First Day of Class: Table of Contents activity

It’s the first day of class for my Composition I class. I have a group of twenty-odd first-years who have no idea what this class is going to be like. They think it’s going to be like their English classes in high school. They’re wrong.

Composition, First-year Writing, Introduction to Writing, Rhetoric: this type of course goes by a lot of names, but the focus is on teaching and practicing effective communication — primarily through the written word, but not only so. One of the activities that I do on the first day of class helps to align the students’ expectations of the class with reality.

After taking attendance and introducing myself, I hold up the textbook and ask them to spend a few minutes making a list in response to the question:

‘What would you put in a book called Everyone’s an Author?’

Everyone's an AuthorSome of the students who brought their books with them will crack open the book to look at it, but I stop them. ‘What would you put?’ I emphasize. What do you think will be in a textbook like this one?

Then I ask them to compare their list with a partner, and then for two set of pairs to compare and put together a table of contents for the textbook. When all of the groups are finished, they share with the rest of the class what their table of contents looks like.

It’s interesting to hear what topics are repeated, which ones are unique to each group, and what order the students put the topics in. Some emphasize grammar, others organization, others on examples from literature. It helps me to get an idea of what the students expectations are for the type of topics we are going to study over the semester.

Then I introduce them to the real textbook. I tell them which of the topics they named will be covered in the book, which won’t be (e.g. we won’t be studying Shakespeare, alas), and what the focus of the class will be. This exercise allows me to identify where the students are coming from in their understanding of what a writing class will include, and to adjust their expectations so that they are not thrown by the first set of readings and assignment.

There are additional benefits: this activity gets the students collaborating on the first day and demonstrates the type of teaching they will experience throughout the semester, that of thinking individually, discussing in small groups, and regrouping as a class. (My variant of Think, Pair, Share.)

It’s a useful exercise that I have used every semester since my first year of teaching. I wish I could claim credit for it; I found a version of the activity when scouring the Internet for ‘first-day of class’ ideas, on a forum or a blog somewhere. But it fits well with my overall teaching style: students will usually have some idea of what we will be doing or whatever the topic is, though it will not always be an accurate idea. Rather than assume they know nothing, I prefer to find out what they do know (and what they think they know) and work from there.

what causes academic dishonesty?

This week I have had to investigate and speak with several students about academic dishonesty issues in their most recent assignment.

The majority of the problems are lack of appropriate citations, ‘patchwriting’ (or incomplete paraphrasing), including direct quotations without indicating that they are quotations, and similar infractions. As a teacher/librarian, I am frustrated because I thought I covered how to cite and how to use sources earlier in the semester. How is it that nearly a third of the class made these mistakes?

It’s easy to think that these students are willfully stealing others’ work and hoping that they won’t get caught. From my experience, however, many students don’t seem to understand fully that what they are doing is theft. So what’s going on here?

There are several contributing factors: for one, the assignment was due shortly after midterms, so many of the students confessed that they were sloppy with their sources out of a combination of haste and laziness. The issue here is time management and organization. Another factor is that this particular class has been a challenge to keep engaged in the classroom, and it is very likely that my lessons on using sources simply didn’t sink in or the students weren’t paying attention.

A third contributing factor is, perhaps, the influence that sharing on social media is having on our society. Not only is it easy to do an image search or find something written on almost anything on the Internet, it is now extremely easy to ‘share’ what we find with our various online networks. All you have to do is click one of the various ‘share’ buttons on nearly any website or on any post on the different social media platforms. We share and share and share and never once think about amending our ‘shared’ posts with a citation indicating the source of the image or article it is that we are sharing. (Well, I do. But even I don’t always present my ‘citation’ in strict MLA or APA style.)

One of the implications of this feature of our online lives is the blurring of our understanding of intellectual property.

