Writing to Make a Difference

Stephanie Thompson

Composition Professor, Kaplan University

I have been teaching composition for over 20 years in a variety of settings, both at brick-and-mortar and online schools. One constant across the years has been the oft-heard query, “Why is this class required?” That question is usually followed by a reason ranging from “My career field will not require me to write” to “I took this class at a community college 20 years ago, but they would not give me a transfer credit.” I can rattle off quotes from employers’ surveys stating that effective communication skills are a top priority and emphasize the value of being able to write clearly and concisely in personal, professional, and academic situations. However, some students will continue to resent the requirement unless they discover that writing can, in fact, be relevant to their own lives.

Because many students find the writing process intimidating–perhaps they have even been told they are not “good writers”–helping them to discover their inner writer can be especially challenging. This is even more true with nontraditional students who may not have written a paper for a grade in two or three decades. These are a few tips that can help students ease back into writing and discover its joys:

  1. Provide low-stakes writing opportunities. Journal entries, credit/no credit discussion prompts, and guided reactions to readings all give students the chance to write without the fear of a bad grade. If they can earn points just for writing, without fear of committing grammar, punctuation, and spelling errors, they may realize that they enjoy writing for writing’s sake.
  2. Postpone higher-stakes assignments until students have had time to settle into the class, get some feedback on low-stakes writing, and seek help if needed. Asking students to write a paper for a significant grade before they have had the chance to familiarize themselves with the course, get to know their teacher’s grading style, and find topics they are invested in will lead to greater frustration and perhaps more grade complaints.
  3. Give students the chance to explore topics they care about and discover new avenues for research, including interviews and other primary sources. Simply assigning generic pro/con topics, requiring them to find academic sources, or forcing students to analyze difficult pieces of literature will probably only reinforce their sense that the course is a box they have to check on their way to a degree.

The team that develops composition curriculum at Kaplan University used all of these approaches when revising the composition II course. Low-stakes writing prompts give students the chance to reflect upon past writing and research experiences and share insights with classmates. The first project is not due until the course is more than a third over, and students have been writing about their selected topic in the class discussions for three weeks prior to submitting this project; only the final project for the course is worth more than 10% of the overall grade.

Finally, the topic itself is as crucial to the class as the writing process. Students target a problem in their community and propose a strategy for tackling that problem. While the course emphasizes effective persuasion techniques, including the construction of an effective thesis statement, the avoidance of logical fallacies, and the importance of using credible research to support claims, students are also learning about an issue that impacts their day-to-day life. A parent of a special needs child may explore special education regulations and propose a needed change to the local school system, a future psychologist may examine new therapies for addiction, and an aspiring nutritionist may advocate the need for healthier school lunches in her child’s school district. Allowing students to select their topics and interview both specialists and those who might be affected by the proposal they are making helps them to see how writing and research can be a part of their daily lives and how, in fact, their voices can make a difference in their community.

Students given these opportunities to problem-solve and discover new ways to advocate for a cause often find that writing becomes less intimidating, and classes become an opportunity to learn from one another and shape more effective arguments.

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5 responses to “Writing to Make a Difference

  1. What a wonderful post! The idea of helping students ease back into writing to discover its joys was inspiring.

  2. Thanks for the response, David. I love teaching this course and helping students to discover their passion for a cause (not to mention a passion for writing).

  3. Stephanie–you quoted:(p.2)”Because many students find the writing process intimidating–perhaps they have even been told they are not “good writers”(p.2). The fear is being told that one is “stupid” for writing a passage that–either does not make sense, or that their penmanship is terrible. The criticism is harsh at an early age, which will derived from an unsympathetic parent, or another “peer” that has seen what the person has wrote. The comment of “your writing is terrible” can emotionally scar a person as well. These situations are an “emotional burden” that is carried throughout life for many a year. These type of “writing skeletons” in the closet will affect one’s school work, and their employment prospects. It can impact one’s ability to do their job, or keep a position if one’s boss, or supervisor discovers that person’s writing deficiencies, when one is required to write a report, memo, or write a rebuttal. Unfortunately the common solution a person will make to cover up this fact, is to secretly recruit help from a trusted, sympathetic friend, or co-worker. A person’s level of “intelligence” can be judged by how their write. Even when one is an effective communicator in their writing–an attack can still come from that critic, who either does not like what is written, or don’t understand it themselves–due to their their own ignorance; so they must coverup this fact by “nitpicking” (finding, or creating fault) to given themselves a “counter-argument” on the issue at hand.

    • Charles, you are so right that this criticism, at any age, has an emotional impact. Too many students who feel they are poor writers now turn to “cut and paste” patchwork writing as a way to hide their deficiencies, which only hinders their ability to improve their own writing. I do think learning how to handle criticism, whether related to style or content, is crucial for becoming a better writer, but those of us who teach writing need to be aware of the impact of our critiques on our students’ writing. Do you have any particular strategies that you use with struggling writers?

  4. Actually? I do not. My way of dealing with “writing struggles” in the past was to buy books on “grammar” for reference, and search for material, and tips from writers, who are successful in this craft, and try to emulate them in some way. Always bare in mind, who your “audience”, is, and how you are going to reach them in the simplest terms. It is like being an artist–a painter–who puts that image in their mind on their canvas. I look at my writing the same way. I have to describe that image with words, and convey a meaning that when someone else looks at it, they can envision in their mind what I am talking about, and it all makes sense to them. I go with the thought that my audience does not understand what I am talking about, and I have to write it in the simplest terms. If I use a complex word that is not common in everyday speech, I would place my understanding of the meaning in the same paragraph, taking away that person’s claim of, “what do you mean by this word comment.” Criticisms that have been heaped upon me was that my “explanations” of a given incident was “too” long, or I was not listing “facts”, or I listed something that did not really pertain to the original problem, should not be included. Yet–many of my past literary arguments had retained much of their weight, because my clarity of the sequence of events that were dots that anyone can connect (absent my personal feelings). Never write “I think, or I feel”, unless your are allied to that issue, or problem. I like taking the position of the “third party”, because I am not allied to anyone–there is no loyalty. I describe what I read by my own understanding, and what I saw, and not what I felt, or what I had thought, unless I was asked for my opinion, or that is apart of my instructions. I prefer to leave my opponents, or potentials, guessing where my “loyalties” lie on a subject. Lack of declaration cause your foes to “show their hand” in advance. They must make an “assumption” to justify any argument they must make against you in a counter.

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