Monday, January 26, 2009

Writing Prompts

Those who teach writing must design writing prompts with great care and attention to detail, considering the wording, the mode of discourse, the rhetorical specifications, and the subject matter of each writing assignment. The same is equally true teaching any writing class, whether ESL, emerging NS writers (developmental) and presumable developed writers in lower division college composition and writing intensive course

A well designed writing prompt guides the writer through drafting a main idea statement and from there onto essay organization and structure as well. Despite practice of attributing "assignment description information gap" problems to cultural context of prompts and assignments, most writing prompt problems are the fault of bad design, lack of clarity, insufficient specifics. Not even native speakers with high skill level can make sense enough of a poorly designed and written writing prompt to write the assignment expected of them.

This consideration does not eliminate the cultural context: rather it add another layer of complexity to the deciphering process. It is the writing instructor's responsibility to write good prompts. Students should not have to be mind-readers in order to figure out writing assignments. When confronted with unclear, less than precise prompts, L2 writers face greater obstacles than NS writers. Unfamiliar cultural context makes the task of decoding the prompt thornier and with it interpreting "how" the prompt sets up and organizes the writing assignment.

Understanding academic writing prompts and the culture giving birth to them can be even trickier, affecting their writing abilities. Writing teachers do their students a disservice when they accept writing that does not address the requirements of a prompt. Students must be given opportunities to become aware of the constraints of Admittedly, United States academic prose is a peculiar and not always logical genre. However, those expecting to play the game must learn both the rules of and the expectations of their presumptive audience if they are to succeed.

A few links to shed light on prompts and their kinship to thesis statements:
Characteristics of good prompts:
Good prompts are authentic and contain a clearly expressed writing topic, put it in context, and provide clear directions to help students respond. "Analyze, classify, compare, contrast, define, describe, discuss, and explain" are examples of key words that tell writers what to do.

Ask the questions:
  • What are the purpose(s) of the assignment?
  • What information do I need to complete the task?
  • What problems does the topic suggest?
  • Who is my audience?
Next: decoding a collaborative writing assignment

Week 4 Assignments

Discussion questions: discuss one or more of the questions under “Topics.” Reply to posts commenting on your answer. Respond to / comment on at least two original posts answering two different discussion question.

Discussion Topics

  • Informal or low stakes writing assignments
  • Writing groups
  • Collaborative writing
  • AWE
  • Word processing text analysis and checking tools
  • Peer editing
  • Marking papers / managing paper load


Hands on assignments: pick ONE of the following assignments to complete by Saturday and post to the Week 4 assignment thread.

  • Take one substantial post from this or another EVO session and send it through one of the online raters/text analysis tools on the resource list.
  • Form writing group with 3 other students. Exchange short writing samples. Use peer editing guidelines to review, comment and make recommendations.
  • Design and write peer review guidelines or a holistic rubric for a class you teach.

The Plan: (subject to change of course)

  • Upload page/s about workshop to Pages sections.
  • Sort the workshop file into several pages, separate files.
  • Upload resources file to Files section on group,
  • Search YouTube for videos on AWE, peer editing. etc.
  • Search Slide Share, WiZiQ, other for Power Points
  • Schedule live session in Tapped In, WiZiQ, YM or Google Chat.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Technology & Feedback in Large ESL Writing Classes.

Week 4 of Tips & Tricks Workshop, EVO 2009 – Writing

Topic areas

writing; review; feedback; revision; evaluation/marking

"Topics" cover a variety of subtopics, no time in a single week to to cover all adqequately: writing situations and strategies; guiding students to write reflective about their own writing process; to become self aware writers and eventually their own editors; writing groups; feedback strategies; AWE software applications as feedback tools; collaborative writing; document sharing; peer review and editing; revision strategies; the distinction between correction and revision; rubrics; holistic evaluation; comments, function and efficient management.