Anything we see or hear we can share with others. We expect information of all kinds, from music to articles to pictures to videos, to be easily accessible and free (or cheap). Because most of it is accessed through a screen that we own (a smartphone, tablet, or computer), whenever we want it, it’s possible that we feel like the material we are consuming is already ‘ours’. It’s just there, floating in the ether, waiting for us to consume it. As a result, it’s easy to forget that someone else made that material, and, as such, that someone should benefit from our consumption of their work. At the very least, that person should receive credit for what they have created.

So that is an added challenge to teaching information literacy and academic integrity: teaching also the relevance and importance of intellectual property.

Another contributing factor to the problem of academic dishonesty is that students misunderstand the purpose of assignments and assessment.

Too often students are focused on getting the ‘right’ answers to get ‘good grades’ rather than mastering concepts.

When writing an essay, students get distracted by wanting to appear like they know the content of their essay topic, whereas I am more interested in their methodology and whether they have understood the strategies we discussed about crafting an argument. A student writing about suicide prevention will copy and paste from a Psychology Today article to make it look like she knows the subject; I want to know if she knows how to appropriately and effectively use sources and is capable of critical thinking. What the student thinks is important is often at cross purposes with the purpose of the assignment.

So the issues here are not just underdeveloped information literacy skills, but also:

  • Underdeveloped time management and organization skills;
  • A lack of understanding of the concept of intellectual property;
  • A misunderstanding of the purpose of the assignments, and, perhaps, of (higher) education in general.

Realizing this will help me to better prepare for next semester as I know I will need to adjust and create lesson plans to address these issues. The responsibilities of a college writing instructor are much more than simply teaching how to write an essay; or rather, writing an essay involves much more than simply putting words on paper — but that’s another post entirely.

Writing Exercises: Synthesis

Before my students submit their first essay, I introduce them to the idea of synthesizing their research. I open the discussion with a description of how I usually see research used in student essays: a paragraph making a point with one source used for an example; another paragraph making another point with another source used for an example; and so on, which each paragraph referring to only one source and most sources only used once in on paragraph. This description often elicits nodding from students, agreeing that is how they use sources.

‘Using your sources that way works,’ I say, ‘But it isn’t very sophisticated and you aren’t getting much out of your sources this way. Today we are going to practice synthesizing your sources.’

Synthesis is joining the conversation.

Synthesis, I explain, is like having a conversation. Each of your sources is a person sitting a table in a café and they are talking about your topic. When you write your essay, you are pulling up a chair to their table and joining the conversation. Think about how you have conversations with a group of people: does each person speak in a monologue before passing the topic on to the next person at the table?

No. Instead, people talk over each other, interrupting each other, adding on to someone’s earlier point with an example of their own, or countering what someone said with an opinion. During a conversation, each person’s idea is woven in with the others’. That is what synthesis looks like when writing an essay.

Writing exercise:

I then organize the students into groups of four or five and give them this exercise:

Choose an issue on campus that all of you have an opinion about.* DO NOT DISCUSS YOUR OPINIONS YET. Once you have selected a topic, spend five minutes writing about it.

When everyone in your group is finished writing, choose one or two people to be the note-takers for your group. Then take turns reading your opinion aloud. The note-takers will pay attention to any repeated ideas, points of agreement, points of disagreement, and anything else that seems noteworthy – these are the “themes” of your conversation – and keep track of who said what. Review the notes as a group after everyone has finished reading.

Now organize the notes. You may find it helpful to use a chart:

Theme: Theme: Theme:
Name:
Name:
Name:
Name:
Name:

Now begin to think about how you would translate your chart into writing. For instance, you could write a paragraph about each person’s ideas summarizing their main points OR you could write a paragraph about each theme/idea and include all five points of view in each paragraph.

The first option is simply summarizing. The second option is SYNTHESIS.

Synthesis writing is more sophisticated and better demonstrates that you know what each source says about the subject and how the source relates to the other sources. Spend a few minutes writing a paragraph about each point in your group’s topic.

This exercise works well to introduce the meaning of synthesis and put it into practice. After discussing their results, I then provide them a Synthesis Matrix to use for their essay’s sources. The rest of the class period is spent filling out the synthesis matrix for their essays, and I wander around the room helping students to identify themes in their sources for their topics.

