Catherine Triplett, Northcentral Technical College in Wausau, details a system of techniques that aims to build a strong classroom writing community through focused discourse, formative rewards, assignment management, and a unique peer editing experience.
Who Are These Students before Me?
When I started thinking about teaching writing to adult students, including those in the School of Applied Technology and Engineering at my institution, I thought about how they would arrive and feel about me teaching them writing. I knew from my high school teaching experience of nine years that most Applied Technology and Engineering students prefer to work in a shop and with their hands fully engaged. I offered them a desk, a textbook, and me. To make it work, I knew that I needed to offer a safe place for these students to feel they could try and possibly fail at some tasks; consequently, I needed to offer support through clarity, adaptation, flexibility, and encouragement. As I looked at my classroom, I saw the possibility that some may be closeted writers, and yet most would rather be anywhere but in one of my seats.
Writing courses are required for associate degree programs including those in the School of Applied Technology and Engineering area, thus students must show their ability to communicate effectively through writing. My course was Written Communication, and the groups I worked with were diesel and welding students required to be proficient in the following competencies: establish document purpose; apply audience analysis techniques; employ rhetorical strategies; generate ideas for writing; research outside sources; synthesize information from sources; design document format; organize document content; write final text from drafts; assess document for revision; and edit based on conventions of standard English. To meet the competencies, students wrote good and bad news letters, memos, a cover letter and resume, and a research report along with small assignments addressing rhetoric, style, and format.
I’d assumed that Written Communication was not going to be their favorite course; however, what I did not realize was that these students would come with some rooted anxiety from past struggles with writing. By creating a strong community supported by the class being set up as a cohort and allowing productive and deliberate discourse to be a part of formative assessment, I was able to create a sense of trust among the students. Through trust, I was able to take them on a journey of gaining self-worth, confidence, and an expertise in writing. The trust began to build the more I talked openly with them about the feelings they had when it came to writing. Once I gained their trust, I needed them to value each formative step by spending the needed time on each while incorporating activities that promoted a strong classroom community. With established trust from our conversations—or, as I like to refer to them, “deliberate discourse”—and engaging activities in the writing process, I could then move to the “Expert Group” editing system; however, the cause of anxiety first needed to be addressed and weeded out before I could expect the students to produce work.
As the semester began, it was clear that those sitting in front of me had some hesitation with writing because they asked many questions right away such as how much writing they needed to do, how much time they would have, and specifically how long the assignments would have to be. Each of these questions pointed to a lack of confidence in writing and a fear they would not meet my expectations.
I knew most of the students were not necessarily there because they were excited to write, but rather because it was required. Trust and motivation would be the two elements that would drive me to pull out the writing they could do, which would lead to the confidence needed to change their view and approach to writing. I knew that I needed to approach them differently and to be prepared for the possibility that they may crumble at the sight of a writing assignment rubric. I could visualize the rush of anxiety in their faces as the past comes to haunt them; this past that may conjure inadequacies and feelings that they don’t belong. I learned of this anxiety and their feeling of inadequacies through conversations or “deliberate discourse.”
One thing interesting about this demographic is that many are solid writers but don’t realize or believe they are. There can be a lot of anxiety that resurfaces when students who have struggled in the past are confronted with writing. I had an interesting talk with one of my diesel students, John, when I was trying to find out why he struggled so much. I knew that when I explained something in class he had no problem giving me what I asked for and meeting my expectations; however, I knew he could give me more. In one of our discussions I asked him “ why not try a little harder so you can get an ‘A’ in the class?” John answered that “it is too stressful to strive.” That was an interesting comment because he strives in his professional field as a diesel mechanic. Doing something you enjoy and that you are good at, as well as the feeling of belonging to the culture of the action, engages and alleviates stress.
I started talking to my students about their hesitation and stress level in writing, through which “deliberate discourse” created a way to build trust. As the conversation unfolded, I realized how the students wanted to share their fears, anxieties, and feelings of alienation from their classmates. One student, Ryan, shared how deflated he’d felt when he got a college paper back with a “D,” which he’d worked several hours to revise. The next class came and the teacher walked in saying all the papers “sucked” and handed him a paper with a “C.” It broke my heart because this experience rekindled painful feelings of inadequacies for this man in his thirties. It wasn’t the grade that bothered him, it was the fact that his paper was created with vulnerability that was not respected.
As we spoke more, Ryan recounted how he didn’t mind writing in grade school, for the most part, but he struggled with focus and understanding expectations. He shared what he described as a “torturous” activity when his grade school English teacher made him stand in front of the class to share what he wrote. He told me that he spoke softly because he was so uncomfortable, and that she would get mad and tell him to speak up. The fear that was generated in this activity overshadowed the idea of writing for him, and he became more discouraged. He did say that the times he collaborated with classmates were the best moments, but standing in front to read his work to his peers overshadowed any good he’d experienced.
