The other day in class I found myself answering the same questions over and over. What is it you want us to do again for peer response? Did you say we’re supposed to read the papers out loud? Are we supposed to write our partner a letter? When is the draft due? When is the final due again? Where is your office? Is it okay to use “I” in this paper? Will you take points off if I use “I”? Are we supposed to read our papers out loud? What do you want us to do?”

I try my best to answer each question as if it was the first time I have ever heard it today. I try to smile, but by the end of our class I can hear the impatience creeping into my voice. As I said earlier the draft is due on Thursday and it is on the assignment sheet I gave you last week. It’s also posted on Moodle. And maybe if you put your phones away you would know. I don’t actually say that about the phones, but I think it because I’ve had to remind a couple of people to put their phones away.

After class I go up to my office and check my email. Several students from my other class have emailed me to explain why they may not be able to come to class tomorrow: I’m sick. I have an appointment at health services. I have a review session for another class. I have to . . . .

I shut my office door and put my head down on my desk.

What is the matter with students?
Why can’t they just do what they’re supposed to do?
Why don’t they listen?
Why don’t they read the syllabus?
Why don’t they read the handouts I give them?
Why don’t they stop texting in class?
Why don’t they just stop talking in class?
Why don’t they pay attention?
Why haven’t they learned anything?
What is the matter with them?

Okay, I’ll admit it. I’m cranky. I’m crabby. And I’m tired.

I’m also over-whelmed.

Every time I look at the calendar that first twinge of panic I felt when I flipped the page from October to November becomes stronger. The end of the semester is coming and coming fast. There seems to be so much to do and so little time. Every night I wake up at 3:00am wondering if I’m really going to get everything done.

I find myself complaining about everything. It’s cold in the morning. It gets dark too early. My classes aren’t going well. I have papers to read. I don’t know when I can get the yard raked. I don’t have time to do anything.  I’m tired.  I didn’t teach my students anything.

My husband points out that I always feel like this in November. He’s right.  The end of the semester is over-whelming. Back in September it seemed like we had all the time in the world to work through the writing process and the units. But now, in November, the end is so close and the number of classes that we have left seems to be slipping away. And, because it is November, the weeks we do have left for the semester are shorter due to the two holidays. It becomes clear that we have no buffer—the semester is going to end.

And if I’m feeling over-whelmed what are my students feeling? My students are working at finishing up not just my class, but three to four other classes. They are facing finals for the first time. They are registering for next semester classes for the first time on their own. And they are looking ahead to the holidays and the January break. In other words, this is the first time they have faced this end of semester crunch.

So maybe my students seeming inability to focus is really a symptom of being over-whelmed. Our students are learning how to manage their time and how to deal with the end of the semester stress. They are learning there is light at the end of this tunnel.

So how do we all deal with all this over-whelmness?

First, I try to remember that my students have been writing all semester and because they have been drafting and revising they have learned how to draft and how to revise. Writing is an on-going process and since they have been writing consistently and talking about writing they have all grown as writers and will continue to progress when they leave the classroom.  Even though my students don’t have the same amount of time to complete their final units as they did the earlier units, I remind myself they have already learned what they need to do.  So I tell them. You know how to draft. You know how to develop your ideas. You know how to do peer response. You know how to copy edit.

I also remind myself that being a little more concrete isn’t a bad thing. Going over the plan for the end of the semester at the beginning of each class helps to make things appear more manageable. Here is what we need to accomplish before the end of the semester and here is how we are going to do it.

I also keep in mind what I have learned from Gertrude Stein—there is no such thing as repetition.  Or in other words, repetition isn’t a bad thing. When we are over-whelmed it can be difficult to take in information. So repeating can help to make sure everyone is and stays on the same page.

And just acknowledging that the end of the semester can be over-whelming helps. It lets the students know they aren’t alone.  We’ll get everything done – it will be crazy, it will be hectic, but we’ll get everything done.


The Take Away

This seems to be the new buzz work – the take away. What is the take away? What are the students taking away from this class? What should the take away from this class be? All this talk of a “take away” implies that whatever the enterprise, students should leave with something. I’m not against this and I’m not really against the term take away. To be honest this term is much better than what I usually say at the end of my classes—“So what have we learned?” But to me this term implies there is something tangible that can be taken away, something concrete that students can carry away.  I’m not against this either. I think whatever enterprise we are engaged in there should be concrete goals and objectives.