After introducing this exercise into my lesson plans, I have seen a dramatic improvement of how sources are used in my students’ essays.


* After a few times doing this exercise, I’ve banned the topic ‘parking on campus’ because inevitably every group chooses it. I’m tired of hearing people complain about parking and I’d rather them think of a more creative topic to discuss.

writing exercises: cubing

cubing-exerciseMy favorite writing exercise to use with my first-year composition classes is the ‘cubing’ exercise. This writing exercise helps students to generate content for their assigned essays by providing focused writing prompts on their topic. The idea is that their topic is a cube and each writing prompt is a side of the cube. The students are given five minutes to write about each side. The exercise overall takes about 40 minutes because I explain each prompt as we change ‘sides’.

For example:

  1. Describing: What does your topic look like?
  2. Comparing: What is your topic similar to? Different from?
  3. Associating: What does your topic make you think of? What is related to your topic?
  4. Analyzing: What are the origins of your topic? Why is your topic important?
  5. Applying: What are the functions of your topic?
  6. Arguing: What claims are you making about your topic?

ultimate-critical-thinking-worksheetOne reason why I like this exercise is that it is so adaptable: the sides can be any prompts you want them to be. This exercise can be tailored to any genre or assignment. I have also used the Global Digital Citizen Foundation’s Ultimate Cheatsheet for Critical Thinking for this exercise. Each side has a series of questions (who, what, where, when, why, how) for the students to consider about their topics.

Changing sides of the cube often means interrupting students mid-thought. I tell my students it’s okay to stop mid-sentence since the idea is to keep writing. I often allow 5-10 minutes at the end to allow students to return to one of the sides. Depending on the topic, or amount of time left in class, I’ll add the ‘seventh’ side to a cube (the inside of the cube).

Students are usually surprised to see how much they’ve written in only 30 minutes (the amount of time actually spent writing). It’s not unusual for students to write 800-1000 words during this exercise, and even those who struggle with writing get at least some ideas down on paper. This writing exercise helps students break through writer’s block and realize that they can write about their topic. I emphasize that the material written during this exercise is part of the ‘shitty rough draft’ so that students don’t think they can just add a works cited and call the essay done. Instead, I encourage them to comb through what they’ve written and find the ideas and sentences that really shine and work from there.

Caught between worlds

It’s my fifth Fourth of July overseas. This one comes as I’ve thought about my visa and possibly-most-likely moving back to the U.S. in 2014. The good thing about the Affordable Care Act being ruled constitutional is that that it will be put into effect in 2014, and I will not be denied health coverage for any of my pre-existing conditions (and I have a few) if/when I move back.

It’s strange, thinking about moving back. It isn’t what I’d expected to be doing after my PhD, but it that doesn’t mean it has to be a bad thing. Regardless of where I move to, I’ll be closer in time and space to several friends and my family. The Internet, especially email and Skype, is a godsend, but a part of me actually looks forward to being able to strengthen those relationships by being physically nearer, present.

Even as I think these thoughts, I walk home from work via the sea, take a walk up part of the coastal path, looking back over my current home and being struck by the beauty of the fading light on the waves, on the sailboats in the bay, of this town. I’m not going anywhere yet. I want to live intentionally, here, now, not taking for granted my remaining year and a bit here.

In another way I am also caught between worlds: with my writing. Sometime during June I got derailed from editing The Faerie King and in a month I am supposed to start novel planning for the new Orion. Already the characters and world of Orion are waking from their long sleep. The statement ‘It’s always easier to edit than to write’ is false: for me, the act of creating, of writing, is the most enjoyable part of writing a novel. Editing is sticky. Especially when I have no idea how to make it better, only that something needs doing. It comes as no surprise, to me at least, that I am eager to turn my mind to something else, to something new, to creating Orion.

Should I try to edit The Faerie King again during July? How can I motivate myself to stick with it?

