Monday, July 24, 2023

Why Read? Getting Students Engaged in Reading Across the Disciplines


Two years ago I was hired to teach dual enrollment classes at a high school. Since it's DE, and the same classes I've taught at NVCC for almost nine years (college composition) I didn't feel the need to drastically redesign my courses, but rather developed them more fully to account for the longer time I'd have with the high school students. I am a writing teacher, I teach writing. And while I gave reading assignments, I did not provide my students with any particular strategy to approach these assignments with.

Then this summer I attended the MLA Institute hosted at GMU, and one of the major focuses of the conference was reading, and how to approach reading in the composition classroom. I got really excited. I could see application for my DE classes, for my regular NVCC classes, and for my online GMU classes. And all this great reading, thinking, and planning I was doing happened to take place during this summer, while I'm taking Foundations of Secondary Education, a class required for the second masters I'm working on, a class that requires a major project to finish the semester with. A project I can pick the topic on.

Now, reading strategies are probably old news to regular high school English teachers, but for Composition teachers it's big news. And that got me thinking: Who else could use this information?

Students not doing the reading or not understanding the reading is an endemic problem, in high school and in college. In fact, a 2015 study showed that only 38% of high school seniors could read at a proficient level. These struggling students are in both high school and college, and their reading problem becomes all of our (teachers/professors) problem when it impairs these students' ability to learn course content.

There has been a big emphasis in recent years for writing across the curriculum, why not reading across the curriculum? It's a well-established fact, in both composition and creative writing, that reading helps improve writing. Clearly, if writing is important enough to include it in every course, reading instruction is as well.

Outside of elementary school, reading isn't a typical class subject for students, unless it's a remedial course in college. ELA classes in secondary education cover reading, but given the 38% proficient level of our high school seniors, clearly our ELA classes can't handle the burden alone. If we want students to read in our classes, really read and comprehend, we have to do something different.

So why don't students read?

Some of the things we do as teachers actively discourages students from doing the reading. Other factors, like lifestyle, can play a factor as well. Let's look at some of the common reasons students are reading and understanding less:

1. Google. As our lives become more and more digital, students are reading less in print and more online. And reading online is a very different experience. Typically when we read online we skim, we jump from webpage to webpage. We quickly look up the answer to a question, and then move on. All of these habits discourage deep, sustained reading of difficult or challenging texts.

2. Teacher's Lectures. Our students are smart. They know that if we cover the same material in our lectures and PowerPoints they can coast along without reading and still do well in class.

3. Quizzes. Okay, they don't actually discourage reading, but they promote a very specific kind of reading. When students know there will be a quiz, they read with that in mind, and look for "correct answers" in the reading. This is a very surface level approach, even though it leads to a good quiz grade. If we want our students to really engage with the text, we have to promote that kind of engagement. 

4. Those busy schedules. Students (both in high school and college) are busier than ever. School, sports, jobs, family, extracurriculars, the demands on their time and attention is never ending. Reading for school takes time and energy, especially a deep reading. Without the proper encouragement, students just won't commit the time.

5. Lack of cultural knowledge. This is more an impairment to comprehension. If students don't understand the context of a reading, background information, allusions, and shared knowledge that the author and the intended audience have. If we wish our students to engage with difficult sources, especially specialized primary and secondary sources, we have to fill in some of these gaps in their knowledge. 

6. Unfamiliar Vocabulary. Students won't keep reading if it's too difficult, and even though they google everything else they might not pause to google unfamiliar words. There's a few things that can help with this. Acknowledging that a text is difficult, so students don't feel dumb, can help. Going over vocabulary in class or providing a vocabulary guide can also be helpful.

7. Unfamiliar Genre. If we want to introduce a scholarly article to high school students or first year college students, we need to take the time to get them familiar with this genre. Most of them will have never encountered one before, and may not know how to approach it. This is true of many other genres as well. Going over the structure and genre expectations of an assigned reading can help alleviate a lot of confusion for students.

So we've addressed the challenges students face with unfamiliar readings, what are some approaches we can use to promote deep, mindful reading of texts and increase comprehension?

I have spent the last three weeks reading about every reading strategy I can come upon. I've read four books, three scholarly articles, and have interviewed three full time faculty members with Northern Virginia Community College who regularly use reading strategies in their college composition courses. I have compiled a list of reading strategies that will work in most if not all disciplines, and I am so excited to share them with you!

1. Use an Anticipation Guide. I really like this one, and there's lots of variations of it that you can do. Students are asked to respond to a series of questions and to make predictions prior to reading in order to activate prior knowledge and experiences, identify key points to look for in the reading, and use as a review after reading. Questions on an Anticipation guide can be fact or opinion based, with options "Agree," "Disagree," and "No Comment/Neutral." You can even add "Strongly Agree" and "Strongly Disagree." Provide space for students to explain the rationale behind their answer. This can lead into a four-square activity where the teacher reads each statement out loud and students stand in the corner or side of the room that coordinates with their answer. Then ask students about their answer. Now the stage has been set for introducing the reading.

2. Make it Problem Based. Showing students the real-world application of the material being learned will help students engage with a text on a whole new level. Create or find a problem (or problems) that can be solved using material from the reading. Let students work individually, and then in groups. When the groups come together and share the group solutions, then the class can vote on the most appropriate reading-based solution.

3. Experience-Text Relationship. First, during the Experience phase, ask questions about the students' background and prior knowledge of the topic. Then for the Text phase, have students read a particular passage or section of the reading. Resume the discussion by asking students to identify themes in the text, important points, or confusing areas that can be clarified. Finally, for the Relationship phase, ask questions that invite the students to draw connections between the themes and concepts from the texts and their own experience.

4. SQ3R. First you will want to explain the framework of the activity in the class and assign (or suggest) students use it on the readings for the homework. The following steps explain the process of the activity. This can also be done as an in class activity with the teacher guiding students through the different steps.