These past couple of weeks I’ve been attending end of the semester events and I’ve seen some things happening.

At a reading at a local bookstore for one of our undergraduate experimental writing classes I saw a group of students stand up and read the most powerful poems, short fiction and manifestos about identity. 

At another reading for an undergraduate chapbook contest, I tried not to cry when the winner read her most recent poems. I have rarely been so moved at a poetry reading.

At the annual Residential Life First-Year Student Recognition Awards banquet I saw over 100 first-year students receive awards. These students were nominated by their teachers, not for being A students; rather for seeking extra help, being motivated to learn, and/or making a positive contribution in class. I saw 52 teachers recognized for being nominated by students because as teachers they made a difference in these students’ first-year at UMass by being available for extra help, giving them encouragement, helping them adjust to college, etc.

I attended a reading for senior creative writing English majors at another local bookstore and was amazed not only by the quality (and in many cases the humor) of their poems, fiction, and memoirs, but in their confidence as readers.

So this is my take away. If you give students the space they will write the most amazing and powerful things. And students take many more things away from our classes than the specific goals and objectives we have set.

Spring Fever

The flu season is over and it looks like spring fever has set in—at least in my class it has.  The week after spring break I could see the beginnings of the symptoms. Although we were all grousing about how cold it still was, how mis-named “spring break” was because of the snow storm we had, how we all wished to see the sun again, the signs of spring fever were there. When I asked my students to do a freewrite they looked at me blankly.

“Freewrite?” They asked.

“Yes, a freewrite,” I said.

“What do you mean?” they asked.

“I mean write for five minutes like we usually do.”

And now the weather is really getting nice.

 So if you think your students may be coming down with spring fever here are some symptoms.

Blank looks when you ask them to do something you have asked them to do in class all semester ( i.e. get into small groups, get into a circle, do a freewrite.)

  • Become extremely animated when talking about non-class topics (i.e. where they are going to be living next year, when their registration time is, how to get tickets for the spring concert) and then becoming very quiet when you ask then something related to class (i.e. the reading, questions about the homework).
  • Coming late to class.
  • Not coming to class.
  • Forgetting to bring assignments to class.
  • Asking to go outside.
  • Look of shock every time you point out how many weeks are left in the semester.

I used to think spring fever was brought on by actual spring weather – warm weather, so warm you can take off the winter coat you’ve been wearing since November, grass turning green, daffodils blooming, sunshine, staying light past 4:00pm. But this year, since up until last week  it was still snowing in the morning at my house, I’ve come to realize that spring fever has almost nothing to do with the actual coming of spring. I’ve come to realize that the blank look my students give me is really just covering up the panic they are feeling about the end of the semester. They have a lot of work to do, not just in my class, but in all their classes and they know they only have a certain amount of time to get everything done.  And although we are nearing the end of this semester, we are all in the middle of planning for when the semester is over. Students are figuring out their plans for the summer, registering for fall classes, figuring out their housing assignments for next year.  In other words, even though they are physically present in our classes right now, mentally they are preparing for the summer and next year. Believe me I understand. I catch myself doing the same thing. And let’s be honest. It has been a long, cold winter trudging around campus and we are all a bit tired.  We are all ready to be done.

Are there any cures for spring fever?

I don’t know if there is a cure other than the coming of summer, but here are some things I try to do to combat spring fever.  First I give my class a little pep talk. Come on everyone. We only have a couple of more weeks to go—hang in there—stay focused. When that doesn’t work I’m ashamed to admit I have tried threatening. Okay—remember everything counts, so you could still fail the class if you don’t show up, don’t put in a good effort.  Just because you did a good job at the beginning of the semester doesn’t mean you can coast now.  To be honest I don’t actually use the word “fail” and these pep talks don’t really work that well.

Sometimes I find switching things up can help. Sometimes my classes can become a bit routine—doing the same kinds of things in the same way. So sometimes I try something different. Maybe ask the students to draw as a form of generative writing instead of writing. Maybe ask students to physically cut up their essays as a revision activity rather than exchanging papers and writing comments. Sometimes just changing things helps the symptoms of spring fever to subside for at least one class period. Sometimes just getting students up and moving around helps too.  It is a little harder to daydream about being on the beach when you have to get up and walk to the other side of the room.

