Real Talk about Writing

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I have written about my small FYC/Corequisite writing course this semester and the challenges that we have faced (sustained silence and misconceptions about difficulty, for example).   I have wondered at times if gaps in age and experience are insurmountable obstacles to teaching effectiveness for me. Case in point: I introduced a discussion of image analysis with a cartoon drawing of Bill Gates holding a vaccine, but not a single student in the class that day knew who Bill Gates was.  It was a teachable moment, for sure, as we searched for information on Gates, vaccines, and protests.  Still, I doubted, yet again, what I was accomplishing.

The fact that three students from our already small class disappeared following Thanksgiving break only added to the frustration.  Most of the tough drafting work was complete: after Thanksgiving, students select, polish, and annotate pieces, and they craft a summative reflection to serve as an introduction to their portfolios.   I hoped the final two weeks of class would function as a workshop of sorts—open-ended space for students to collaborate and determine what they wanted to work on, getting feedback and help as needed.   But on our first day back, with a noticeably smaller group in attendance, the students drifted into isolated spaces and worked on their own. 

For the next class, I invited my senior writing fellows to visit the class for open-ended conferences.  The fellows had partnered with these students outside of class, but this was the first time I had invited them into the classroom. Each of them sat next to one of the first-year writers and had a few minutes for casual chatting.  Then I heard them dive in: “So tell me what you’re working on.” “Which assignment is giving you the most trouble?” “What’s going into your portfolio?” Their talk continued.  

The first-year writers began to respond, tentatively at first, and talk about their work—what they had done, what they wanted to do, what they were confused about.  In fact, these were all the things they were so often hesitant to say to me.

After several minutes of these paired conversations, I heard one of the fellows call out to another fellow sitting several feet away: 

“Hey, what’s that word you use when you are expecting something but you really have no reason to expect it?” 

“Like a false hope?”Photo by John Schnobrich via UnsplashPhoto by John Schnobrich via Unsplash

“Maybe.  Or ‘in vain?’”

“Uh… that isn’t it.  What about…?”

A few minutes passed.  The fellows were talking to each other again, but also pulled the first-year writers in:

“Does this sound odd to you?”

“Are you saying this?  I think it’s this word that’s tripping me up…”

“Hey Dr. Moore, what do you think about when you hear this word…?”

“Hey Dr. Moore, could you look at the title with us?”

Talk crossed back and forth across the room, from one pair to another.   Conversations expanded, then pairs returned to more focused work.

Once again this semester, learning happened in ways I did not anticipate.  My students were engaging in what Myhill and Newman (2016) call “high-quality classroom talk;” in other words, talk that is central to the development of linguistic and rhetorical control.   Students and fellows talked to each other without triangulating through me; I listened, affirmed, and supplied information as needed.   I watched and smiled.

I had forgotten how much I enjoy hearing “writer talk”—and I think my students enjoyed it, too.

About the Author
Miriam Moore is Assistant Professor of English at the University of North Georgia. She teaches undergraduate linguistics and grammar courses, developmental English courses (integrated reading and writing), ESL composition and pedagogy, and the first-year composition sequence. She is the co-author with Susan Anker of Real Essays, Real Writing, Real Reading and Writing, and Writing Essentials Online. She has over 20 years experience in community college teaching as well. Her interests include applied linguistics, writing about writing approaches to composition, professionalism for two-year college English faculty, and threshold concepts for composition, reading, and grammar.