  1. Survey helps students gather the basic structure of the topic presented in the reading, including reading the title, headings, graphics, and any text called out such as definitions or objectives.
  2. Question  involves turning headings and other main ideas identified in the survey state into questions. Students should then seek answers to the questions as they read.
  3. In the Read stage, students read the text to capture the main ideas as identified in the survey and question stages. The goal is to write down the answers to the questions raised by filling in the main ideas without getting too bogged down by the details.
  4. Next, students Recite material, which assists with concentration and recall. Students look at each of the questions of a section and attempt to answer the questions (while covering up their notes).
  5. The Review step allows the students to consolidate learning and comprehension by reviewing each of the questions and answers.

Modeling the steps will help students to successfully use this process. The most challenging part for many students is coming up with good questions. Spending some time practicing coming up with questions for a reading in class may be helpful.

5. What Counts as Fact? This activity focuses on teaching students to think critically and analyze arguments. Provide two or more sources of information regarding a topic. This material may be assigned as preclass assignments, or time may be given in class for students to review. Individually or in groups, ask the students to identify the facts in each of the treatments provided on the topic. Ask them to consider what is considered proof, the different types of facts presented, and how well the facts provided support the conclusions of the source. Through the discussion, ask about the different types of evidence, what is most convincing, the choices the author must make, and how to support arguments and conclusions related to the topic under examination. This activity works best when students learn to find and use evidence from reading to support their solution to the presented problem. Students may initially struggle with how to do this work effectively. At the beginning of the activity, walk around and ask whether anyone has questions to help facilitate the group discussions. By presenting problems with a one-sided approach or a controversial solution, you can help seed the group discussions. Asking students to find evidence in support of a historical policy position that seems counter to current day standards can encourage students to seek out evidence. For example, in a US History course, you could ask students to seek evidence of why the states should have voted against the ratification of the Constitution. Depending on the nature of the topic, students may hold strong personal feelings about the problem or proposed solutions. As you guide the ending discussion, help students focus on the evidence from the reading to help maintain the class emphasis on ideas from the text.

6. Three-Level Reading Guide. The Three Level Reading Guide is designed to help students identify significant information in a reading, interpret the meaning of the text, and apply this information to related material. This process is achieved by having students think about the three levels of comprehension of a text: literal, interpretive, and applied. First explain each level of comprehension of a text. Individually or in groups, have students identify approximately eight facts or ideas that are literally in the text. Next, ask the students to note four or five ideas that are interpreted for what the author might mean. Have students then write down two to three ideas that combine with other course materials to make generalizations or hypotheses about the topic. Debrief with the class about what points they identified and lead a discussion of the topic based on the ideas from the text raised by the students.

7. Social Annotations. There are many ways social annotation can be used. One way I like to do it is with the online program Students can highlight and comment on the text, see what other students have commented, and react to those comments. One colleague I interview uses giant paper pads, tapes the article to be annotated to the sheet, and have groups work silenting highlighting and annotating the text. In the class I'm taking this summer, we have done social annotation using the large dry erase board in the classroom, and going from article to article leaving comments and reacting to other comments. It is a way to get students to go a little deeper in their readings.

8. Question Cloud. Assign a specific text you'd like students to work on. Have a brief whole class discussion about the text to see if students have questions about it. Then introduce the activity, the visual learning and inquiry mindset/research goals, and the materials required (paper, pen, provide colored pencils or pens if possible/desired). Read through (or watch) the text you'll be working with. Ask students to take notes by focusing on any questions that are raised by the text, and asking their own questions in no particular format while listening. On the whiteboard, start with the two central questions students identify and ask students to respond with questions connecting the ideas or diverging with questions related to their own experience. Demonstrate making a question cloud, and then have students use their notes to create their own while working in groups. Explain that they need to create a central question, draw a cloud around it, and then expand outward with related sub-questions based on the central question. The only rule is that you can only write questions. Students can get ideas from each other in conversation, can start with questions from the text or their own, and should have fun using colors to connect the ideas. Have students share their Question Clouds with the class, summarizing their main question and how they expanded outward in their thinking process. This can be used to scaffold into a larger project. Students can expand and/or use any of the questions in their Question Cloud to choose a research topic and to develop an open-ended Inquiry Question (with sub-questions) for their semester-long research project. Students can also begin a new Question Cloud if their classmates' brainstorming process sparked interest in a different research question.

9. Text Synthesis Venn Diagrams. Have students gather three sources they plan to use for a research paper. Give each student a blank three-circle Venn diagram (can be hard copy or a downloadable file online). Have students identify the areas of overlap in the three sources, and the material that is unique to each source. Then they can begin to fill in the Venn diagram. In the sections with no overlap, they will explain the central argument of the texts. In the sections where two articles overlap, they will explain how those two articles could be discussed together (or synthesized) based on common or contradictory arguments. In the center (where the three sections overlap), they will explain how all three articles could be synthesized. Perhaps practice completing one Venn diagram as a class before students set to work on their own, or demonstrate your own example before they begin. If time remains, ask students to share their diagrams/ideas with the class or in small groups.

10. Use a Monte Carlo quiz. Whereas conventional quizzes test for information, the Monte Carlo quiz asks students to apply to a reading a set of interpretative questions keyed to Bloom's taxonomy. These can be given either in pop quiz format or in a learning log format done outside of class. These questions focus more on meaning rather than information engage students in more deep thinking than traditional quiz questions.

        Instructors can adapt the following to any reading:

  1. Describe the thesis, the central idea, or set of ideas in the reading.
  2. Identify two concepts or principles in the reading and show how these concepts connect to each other or to the other readings in the course.
  3. Select a concept or principle in the reading, clearly define or describe it, and indicate how it  applies to you or someone else.
  4. Write a critical perspective on some aspect of the reading and cite evidence that prompts you to agree or disagree with the authors' perspective.
  5. Cite a specific passage in the reading that initiated for you an emotional response; then describe your emotional response and provide possible reasons for that response.

These questions promote deeper student engagement than conventional quizzes. There are also metacognitive benefits of applying the same set of questions to every reading encountered. Whereas a conventional quiz tests the recall of specific details of a reading, the Monte Carlo quiz questions promote a repeatable reading strategy that can be transferred across disciplines and genres.