  1. The best and most effective way to improve is to write more – and get meaningful feedback, especially addressing global concerns (content, clarity, readability, effective communication) over micro ones (grammar and mechanics). The more students write, the better they will write. Writing more is more important than drilling grammar, sending writing through software programs or even marking by humans.
  2. Managing writing for large classes means providing more writing opportunities.
    1. Not all writing needs to be extensively marked or corrected.
    2. Read informal writing for content and ideas, responding briefly and as a reader not a grammarian.
    3. Students can read and comment on one another’s writing following Peter Elbow’s recommendations for student writing groups in Writing Without Teachers. Remember that working in writing groups takes time and practice. First attempts will seem clumsy.
    4. When mistakes interfere with meaning and create information gaps, readers, whether instructor or classmates, can draw general attention to the problem without making corrections.
    5. Some informal writing can be totally private.
  3. Personal feedback is the most time consuming and labor intensive instructor responsibility.
    1. A combination of writing groups, peer, technology and evaluation and checking software can provide less time consuming but still usable feedback.
    2. Multiple drafts: establishing procedures for students to get feedback on their writing before revising the draft they will turn in for instructor review.
    3. Record comments using voice to text software (i.e. Dragon Speaking Naturally or other)
    4. Pre-instructor feedback can include automated writing evaluation (AWE) software, checkers and peer review.
    5. Not only will students write more, they will, through peer review, become comfortable with reviewing writing – first the writing of their classmates and then their own writing.
  4. Train students – no throwing them in the deep end to figure out evaluation procedures on their own.
    1. Use handouts, modeling, presentations, video clips and so on to demonstrate processes.
    2. Introduce rubrics in peer review groups. Training students to interpret and use them in writing group will help students get more out of the ones you return with papers.
    3. Demonstrate and explain limitations of automated feedback.
    4. Model your own writing process and share your writing with class.
    5. Show them samples of your own writing that you have marked up – mercilessly. Set an example by letting them see how much you revise.
    6. Use sample papers – names blacked out – from another class or select representative papers at random or from volunteers.
    7. Present to classroom or online with whiteboard software / projected screenshots of document file or, for a low tech classroom, transparency and projector. Specific method depends on available technology and class configuration.
    8. Invite students to participate in demonstrations by evaluating writing and making revision suggestions.
  5. Structure feedback in stages leading up to instructor feedback
    1. Software such Spell and Grammar Checkers, Rater, text analysis (
    2. Peer review – directed writing groups or writing buddies
    3. Instructor review using preferred strategies, including but not limited to tech tools, holistic marking, rubrics and reflective writing, e.g. keeping a writing journal.
    4. Encourage students to use reflective writing about writing not just to reflect on their own writing but also as a “reading response” to peer reviews, rubrics and, yes, even instructor comments as well.

Specific order can be flexible and will no doubt vary according to instructor preference and class needs. Although I listed self-evaluation before peer review, that could follow as part of the revision process – or both, with students performing two sets of self-evaluation. Personally, I would schedule the instructor demo of paper marking and comment process BEFORE students revise papers to turn into instructor, although post-marking follow might be in order as well.

Sections of Presentation

  1. Writing
    1. Short writing assignments
    2. Collaborative writing
    3. Low stakes writing assignments – freewriting, journals, forum discussion, comments on blog and Wiki posts, reflection papers, admit and exit slips (WAC), cubing, etc
    4. Projects for grading – done in stages
  2. Feedback
    1. Self-evaluation
    2. Automated Writing Assessment, word processing tools and other checking software
    3. Peer evaluation and review
  3. Revision
    1. After self review and automated assessment
    2. After peer review
  4. Reflection on writing - process, drafting, evaluations, revisions (can be in form of writing journals or cover letters with assignment submitted for grading)
  5. Teacher’s turn to review, comment, evaluate, grade, etc.

Briefly: students write more; teacher may review but does not mark all writing. Writing includes private informal, public informal and formal writing. Students develop evaluation / editing strategies and reviewing skills in peer review that they will also apply to their own writing. Requiring students make at least two revisions based on self-editing, software checking, peer feedback before submitting work (with previous drafts and peer review forms attached) significantly reduce the amount of time teachers spend on writing feedback and marking.

random rants: collaborative writing, 1

Collaborative writing is a good thing as far classroom writing practices and strategies - other uses too, notably in business and technical writing. I participated in collaborative writing years back - before I'd ever even heard the "collaborative writing" - working for an engineering and construction firm when I wrote the opening narratives for project proposals.

Collaborative writing, as noted in my previous post, is one of the strategies I am recommending to increase the amount of writing students can do without unnecessarily sucking up scarce teacher time. Sometimes, however, it can, like any good strategy, go wrong. It has recently, at least for me. Not a project I designed and set up but one I am participating in. Why? Communication gaps and flawed project design would be my diagnosis.

On the face of it, the assignment seemed suitable as a hands on workshop introduction to using Word comment, review and track changes tools for collaborative writing. Rather than throwing participants who could be unfamiliar with group work in the deep end, the assignment nudged us gently into the waters of collaboration with a buddy.

One half of the writing pair (#1) was assigned to write a draft that the other (#2) would revise and return for #1 to submit to the workshop facilitators. That was have been an important clue I should have heeded: channels and chains of command imply hierarchy and power relationships where there should not be any. Another notable gap was the absence of pre-writing collaboration, process feedback or any communication guidelines.