I was humbled by this remark and thought hard about my role in these reluctant writers’ lives. Have I done something similar without realizing it? I have taught thousands of students from 14 to 60 years old, and the weight of that fear impressed upon me in such a way that I knew I needed to reach out to those who felt betrayed by the supposed joy of articulating thoughts on paper. Confidence and trust was necessary if my aim was to ask them to be vulnerable in their writing. It also reminded me to be mindful, and to never let that slip.
Using Deliberate Discourse to Build Community and Confidence
In the beginning of the semester, I noticed that when the students would write or even think about writing that they would exhibit a lot of frustration through their body language. There was not as much ease that you get with some students. They were tense as they looked at the blinking curser on the computer screen, as if it were counting down and rushing them. I had to teach them to think about their topic throughout the day and to find a comfortable spot to get initial ideas down on paper—the cursor could wait. Each student was talking about how he or she ended up in their field and how they enjoyed it so much that it didn’t feel like work, and I was impressed because, honestly, if you put me into a shop I probably wouldn’t enjoy it and feel too much stress to strive in that situation, yet my classroom was that environment for them.
I came to find out that they felt the same way since early in their educations. Through our deliberate discourse discussions, the students told me stories about how they’d felt they didn’t belong in English and writing classes, a feeling that carried on through high school. John disclosed that he didn’t think he could write, he didn’t understand directions, and he was asked questions openly that he had no clue how to answer. It was the culture created in these classes that contributed to the alienation he felt, so rather than trying and setting himself up for disappointment and possible humiliation, he avoided English classes and writing. When he walked through the shop wing at his high school he felt that he belonged there. John was accepted and he was praised for his accomplishments. He was part of the classroom culture and benefitted from the esteem that grew with that culture. It was clear that I needed to create the same atmosphere in my writing classroom in order to succeed with these students that have become discouraged and reluctant. The classroom community sets the tone, and students are much more comfortable in a class when a positive tone is set. At the close of the semester I asked the students the regular list of questions I like to have feedback on, and when I asked about classroom community Ryan shared that the classroom community impacts his learning because it is easier to learn and reach out to peers and an instructor if he feels accepted and part of the group; he stated that “it’s less of a distraction.” Wow, what a powerful thought. Why are students not focusing and participating? I would infer that student motivation is linked to the classroom community, and without a strong and supportive one, students feel isolated and unmotivated.
Do we, as educators, do enough to establish the community? A strong community is established through shared experiences and deliberate discourse. Deliberate discourse was a tool I used to open the issues, and address the anxiety over writing. Allowing the students a chance to deal with their writing past, opened up the possibility that I may be able to have a hand in their writing future. With the discourse and sharing also came trust. I needed to be clear and listen, explain, and offer encouragement and rewards. I decided to offer open conferences in class. I would sit with each student and have a conversation with them about their paper and would also swing by their desk during work time to see if there were any questions. Just as Likkel (2012) notes in her own research project in the classroom, I was “freed from my authoritative role as the dispenser of knowledge, I was able to help students more effectively as I moved around the classroom, assisting them as they composed.” Without the constraints of a formal assessment on a formative assignment, students and I could discover what needed to be done in their writing rather than me telling them. This collaborative approach supported a student–centered classroom. Just assisting and sitting down to talk about writing and the work they were doing allowed each student to relax.
Through early conversations “deliberate discourse” was born and I would purposely start focused conversations that seemed impromptu, but in reality my motive was to let them share their fears with writing so we could build from there. Small bits of encouragement during the process of writing began to developed when, for instance, Ryan would say, “How do you like this sentence?” or “Can you believe I used this word in my writing?” Yes, an instructor would need to feel comfortable with this type of open exchange, but the little encouragements that can come from those short conversations do so much for the confidence of the reluctant writer, and any instructor should think of this type of exchange as success in building trust. This trust and open sharing can rebuild the reluctant writer and repair the confidence and accepting culture that should dominate all English and writing classrooms. After all, writing is expression, style, individuality, and voice: to take these elements and use them to communicate makes us human and unique.
