Conversation 3

How does the context in which you teach constrain or enable your capacity to enact your values in your writing classroom?

13 thoughts on “Conversation 3

  1. Constraints:

    -Culture of the department. Literature and humanities-based expectations.
    “You should read about things and write about them.”
    -(We shouldn’t be surprised when students end up writing what they’ve
    read, in terms of style and genre. Question: Can students be constrained by
    the course content/what they read or are expected to respond to?)

    -Students’ expectations. (e.g. expecting the five paragraph essay assignment)

    -The nature of the course. The context/idea of due dates v. required drafts (the sentiment from students that they’re “grown up” and should be able to decide for themselves if they’re writing is “good enough”)


    -Many of the constraints we mentioned have a flip-side and can also be enabler..
    -Agency/motivation from students signing up for a course v. the course being a requirement.
    -Diversity of students and ideas

    Afterthoughts: Obviously, we value writing, but how do we teach students the value of writing/to value writing?


    Departmental constraints: who actually teaches writing?
    How we evaluate writing (e.g. 30% grammar requirement (should students be expected to know grammar at the pse level?)
    When we change contexts… students sometimes forget what they’ve learned and react as if they’re learning/writing from scratch.
    International students… their limitations can be a constraint. The way they understand writing in their cultural context can be a constraint, but can also enable.)


    -The use of examples. Encouraging students to choose and research a genre and

  2. Techniques to help teach writing:

    – Be transparent and explain what you are trying to teach student.

    Constraints and enablers to teach writing:
    – Building shared values is both a constraint and an enabler.
    – There is a lot of variation in the writings and this can make it difficult for students to see what good writing is.

  3. Entire group discussion:

    One of the biggest constraints is departmental culture. Are we a literature department or a writing department?

    “Can we assume at some point that they have been taught grammar?”

    Different schools of thought – do we teach grammar as a series of laws? Or in context? Do the laws change over time? “The rules of language change and mellow out”

    Students often forget the rules when the context changes. In an argumentative essay they learn to integrate quotations, but when asked to transfer that knowledge to a different genre it becomes ‘like driving a strange car.’

    One instructor does not like devoting too much time to grammar, there are higher order priorities. He prefers to integrate it into essay feedback, etc. He wonders if grammar is as important as it used to be.

    Teaching grammar does not improve student writing.

    International students – a different question. What do they already know, how are they adapting to a Canadian context? How do they think about writing in their own language? We have to work on finding common ground.

    Some techniques for making students aware of the context they’re writing in – how do we initiate people into new rhetorical contexts?
    – Try to be as transparent as possible, spell it out (figuratively) when changing rhetorical forms.
    – If a course is required, this makes things more difficult because students may not want to be there.

    One commenter thinks that once a genre and audience is chosen, it’s a matter of choosing exemplary samples for students to read. Choose where you would hypothetically send your work (for the students, eg a magazine) and then do some research – what do the articles they publish look like? It’s very easy to find examples of the best science writing of the year, the best creative writing, etc. Every genre has different expectations, and since we aren’t always experts in them it is best to provide examples of writers in those fields that we look up to.

  4. Constraints and enablers in whole room:

    – English teachers are teaching writing -and they might not be trained for this.
    – Cannot assume that students know grammar.
    – Can overcome this by teaching grammar in the classroom.
    – Grammar rules are changing and some things are being accepted now that were not acceptable in the past (e.g., pronouns and verb agreement, dangling modifiers not so important now).
    – Taking time to teach grammar takes away time from other things – and, grammar might be becoming less important.
    – A constraint is figuring out where an ESL student might be in terms of ability. But, this is enabler because it can help show teacher what they are dealing with.