11. "What It Does," "What It Says." A good way to teach students to discern the structure of a text is to have them write "what it does" and "what it says" statements for each paragraph. A "what it says" statement is a summary of the paragraph's content, the paragraph's state or implied topic sentence. A "what it does" statement describes the paragraph's purpose or function within the essay: for example, "provides evidence for the author's first main reason," "summarizes an opposing view," provides statistical data to support a point," or "uses an analogy to clarify the idea in the previous paragraph." Asking students to write out "what it does" and "what it says" statements for each paragraph in an assigned reading will ensure not only careful reading of the piece but also increased awareness of structure.

12. Help Students See That All Texts Are Trying to Change Their View of Something. This strategy helps students appreciate that texts aren't simply container of inert information, rather they are rhetorically purposeful messages aimed at effecting some change in the reader's view of the subject. If students become more aware that texts are trying to change their views (beliefs, values, behaviors) in some way, they can interrogate texts more actively, trying to decide what to accept and what to doubt. A useful exercise to reveal the persuasive intent of a text is to ask students to develop responses to the following questions:

            1. Before I read this text, the author assumed that I believed....

            2. After I finished reading this text, the author wanted me to believe...

            3. The author was/was not successful in changing my view. How so? Why or why not?

13. Summary/Response or Double-Entry Notebooks. A summary/response notebook is a slightly more structured version of a reading log. It requires students to make dialogic responses to a text: first to represent the text's argument to themselves in their own words and then to respond to it. Students are typically asked to write one page that restates, summarizes, outlines, visually represents, or is simply a page of notes. The next page is the student's own personal reflections on or reactions to the article. They can analyze it, illustrate in through their own experience, refute it, get mad at it, question it, believe it, doubt it, go beyond it. A double-entry notebook promotes the rhetorical thinking needed to write the summary pate and the metacognitive thinking needed to write the reflection/response page.

This project has been amazing to work on. I would like to acknowledge the help of my colleagues at Northern Virginia Community College who were so good as to let me interview them: Jolene Houston, Chris Kervina, and Indigo Erickson. I now have lots of new strategies to try out this school year as I continue teaching College Composition and World Lit. I'm excited to see how these strategies help my students develop as writers, readers, and critical thinkers. I'm honestly not sure which strategy I'm most excited to try. I really like the Monte Carlo quiz and What is Fact? How about you? Which strategy are you most excited to try? Please leave a comment and let me know.


(Note on Citations: Hanging indent option not available)

Adler-Kassner, L. & Estrem, H. (2005). Critical Thinking, Reading, and Writing: A View from the Field. In S. Harrington, K. Rhodes, R. O. Fischer, & R. Malenczyk, Outcomes Book: Debate and Consensus after the WPA Outcomes Statement. University Press of Colorado; Utah State University Press.

Bean, J. C., & Melzer, D. (2021). Engaging Ideas: The Professor's Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom. Jossey-Bass.

Ihara, R. & Principe, A. D. (2018). What We Mean When We Talk about Reading: Rethinking the Purposes and Contexts of College Reading. Across the Disciplines: A Journal of Language, Learning, and Academic Writing, Vol. 15(2), pp. 1-14.

Kervina, C. (2023, June 27) Making Reading Social: Social Annotation and Interactive Reading Strategies. MLA Institute, George Mason University, Fairfax, VA.

Major, C. H., Harris, M. S., & Zakrajsek, T. D. (2021). Teaching for Learning: 101 Intentionally Designed Educational Activities to Put Students on the Path to Success. Routledge.

Reznizki, M. & Coad, D. T. (Eds.). (2023). Dynamic Activities: For First-Year Composition. NCTE.

Smith, C. H. (2012). Interrogating Texts: From Deferent to Efferent and Aesthetic Reading Practices. Journal of Basic Writing, Vol. 31(1), pp. 59-79.

Sullivan, P., Tinberg, H., & Blau, S. (Eds.). (2017). Deep Reading: Teaching Reading in the Writing Classroom. NCTE.


I started this project with two goals: to find reading strategies that I can use in the classes I currently teach, which include online asynchronous, online synchronous, and in person, advanced composition, first year composition, and world lit, and includes a range of students from high school seniors to college seniors. I definitely achieved this goal, and have already begun using some of the strategies that I found in my summer classes. My second goal was to create something I could use in a Professional Development class I’ve been asked by my assistant principal to plan and run. I feel that I’ve accomplished this goal as well.

This project has been very interesting to me personally. I had no prior pedagogical training before I began teaching eight years ago, and I feel I’m still trying to make up for that lack. I am constantly seeking more knowledge and for opportunities to learn more and improve myself as a teacher. Since I primarily teach writing, I have never given much thought to how I use reading and how I teach reading until this summer. I am very grateful that this course has given me the opportunity to explore pedagogical practices around reading in depth, and to synthesize my learning through this project.

My online asynchronous class this summer is using social annotation, and I intend to introduce the says/does assignment as well. For the upcoming fall semester, I will be using social annotations. I will also be using says/does in college composition courses, and I plan to use Question Clouds in Eng 111 to start the semester. Will probably introduce it after the literary narrative assignment. I will also use the Synthesis Venn Diagram as a way to help ENG 111 students organize and understand their research better. I plan to use anticipation guides in World Lit, especially with the more complex stories we look at. I also like the Experience-Text-Relationship activity, and can see using it in all of my classes. I can also see using What Counts as Fact? in my 111 course right before teaching fact checking, or in my 112 course before introducing opinion pieces. I think the Three-Level Reading Guide could be used in all of my classes.

Reading is a small part of teaching, but at the same time it’s a thread that connects all content areas in the public school system. We read to learn, to understand, to teach. Being more mindful about the ways in which we assign readings is something that can help teachers in students in all disciplines. There’s a lot of talk about writing across the curriculum, I think it’s time that we also focus on reading across the curriculum. Something that I’ve noticed about all of these strategies is that they offer students scaffolding and a way into harder more complicated texts that without these strategies would be beyond the student’s comprehension.  From this project I will most certainly be more mindful in regards to how I assign students to read.