I also just try to put my own feelings panic aside. Like the students I’m feeling a little overwhelmed – the end of the semester is coming so fast and the list of things I need to get done is also growing. But for the time I’m in class, I try to focus on class and try to challenge all those feelings of panic into enthusiasm for peer review.

But the best way I’ve found to combat spring fever is for all of us to just hang in there. Summer is around the corner and we will all get there.



Drafting Purpose — Is It Done Yet?

When my first-year writing students say to me, “Why do I have to revise? I think my first draft is good.”  I reply, “Why do you want to settle for good enough?”

When the writing teachers I mentor ask, “What do you do when a student turns in a really good first draft?” I say, “I ask more complicated questions of the text.”

I say these things to students and the teachers I work with because as a writer I know that revision is part of the writing process, and because I believe no text is ever really done. For me, a piece of writing is “done” when I have run out of time to continue working on it or, in the case of my novel, I couldn’t bear to look at it one more minute. I also know that shifting something in the rhetorical situation (my thinking about something has changed, a different audience now makes sense, a different purpose) always cries out for a revision. Every text can be endlessly revised.

But I’m wondering if something else is being implied here, if there is something else behind these questions the students and teachers ask. I’m wondering if we need to re-think what we mean by drafting.

I’ve been thinking that students and even teachers (okay I’ll admit it—even I have thought this) believe that drafting is only for those who can’t get it right the first time. Really good writers get it right the first time and really bad writers have to do a bunch of drafts until they can get it right. (Okay, I’ll admit it. I can’t tell you how many hours I’ve spent crying at my desk because I had to do yet another draft in order to get it “right.”)  

I understand why our students come into our classes believing this. We are surrounded by writing “myths” that support this. Good writers are born talented, good writers get inspired. Good writers have the words, the sentences, the paragraphs pour effortlessly out of their fingers and onto the page. Bad writers struggle.

The implication here is that no matter what we write there is a perfect text – the perfect essay, the perfect seminar paper, the perfect article—and we are trying to achieve this “perfect” text as quickly as possible.

But what is a perfect text?

Is there a perfect text?

Students come into our classrooms thinking that for each of the essay units there is an A+ essay and this writing process we ask them to go through is a way that enables them to achieve that paper. And although we try to convince our students that the process we teach them isn’t really about this and that revision is something all writers do, I’m thinking that the way we ask students to draft may just undermine what we are saying. I’ve been thinking that we may just reinforce this notion of the perfect text by asking students to write a draft that looks and is in the same shape as their final essay. Although we expect everything to be “rough” (Just get your ideas down! Don’t worry about your grammar – yet!) the assumption is the first draft with its “rough” introduction, “rough” body paragraphs, “rough” conclusion, is just a “rough” version of what the final draft will eventually look like. We then start working from that draft and begin the revising process usually keeping the same structure, usually pointing out where things can be further developed, added, deleted, and moved around. Each draft then becomes a version of the previous draft. And because these multiple drafts look the same, students become locked into re-arranging what is already there.

So I’ve been thinking. What if we re-thought this whole drafting thing? What if the drafts looked different? What if each draft looked so different that the point of revision was to write something different?  What if we thought more about what specific purpose each draft could serve?

For example, last semester for our “Adding to the Conversation” unit I asked the students to begin by writing a draft that was one page discussing everything they already knew about their topic, and one page discussing everything they had discovered. For Draft #2 the students selected a specific audience for their topic and wrote a letter to a member of that audience. For Draft #3 the students selected a form that was best suited to their audience and wrote their draft in that form. The final draft was a copyedited version of Draft #3.

How was this different?

Rather than asking students to select their audience, purpose and form in the beginning of the writing process, I broke it down. The purpose of the first draft was to enable the students to get everything they knew and learned about their topics down. Rather than attempting to weave their research in with their own voices right away this enabled them to separate everything out so they could see what they were thinking. On this draft we did revision exercises to enable them to develop their own purpose and to explore different audiences. Once they decided on an audience, the letter (Draft #2) enabled them to speak directly to that audience, to test out what they wanted to say. This enabled them to think further about their purpose and to identify points where they needed to do further research. Once they settled on their purpose and audience, they revised (Draft #3) into a form that seemed best suited for their specific audience. This draft was revised for content, sentence structure, and mechanical/grammar issues into the final version.

Did this work?

I think so. I saw the students taking up the idea of revision in a more global way because since each draft was different they could not simply add, delete, or move existing paragraphs around. I also found that they were more open to possible directions for their final papers because they were not attached to any particular draft during the process.  The students didn’t really see that they were writing the same thing over and over. Instead they were writing their way to a final paper.