Now, to Edit

Last year I wrote a novel in June; the year before that, in July. But this year I am not doing JuNoWriMo — instead, I will be editing a novel.

Before Kelly came to visit, we agreed that we would swap novels: I would read and comment on EDGEWOOD and she would do the same with THE FAERIE KING. She finished reading my novel over the weekend; I have the manuscriipt here, now, with both of our handwriting scrawled over the text and in the margins.

Today has been one of those days of having to force myself to sit down and work, despite wanting to work — both for my thesis and for my novel. But sit down I have and I’ve gone through Chapter One.

For all four of the Pooka novels that I wrote during various WriMos, it took me approximately three days to write a chapter. I shall attempt the same policy for editing the ten chapters of THE FAERIE KING. Yes, I know I’m starting a bit late, but I didn’t want to be editing while Kelly was here. Now that play time is over, it’s back to work for me…

Unfortunately, I don’t know how to indicate my progress during an EdMo because I have no daily-increasing word count to include at the end of my blog posts. Any suggestions?

In the meantime, here’s my favourite excerpt from today:

In time long past, the Ten Kingdoms were full of strange beasts and magic. The dragons were mighty and powerful, their wings could block out the sun and their tails wrapped around the earth. Nothing like the small, wingless dragons we have now. Gnomes lived under trees and dwarves in ancient castles. This was a time of enchantresses in the woods and when the earth shook under the feet of giants. This was a very long time ago – so very long, in fact, that truly faeries did traffic between this world and theirs, and the King of Faerie himself was known to hunt in mortal forests.

You laugh, Sir Richard? The Land of Faerie, called Elfame in ancient texts, is no laughing matter. I have spent many days in Her Majesty’s royal archives and have travelled to several other libraries in the Ten Kingdoms, reading and gathering knowledge for this story. All the ancient authors whom we scholars and tale tellers revere speak of this land of twilight, where the very trees are made of crystal, and where faeries immortal dwell. Do not laugh, but listen. This is a tale for our queen.

50,000 words

At 50,077 words I finished my NaNoWriMo novel THE HERO, or THE KNIGHT WITH THE SWAN.

An excerpt:

“Is that my ward, Mellayne? Who ran away at the beginning of summer? Why, whatever has gotten into you? You used to be such a quiet child,” said the queen. She snapped her fingers. Mellayne gasped and one hand clutched her throat. She bent over, making choking noises.

“Your quarrel is not with Mellayne! Let her be!” commanded Lukas.

Instantly Mellayne stopped choking, but no sound came out of her mouth when she opened it. She leaned against his back, trembling, and gave a great sob.

“No,” said the Queen of Marschon. “My quarrel is with you.”

“Then come down and face me yourself!” shouted Lukas. The Pooka danced, its hooves ringing with his words. “Come, unless you are too much a coward!”

“I am not afraid of you, little knight,” answered the queen. She disappeared into a whirl of smoke and landed in front of him. The Queen of Marschon held a sword. “Now who is the coward?” she asked. “Will you dismount, as an honorable knight should?”

Mellayne tried to hold him back, but Lukas dismounted. He drew his sword, the one given to him by the Mistress of the Night. They started to circle each other. “I will fight you, false traitor, for you have enslaved my people,” he said.

Did Lukas defeat the Queen of Marschon? Did he survive his battle with the basilisk? Well, you will just have to find out.

This month was not without its ups and downs. This was perhaps the most difficult WriMo I’ve had. I was so busy that often my creative well was dry that when I sat down to write I couldn’t come up with anything. My stats page reflects this:

But I still won, because after a few days of resting the creative well would be refilled, and I would write up a storm.

A few more stats:

This is my sixth NaNoWriMo and my ninth WriMo since 2003. Since 2009, I have written four novels. More importantly to me, I have successfully written a four-book series, with interesting and different characters and stories in each. I’m quite pleased, if I may say so myself.

Now, something just as exciting in my point of view: because I finished NaNoWriMo today, and because tomorrow is a university holiday, I am taking the rest of the week OFF. Sleep, glorious sleep!