The assigned topic included responding to the week's reading assignment, but the writing prompt was as poorly designed as the rest of the assignment. I won't lay it all on design. There was no pre-writing communication between #1 and #2. Collaboration is built on, depends on, lives by, succeeds through, cannot take place without ongoing communication between/ among collaborators. Additionally, collaboration is, unless otherwise designated, non-hierarchical. Tasks can be distributed but there are no bosses or minions doing their bidding, just partners (in this case writing partners or "edit buddies" as Mary called them in English 90).

The short version: communication attempts initiated but failed; hastily written, un-revisable draft (not following assignment sufficiently) submitted; "writing buddy" requested to address gaps and resend; comments on draft made (more like marking than copy-editing); "draft" returned - but still no replies received to any of my emailed queries/requests. The score for communication attempts is now 0 for 3.

Should I try to rewrite the not even really a draft anyway and submit it, cc'ing yclept partner?

Is there, design gaps and other speedbumps not withstanding, value in the lesson, something to be learned. Yes indeed, although probably not what the facilitators/ moderators intended. FWIW I'm still trying - without success - to determine what distinguishes moderators from facilitators (or from group leaders for that matter).

So what valuable lessons are to be extracted from this experience? Think on that, add comments if you will. Part II and my take to follow...

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Into the 2nd week already

If I really were modeling student behavior, I should have posted sooner. So far I have assembled more resources and links for week 4 on writing feedback and made more notes. Growing like Topsy the file grows longer and increasingly disorganized. Hala is giving me very useful feedback, but I need more. That is the pitfall of taking a puzzle without sufficient data to solve it as my topic and making the resulting session my search for solutions. Ideas I have and resources that should be useful researched as best I can - but no way of knowing without test subjects. Dicey as a project, good thing neither hiring nor tenure - let alone fame or even infamy - hang on the enterprise. Makes it more exciting though. Besides this project goes forth not to rework the known but with purpose: helping overloaded and overworked teachers teaching over-sized writing classes with limited resources.

So, otherewise, how has EVO been going? I missed the 1st synchronous session for Collaborative Writing @ WiZiQ but caught the transcript online. Mostly greetings and futzing around with equipment and tools not working as hoped (but surely expected). Tips & Tricks' Sunday session, also in WiZiQ, went better but still beset by similar mishaps. Becoming a Webhead met in Tapped In for an orientation tour of the "facility." Well organized and well done - the group's long experience shows. I was already registered in both - WiZiQ last year & Tapped In much earlier - but had to reactivate passwords, showing how much (little) I've used them. No doubt that says more about my learning curve than it does about the tools.

Will I use them more now? I keeping hoping. I am more likely to use Tapped In because of the orientation.

Did I complete Week 1 assignments? Sort of. Almost. At the moment I can't even remember what they were or how many I did not quite get to.

BaW: forum Wk 1 readings were old hat - overview / intro / basics for online learning & teaching - covered many times in online facilitator training. No doubt necessary starting point but one already visited. Ditto the YG assignment. The coming weeks' readings look more interesting and less traveled.

Other than introductions and a list of too many questions that no one has posted complete answers to, I am not even sure what the T & T assignments were. Not news anywhere that David is not organized. Too bad the new minions are not more useful - and that David is not better at delegating. Didn't get message posted to VoiceThread. On tool overload by now.

Collaborative Writing: introductions on YG, blog (more introductions, background, research interests, upload images). YG & blog ►►varieties of the collaborative writing experience.

Technical problems: I had to uninstall Skype. Blue screen issues advising me uninstall any/all new software. Dennis, the owner of this loaner laptop had installed Skype, then uninstalled it but inadvertently left some files behnd. That might have been the source of the problem. I am reluctant to try again on this computer. Other: the mic on my headset may either not be working or working off and on. I won't be able to do Second Life sessions because it requires DSL.

Week 2 Assignments ►► (this may help me keep track)
  • BaW - Text and voice synchronous communication tools: Tapped In, Yahoo Messenger and Skype in Worldbridges; download & install YM & Skype; create Buddy list for BaW participants (so many of them); attend & comment on live presentation; readings & forum discussion; create virtual office in Tapped In (done); answer questions of the week.
  • Collaborative Writing - word processing & collaborative Writing using Word & Track Changes; 2 readings; collaborative project in pairs: one to draft & one to revise collaborative writing; attend live session (where?)
  • Tips & Tricks - this week is David's Second Life week. Theme of the week is teaching in virtual environments & Native Speaker contact. Teaching tool links to explore, discuss?,,, Tool & app overload. Definitely!