Could their final versions have been revised a few more times? Of course. More focusing on the overall structure would have been great, some points could have been developed a bit more, some focus on sentence structure would have been beneficial. But right now I’m wondering if thinking more about what specific purpose each draft could serve within the writing process and making that purpose visible may enable students to focus on writing their way to the essay they want to write rather than attempting to get it right in one shot.

Repurposing Peer Reviews & Teacher Feedback

Hari Stephen Kumar is a doctoral candidate in Rhet/Comp at the University of Massachusetts. He teaches first-year writing and is on the Resource Center staff.

A student mutters to me one time in class, “Why am I doing peer reviews for others when I could be working on my own draft?”

A different student tells me, in office hours, “Your feedback was encouraging, but I don’t see why you can’t just tell me what’s wrong with my draft. That’s what teachers have always done for me.”

In an end-of-unit reflection, a student scribbles: “Doing reviews was very different from high school peer editing, where we would just kinda fix up things for each other. I hated doing that. I liked that people asked me actual questions this time. It helped me see where they didn’t understand what I was trying to say.”

Comments like these always spin me for a loop. And these are just from students – I’m not including here all the teacherly voices (both my inner doubts and the conversations I’ve had with other teachers) about our struggles with writing our own feedback on student drafts: how much, how much time, when, what (not) to say, etc.

And to a large extent, all these voices are in my head at the start of every semester, especially during that week when first drafts for Unit 1 are due. That’s the week when four different things have to kick into gear. Most pressing on my own agenda is the sheer reality of 15 (or 30) first drafts that I have to read through, and then write cogent feedback about, and then get that back to students in a timely manner as they work on their second drafts. Then there’s peer review, getting students to read each other’s first drafts and provide useful feedback to their peers, feedback that is more meaningful than just a “I liked it” comment. Finally there’s the students’ own reflective writing and revision work: how to motivate them to make that purposeful turn from 1st draft to 2nd draft, beyond just tweaking sentences and fixing up words? How to get them to reflect on other choices to try, larger changes to make, new purposes to pursue?

Then I realized that many of my students often see this very differently. Every semester I’ve had students say things like: “I’ve never done this many drafts for any paper before. I’ve always just written one draft and then corrected it before handing it in.”

Or: “Revision is basically fixing things that the teacher tells you to fix.”

Or, really worrying: “My friends in other 112 classes aren’t doing this much work!”

When I’ve talked with students at length about their previous experiences, what I’ve found is that for most of them teacher feedback was the most important (and often only) source of input during revision. Working on a paper, for many of them, involved just two pieces of “homework”: draft, and then fix. In my class, then, when they see all the other things they’re supposed to do, it’s easy for them to see those tasks as just “more homework.” And when they don’t see why they’re doing this “extra” work, it can become yet another chore for them to complete, to check off. It becomes just “busy work” for them. Peer reviews become a chore to get through quickly, to skim through and quickly comment on surface-level things. Reflective writing becomes a run-out-the-clock exercise. And, frankly, that generates “busy work” for me too. Teacher feedback becomes the one place where I put most of my effort, convincing myself that if I don’t say something useful then students aren’t going to get it from anywhere else.

To address some of these perceptions, this semester I’ve been working within a structured framework that connects all their “homework” back to the process of revision, back to the ideas of student-as-writer and writer-centered revision. Being in this framework allows my students and myself to always ask: so just why do I want them to do a particular piece of homework? And what should they expect to get out of doing that homework? The framework relies on the following core pieces:

  • Writer-centered revision: moving students to a model where they are at the center of revision, where they are motivated to make changes purposefully and proactively.
  • Peer reviews and teacher feedback linked to revision goals: providing a broader purpose for gathering different kinds of feedback from different sources.
  • Clearer expectations: setting defined goals for what different courses of feedback can provide, mainly to let me focus on specific things in my feedback to them instead of making me feel like I have to say it all.
  • Purposeful and specific feedback: varying the kind of peer review activities they do from unit to unit, so that they don’t feel like they’re doing the same thing each time and more importantly to develop writerly skills in soliciting in-depth feedback on their own over the course of the semester.

