. Most frequent kind of document someone in your field writes
  5. Most important kind of document someone in your field writes (and why)
  6. Most difficult/challenging kind of writing in your field (and why)
  7. Easiest kind of writing in your field (and why)
  8. Biggest surprise about writing in your field
  9. Favorite thing about writing in your field
  10. Hokiest thing you have done (that you can talk about in class)

The answer to the first item helps me understand their decisions, and the final question (focusing on school spirit) is just for fun. I posted the activity in the course discussion board, telling students that their answers should help them decide which kinds of writing to focus on for the remainder of their coursework.

The activity felt a little risky. I was afraid students might give short, matter-of-fact responses, but those I have read so far have been marvelous in demonstrating that students thought carefully about their answers. Here’s an example:

Favorite thing about writing in your field - Code commenting! It makes me feel much better knowing that the next person who looks at my code won’t be completely lost.

Notice that I didn’t ask for anything but the favorite thing, but the student went on to explain why she chose code commenting. Her answer reveals a thorough understanding of how audience and purpose impact the writing she does. With this level of insight into the kinds of writing in her field, I expect this student to make great choices as she proposes her work for the rest of the term.

I’ll share more on those choices next week, when I share the assignment for the coursework proposals that students are currently working on. In the meantime, if you have any questions or suggestions, please leave me a comment below.


 Credit: Picked up a fat stack of paper from my previous tax person, by Alper Çuğun, on Flickr, used under CC BY 2.0 license

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.