Sunday, July 19, 2020

The Comp/Intent Blogger Part Six: Rhetorical Community

We are training writers in our classrooms. We are teaching students how to engage in public discourse. Or are we just assigning essays?

This week’s reading on “Democracy’s Lot” by Candice Rai looked at some of the physical spaces where rhetoric happens. Her book focused on one neighborhood in Chicago where the dual struggles of gentrification and affordable housing are at odds with each other. While published in 2016, the topic of democratic debate in community spaces seems especially timely for 2020. In her conclusion, Rai muses: “As ancient rhetoricians attested, the best way to arm a citizenry against the pernicious use of rhetoric is to train people in the art of rhetoric.” This is our role in teaching our students composition, we are preparing them to enter into public rhetoric.

“Democracy’s Lot” focused on areas of debate in Uptown. The future use of a vacant lot, the subjects of murals in public spaces, and the presence of day labors looking for work across from a U-Haul location all led to engaged debates in this community. These are the types of debates our students will encounter in real life. On a large scale, these are the conversations happening all over the United States in 2020. The role of modern police departments, the usage of racist and stereotypical images on products and as mascots, the existence of statues and monuments honoring slave owners, confederate leaders, and those responsible for genocide are all topics in the public forum this year.

Rai writes:
“Given the complexity of rhetoric, discovering the available means of persuasion, as Aristotle defined rhetorical invention, calls for immersive methodologies and the inhabitation of the sites of rhetorical production where one might study the places of invention.”
In the current movements we are seeing, the “sites of rhetorical production” are the streets being physically occupied, the ongoing occupation of which has given a physical presence to the words of protests that have been shared for years. Black Lives Matter is not a new movement, the arguments over the mascot of the Washington football team are not new either. There have been protests for both of these movements over the years with little results. It took a cold-blooded murder caught on camera and literal riots to enact positive change in these areas.

Rai also writes that:
“Therefore, if one is interested in the power of language to do things, one might shift focus to understand the nature and qualities of the forcefulness and consequences of language as the primary object, of which “truth” of an argument need not factor into its power—or, at any rate, is but one concern among others.”
While this quote focuses on the power of language to accomplish things, the physical act of occupying space lends additional weight to the words being used. Rai makes note of this too in her discussion of “positive loitering” which was used to impact day laborers in Uptown. To send the message to the day laborers that they were no longer tolerated, the neighborhood CAPS organization used as many bodies as they could to send the message. Rai quotes one homeowner from Uptown as saying:
“We’re sending them the visual message [through positive loitering] that it is not just me…but it’s this group of people, it’s the police, it’s someone from the Alderman’s office occasionally, it’s U-Haul, it’s Public Storage, it’s the car dealership over there, it’s the hospital. Everybody is not ok with this and we are all standing here hanging out letting them know how many of us there are…It’s the whole community. And that’s been shocking to them because they assumed it is one or two people who just stared out their windows and called the police all day, and I think they were a little surprised by that.”
This is how the current Black Lives Matter movement is gaining so much traction. The murder of George Floyd was outrageous enough to provoke large-scale public outrage, enough outrage that it led to action in the form of people taking to the streets, enough people to make public entities realize that this movement is more than a passing fade or a few outraged individuals. And while many of the positive changes that have occurred so far may seem superficial (see ya Aunt Jemima) they are reflective of a large-scale shift in public opinions. The meaningful change of policing reform may still be a long ways off, but these smaller changes still matter and reflect larger changes to come.

I’m thinking also of the very public actions that many cities have taken to paint the words “Black Lives Matter” on the streets. While such an action is largely symbolic, it is still meaningful. Rai writes of murals and other symbolic statements:
“In this sense, icons, like topoi and rhetorical structures more generally, are such powerful tools in everyday democracies because while people can access them within their idiosyncratic and situated contexts of everyday life, they are also tools that transcend the details of those contexts, which means—among other things—that they can resonate broadly, forcefully, and flexibly across social space and political positions.”
Let’s end by reflecting again on the “power of language to do things.” Even in cities where the leaders prefer to paint the words “Black Lives Matter” before actually crafting policies and protections designed to save Black lives, will the words alone lead to a change of attitudes and beliefs of those who drive over the words daily? Are words here enough? (I mean, obviously not, but is it enough to start with?)

And how does all of this apply to the composition classroom? I think it’s important to craft assignments that lead students to a growing awareness of the community around them and the dialogues that are already taking places so that our students are better prepared to join in such dialogues.

This is my last “official” post as the Comp/Intent blogger. I will be posting reviews of each of the books I’ve read during this class to Goodreads. Hopefully as I continue to read on my own more posts in this series will follow. Thank you for reading along.

Monday, July 13, 2020

The Comp/Intent Blogger Part Five: Community-Based Composition

So…service learning…community literacy…bringing the classroom into the real world. Engaging students with community-based writing projects can show students the meaningful impact that writing can make. It can also show them real world applications for what they are learning in the classroom, taking the learning from theory to practice. But what does it mean to provide students with real world writing experiences?

In “Tactics of Hope” Paula Mathieu gives some great examples of what not to do in planning for community-based writing experiences. It is far too easy for professors and universities to establish relationships with outside organizations which only benefit the university. These are often shallow, short term relationships with no history or mutual goals. Mathieu even cites examples of students being sent to outside organization with no prior understanding being established. One of the many challenges of community-based writing projects is the academic calendar. Outside organizations do not operate on a semester-based system, and trying to fit a meaningful writing project into a semester is both challenging and somewhat artificial. Mathieu states that “Writers working in the public realm often need a long-term vision to get a sense of the impact of their work.” Often a commitment beyond a semester is needed to see progress with such programs.