So during Unit 1, on the day that first drafts were due, I distributed a handout (Contextualizing Feedback within Revision Goals) summarizing the key goals for revision: re-seeing purposes, extending & complicating meaning, discovering choices, and testing out alternatives. I borrowed this list from the Teaching Database but I added a table at the bottom of the handout that showed how they could get help in achieving these revision goals from five different sources for feedback and advice during revision: peers, teacher, self, friends/family, and the WritingCenter. The idea was to show how each of these feedback sources support the revision goals in different ways.

Based on this handout, we then discussed as a class the different kinds of feedback that each of us could contribute to a writer in the class. We came up with three main sets of expectations: one for peer reviews, one for teacher feedback, and one for the writer’s own reflective revision plan. We decided that peer reviews would focus on the “Re-seeing Purposes” and “Discovering Choices” revision goals. For peer reviews I distributed another handout, also borrowed from the Teaching Database, on doing initial draft reviews (How to Do Peer Reviews for Initial Drafts) using the sayback-pointing-questions method. Meanwhile we decided that teacher feedback would focus on the “Extending & Complicating Meaning” goal. And lastly, the writer would focus on “Testing Out Alternatives” in their revision plan.

Having this structured process provided for a seamless Unit 1 feedback experience. Most students got a lot out of both doing and receiving peer reviews. Having the structured sayback-pointing-questions method meant also that students moved beyond a corrective “peer editing” approach and were instead actually asking genuine questions of each other. Meanwhile I was able to keep my own teacher feedback short and focused. In their revision plans, I was gratified to see them incorporating all three sources (their peer reviews, my feedback, and their own ideas) into generating some really specific and significant “alternatives” they wanted to try for their 2nd draft.

This process also allowed for changes initiated by students. When we did a debrief the following week, I asked students to reflect on how they would want to do this process differently for either the next unit or for a different stage of drafting. Many students pointed out that while the sayback-pointing thing may be good for initial drafts, they would prefer more detailed and focused critiques for mid-process drafts. Students who had more experience with college-level peer reviews also pointed out that the sayback-pointing exercise seemed to be overly structured. These were terrific opportunities for me to ask the class to “own” the feedback process more purposefully going forward. So, for the 2nd draft in-class reviews, we adopted a more writer-centered model where each writer asked for specific feedback from their group members. This allowed the review process to be more purposeful, shorter, more focused.

Then, when we moved into Unit 2, we made the review and feedback process even more writer-centered. For first drafts, I asked each writer to provide two cover notes: one for their peers and one for me. In each cover note they were to ask for specific types of feedback geared toward the revision goals. This is where the rubber really hit the road: students wrote very clear and specific notes, asking for different things from me and from their peers. And I could see this making a tangible difference in how students approached revision: their 2nd drafts took on more purposeful shifts, many more students tried more significant changes, and the in-class feedback discussions were much more specific.

Going into Unit 3, now, I am about to ask them to take this to another level still. I’ve been putting them into groups for Units 1 and 2, but for this unit I’ll ask them to choose the sources from whom they want feedback. I’m going to encourage them to choose especially people they know outside of class: their roommates, or a trusted family member, or a peer mentor, or the WritingCenter. That is, I’d like them to approach this the way they might if they were in another class where structured peer reviews are not built into the course. I’m hoping that this allows them to experience and develop more writerly ways of soliciting feedback for non-class/non-graded writing situations. I guess I’ll find out how this goes over the next few weeks!

From Teaching to Tutoring and Back: A Reflection on Old Dogs and the Tricks They May Learn

Deirdre Vinyard is the Deputy Director of the UMass Writing Program. She teaches the first-year writing courses (College and Basic Writing) and directs the Basic Writing Program.

Last fall I started tutoring at the Writing Center here at UMass. I’ve always been a fan of Writing Centers—I know what they have done for my students and their writing—but I had never been at a Writing Center, either as a writer or as a tutor.  I figured after 30 years of teaching, it was time to learn about this wonderful resource for myself.

Tutoring in the Writing Center context is very different from conferencing with students in my class—and this is something I hadn’t realized.  When I conference with my students, I know a lot about them and a lot about the writing they are doing.  I often have a sense of the strengths and challenges they bring to the writing task we are working on and of course I wrote the assignment—I know the teacher’s expectations!

In the Writing Center, I am faced with writers whom I do not know, writing in disciplines distant from my own and for professors whose expectations I can sometimes only guess at.  At times, I feel at sea.