  5. English essays teach people how to write all things. The example Joel gave is the use and integration of quotations, and how it teaches you how to incorporate scienctific facts and research in science papers as well.
    If you write about a text, you learn about the text. If you write about a concept or method used in a text, you learn about the concept as well as the text.
    As C4W tutors we have struggles making sure that students write what their professors want. We don’t really identify “good” writing. The issues that crop up especially lay in professor expectation. What if one prof prefers god paragraphs over quotations, or something like that? If you are writing for one aspect more than another, is that a good way to foster strong writing skills?
    Showing vs telling: scientific voice versus poetic voice. Creative (artistic) writing should be left out of this spectrum? Essay writing is, in itself, an art determined to set up a narrative. Where does the discourse come from? How do sstudent s identify different types of discourse?

    Pure stylistic techniques: should this be a required class for undergrads? Methods like loop writing, free writing, ink shedding to be taught in a way that is non-formulaic. The problem of resisting structure is that there has to be a structure initially set to be resisted, and not all students will resist it.

    Points made about thinkers with creative writing backgrounds are more engaged and aware of the openness of written assignments and the other skills associated with writing. Writing makes thinking more willing and willful.

  6. Constraints and things that enable the teaching of writing:

    – There are time constraints and it is easier to just give a due date and mark things once rather than give them an assignment that scaffolds learning and builds their abilities in stages.
    – Students do not do homework and have to read aloud to students so that students can discuss and write.
    – Some students do not have the language skills.
    – Let students write on what interests them.
    – Need to have people write in class to make sure they are doing their own writing.
    – Have to go to students during class and intensively work with them on writing. They get much better but it is a lot of work.
    – The Knowledge and Employability students will not finish High School, but a lot of work can be covered in class and their writing can be improved by working closely with them.
    – Scientific writing poses challenges in that a certain format and level of language is required.
    – Sometimes have students read a paragraph and have them learn from it and use it in paragraphs that the students are writing can be very helpful.
    – Cannot push students too hard sometimes because students will drop class.
    – Private schools might allow more leeway to deal with students who are behaving inappropriately.
    – Peer pressure can help push kids to do better.
    – Moms and dads can often be impediments. In the past, parents would be with teacher asking student why they failed. Today, quite often, parents are with the kid asking the teacher why the student failed?
    – Now, when a teacher is supported by a parent, this is unusual.

  7. At risk youth–18+. Enablers: proud to be students. Lots of life experience but no way to write it down.
    Constraints: vary with major/minor in English vrs service courses. Designing a course that serves a varied constitutency is a challenge. Constraints: getting the message out that the work of teaching writing needs to be shared across campus and throughout the curriculum.

  8. How does context shape your writing:
    – Limitation of skill set: despite experience, the feeling of not knowing enough persists–and some of us think that the sense of ineptitude increases as you go. Humility helps: you stay open to what you can learn, and it creates a space for genuine student engagement, since you *don’t* know it all. Eventually you realize that though the possibilities are endless, you have a great deal to offer, and you realize that you do teach well.
    – contexts: curriculum, classroom, school board–there are a lot of contexts that produce different abilities and constraints–simultaneously: it’s hard to meet everyone’s expectations.
    – there is so much to cover–there’s no way to fit it all in.
    – concerns about “ghettoizing” different types of students versus the problem that one size may not fit all
    – grade 10 as a huge leap in expectations: e.g. the shock of being able to fail, and the immensely different set of requirements
    -curriculum constraints: 144 outcomes is a joke, you have to prioritize and let some things go
    – you want to have relationships with students, but things like too-big classes makes it difficult/impossible to teach as individuals, to make connections–even though that’s incredibly important to teaching well
    – in my university classroom, I am shaped by the fact that I’m supposed to teach the field, for English majors, but also teaching writing skills for students who will never take another English class again
    – It feels like creative and critical writing are entirely separated in the classroom
    – Teaching to the exam: it’s ever present, looming–but the grade 12 exams in social science are, to one of us, well designed and can be okay–as long as you teach to the outcomes very closely
    – it’s hard when there are other teachers who don’t know how to teach an area well–it can be very disjointed for a student if they end up working with a teacher whose skill set matches the test: they are not well prepared by teachers who don’t have up-to-date-skills
    – “inclusion” of gifted and special-needs students: becomes code for ignoring–failing to meet the needs of–those students
    – there’s no time for everything that’s required: teaching eats up all our personal time, without compensation
    – doing teaching and programming simultaneously is a huge demand

  9. As English teachers, we are teachers of literature. It puts a lot of pressure on us when we are expected to teach reading and writing as well, especially when no other subjects are helping out.

