For several years I taught my first year writing classes using four units. Then came the pandemic and I began whittling away at my classes to meet the reduction in capacity caused by long term trauma. When my department recalibrated our goals for Writing I and Writing II that opened up more space in my course calendar and I was able to shift things around even more to create space for a final project that did three important things. First and foremost, we spent five weeks exploring the stories of our lives through listening, reading, and writing. Then we engaged in the serious rhetorical work of pulling together the artifacts created during those weeks as well as the preceding eight weeks of the semester to create a multi-genre practical demonstration of the story of our personal values and what that story says about America. Finally, we shifted our rhetorical gears to reflect on our journey as writers.
Building Blocks and Inspiration
Our What If work was inspired by Marvel’s What If animated series and the butterfly effect combined with the explorations offered by the #WalkMyWorld Project. The five-week journey for the writers in my care culminated in a multi-genre exploration of their personal values and how those values were developed (a primary focus of our American literacy themed class). We began this work by staking our claims exploring what we thought about, discussed, and wrote about our origins, major influences, and future:
- Who Are You?
- Where Are You From?
- What is the Shape of Your Story?
- What is your reason for being?
- What is the soundtrack of your life?
My students and I enjoyed the interesting ways our stories intersected, reflected, and connected with the stories of others in our community. Many students reported this work was a refuge and escape from the heightening stress of the first semester of college combined with continued pandemic life. Several students reflected that they learned things about themselves they had never explored before. And throughout this work my students engaged in serious growth as rhetoricians and writers as well as humans. Even though I offered students a lot of flexibility during this stage of our work many were inspired to spend a lot of time thinking, writing, and crafting their artifacts because we were engaged in the most authentic writing of all – writing that mattered to their lives.
What If Projects
My first year writers have been involved in an American Creed Writing Marathon all semester and their final project was a multi-genre showcase of what they learned on the journey of exploring their personal values and American values. As a firm believer in authentic writing, I gave my students carte blanche to decide what form the practical demonstration of their learning would take. Some chose a curated collection of their work and writing from final deliverables (This I Believe essays and rhetorical analysis essays) to snaps and six word stories. Others created playlists and original work such as poems. Some projects were serious and thought provoking while others were fun and playful, but most demonstrated the high level rhetorical work necessary to create a cohesive whole from the disparate parts which makes this work an ideal practical demonstration of what students have learned. The experience of creating their multi-genre projects offered my students a range of learning opportunities and supporting their classmates engaged in the same process added still more depth. My only disappointment was that no students chose to publish their work to the National Writing Project’s Our Democracy platform, but I suspect pandemic exhaustion and end-of-semester stress played a role. Perhaps I should have made that publication a requirement but was reluctant to undercut their agency and I do believe publishing to our class logbook was enough. Several students shared their projects with family and friends. In the end I know many students were proud of their work and excited by the process and that is the real win for any class – especially a required one.
Reflection and Retention
One of the most challenging aspects of teaching writing is transfer. How do we help developing writers transfer the skills and knowledge gained during our 16-week class to other writing contexts? Transfer is puzzle box in many courses of study, but is particularly challenging when it comes to comprehensive literacy or transliteracy. Writing instructors can teach key skills and give students a variety of writing experiences, but if we do not help students understand how those skills and experiences can be transferred to new writing contexts (in school and beyond) then we have failed at our most essential task. If we do not help students understand how reading, thinking, and writing work together to impact every part of their lives from education to profession to citizenship then we have failed at our most essential task.
My journey with #ungrading has been an important part of solving the transfer problem. My writing classes do not focus on the low level goal of crafting the perfect rhetorical analysis or white paper, but instead focus on the highwire act of helping writers grow as rhetoricians and humans. I want my students to appreciate the power of words to change lives. I want my students to recognize that their growth as writers should continue long after my classroom. I want my students learn that everything is a text and that every text has layers of meaning.
One of the important tools inspire this understanding is building in regular pauses to reflect on the journey in progress. These reflections are an important part of my ungrading process and essential to students’ growth. As I’ve noted when writing about my ungrading journey those reflections occur weekly and at the end of each unit, but the most important is the analytical reflection that is part of the final unit. That final unit challenges students to create a practical demonstration (the aforementioned multi-genre showcase) and a reflection that demonstrates how each student has grown as a human and rhetorician. As I believe in authentic writing and I believe I always have something to learn from my students about writing and teaching, there is a great deal of choice for my students in regard to this reflection. They can treat this reflection as a literacy narrative, rhetorical analysis, or comparison contrast essay. I also shared some of the tools I use to reflect on my practice. I loved reading all the different approaches to this task. Some students delved into their past literacy education with a literacy narrative or comparison contrast approach. Others examined their journey using their own texts through rhetorical analysis. This process challenged students to examine their own learning through a critical lens that I hope will inspire them to continue growing and learning.
Was This Journey Worth Taking?
One of the questions I frequently ask students is whether or not this was a journey worth taking (as a writer, thinker, human). Every student reflection agreed that the work we did to share the stories of our values was important and worthwhile. Many described this journey as necessary and instrumental in their growth as writers, thinkers, and humans. A cynical teacher friend noted that student reflections might be crafted specifically to appeal to an audience of one (me), but I have two rebuttals. First, I have spent a lot of time with my students discussing and reading their writing – in particular their reflections. I suppose it is possible that some students spent 16 weeks creating an elaborate ruse to deceive me about their response to my methods, but I suspect Occam’s razor holds. Second, if there are students who can craft a thoughtful argument supported by evidence with direct appeals to me in the finals days of the semester simply to convince me that they learned something then haven’t I won? That sounds like pretty sophisticated rhetoric to me. That writer deserves to pass freshman comp with all the honors.
But enough about me…what about the class? Currently I like using John Warner’s five qualities to judge a writing curriculum to evaluate my classes (see How do you reflect for other methods I have used before). First, this whole class (with the exception of the departmental assessments) was built on #authenticwriting. Students wrote about their personal values and their stories, they shared those stories both in progress and as finished pieces with our community via our unit logbooks and jam sessions, and they had the opportunity to publish to a wider audience. Second, students noted in their reflections that they learned so much from this experience including lessons about themselves, lessons about writing and thinking, and lessons about the world. Third, we engaged in multiple dimensions of writer’s practice. We wrote for discovery, we drafted, we revised. We engaged with other writers and a wide range of texts from diverse viewpoints. We practiced a number of essential skills from close reading to summary to word play. Fourth, students reported over and over that the writing was interesting to them because it was about their lives. They explored their past, considered their present, and planned their future through their writing. They wrote about the people, places, and events that shaped them. They wrote about their hopes and dreams. Finally, and most important to me as well as Warner, my students engaged in the regular practice of reflecting about their writing and their learning.
In addition to Warner’s guidelines I think it is important as we enter our junior year of the pandemic (please let us all graduate early or on time) to consider how this class helped my students survive yet another semester of pandemic living and learning. The infrastructure of my class is designed to make learning and teaching easier through the use of #HyperDocs, #Ungrading, and a theme. These key tools help students survive the constant disruptions to learning this pandemic has brought. But other softer, gentler elements such as my focus on community and including poetry for our writing inspiration were also important to our survival. Every student who successfully completed my class this fall is a triumph even if I was too exhausted to celebrate. Now, on the verge of a new semester, I am still too stressed to take the joy I should in what we accomplished together in the fall and the education machine continues to push me forward. I can only hope that some of these lessons can help other educators in our continued struggle to get through this pandemic while supporting the developing humans in our charge.