The triangle is the strongest shape, capable of holding its shape, having a strongTriangles: The Strongest Shape
base, and providing immense support. Some of the world’s most famous architectural marvels like the Eiffel Tower, Great Pyramids of Giza, and the Louvre Pyramid use the support of triangles to make beautiful, durable structures.
My disdain for disposable assignments, especially disposable writing assignments, should be well known to even casual readers of this blog. I am focused on nurturing writers in my classes and authentic writing is an important part of that work. In fact, I have three goals for my first year college writing classes:
- To grow as a human
- To develop as a writer and rhetorician
- To advance as a reflective and self-regulating critical thinker
I keep those three goals in mind when planning each week and each unit of the semester, but supporting writers on their journey is my one guiding light. Through the years that has meant rethinking the structure of my first year classes again and again. For many years I built in a ridiculous number of writing assignments each semester and then I had an epiphany about the harm I was doing to myself and my students with this unsustainable program and my Four-Square Writing Plan was born.
However, recently the first year writing program at my institution shifted its assessments and this combined with the pressures of the ongoing pandemic has shifted my four-square program into something much more triangular in nature but as the quote I shared at the top suggests that change has only made my course design stronger.
What If There Was A Triangle?
I wrote a long post about the impact of this move on my Writing I class this fall, but it is worth noting again. For more than two decades I have been teaching this class with a formal argument assignment. When we removed that assignment it was a gift for my students and myself as it offered the opportunity to rethink the culminating project for this class. The What If unit that blossomed into that space was a fun and creative respite that also offered students the opportunity to showcase their rhetorical and critical thinking skills as well as their individual humanity. We laughed and cried together over our writing, but the rhetorical thinking and work that took place was the icing on an already tasty cake. That unit celebrates everything I love about authentic writing. I believe the three units of this class (This I Believe narrative, rhetorical analysis, and What If) offer a perfect semester for first year writers.
While my fall Writing I class is built around American literacy, my spring Writing II class embraces the theme of games to bring fun and whimsy to work that could be too heavy if we took it more seriously. As I have often noted before – themes provide an engaging common foundation for our work. Choice is an important part of the rhetorical work in my classes but those choices must come from the common theme and personal values. I have found over and over through observation and reading student reflections that this work challenges students personally and rhetorically to create authentic writing that is meaningful to create and powerful to read. Studying games in our writing class helps my student break through the restrictive patterns of traditional writing instruction. Studying games helps my students better understand the role of personal values in writing and rhetoric. Studying games helps my students grow as critical thinkers and humans. Studying games does all those things and more – while being fun and offering us the opportunity to write about our lives in meaningful ways and that my friends is authentic writing. Teaching writing using games not only rocks but it is authentic teaching. The first half of our semester is built on two important unit: narrative argument and rhetorical analysis – in both Writing I and Writing II.
I am a rhetorician and a poet and I have struggled for years to sustain that tension in my writing classes and I believe I have at long last found the right tension. I believe that indeed everything is an argument and I believe in the importance of teaching rhetoric (much more than just the rhetorical triangle). I want to help the writers in my classes better understand themselves and their audience in order to write more effective arguments whether those arguments take the shape of a poem or a formal essay. I am much happier with my department’s two-semester writing sequence that includes only one formal argument essay requirement than previous iterations’ requirements. There are many arguments for including a formal argument supported by research in a first year writing sequence and I don’t want to rehash them here as I doubt anyone needs to make that argument in their department or institution. What I do want to note is that our society has lost all nuance when it comes to argument in form or function. I continually strive to help my students learn to read and write and discuss within the gray areas of the spectrum.
I teach argument as a conversation and my students build up to their arguments by first considering the values and ideas that are important to them personally and in their community. We share these ideas via snaps on our community logbook to draw inspiration as we focus on topics we might want to explore. We then work through a series of steps to explore those topics and the people we should invite to our conversation using a variety of open source texts (see the Writing II section). First we read like writers and then we create conversation tables before we begin to write like readers and listeners. It is important that this entire journey is shared within our community as inspiration and feedback is readily available even before we embark on our workshop process (see Inquiry Process for my current approach). Our goal isn’t to win arguments but to share conversations and seek solutions based on our personal values and that is a goal worthy of any human, rhetorician, or critical thinker.
We wrap up our work with a game jam and reflection that connects all the work that we have done over the course of our journey together. The majority of my Writing II students are online again this semester and so we won’t get the joy of an in-person game jam, but I love watching students create and hack games that challenge players to think about the problems and solutions they have explored in writing all semester. While watching those projects come into being is always fun, the part of the experience that holds me rapt is the analytical reflection. I believe in authentic writing and I believe I always have something to learn from my students about writing and teaching, so there is a great deal of choice for my students. They can treat this reflection as a literacy narrative, rhetorical analysis, or comparison contrast essay. I also share some of the tools I use to reflect on my practice. The Writing II reflection prompt is based on the prompt I used for the first time in the fall with my Writing I classes and those reflections were some of the most powerful pieces of writing I’ve ever read. Many of those reflections left me weeping. That is the power of authentic teaching and ungrading.
I teach Writing I with a theme of American literacy in the fall and Writing II with a game theme in the spring. Both classes incorporated poetry and weekly jam sessions. I am fortunate to loop with many students, especially those at a regional campus and online, and this is how I support the growth of humans, writers, and critical thinkers in my classroom.