Another challenge that is seen in community-based writing projects is that the university, and by extension the student, is seen as the expert and the community is seen as somehow deficient or in need of fixing. Such centering of the university is why “service learning” leaves such a bad taste in the mouths of organizations. Mathieu spends a great deal of time explaining that these organizations and the people in the community have their own expertise and knowledge that should also be centered and honored. She says:
“The value in all of this work is to create relationships that not only claim reciprocity in a general way, but create bodies of knowledge that undercut elitist notions that frame communities, especially in urban areas, as sites of problems that only academic experts can fix. Tactical projects prioritize and exchange of skills or ideas over ameliorating a problem.”
In other words, students are coming to partner and to learn versus to teach or fix. I can imagine how, in certain situations, some students could eagerly try to take on the role of the expert rather than as a partner or even as an assistant in such relationships. Such an action by a student would lead to failure, and the relationship would not produce what it might otherwise have accomplished.

This concern is elaborated on in another work, “Community Literacy and the Rhetoric of Public Engagement” by Linda Flower. She writes:
“Community members typically exist as participants in social projects, not as partners with expertise who must be respected as agents in their own right. So to the extent that such partnerships are diminished—and people from mainstream and elite circles become experts, leaders, directors, service providers, and tutors—the possibility of a community for inquiry with others, across difference, evaporates.”

What might students be striving to do instead of usurping the lead in such projects? Flowers writes that “The community literacy I am hoping to document is an intercultural dialogue with others on issues that they identify as sites of struggle.” Mathieu’s work reflects on the ideal working relationship as well. The term “tactical” is used throughout “Tactics of Hope.” Mathieu uses the phrase first coined by Michel de Certeau. Of tactics, Mathieu says that “Tactics are available when we do not control the space,” and that “Tactics seek rhetorically timely actions.” Combined these two brief descriptions leave one with a clear idea of action in an unfamiliar area. Mathieu further states that: “A tactical academic balances personal convictions with close connections and dialogue about the work he or she does, not to arrive at final answers but to build some useful projects that hopefully will do good work in the world.” This gives any community-based service project a very clear goal and a pragmatic focus.

This is an active, engaged form of rhetoric. Flower writes “If rhetoric and composition is to achieve the personal, public, and social significance to which the field lays claim, it must recover the practice of “doing” rhetoric in its wider civic and ethical sense.” She continues: “The rhetoric of making a difference demands more than critique from academics or conventionally acceptable prose from students; it required an audience-attuned rhetoric, capable of turning critical reflection and personal exploration into rhetorical action.”

What does such action look like? We often think of writing as a disengaged action, and we often teach writing to be separate and free of the personal. Strict academic writing tries to eliminate the personal altogether. But for community-based literacy projects to be effective, they must embrace the personal. Flower writes:
“But for disenfranchised groups, denying one’s identity as a working-class student, an inner-city African American, or a migrant laborer denies the reality of social difference, of power, and inequality—the very issues these groups want us to see as public concerns. When a discourse insists its members suspend, ignore, or neutralize the identities of women, workers, peoples of color, gays, and lesbians, it effectively removes those realities from deliberation.”

What does this mean for my writing classroom? I feel that while community-engaged learning can be an important addition to some composition classrooms, I feel it doesn’t really work with the time constraints that I work under as an adjunct professor. However, I still feel like I gain important and validating tactics from these readings. At the community college I teach at, as well as the university I teach at, my students are the disenfranchised public described by Flower. They are working students, first generation college students, immigrants, first generation American, they are multilingual students, they are a diverse mixture of students that I am privileged to teach. These two readings reaffirmed for me the importance of empowering students to write what matters to them, and to use their voices to promote positive change in their communities.

Sunday, July 5, 2020

The Comp/Intent Blogger Part Four: Teaching in the Time of Covid-19

The reading for class this week was about service learning, which is awesome, but the reading triggered other thoughts for me, so I’m going to save service learning for another post.

Upstairs my eleven-year-old is playing “Phantom of the Opera” loudly on the Alexa. She’s supposed to be unloading the dishwasher, but she’s playing with the two-year-old. I can hear their conversation from my desk. A few feet from me sits my oldest, age fourteen, who is practicing Spanish on an app on her phone. Behind a closed door my husband tries to work, the nine-year-old is with him playing on an old Nintendo 64 we dug out of storage for the pandemic. Somewhere there’s a six-year-old, who knows what she is doing.

In the introduction to “Composing (Media) = Composing (Embodiment)” Anne Frances Wysocki quotes the following from N. Katherine Hayles: “In contrast to the body, embodiment is contextual, enmeshed within the specifics of place, time, physiology, and culture, which together compose enactment.”

Once a student sent me a long email as I was getting ready for class. He was in a terrible car wreck, there were fire trucks and ambulances, the other driver was injured, he was waiting to give the police a statement. There was no way he’d make it to class. He named the intersection of the accident; it was right on my route to campus. I responded that I understood, of course, and told him to be safe. As I drove past the intersection five minutes later, there were no signs of an accident of any kind. I received another email from the student saying thank you, and that he was still waiting to give the police his statement. I didn’t feel angry, but it made me question every student sob story I received after that.

In our reading this week, “Tactics of Hope” by Paula Mathieu, she quotes another work, an article called “The Sites of Pedagogy.” This article argues that “pedagogical theory premised upon the classroom as a constant is no longer acceptable…We must learn how to adjust our pedagogy to account for the changing nature of the classroom.”
Later this month, I will learn what the fall will look like for my children. My oldest is starting high school, and really wants the whole high school experience. I don’t know what that will look like for her.

My fall is online. At one college I will be teaching asynchronously and will post video lectures and announcements to try to form some kind of connection. I will have phone conferences with students for ten minutes each twice during the semester during which I will quickly give a run down of how to improve their drafts. I will never see these students. For the other college, I will be teaching synchronously over Zoom, three classes back to back on Saturdays. I will smile big, maybe even put on lipstick and a nice shirt. I will wave goodbye emphatically. I will struggle to connect over video conferencing, to feel a connection. My husband will try to keep our five kids occupied and quiet.