Using Deliberate Discourse to Communicate Classroom Content
Knowing that I needed to approach the students in a different manner, I begin my first lesson in my Written Communication class by discussing the process of business communication. I made the first assignment a discussion so I could learn more about their experiences conversing with customers and their bosses. I then talked about the analysis that needs to happen prior to communicating. These early conversations allowed me to gain insight into the students’ perceptions and build the needed classroom community. I knew that my students would not share their insecurities with writing until they trusted that I would not criticize but rather teach and guide them, and, equally, that their peers would support them. As the first written assignment came, I used deliberate discourse instead of lectures. We had “conversations” that covered all the material I would have presented via lecture and PowerPoint. Allowing students to relate openly to subjects such as audience, tone, diction, indirect and direct writing styles, organization, format, and research proved to an invaluable tool. Students and I conversed through deliberate discourse in a way that allowed them to exchange ideas with me as I brought up the concepts and taught the skills, similar to an open forum. By using this method I related the content to the context, thus making the lesson relevant. With each topic, students told of where they had gone wrong and how they felt they couldn’t write or organize well, or that they “stunk” at certain skills in English such as punctuation, format, and grammar. Allowing them to share and learn together in an open forum style of teaching using deliberate discourse was the key to the next step: producing writing.
According to Tyler (1994), “The [classroom] environment should be structured so that writing efforts produce positive reinforcement.” Sharing ideas with peers or the teacher prior to writing will enable students to feel comfortable that their ideas are worthwhile. Such informal discussions are not to be taken as tangent-filled conversations, but rather as a way to make students feel comfortable talking and thinking about writing and the assignment. I usually require my students to talk about their ideas for several days prior to writing a word so they can prepare both emotionally and intellectually. For each assignment I do try to provide options reflecting who my audience is. For instance, I have a letter assignment and I offer options that will allow a nursing student, diesel student, welding student, and marketing student to relate to, which supports relevance. When reluctant writers can find relevance and value in an assignment, it makes them feel that success is possible because they know what they are talking about. Every student can accomplish the same objective when assignments are relatable and broken down to allow small formative achievements. The discourse and sharing opened a way for trust and created a strong classroom community, all the while teaching the prescribed content. This practice impacted Ryan, and after the course finished for the semester he spoke about how he viewed English as boring in high school with the exception of one teacher who had the students write about something that was interesting to them. She also had the students participate in a writing process with an outline and drafts, and with the freedom to choose, along with the process, made the class enjoyable.
Engaging Formative Activities
Many reluctant writers feel intimidated by the idea of being in a course that concentrates on writing. Most of the students I had in this particular class were hands on, but they are also students that understand process and checking things off as they go along. Realizing the way my students worked and the way their brains worked allowed me to meet them where they were to use their processes to produce successful writing. How did I learn what their process was? By talking to them through deliberate discourse and building trust. I needed to find out what they did in the shop and what processes they used. I learned that they enjoy a process and a neat order to things; the conversation also allowed the students to talk about their passion and realize that I cared to know. By adapting their first writing assignment into a checklist, a visual familiar to them, I created the confidence they needed to start writing. As Bandura and Schunk (1981) noted, “A lack of self-confidence can affect activity choice, effort, and persistence” (cited in Street, 2005). Knowing the techniques your students use in their program through deliberate discourse will open up a world of adaptations and flexibility that can make an impact on their success. I do not necessarily use checklists in my own writing, as that is not how my brain works, but the simple checklist was a familiar element for these students. That small change created a familiarity of culture that made the act of writing feel less intimidating.
The Short Research Report
The most challenging assignment in Written Communication is the Research Report in APA format requiring students to compare and contrast services or ideas. The thought of this singular assignment can cause a reluctant writer to want to drop the course; however, when given the assignment in manageable chunks with context and encouragement, this becomes the work that students are most proud of.
Students begin with a proposal indicating what they plan to compare and contrast, what the factors are going to be, and what their goals for the comparison are. They then commit to finding 5-7 sources and submit a reference page. The first attempt at the reference page is a draft in which feedback and completion points are given. Students submit their outline several times during this writing process so I can check on their progress and validate their ideas. Each step is supported with draft submission, conversations, and individual conferences. Building confidence during the writing process is essential for these students. They also earn credit for each step in the process, so their efforts are rewarded.
Next, they begin to write their paper. The introduction must have the two items or services they are comparing clearly stated along with their factors, goals, and context. Once students have the introduction written, they may use headings for the factors so they can stay organized. During the writing process I teach in-text citations, attributions, analysis, APA paper format, and internal/external transitions. I also conduct mini lessons on grammar, style, and usage including capitalization, comma use, and parallel structure. When teaching these lessons, I require my students to bring in their drafts and participate in on the spot editing. Once a solid draft is written, they participate in the Expert Group Editing Workshop, which is a crafted jigsaw of peer editing groups that focus on one element of writing. It is also important to note that I have an “open draft” policy, meaning that students are welcome to submit a draft through email or Google Docs anytime for updated feedback.