My mentors in the Writing Center have reminded me that I am a guide, not a guru, in these sessions.  I am there to help students figure out their intentions in their writing and to think about the ways their ideas are presented.  Sometimes we explore the expectations of the teacher or the genre together, by carefully reading the assignment sheet, by looking at other requirements in the course, or by looking for models. I have learned a lot about how writing happens across campus, across disciplines. 

As a teacher, I think my background as an ESL teacher—with its focus on language—has made me want to jump into my students’ papers.  I love the idea of the rolling up my sleeves and plunging into the “verbal clay,” to borrow Patrick Hartwell’s term.  I want to get my hands into the paper.  And of course, when I know what we are trying to make from the clay (because I wrote the assignment), it’s easy to jump in. One of the things I have learned at the Writing Center is to roll my sleeves back down, edge my chair a bit from the table, and lean back. 

And of course, there is a connection to my teaching.  Let me tell you a story. Last semester in my Basic Writing class, one of my students came to me for some feedback on his essay. Harvey had a draft, but he felt it didn’t quite say what he wanted—he told me he was having trouble connecting the ideas.  I read it, and I could see his frustration.  I couldn’t really tell what the main point was—it was a collection of different, seemingly unrelated ideas from the reading and his experience. I was tempted to go through the essay with Harvey, talking about each paragraph and how they related to my assignment and to each other—to see how we together could better connect his ideas.  I wanted to roll up my sleeves.  But for some reason, I didn’t.

Instead, I sat back in my chair (and without realizing it, put on my WC hat) and asked him just to tell me what he wanted to talk about in the essay.  He then beautifully articulated a great idea, bringing together these disparate points–into a really cool theme that connected to the course readings in a fresh and personal (for him) way.  I was so excited.  More importantly, Harvey was now excited and no longer frustrated.  

What I take away from this experience is that Writing Center work has taught me to be a bit more observational, in a positive way, with my students’ writing.  As Leslie Bradshaw told us in our last training session, we are working with writers—more than we are working with writing.  I think my conference with Harvey was so successful because I sat back and worked with him and then let him work with his writing.

I continue to tutor at the Writing Center every week.  I am learning.  I am loving it.

Snow Day!!

It looks like it is going to snow this coming weekend and I’ll be hoping for a snow day. Whenever I call the University’s Snow Line and I hear those magical words, “The University is closed today,” I start dancing around the kitchen with my dogs yelling, “Snow Day! Snow Day!” I immediately become that 4th grader at Hollis Elementary when a snow day meant playing a marathon game of Monopoly with my sister and sledding all afternoon. But if the snow day happens to fall on one of my teaching days, my 4th grade self quickly fades as my teacher self kicks in. This snow day means I’m missing class, which means, now, we are getting behind.

After I shovel off my porch (something my 4th grade self wouldn’t have done), I go to my study and begin the process of re-arranging the class calendar in order to make-up what we are missing today. This process is not always easy. Let’s face it, our College Writing class is already packed, already fast paced and getting one day off from the calendar can really throw the whole semester off. A snow day, also leaves me no flexibility to spend (if needed) extra time during the “Interacting with Texts” unit or with the “Adding to the Conversation” unit. Missing this one day could even cut into my plans for the TBA unit.

As I go through the process of re-arranging dates, I find myself getting anxious. How am I going to get everything done? How am I going to cover everything I need to cover? How am I going to do everything that I planned on doing? What is with all these holidays? Why do we have to have spring break? This will put us even further behind. DAMN SNOW DAY!  When I start thinking this, I need to take a step back.

I think, as teachers, once we have planned out what we are going to be doing for the entire semester we become committed to our own plans. This isn’t a bad thing—we should be committed to what we have decided to do. But sometimes I think we become too committed. We begin to see everything we have planned as things that MUST be done, MUST be covered and if these things are not, the students will leave our classrooms not having everything they need to be successful college writers. But we need to put things in perspective. Rather than seeing the calendar as something chiseled in granite, in may be useful to see the semester as something more fluid, more flexible.  Things can be re-arranged and some things can be let go—yes, let go.

Let’s face it; not getting to an essay in the Student Anthology, not doing one peer workshop, not doing one revision activity is not really going to prevent the students from expanding, developing, and revising their essays. We need to remember that College Writing is about the process of writing. It is also about repetition. With each unit we discuss the importance of audience and purpose; we show them the importance of drafting, of reflecting, of getting feedback. If a snow day prevents us from doing one thing, during one unit we know they will get it later in the semester.

