Issues to address:
- Effectively creating two types of writing assignments: weekly responses and a longer research project.
- Expressing specific expectations while affording students the freedom to foster their creativity.
- Inviting more depth of thought, more analysis, and more critical thinking.
- Making writing seem less like an exercise and more an exploration of their thoughts on a topic.
You have assigned students weekly writing assignments. This is a good idea for a couple of reasons. First, writing, like every other activity, requires practice. The more we write, the better writers we become. The weekly responses allow students to practice writing without the pressure of writing a term paper or an essay that accounts for a large percentage of their grade. Also, I noticed in my classroom observation that these assignments helped to catalyze class discussion. The assignments pushed students to complete the reading before class, enabled them to reflect on the reading, and provided them an opportunity for articulating these reflections. For all of these reasons, the short responses are an important assignment.
For your purposes, you wanted to avoid a general prompt on these short assignments, opting instead for a specific question for students to answer. This type of response carries with it the risk that students will assume that you are looking for a particular answer. Based upon my observations, I don’t think you are looking for a specific answer. One way of moving student perceptions away from the notion of a single “correct” response would be to allow students to grade each other’s responses.
You could take ten minutes at the beginning of the class, have students break off into pairs, collect the responses of each pair and trade them with another pair. (For example, you could collect pair A’s responses and pair B’s responses, give pair A’s responses to pair C to grade, give B’s to pair D, C’s to pair E, etc.) This would allow students to read their classmates’ work and recognize the diversity of responses to the assigned question. The focus would move from what you’re looking for to what they’re thinking. This would be a benefit. These grading sessions would also warm students up to class discussions.
Again, however you approach these assignments, they are important. I encourage you to continue pursuing them.
Your goal in the essay was to inspire students to take genuinely creative approaches to the topics at hand while still writing argumentative essays. This is a difficult concept to balance. On the one hand, you want them to feel that they are writing without boundaries. On the other hand, you want them to develop logical arguments. In your first attempt, you gave them a very general, one-sentence prompt. You were unhappy with the results. So our challenge became creating a specific prompt that still left room open for creativity. We developed a six-week plan for students to write research papers. The plan would guide them through the process of generating research questions, collecting sources, evaluating sources, developing a thesis, writing the essay, and revising the essay. The six-week plan is at the end of this report as Appendix A.
Further, it may be helpful for students to understand that, regardless how creative their essays are, at some point, they should articulate specifically what they are trying to prove and why their point is important. This articulation typically comes in the form of one sentence. We refer to this as a thesis statement. The statement does not necessarily have to be at the end of the first paragraph, as it typically is in research essays. Students may chose to structure their essays in a variety of ways. Still, the statement should exist somewhere in the essay. It would be helpful to define this statement for students. I have included a series of explanations of what a thesis is intended to do at the end of this report as Appendix B.
You’re doing important work with this class. I learned a lot from my classroom observations. Your teaching style invites students to think both creatively and critically, and this led to some compelling discussions. I think the real challenge lies in fostering a means by which the students can use their insights from class discussions to articulate more complicated and critical thoughts in essays. You seem to be well on your way to doing this.
Appendix A: Six Week Writing Schedule for Science and Conscience:
- Form groups surrounded around one issue.
- In groups, work on research questions:
- What answers do you want about the topic?
- Why is the topic important?
- What types of sources do you need (academic, popular media, etc.)?
- Where will you find these sources?
- How will you approach your research (what will you do and when)?
- Bring sources to class.
- In groups, work on evaluating the sources:
- Where do they come from?
- How reliable is this source?
- What information does this source fail to provide?
- What additional information do you need to seek?
- Continue to bring sources to class.
- In groups, think critically about these sources:
- What is the tone (similar to the tone of voice, but something you can read based upon the language rather than something you hear) of the sources?
- How does this tone impact your reading of the source?
- What statistics are cited? How reliable are they? What other interpretations can be given for them?
- What is being left out of the source?
- Begin writing.
- In groups, outline your essays:
- In one sentence, explain what you seek to prove in the essay and why it is important to prove this.
- What information will you need to present first?
- How will your argument be structured?
- Which sources will you use and which sources will you disregard?
- Workshop your essays.
- In groups, read each other’s essays and answer the following questions:
- Does the introduction capture my attention? Does it outline clearly what I can expect from the essay?
- Is the thesis clear and relevant?
- Is the argument of the essay developed logically?
- Is the conclusion justified?
Hand in your revised essay.
Appendix B: Thesis Statements
A thesis statement:
- tells the reader how you will interpret the significance of the subject matter under discussion,
- tells the reader what to expect from the rest of the paper,
- interprets a question or subject, does not summarize the subject itself, (for example, the subject, or topic, of an essay might be Moby Dick; a thesis must then offer a way to understand the novel),
- makes a claim that others might dispute,
- and is usually a single sentence somewhere in your first paragraph that presents your argument to the reader.
Strong thesis statements:
- A strong thesis takes some sort of stand.
- A strong thesis justifies discussion.
- A strong thesis expresses one main idea.
- A strong thesis statement is specific.