Tuesday, September 30, 2008

A Conceptual Approach to the Works Cited Page

One of the major parts of the curriculum I spend most of my time teaching is the research process and essay. This process relies heavily upon the very step by step linear processes today’s students supposedly eschew. (I prefer to think they’ve simply “yet to come to love them,” but that’s just me.) Long ago, I prevented the Works Cited page from being a formatting nightmare by assigning the Annotated Bibliography project, a project near and dear to my heart because I think its vetting process emphasizes the skills I hope students gain from the entire project. However, even though students’ Works Cited entries would be fairly well formatted, their parenthetical notation would reveal misconceptions about the relationship between the in-text citations and the Works Cited page. By the time students turn in the research essay, few of them care to hear more about the process. I realized that, ironically, while the Works Cited page might be one of the last steps in the research process, the time to teach about it needed to be early on.

I prepare students for the research essay by assigning a short essay where students must quote from an assigned reading long before we even say “research paper.” This mini paper lets them practice parenthetical notation and the Works Cited page. However, because they only quote from one source, they don’t encounter some of the more complicated variations of the Works Cited. I designed the mini paper purposefully to be MLA-success oriented, to let students get their feet wet with some accomplishment. (One of the many obstacles to student success on the research paper is feelings of being overwhelmed/discouraged.) This semester, I’m trying a new activity, ingeniously named The Backwards Works Cited Activity (truly, one would think I named my son, Kid Number One). Essentially, using the same sources available to my students (the Internet, an online subscription database through our school library), I put together a four source Works Cited page. Then I wrote about ten questions that students can only answer by using the Works Cited page to get online/into the library website and find the four sources in their full versions.

Students try this assignment for the first time this week. I’m hoping they gain a few concepts from this activity. First, I really hope they learn that they can use the Works Cited page at the end of a source to research additional sources. Being able to read a Works Cited, decode the quality of sources used, and go find those sources are academic, critical skills I wish for my students to gain. Also, I’m hoping this query will help the MLA formatting of a Works Cited page and parenthetical notation seem less arbitrary to them. I made a few errors on purpose; one source has the wrong name in the parenthetical notation, making it difficult to discern from which source on the Works Cited the material actually came. Finding another article on the Works Cited reveals that the student writer used only an abstract; the full version of the article isn’t available on our library system. These are the kind of mistakes students would make that I would discover at the very end of the process. I’m hoping now students will have an increased sense of the pattern these research elements make together.

Though it may reveal a serious mental illness on my part, I really enjoy teaching the research process. It feels very important to me, as someone who prepares the majority vote in our nation to read and think critically. MLA has less subjectivity than other aspects of teaching writing; it fosters affection in all the students who prefer math. I’m hoping this activity will underscore the pretty, crystalline order a well-executed Works Cited page can bring to my students own essays.

co-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Teacher

Thursday, September 25, 2008

A New Assignment's Final Evaluation

The verdict is in, and I’m pleased. My new essay assignment asks students to define the audience for a website (I let them choose off a list of four; I found good choices by searching Google for popular websites—choices abound). As a teacher of writing, I try to emphasize to my students that they must consider the audience of their writing in their word choice, in their reasoning, and in their examples. I designed this essay assignment to put them through that process backwards, in deference to the non-linear nature of their generation. Their essays hearten me.

Not every student has gotten it, of course. Some students have advertised the websites, writing a piece to seek an audience for the site. However, their mistakes are tangible, and I’m hoping with some redirection from me, their revisions will be on target. What pleases me about the nature of this assignment is the sweet spot it hits between analytical and concrete. It requires critical thinking, but the examples, the reasoning, the argument itself, are pretty accessible for students in the first quarter of an English class. My former first essay assignment asked students to write about themselves; it created a problem for students who used vague or insufficient reasons to support their points because students sometimes struggled to understand how I could challenge their authority on the topic of themselves. This assignment resolves that issue.

I’ve always allowed first person in the first essay of the semester, too, and I did in the directions for this audience essay as well. An unexpected benefit has been students self-selecting third person, choosing to edit away the “I think…” at the fronts of their sentences because they felt their discussion “sounded better” without it. I don’t recall having students modify their writing choices in response to their own audiences so early in the semester before. Next week, I start lessons on third person voice, and to have students already leaning towards it creates an unanticipated and delightful preparation.

I’m not given to self-adulation, but as much as I believe in a reflective teaching and curriculum development process, I also believe in self-acknowledgement when things go well. I’m going to continue to work hard to find strategies that are less linear, and this one is going in the “use again” pile.

co-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Teacher

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Mundane Musings

So this week I collect essays based on my snazzy new assignment. I asked students to identify and define the audience for one of four websites, in an effort to combine their love of the Internet with my desire to anchor their concept of audience in writing. The thesis process has been positive overall although I did realize that my directions needed modification and clarification. Once I tweaked those directions, the thesis statements improved. (Oh, those guinea pig first period students, eh?)

I’m nervous about grading essays based upon a new assignment. Usually, I dive right into the pile and start my stack countdown immediately. However, with a new assignment, I need to get the lay of the land a bit. Right now, a good version of this essay exists only in my imagination. I haven’t seen yet what students will produce in response to this assignment. Lots of weary experience has taught me that my imagination can be inflated. In a way, getting students’ products on this new idea gives the assignment itself a grade. I get to see if the assignment fosters the skills and understanding I intended for it or if it just creates a brand new level of confusion and ambivalence.

Waiting for these essays feels like a professional version of getting first class mail. (Okay, I can now never deny what a total and utter dork I am. I love first class mail even though I am devoted to technology. I. Love. Snail. Mail.) Teaching writing can be very isolating. We assign essays, we explain them, we get students pre-writing; it can be difficult to summarize for a fellow teacher how we guided a class of students to write a certain essay. Crafting an essay assignment excites me, but it is like being the first person in a couple to ask the other person out. I've put myself out there with this assignment. Did it land? Did it help? Did it further my pedagogical goals? Did it ignite the "aha moment" in my students when they'll start to feel like writers? (Gosh, I don't take all this too seriously, do I?) When the stack comes in at the end of this week, it will be like the other person's answer to my risky proposition: "Would you like to learn how to love to write with me?"

co-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Teacher

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Working on being Non-Linear

As I craft lessons in this new semester, I’m trying to incorporate the perspectives I gained when I first considered Marc Prensky’s “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants.” One of my new attempts premiered with students this week: the hypertext essay assignment. I use a web-based learning management system for all my classes, where students can email me, post to discussion boards, and have access to class materials. Instead of writing a document that explained the essay assignment and highlighted important things to remember in a list, which requires students to scroll through the information or flip a handout over (Sometimes I think my purgatory would have me beating on the floor crying out, “It was on the back! I told you to read the back!”, but I digress…), I created a hypertext FAQ page for the essay assignment. Instead of scrolling (or not scrolling, as the case may be), students can click on questions like: How do I get started? What are the formatting requirements? Why can’t I turn it in as soon as I have it ready? What’s a checklist of exactly what I have to do?

In theory, my students, empowered by the non-linear and student-directed nature of these directions, will actually read all the content as they realize they need it, a.k.a. the sexy buzz words, Just in Time Learning. Will it work? I don’t know. Reading it aloud didn’t work. Adding colors and bold to a handout printed on pricy colored paper didn’t work. Sometimes I think my students just like the customization of coming up to me one by one and asking me questions. Sigh. The proof will be in the pudding. I collect thesis statements at the end of this week, so keep fingers crossed…

co-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Teacher