So rather than looking at my schedule in terms of how to cram everything in, I try to look at it in terms of what needs to be done and what can be let go. It could be that the peer review workshop my students are missing because of this snow day is crucial in helping them revise their initial drafts. But the great audience exercise I had planned for the next class meeting isn’t as crucial and can be cut out. It becomes a matter of prioritizing what is needed to move the students through the writing process. And it also becomes a matter of accepting that   the weather is out of our control.

Let’s Be Really Honest: Dealing with the Difficult Student

Liz Fox is a graduate instructor in the Writing Program. She has taught Basic Writing, College Writing and she is currently a Resoruce Center staff mentor.

“Can I be really honest with you about something? I’m only in this class, because it’s required and I have to take it!” – 112 Student, First day of class

Welcome to the unifying attitude of every difficult student I’ve encountered so far. As teachers, we need to be honest: there are students who challenge us, make us miserable, make us laugh with the very shenanigans we tried to pull as undergrads, and who make us doubt our ability as educators. And if we’re being “really honest,” these are the students who force us to grow the most as teachers.

The biggest lesson I learned about dealing with difficult students came when I least expected it, in my fifth semester teaching for the Writing Program. I had a student whose animosity toward the 112 gen ed requirement was misdirected at me. Each class he arrived barely on time, with his lunch, and with his hair in such disarray that he had clearly just rolled out of bed. His overall attitude was that I was wasting his time and he couldn’t be bothered with my class. He would complain about grades and quibble over first draft comments. I let this behavior slide; on a day-to-day basis he never did anything so egregious that it warranted calling him into my office for a meeting. I wasn’t intimidated by the confrontation — I’d confronted students before.

My second semester teaching I had to meet with a student. On the first day of class he made it clear to everyone that he was a JUNIOR and that meant he didn’t really need this class anymore, but his advisor was FORCING him to take it. This student dominated each discussion and although he had rich contributions, he presented his thoughts in such a combative manner that it was difficult for other students to respond. When I met with this student, I told him he could either help the class or hinder it – and at present, he was hindering it. He needed to stop or it would affect his final grade regardless of his writing skills. He apologized and promised that it would not happen again. From this point on, my Junior was a model student: he would pair himself with students who were clearly struggling in the class during peer review and in class discussions would volunteer the seed of an idea and allow his classmates to run with it.

Another semester, I met a different brand of difficult. This student was there to blatantly make trouble, distract the others from doing their work, and clown around. When other students began to follow her lead, I brought 15 copies of the UMass Code of Student Conduct to class and we discussed the Code of Conduct as a text. In our discussion, I slipped in that anyone who did not comply with this code during class would be asked to leave immediately and be marked absent for the day.

Clearly, I have no problem dealing with the difficult students, so why did I not intervene with this particular student? Because I thought he was only affecting himself and at most, it was only annoying to me. I thought that ignoring his asides and not giving him the attention he sought would be the best way to diffuse him and I ignored him the entire semester only to find out I was wrong.

I was surprised to read in one Unit Five Reflection essay that the student whom annoyed me was the only thing the writer disliked about my class. From reading his classmate’s writing, I learned that his behavior did not just affect me. His demeanor permeated my classroom and although he was not overtly disruptive as other problem students are, his smoldering attitude was palpable and interfered with the class as much as one who acts out.

In hindsight, I realize that I should have stepped in earlier in the semester and done something. I learned from this student that in a classroom community, my job as a teacher is not only to educate, but also to ensure that no one hinders a student’s ability to learn in my classroom.

That First Class

The other day I was talking to a group of teachers who are teaching for the first time in our writing program. Since our teachers come to us with a range of experience—some have taught college-level classes before, some have taught high school, some have never taught before—if they are new to our program I always go over with them the logistics about the end of the semester. When I got done talking about how to submit final course grades, I asked if there were any questions.

“Where and when does the support group meet for missing your students?” one teacher asked. We all laughed. “Really,” he said. “I’m going to miss them when the semester ends.”

“Was this the first time you have ever taught?” I asked and he nodded.

“Your first class is always special,” I said.

