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In the early years of my teaching, I expected students to do most of their writing outside of class. Class time meant practice in close reading, discussion, peer review, and grammar work, along with explanations of assignments and conferencing.
While I was teaching at a community college in Virginia, I had one colleague who did not allow students to do any writing outside of class—everything was “in-class writing.” Part of his reasoning related to keeping tabs on plagiarism, and at the time, that logic seemed cynical to me. And it spiked my own anxiety: as a student, I felt constrained and coerced when forced to write in class; I wanted to spread my materials (notes, articles, legal pad, laptop, coffee) across a wide space. I cringed when surrounded by cinder block walls and stark, industrial clocks whose ticking hands drummed towards my time limit. I associated classroom writing with testing—with worry and panic, with images of others typing or scribbling when my own words would not come.
So I resisted in-class writing as much as I could, despite a frequent reality in my developmental (and later corequisite) classrooms: the students were not writing outside of class, and whatever I had planned to do in class would not work.
These days, my in-person composition and corequisite classes may spend 75% or more of time in class working on writing—or a curious blend of writing, paired collaboration, small group conferences, and individual sessions between students and the two senior writing fellows who are working with me. All of this happens at once: we are writing, doing peer review, revising, and conferencing together, all in a sort of fluid dance supported by a quiet hum as students talk, re-watch short videos, slip out for an iced caramel latte from the shop upstairs, slide chairs, move closer to plugs for their devices, or find ways to share a screen.
Strangely enough, it was the pandemic that gave me the freedom to make some of these adjustments: with a very liberal absence policy, I began using a screen capture for all of our in-class sessions, dividing them into short videos of 4 to 8 minutes on key topics. Students who missed class could watch at home—but I found that even students who were in class might benefit from watching these videos at home—or at the moment they needed the information, not necessarily on a particular class day. I began shifting a lot of content to those short videos, housed on our LMS, and letting the students write (and talk about their writing) in class.
And I am watching my students get a lot more writing done. Our campus is a commuter campus, and many of my students come to class between jobs—where they can’t write, not even on breaks. Going home may entail caring for a child, a sibling, or an older family member. They may have to share a computer at home, or they may not be able to rely on their internet connections—and it can be difficult to type on a phone. Students may be in search of housing, of food, of safety. We have 150 minutes of composition class and 60 minutes of corequisite support each week—and no amount of training in “time management” will produce for them a better chunk of time for focused attention on writing.
Does doing most of our writing in class solve all the issues? Not at all. I have students who—for a number of reasons—do not watch videos or read outside of class. They still aren’t prepared. But it’s quite easy to show them where to find the information they need and let them watch or read in class. Do all of them stay on task? No. They watch TikTok videos, shop, text, and do homework for other courses. But most will do some writing work—and talk to me about it. Do they finish everything in the time we are given? No. But they have drafts to show me.
I have spent far too many class sessions with first-year writers, frustrated because what I planned to do wouldn’t work: they weren’t prepared, or group members were absent. But when the plan is to write, talk about writing, and then write some more, the plan generally works. And effective teaching often occurs, whether I planned specifically for a given “lesson” or not, because the lesson is what the students need, at that moment, for their writing.
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