In “Writing Bodies: Somatic Mind in Composition Studies” Kristie S. Fleckenstein says that “The need to control the degree of disruption in a physical writing scene evolves with the belief that an academic must shut out life, must separate the life of the work from the life lived, the body from the mind.” But such separations aren’t really possible now, are they? Any barriers students or teachers had erected between the “life of the work from the life lived” are gone during this pandemic.

During the spring semester, when everything moved online and I first tried teaching over Zoom, I had one student who would take his dog on a walk during class each week while using his phone to Zoom with us. I would watch his head bobbing with his strides and the sky above him as I tried to keep my train of thought delivering the lecture I usually gave in a classroom with white boards and physical space to pace in, to students sitting still paying attention.

Mathieu goes on in “Tactics of Hope” to say of “The Sites of Pedagogy” that “Pedagogy, they argue, must be attentive to individual “sites of pedagogy,” which they define as “the locations of pedagogical address,” the “spaces in which interactions between teacher and student occur”.”

There have been several articles about what the fall semester will look like, what different colleges are doing. Colleges and universities are special spaces, providing students and faculty alike with spaces to inhabit for teaching and learning. At my community college, there is a library reading room with windows overlooking the lake. At my university, most buildings have public work spaces. When I was attending community college, I lived with several loud roommates in an apartment. I used spaces like these on my college campus to study and prepare. Having that college space was invaluable for me as a student. Now as an adjunct professor, I still use such spaces for office hours, for grading, for meetings with students, for writing my nonfiction books. I love my home, it is loud and chaotic and wonderful, but it’s not the best work environment. And while I always do a certain amount of work from home, I still rely on my campus time for a bulk of my work.

Mathieu continues to quote from “The Sites of Pedagogy”: “While it may be obvious that pedagogical processes are affected by the setting in which they occur, we understand far too little about this relationship to be able to maximize its learning potential. Gaining a better understanding of the sites in which we teach and learn is critical to improving education.”

What will a return to college mean for students who will not have college spaces to occupy? Even with limited reopenings, campus spaces will not be what they are usually. The library will not be a space to linger, nap, socialize, work, it will be a space to quickly get in, get materials, and get out. The eating areas will likely stay closed, the tables will stay empty. The study nooks and work spaces will be unoccupied.

“In order to empathize with someone’s experience you must be willing to believe them as they see it and not how you imagine their experience to be.” -Brene Brown.

I normally get a certain number of emails from students in crisis each semester. My two colleges are unique: each has a large number of multilingual students, of first-generation students, of working students. I love working with these students, they remind me of my college experience: I was a first-generation working student. But these students face unique challenges. Since we moved online mid-March, I’ve had more panicky emails from students than usual. I’ve also had more students disappear than usual. I’ve reaching out, but received crickets in response. I had a student explain she can’t write at home because of domestic violence, I’ve heard of relatives dying, I’ve had several students become the sole breadwinner when family members lost jobs. I’ve had a student in health care share than she’s now working sixty hours a week, up from her usual twenty. I’ve taught online before, this is not online teaching. The space our classes occupy has fundamentally changed as all spaces have changed due to this pandemic. Even if I get a class on campus, I won’t use the space the same way, I won’t move in the same way.

Does the erosions of boundaries force us to pursue a more embodied way of teaching and learning? How do we adapt our pedagogy to this new space? I have so many questions about what we are doing, and how these readings connect to teaching and learning during this pandemic.

My goal in this blog is to bring the readers concrete advice for teaching. Here’s my advice for teaching during the pandemic:
1.      Believe your students. Even if you’ve been lied to by students before, believe them now. We all need more empathy.
2.      Forget the syllabus. Okay, no, not completely, but when it comes to all your carefully crafted policies and penalties, consider ways to be more flexible with those. Read through your policies carefully and consider reframing them. How can we help our students navigate this new space with all the demands that come with it?
3.      Just as you strive to care for your students, care for yourself. This fall will not represent your ideal work environment. The space you teach in will be far different for both you and for your students. Acknowledge that, and find ways to live with that.

Granted, some students will opt to put college on hold, but many will not feel like this is an option. College has become a critical step for beginning careers and building a future. This current situation is no one’s ideal. We owe it to our students to try to make navigating this new learning space more comfortable for them and for us.

Monday, June 29, 2020

The Comp/Intent Blogger Part Three: Rhetorical Empathy

This week’s assigned reading for my grad class really struck a chord with me. We read “Changing the Subject: A Theory of Rhetorical Empathy” by Lisa Blankenship. And seriously, don’t we need more empathy right now? As a world, as a country, couldn’t empathy take us far?

But that’s not the focus of this blog post. This blog post is focusing on where empathy can take our students and our teaching. What does empathy in the composition classroom look like?

Blankenship describes this as a form of Feminist rhetoric, and explains that “Feminist theory holds that the personal, the body, and difference are vital factors in decision-making and deliberation.”

Most of writing composition classes, especially for persuasive writing, are influenced by theories of Aristotle. Logos, or logic, becomes the main basis of argumentative writing. But logic and facts don’t actually persuade anyone, a reality that is expanded on in this excellent article:  The solutions offered at the end of this article are interesting, but they don’t use today’s magic word: empathy. But isn’t listening and showing understanding a form of empathy?

Logos is a great, fancy Greek term made famous by Aristotle. But there are other great fancy Greek terms. Like pathos. Pathos is an appeal to the emotions. Using empathy to appeal to emotions can be a more effective form of persuasion, or at least a most effective dialogue. And while Blankenship treats the idea of putting logos and pathos together like it’s a new concept, it’s actually something journalists have been doing for decades. How many times have you read a news article that starts with a human interest element, like “Due to pandemic, single mom Kelsey has been out of work, and now is facing eviction” then that’s followed by some nice hard logos with facts and figures on how many Americans are now facing eviction? By providing readers with this human element, we are creating empathy in our readers. People being evicted are no longer impersonal numbers, they are Kelsey the single mom. This is an impactful way to write, so why is it foreign to our composition classrooms?