    One source has said that students need to write approximately 500 words a day in order to improve consistently – because of this, more than just one class needs to encourage writing.

    Additionally, how do we divide class time up if we also need to teach literature? We are responsible for teaching writing for our discourse, not for others. Then when students go into university, they write English essays for every class subject. We ask students to ‘travel to different countries’ in their writing without training in other languages. How do we encourage other instructors to lose their fear of teaching writing?

    Perhaps instructors are thinking of ‘writing’ only in terms of essays, when really lab reports and all genres count. One instructor is using cartoons as a medium for students in science 20-4 – they get to use technical language in a creative format with a narrative element.

    Maybe using narrative in different classes would help hold student interest.

    Are students exposed to all text types? Narrative/expository/textbook? Maybe more sources need to be used within class, not just from textbooks – perhaps a university course pack style – in order to learn about formatting and styles. Does supplemental reading solve the problem? Can we use online networking to post articles/stories for students and give them room to discuss them in a virtual forum? One commenter uses this as an extension of the textbook. Different sources can be tagged as belonging to certain sections of the course, etc.

    It’s interesting to think about how much power the diploma exams have. Instructors are held accountable for things like large grade differences (between coursework and exam) which obscures the importance of the writing process for some students – streaming also plays a huge role – academic or non-academic?
    A sense of competition in the classroom can play a negative role at the university level, curved classes make students wary of group work etc.

    In terms of grading, one commenter has replaced grades with categories (excellent, satisfactory, etc) and has seen a change in the classroom dynamic – people become more focused on qualitative progress than on grades. This still does not apply to the diploma, however. Students become very focused on preparing for the exam format because of its grade weighting.

    Things that we use to prepare for diploma:
    – vocabulary awareness
    – connotations
    – reading practice
    – sample tests
    these are all things that students expect – they will often do field tests on their own as well in order to prepare
    – diploma reading test often becomes a test of the student’s endurance, their ability to stay engaged – painfully tedious readings and writing assignments

    One instructor has been asked to make sure that the students do at least two critical essays, at least two persuasive, etc, etc in order to prepare for the exam. With these administrative constraints, it is really difficult to find room for creativity.

  10. student attendance issues — slows down the pace of the class — also allows students who are present to have more one on one time. Cyclical nature of ELA teaching means that if kids are missing from time to time it will not hurt them in the same way as it might in science.

  11. Focus on preparing kids for the PATs and diploma exams.

    Teach kids to manage time as they work through the process within the exam process.

    Draw on the kids’ strengths in their writing — let them choose the genre they want to write on.

    We need to shift the focus away from “this is what you need to improve on” to “what are your strengths?” So that kids don’t feel attacked all the time.

    We need to take risks ourselves as teachers and share that work with kids. We need to model risk-taking.

    Need to get them reading texts that were not generated in class so that they can learn to dissect those texts.

  12. Enabled as a writing coach by working one-on-one
    Constaints in adult ed.–what is the curriculum below high school level? Academic upgrading: Grade 5 to grade 12 in four semesters; constraints overwhelm; lead to templates that build from one thing to another. Students lack background knowledge–many have never been on a vacation, for example. Many have never written much at all, let alone in a voice. Vocabulary is overwhelming–too much to learn. Four semester cap is a funding issue. Students may never have gone to school; goals are to get a “good job” through a high school diploma; motivation is to help their family–their kids with homework, their families in other countries. Others always come first, not their own learning.

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