September 19, 2014

Connected Courses - Week 1, Make 1: Why? Writing!

The "why" of my courses is really about WRITING. I teach two courses — Mythology & Folklore and Indian Epics — and at the heart of both courses is something called a Storybook, a semester-long student project in which students choose a topic, read and research traditional stories related to that topic, and then retell those traditional stories in their own way. I've been teaching these courses for over ten years, and there are lots of student Storybooks here in the archive: eStorybook Central. The best way I can think of to learn about the students and their writing is to browse through those past Storybooks!

Aren't they fabulous? The reason why I switched from the traditional analytical or expository paper to this type of project is that it brings out an amazing creativity in the students. Semester after semester, year after year, each student is doing something that is truly new, something that only that student could do, with everyone's individuality contributing to the experience of the class.

As a result, I absolutely love teaching these classes because of the Storybooks: the projects are an endless source of ideas and inspiration, and I remember the projects for years and years, long after the class is over. When I taught with traditional paper-writing assignments, sometimes I could barely remember a paper even just a few minutes after reading it... and I am sure those papers were just as unmemorable for the students, too.

Every semester, we spend the first few weeks brainstorming topics, styles, learning about websites... and then, after five weeks, it all starts to come together: the Storybooks are HAPPENING right now! You can see the class lists here  — Mythology & Folklore Storybooks and Indian Epics Storybooks — and this weekend I will be adding more and more websites to those lists!

To explain how the students will be changed by this experience, I am pleased to say that the Storybooks from my classes were chosen as "Meaningful Writing Experiences" by the students at my school. Finding out about that is the proudest moment of my whole life as a teacher! The Director of our Writing Center, Michele Eodice, is participating in a multi-campus student about "Meaningful Writing Experiences" in which graduating seniors filled out an open-ended survey about the most meaningful writing experience they had in college. The Storybooks from these classes were nominated by multiple students at my school! Given that I teach Gen. Ed. courses which are not really even supposed to be writing courses at all, with students who don't necessarily see themselves as writers at all, I was thrilled that the students valued the writing experience of the Storybook that way. You can read more about the Meaningful Writing Project here, and I am really looking forward to reading more about the results of their work, both the student surveys, along with the interviews they conducted with students and writing teachers based on those surveys: The Meaningful Writing Project.

When I think about my goal for the Storybooks, it really is very simple: I want the students to BE WRITERS. This wonderful graphic (which I found via Larry Ferlazzo) explains the distinction very clearly: it's not about assigning writing or even teaching writing... but about teaching writers!

I should note here that I never intended to teach writing courses. These are Gen. Ed. courses which are normally supposed to consist of lots of content with exams over that content; it was entirely my own choice to turn them into writing classes . . . but now I cannot imagine teaching the classes in any other way.

What happened was very simple: my first semester of college teaching was a disaster. I assumed (wrongly) that all I had to do was assign the usual sort of analytical paper topic, students would then write the usual sort of analytical papers, I would grade them, and so on ad infinitum. What I discovered, however, is that my students really had trouble writing. And the biggest trouble of all was that there were clearly bored out of their minds by their own writing! And I was bored too. Eeeek!

In a sense, I feel really lucky that it was so immediately obvious to me that traditional paper-writing was not going to work, and I also feel very lucky that my decision to switch to semester-long creative Storybooks worked wonderfully the first time I tried it. The students were delighted, and I was too: we had such a good time! In the ten+ years that I've been using the Storybook approach, I've tinkered with the assignment in all kinds of ways but the core idea is still the same: students choose their topic and style, write creatively, and share their work with others so that the entire semester can be something like a writing workshop, so that we are sharing ideas and inspiration all semester long!

And, back to the question in this make assignment: the digital sharing and networking is essential to the success of the project! At the beginning of the semester, the new students browse through the old projects to get inspired, and the archive of past projects is the single most valuable asset in the course. Then, as the semester goes on, they build their websites page by page, sharing them with the other students and getting feedback every week. The website presentation also allows students to work with both text and images, expanding their range of expressiveness far beyond the confines of a traditional 8 1/2 x 11 double-spaced paper product.

And speaking of expressiveness beyond the confines of a traditional paper, here is a LatinLOLCat. I've animated the cat so that she is bilingual now. :-)

Why writing? Because a zeal for writing grows by writing!

Crescit scribendo scribendi studium.
A zeal for writing grows by writing.

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