Thirsty for a Strong Instructional Practice?
Regardless of the subject you teach, there may be times when you assign students to write, either as a way to help them learn or as a way for you to evaluate their learning. You may feel like you are in over your head if you aren’t a writing teacher—and truth be told, writing teachers often feel like they are in over their heads, too. Teaching writing is challenging, especially when you have students with a wide range of writing experiences and abilities. Should you focus on correcting students’ grammar and punctuation errors? Refining their word choices? Clarifying their thinking? Pointing out where you wanted more explanation? Highlighting what they did well? And what if that amounts to complimenting their use of 1” margins?
Take a SIP of this: Teaching Writing When You Aren’t a Writing Teacher
Focus on improvement, not perfection: Whether you are a writing teacher or not, try thinking of your role not as “teaching students to write” but as helping every student grow as a writer. This puts the emphasis on improvement rather than perfection. Improvement for one writer may mean learning how to use a comma, while for another writer, learning to support generalizations with specific examples may be the most important thing to focus on now. Keep in mind that any teacher of any subject can only help a student improve so much in one assignment or even in one semester.
Teach writers, not writing: Another way you can re-frame your mission is to think of yourself not as teaching writing but as teaching writers. This puts the emphasis on helping the students rather than on perfecting the products they may compose.
Have clear objectives: Just as with any assignment you give, a writing assignment should have clear outcomes. Most of those outcomes will probably have to do with the subject you teach, but you could have one outcome specific to the writing. For example, an essay in which students discuss case studies could have as one outcome “observe the conventions of writing about case studies.” To prepare students to achieve that outcome, you could spend part of one class period looking at some examples of case study discussions, helping students identify the conventions of that type of writing. For another writing assignment, you might have as an outcome “present findings in an organized fashion”; you would then spend some class time discussing how to organize a piece of writing. Remember that even students who did well in ENG 1010 and ENG 1020 will not know how to write in your particular discipline, so you might focus your instruction on demystifying for students the conventions of writing in your discipline.
Provide students with strategies to achieve objectives: Keep in mind that simply telling someone who has a hard time organizing their writing to organize their writing isn’t going to help. Instead, suggest strategies for organizing their writing, and if many students in the class struggle with organizing their writing, consider spending some class time on activities that will help. For example, you could have students write each of the sub-topics they need to cover on a small piece of paper and then play with putting the pieces of paper into different orders to see which order makes the most sense.
Talk about your writing: Talk about your own writing processes, strategies, and struggles with your students and think about them when you create writing assignments for students. If you don’t ever make a formal outline, requiring your students to write one may not make sense. Think about how you do figure out what you need to say in a piece of writing and share that with students.
Don’t forget the Writing Center: And of course, tell students about the Writing Center, which can help students with every aspect of their writing assignments, from understanding the assignment itself to brainstorming, drafting, and revising.
Still thirsty? Take another SIP of Teaching Writing When You Are Not a Writing Teacher:
- Carnegie Mellon’s teaching excellence center offers several specific strategies: https://www.cmu.edu/teaching/designteach/teach/instructionalstrategies/writing/helpstudentwriters.html
- This article in Inside Higher Ed asks us to rethink the essay and student writing: https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2016/02/19/colleges-should-invest-more-teaching-students-how-write-essay
- This two-part podcast focuses on teaching writing when you are not a writing teacher: part 1 (http://teaching.uncc.edu/podcast/teaching-writing-when-you-are-not-writing-teacher-part-1) and part 2