Expert Group Editing Workshop
One area that reluctant writers struggle with is editing papers. It is almost impossible to ask them to switch papers and expect them to address content, format, grammar, evidence, and a strong thesis in one sitting. These students have a difficult time looking at their own work. Often, this burden is too much for writers learning to feel comfortable with their own abilities. I have tried what I call the “Expert Group Editing Workshop,” which allows students to concentrate on one facet of peer editing and in return having every student in the room edit their papers. First, they choose an area they will become “expert” in and meet in groups to review introductions and conclusions, paragraphs, formatting, and grammar/spelling/punctuation. Second, I meet with each group and go over their responsibilities (see Appedix A). Third, groups create a rubric they can use to evaluate each student that visits their group. Fourth, students rotate with four copies of their paper to each expert group for targeted editing. Students take turns moving from expert group to expert group until returning to their original group, where they will send the next member on. I require the start of each shift for reading, so each group member can read and mark the traveler’s paper, then the group will orally critique the paper in a small discussion. At the close of the visit the rubric is scored and given to the traveler, and then we shift. Each meeting is between 10 and 15 minutes depending on the length of the paper we are editing. I usually use the Paragraph Group to gauge time since they have most of the reading to do. Once the activity is finished, the students in the expert groups have concentrated on one facet of the editing process while sharpening their skills in the one area, as well as taking turns traveling to each group for targeted feedback. Confidence is built each time these expert groups are utilized, and if you do this activity for each paper, it allows for each student to have been part of each editing “expert” group. I have seen tremendous success using this method of editing:
Peer Evaluation “Expert Groups”
For this activity, each person will be placed in one of the following groups. Once there, you and your colleagues will create a rubric using Word and tables or a program such as Rubistar. You will be graded for its criteria, ease, and accuracy. Each group will welcome a peer and will do a focused editing by reading and marking the paper, filling out a rubric, and conducting an oral evaluation. Once the instructor gauges that everyone is finishing, the “traveler” will visit the next group.
One person from each group will travel and share his or her paper with the groups while the other members stay behind to edit those traveling. Once a writer has visited each group, they will return to their “home group” and the next person will begin traveling.
Introduction: Is the thesis strong and well articulated?
Thesis: Write the thesis as you find it in the paper. Is the thesis arguable?
Conclusion: Is there anything new (there should not be)? Are the main points reviewed? Is the thesis re-stated? Has the writer left the reader with food for thought?
The Paragraph Group
Components: Are the topic sentence, context/claim, speaker tag (signal phrase), support, and explanation present?
Concise Writing: Are there any unnecessary words? Did you need to re-read any sentences?
Transitions: Are there transitions in the paragraph?
Persuasion: Is the rhetoric persuasive? Is the writer yelling at the reader?
Evidence: Is every claim supported and cited within the body paragraphs, and is there an analysis for each piece of evidence?
The Format Group
Structure: Is there an introduction, three points, an opposing paragraph, and a concluding paragraph?
In-Text Citations: Are all summaries, paraphrases, and quotes properly set up and cited?
Citations: Is there a references page page?
Counterargument: Is the counterargument effective? Do you see evidence of concede/refute exchanges?
Organization: Are there any paragraphs that do not belong?
Conventions: Are there grammar/spelling errors? Are there comma splice errors? Does the writer vary sentences? Do you see errors with subject/verb agreement? Are there errors in parallelism?
The “Expert Group Editing Workshop” is a testament to the work of creating a solid classroom community where students can feel safe about their writing. The workshop is done near the middle or end of the semester when we have been able to reach a point when it will be a meaningful activity. The Written Communication students did fantastic with this editing activity. I felt my techniques were successful due to the outcome of the editing groups. The workshop was more or less an assessment showing me that I did enough to establish the classroom community and develop the needed trust.
It is normal for students to feel anxiety and insecurity in their writing, thus they may lose their motivation, act out, or not show for class and underachieve; however, through deliberate discourse, encouraging conversations in a safe environment, dividing assignments into manageable parts, assessing the formative steps both formally and informally, and leading editing workshops, the students will leave the classroom with confidence and a grasp of what they can achieve with the written word, both professionally and personally. All of this potential success starts with a conversation.
Likkel, L. (2012). Calibrated peer review essays increase student confidence in assessing their own writing. Journal of College Science Teaching, 41(3), 42-47.
Street, C. (2005). A reluctant writer’s entry into a community of writers. Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, 48(8), 636-641.
Tyler, B. (1994). Encouraging reluctant writers in the classroom. Retrieved from ERIC database. (ED 368705)