And it is. I taught my first class almost twenty years ago and I can remember the room, the students, our discussions, and their writing as clearly as if it was this semester. I remember the first day of class, what I wore, and how nervous I was. I remember how uncomfortable I felt standing at the “teacher” desk and then amazed when after asking the students to get into groups they did. I remember writing their names neatly in my grade book, of reading their essays multiple times before writing my comments. I remember agonizing over discussion questions and then surprised that the students actually began a discussion with them. I remember the silences, the days when everyone looked down at their books to avoid looking at me. I remember my anxiety of grading their papers and then the fear of returning them. I remember arguing with a student who decided to challenge the grade I gave him. I remember wanting to give up on those days when nothing went well. I remember the last day of class when I thanked them for a great class and told them I had never taught before. “Really?” one of the students said. “We thought you had been teaching for years.”

Why do we remember our first class so vividly? Why does this first class stay with us throughout the years?

For me, I think it’s because that very first semester when I entered the classroom I was someone who wanted to be teacher. And over the course of the semester, thanks to the students expecting me to show up to every class meeting with a lesson plan, expecting me to answer their questions, to give them homework, to grade their papers, I gradually began to take on that teacher role. Throughout the semester the students were generous and forgiving, but also were willing to challenge me if I wasn’t being clear and falling a bit short.

By facing that group of students three times a week, week in and week out, even when things didn’t go as well as planned, I learned more about teaching than I taught them about writing. At the end of the semester when I walked out of the classroom, thanks to them, I had become a teacher. That’s why I remember and will remember that frist class.

The End is in Sight — Yikes!!

We’re back from Thanksgiving break and the end of the semester is in sight. Only two more weeks of classes, and then the Final Reflection will be turned in during Finals Week. Where did the semester go? Although Labor Day and Unit 1 seem like a distant memory, it’s hard to believe that the end of the semester is already here.

And I’m in a state of panic.

Like everyone else I have a lot to do before the end of the semester. But that isn’t what I’m in a panic about. I’ve learned over the years that the end of the semester is, well, the end of the semester and no matter how hard I try to be prepared and organized there is always a crunch at the end. I’m stressed about the end of the semester, but that isn’t what I’m in a panic about. 

What is waking me up in the middle of the night is the fear of everything that I have forgotten to teach my students. Each night the list in my head grows longer and longer. Did I forget to teach them to always write exciting and compelling introductions? Did I forget to teach them how to cite someone who is quoted in another source? Did I forget to teach them to not use comma splices? Did I forget to teach them that every paragraph needs a transition? Did I forget to teach them about how texts circulate on the Internet? Did I ever mention active verbs??? Did we ever discuss the dangers of using passive voice??? Sentence fragments??? Run-on sentences??? The proper use of the dash????

The other thing that is waking me up in the middle of the night is the fact that my students are still not writing perfect papers. Their ideas are still not always fully developed or as expanded as they could be. There are still clunky and awkward sentences in their papers. There are still typos. Their introductions are not yet the quality of David Foster Wallace or Michael Pollan or anyone else in Other Words. Their conclusions aren’t either. And the middle of the papers—well lets say they aren’t what you would call publishable quality. 

Why didn’t I teach them how to write the perfect essay??  Why didn’t I spend more time on introductions? Why didn’t I prepare a lecture on effective conclusions? Why didn’t I prepare a lesson on how to organize your ideas, how to develop and expand? Why didn’t I prepare an exciting and riveting lecture on copyediting?

Lecture on copyediting??

The perfect essay??


What am I thinking?

The trouble with learning how to write is the same problem with teaching writing. We develop and grow as writers by writing. We write, revise, get responses, write some more, revise some more, copyedit and as a result we write more effective pieces. We get better, but the problem is we never seem to be able to point to the moments where we have actually learned something. Learning to write is not like learning facts about history (we didn’t know the dates of the Civil War and then we learned it) or formulas in physics (we didn’t know the formula to solve a problem and then we learned it.) Writing just seems to happen. 

And the problem with teaching writing is that the teaching of writing just seems to happen too. All semester I worked my students through the process of writing and their essays have become more complex with more sophisticated structures, with more complicated sentences.  How did it happen?

It happened by writing. It happened by asking the students to write consistently, by asking them to revise, by presenting them with different rhetorical situations. It happened by me giving them feedback and by my students giving feedback to one another.

When I think about it, I didn’t teach my students how to write this semester. My students already knew how to write when they walked into the classroom on that day after Labor Day. What I did this semester was help them along with their on-going development as writers by creating a space for them to write and to revise and to write some more. And as a result, my students are leaving the class better writers than when they entered.

Maybe I did something after all.