Empathy also looks like forming connections with those one is trying to persuade. If you know your audience, then you should understand them enough to relate to them on some level. For example, as many of you know I’m a far left liberal, and I am vocally pro-choice. One of my dearest friends is firmly pro-life. I will never, ever persuade her to switch camps. But we have found common ground through sensitive and empathetic dialogue: we are both for better sex education in school and more easily available contraceptives. And if that isn’t a form of being pro-choice, I don’t know what is.

So what kind of assignments can we give students that incorporate both the personal and the logical in a way that creates persuasive empathy? The book offers the example of assigning a literacy narrative or a narrative about education, and then assigning students to write a persuasive piece about education that incorporates parts of the narrative essay. This meshing of two writing assignments does sound like a helpful assignment. As Blankenship describes, “The use of the personal in the form of stories disarms an audience through identification (“You’re like me on some level”) and so can help bridge gaps in understanding across marked social differences.”

I’ve actually been teaching writing that combines ethos and logos for several years now in one of my classes that I teach. An argumentative composition course, I teach several essays in this course that I love. On the first day of class, I have students list different identities that they hold. These can be anything from racial/ethnic identities to identities we take on ourselves, like pet owner and book lover. I make a list of identities that I hold on the board as an example. Then we brainstorm a list of cares/concerns that we hold based on these identities. Then I have students pick the one they are most interested in to focus on their writing for the semester. We talk about pathos and logos. We also discuss ethos, or authority, and Kairos, or timing. For the first paper they write an analysis of an argument or cultural item related to their chosen topic. How does it work? How does it fail? This paper relies on logos and ethos. For the second paper they write an op-ed style paper combining their personal experience with research. This is using logos, pathos, and ethos. By appealing to their reader’s emotions they are creating empathy. For this paper I also encourage students to consider the position of those they are trying to persuade. The audience for this paper should be those who disagree with their position, and they should consider how to best persuade or find middle ground with this audience. The third paper I assign in this class is a satire essay, which at this point students are expert enough in their topic to really pull off some amazing stuff in the satire essay. This paper focuses on reframing an argument in a way that forces the reader to consider the author’s position in a new light or from a new angle.

I would argue that teaching rhetorical empathy has positive implications for students beyond the classroom as it helps students to  become more aware and engaged in dialogues that concern them personally and as it helps them to become more empathetic and to actively seek common ground with those who view the world differently. To close with another quote from Blankenship, “Rhetorical empathy resists the echo chamber of contemporary, digital, and political culture and forces us to engage with the Other in the form of real people with real stories that, chances are, do not align with our own understanding of the world.”

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

The Comp/Intent Blogger Part Two: Bringing Mindfulness into the Classroom

This past week I started doing yoga. And I liked it. For those of you who know me well, you know I’m not really a fan of exercise. I attempt it as necessary; I know it’s important for one’s overall health, but I’ve never really enjoyed it. But I enjoy yoga.

As I was reading “Yoga Minds, Writing Bodies” by Christy I. Wenger for my Emergent Pedagogies class, I kept wondering about the claims of the author. Could yoga really help that much with writing? Which led me to trying it. And I’ve got to say, I do think yoga breaks during a writing day would lead to more productive writing. I don’t have a writing project for this summer, so I can’t experiment with that right now, but my yoga breaks from teaching and reading have led to increased energy and focus.

But the real argument being made for yoga and writing is yoga’s ability to ground one’s physical body. Writing is often looked at as a disembodied act, with the writer focusing solely on the mental energy used to create the words on the page. But writing is a full body exercise, with our physical location and positioning impacting the writing process. Now I do not see myself actually using yoga in my writing classes, but there are other tools in “Yoga Minds, Writing Bodies” that I can see myself adapting, as well as from this week’s reading, “Prolific Moment” by Alexandria Peary. Not all of these exercises are focused on embodiment, some are more focused on ways to be mindful in writing.

So before getting to the exercises, let’s talk a moment about mindfulness and mindlessness. Both have important roles in the writing process. From Wenger, we have this description of mindfulness:
“[W]hen we cultivate mindfulness of our thoughts and feelings, we can choose our behaviors and move beyond the habitual action-reaction cycle, which dictates how we tend to respond to situations. A re-theorization of the writing subject as a writing yogi, a contemplative writer skilled in embodied imagining, is needed in composition studies precisely because the dominant action-reaction chain that dictates how we approach students’ and teachers’ subjectivity is unresponsive to matter, and mindlessly so.”

And I love the idea of being this kind of mindful writer, but at the same time there is a time and a place for mindlessness. From Peary, there’s this description of the balance between mindfulness and mindlessness:
“Mindful composition looks for a combination of directed and undirected thinking, a healthy balance between mindfulness and what would be called an inspired mindlessness. With a mindfulness approach to writing, we strive for clear awareness of our mental actions, trying to avoid outcomes of undirected thinking such as preconceptions and outcome fixations.”
Mindlessness has several benefits. When we are mindlessly engaged in nonwriting activities, we can be inspired with ideas and solutions for our writing problems. Agatha Christie is quoted as saying “The best time for planning a book is while you’re doing the dishes.” That is precisely because the mindlessness of the task invites contemplation. Our minds are skilled at filling empty time, and working out solutions during down time. I think this is why yoga could lead to writing breakthroughs: your body is engaged in the yoga moves and in your breathing, your mind is invited into a state of meditative mindlessness. While you’re not concentrating on your writing project, your subconscious will still be at work. “Prolific Moment” talks about that moment right before you know what you’re going to write about, the moment of not knowing. What if we lean into that moment right before we discover an idea to write?