Sunday, January 11, 2009

EVO 2009: Day 1

I'm trying to be the kind of student I expect my students to be. Since I have a week of presentation/ moderating / whatever to prepare for, signing up for just one session might have been advisable. BaW (Becoming a Webhead) is an intensive experience - overwhelming. Best strategy I think: pick a few tools and immerse myself in them sufficiently to put them to use (and thus assimilate them in ways not possible in a workshop). As for the rest of the array: survey, file and try not to forget...

The tool list on the BaW wiki is daunting: Assignments and the locations for completing them border on overwhelming - more the surfeit of locations than assignements themselves. No doubt there were too many because moderators want us to experience e-mail group, forum, blog, wiki, 2nd Life, web conferencing, text chat, voice chat, and who knows what else. The readings seem a bit dated, less current that what I've come up with poking around on my own.

Skype-less due to a problem creating an account, I lurked, listening to most of EVO kick-off - mostly session hosts introducing themselves and briefly describing their sessions. Nothing new over descriptions already been posted. Sometimes less. No StudyCom presence so moderator said a few words, nothing about content just that Tips & Tricks was oldest EVO session (along with Webheads?).

Text chat was crowded and mostly hellos among people who already knew each and maybe could have taken visiting private - no replies to my greeting or few comment that I could ascertain. All the charm of a large cocktail party where you barely know the host (who is busy with other guests) and don't know anyone else. All that but no booze or food.

What then was the educational value for teaching or learning? I experienced the chaos students must feel in a new learning environment. Old lessons were reinforced: don't wait until the last minute to download course software.

I did put on a headset, used sound - if only as a consumer - and went asynchronous. That is progress of sorts for someone so text fixated in an audio/visual environment. Someone on the BaW forum complained about the reading emphasizing writing element in online course delivery because there are so many other media. What if you're teaching WRITING, d'uh?

I wonder too about teachers who bagged on teaching. Why did they?

Onward to BaW assignments for Week 1: posting on blog, on wiki, on forum (to discuss readings) and planning my own week 4 in Tips & Tricks. I am not sure what the game plan is for Colloborative Writing.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Digital Ethnography

Participatory Media Literacy: Why it matters

Posted: 03 Jan 2009 06:58 AM CST

Those of us striving to integrate participatory media literacy practices into our classes often face resistance. Other faculty might argue that we are turning away from the foundations of print literacy, or worse, pandering to our tech-obsessed students. Meanwhile, students might resist too, wondering why they have to learn to use a wiki in an anthropology class. The surprising-to-most-people-fact is that students would prefer less technology in the classroom (especially *participatory* technologies that force them to do something other than sit back and memorize material for a regurgitation exercise). We use social media in the classroom not because our students use it, but because we are afraid that social media might be using them - that they are using social media blindly, without recognition of the new challenges and opportunities they might create.

I was reminded of this while reading Howard Rheingold's great little article, Participative Pedagogy for a Literacy of Literacies, where he writes:

If print culture shaped the environment in which the Enlightenment blossomed and set the scene for the Industrial Revolution, participatory media might similarly shape the cognitive and social environments in which twenty first century life will take place (a shift in the way our culture operates). For this reason, participatory media literacy is not another subject to be shoehorned into the curriculum as job training for knowledge workers.

In all of Howard's work is an understanding that a new technology may have good or bad consequences, determined largely by how people use it and how well they understand the broader implications of these uses. In Smart Mobs, he warned that new forms of participatory media could be great "cooperation amplifiers" but without sufficient literacy on the part of the public could also become an "always-on panopticon" invoking Bentham's haunting design for a prison in which a centralized entity could see everthing all the prisoners do, "a new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind, in a quantity hitherto without example."

Like Howard, I employ social media in the classroom with a sense of urgency.

Like the early days of print, radio, and television, the present structure of the participatory media regime - the political, economic, social and cultural institutions that constrain and empower the way the new medium can be used, and which impose structures on flows of information and capital - is still unsettled. As legislative and regulatory battles, business competition, and social institutions vie to control the new regime, a potentially decisive and presently unknown variable is the degree and kind of public participation. Because the unique power of the new media regime is precisely its participatory potential, the number of people who participate in using it during its formative years, and the skill with which they attempt to take advantage of this potential, is particularly salient.

Ultimately, participatory media literacy is as much about a literacy of *participation* as it is a literacy of media. For, as Howard says, "a participatory culture in which most of the population see themselves as creators as well as consumers of culture is far more likely to generate freedom and wealth for more people than one in which a small portion of the population produces culture that the majority passively consume."

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