More importantly, how do we bring this embodied mindfulness into our classrooms? Here are some activities to try with your classes. I do recommend experimenting with these on your own first, so that you better understand what you’re asking students to do.
1.      Guided meditation. There’s a great guided meditation at the end of “Yoga Minds, Writing Bodies” that I hope to adapt for classroom use.
2.      Free writing session. These are relatively common, with the only rule being not to stop writing.
3.      Assign a narrative essay. I use a literacy narrative in one of the freshmen composition courses I teach. I tell students to focus this essay on a strong memory associated with writing, to explore/lean into their relationship with writing. A colleague from one of the colleges I teach at shared that she assigns a narrative essay that calls on students to consider what their future in their chosen field will look like.
4.      Disposable writing. This idea comes from “Prolific Moment.” The idea is to assign students to write something that they will later delete/shred. Personally, for me, this idea makes me cringe, but I can see how this could be a valuable exercise for someone who doesn’t like writing or who is intimidated by the idea of writing for an audience.
5.      Mindfulness breathing exercise. This is also from “Prolific Moment.” The idea here is to preform a simply breathing exercise. Students are to focus on their breath for a period of time, and when their thoughts wander they are to quickly record the wondering, and then get back to mindful breathing. The wanderings are recorded as “pas” for something in the past, “fut” for something in the future, or “eva” for an attempt to evaluate the current moment. No other notes are needed.

And of course, these can be mix and matched. A guided meditation can be followed by a free write session. Mindful breathing can come before or after some disposable writing. Basically these are tools to bring your students to a state of being more mindful in their writing.

Hope this has been helpful. I’ll be back next week sharing more ways to be intentional in your writing instruction.

Saturday, June 13, 2020

Comp/Intent Blogger Part One: An Intro to Embodied Writing

Hello friends! I know I haven’t blogged in…a long time…but I’m taking a graduate level course this summer, and for the next six weeks I will be blogging to share some of the things I’m learning in this course. And since many of you also teach composition, I hope these posts will be helpful for you and what you do in your classes. For those of you who don’t teach but are writers, I think you’ll find ideas and practices here that are helpful for you as well.

The course I’m taking is on emergent pedagogies, and is focusing on mindfulness and embodiment. The readings have made me think long and hard about ways to implement these ideas in my classroom, both my physical classroom when I get to teach on campus again, and my online classroom. How can we find ways to embody our writing processes virtually?

During week one, our readings focused on chapters from the book “Composing Media Composing Embodiment” with chapters written by a variety of people. One writer, Jay Dolmage, in his essay “Writing against the Normal” made the following observation:
“In composition and rhetoric we have, for too long, held onto classical generalizations that belittle the role of the body in thought and in the act of writing. And when the body has been invoked, it has been either as an impossible ideal, or as a baseline for discrimination. One solution is to seek to reconnect mind, body, and writing, and to do so focusing not on ideals, but on the body (and the text) as meaningfully messy and incomplete.”

So there’s the actual physical act of writing, the sitting down, the hands on the keyboard. I have a bad habit of sort of hunching over my key board, leading to neck and back pain if I work for too long, so I always force myself to start in a very upright typist pose…a pose that was emphasized in my high school typing class, a class that I failed…yes, I failed typing when the floppy disc containing all my work for the year mysteriously disappeared. I suspect the teacher, she was always annoyed when I finished first. So I start in this upright pose, my head facing straight ahead and my eyes peering down at the words as they appear on the screen, but then there’s always something that leads me to lean in. I think the more involved I am the more I lean towards the screen, the closer my body wants to be to the work, to the words…
There’s that as a form of embodied writing, this awareness of what we are doing with our bodies as we sit and write, but then there are the bodies themselves, and wrapped up in those bodies are our identities. Now speaking of identities is strictly coming from me for now, I’ve yet to read much to support this viewpoint. Some identities come from our bodies, for example I’m a white 37 year old cisgender woman with two mostly invisible disabilities. Some identities are a cross between what our body is and what we do: I am a mother, my body is marked from birthing five children, I continue to mother those children today. It’s both in my body and in my life. And aren’t the physical things we do with our bodies remembered and recorded, becoming part of our bodies? My fingers type quickly because my body has retained the knowledge of how to type. My fingers have typed countless stories and books, isn’t that knowledge also retained? When I call myself a writer, doesn’t that include my body? I would argue that we embody those identities that we take on as we act on those identities. And in fact, this view is supported by Christina V. Cedillo in her article “What Does It Mean to Move?: Race, Disability, and Critical Embodiment Pedagogy” from Composition Forum. She says “Bodies allow us to perceive and inhabit the world around us; they are sites where the social and corporeal dimensions of our lives coincide.” When it talks of the social and corporeal, I see that as the physicality of our bodies combining with our social world, the things we do with our bodies as we move through the world.

For you fellow writing teachers, I can almost hear you asking, “This is interesting, but…so what? Why should I worry about teaching embodied writing?” I hear you. In the book “Yoga Minds, Writing Bodies: Contemplative Writing Pedagogy” Christy I. Wenger presents a strong argument for embodied writing:
“[F]irst, when we acknowledge that writing always springs from our material placement, we add authority and transparency to our compositions, no matter how explicitly our content references our body; second, in this process, we necessarily move beyond the rules and structures of “conventional academic discourse;” and third, this movement engages us in a feminist endeavor that disturbs the ways patriarchal power is enforced by a malestream tendency to erase the writer’s materiality in order to create an illusion of objectivity. To write as a body…means disrupting the objectification and marginalization—in other words feminization—of bodies in the academe. No longer is distance from the body a prerequisite to truth; instead, proximity lends persuasiveness.”  
Acknowledging our bodies, bringing them into our writing, gives power to our words. It also fosters awareness and mindfulness in our students and ourselves, which I assume leads to better mental health and better writing practices.

I am still coming to terms with my disabilities. I was diagnosed as bipolar almost ten years ago, but this past year has been extremely challenging, and I’m finally beginning to recognize this as a disability. And about a year and a half ago, my eyes closed, leading to my diagnosis of blepharospasm. My body has very real limitations that impact how I interact with the world, and with my writing. In addition to bringing all of you useful tools for your writing and teaching, I hope to explore my relationship with my disabilities this summer.
This week we looked at what embodied writing is, and why it’s important for our writing and our students’ writings. Next week we will look at ways to bring this into our classrooms, and I’ll share with you my discovery of yoga.