Writing Centers, Research, and Junior High

I originally thought to write under the title: “Eulogy [or Obituary] for the Research Paper.” However, any paper that contains research could be labeled “research paper.” I never quite know what to do with that term. So, I went with that perhaps now cliched “three main thoughts” title.

In the chapter on Researched Writing, Rebecca Moore Howard and Sandra Jamieson make a compelling argument for the end of the traditional research paper, instead focusing on the process of writing the research paper. The idea of research is of vital importance for today’s information-flooded students, and it is one that I personally attach much significance to. Why? NDSU’s Center for Writers.

I only worked one semester at the Center for Writers–the fall semester before I student taught in the fall; however, working there that one semester led me to a firm resolution: the students walking out of my classroom (whatever level that was) would not be one of those students who had never had to do research before. I had been shocked at how many students (in 2007) came in because they had never written a research paper (or at least they claimed) and had never had to use MLA or APA in their high school careers.

Working at the Center for Writers helped me to have a vision for what my students might be struggling with and how I could better help them as writers. My one semester at the Center for Writers was beyond helpful in shaping my teaching philosophy, especially when it came to teaching research.

The next fall I found myself teaching juniors and junior highers. I saw research as one of the most important skills to teach.

The skills needed to do research well are vast. Rebecca Moore Howard and Sandra Jamieson put forth the “component research practices” as “finding, evaluating, reading, comprehending, synthesizing, and talking about (not just quoting from) complex, lengthy sources” (235).

It is not just about the skills, but about having the right research “mindset” as well. In my mind, research is about thinking critically. Also, thinking about it as a “mindset” rather than a set of fixed conventions is helpful because those conventions shift from discourse community to discourse community.

What is the “mindset” of research? Asking questions and knowing where to look for the answers.

Too often students get in the mindset of “what do I need to do on this paper to get an A?”

Use three secondary sources? Check.

Use MLA format? Check.

Have a thesis statement? Check.

And it quickly becomes not a parody but reality of what research can be.

I’ve always maintained that the process of using the correct research style guide is easy, but it is in the working with ideas that is hard. So why is there so much conversation about students not doing citations correctly? Is it because those are the “easy questions” to ask and answer?

Helping students understand the “why” of research and research conventions is an important piece. (There it is again: A return to that “meta” strand that keeps coming up throughout this course.)

The idea of the research paper being a dying practice first arrived upon my brain when I did the Northern Plains Writing Project Summer Institute. There I was introduced to the idea of the iSearch paper.

At first I did not like the idea, but when I tried it with my eighth graders the next school year I was sold.

There is this paralysis–this fear–of the term “research paper”, but not of an “iSearch paper”. The premise is students choose something that they really are interested in and want to learn more about; then they follow a guided writing process to help them think through it and eventually produce a synthesis (One version can be found here: http://www.readwritethink.org/professional-development/strategy-guides/promoting-student-directed-inquiry-30783.html)

The atmosphere of the class, since they were all really interested in the topics, was really positive and my students seemed to learn a lot about not only their topics but the process.

One other successful moment with research in the junior high classroom involved a tow rope.  (I use this same analogy in my 120 classes, but I do not have my tow rope any more…)

Before starting the tow rope activity, I would display a “kidnapped” sentence and tell them it was somewhere in the room. I would have purposefully scattered more books around the classroom so that they were not all crowded around the bookcase. Little by little I gave them more clues that someone would have written in a works cited entry. Eventually, someone found the book and then I would have to give them the page number.

We would then write a works cited for the book and the tow rope entered the scene. One student would come and hold the book at the end of the tow rope, and another student would come and hold the works cited entry in the middle of the tow rope.

Next I would have (for the sake of time) someone write a direct quote with a parenthetical citation. That person would hold the opposite side of the tow rope.  I would then have them move about the room, demonstrating that they were all connected.

Then I would have a “Writer” come up and talk through the process of how to cite a source

Then I would have a “Reader” come up and be interested in the information and want to find the book and talk through the process of finding the book.

Then we would talk more about research conventions.

It was my favorite day of all year.

One final thought:

I know that these conversations are happening within the context of what can composition classes in higher education accomplish; however, I am continually struck by the fact that I firmly believe that students should already be coming to college with these skills. I know that a lot depends on the quality of the teachers and schools from where these university students arrived from. But my seventh graders were able to understand and use MLA formatting with guidance (and a tow rope) and they were able to transfer it to my classroom the next year as eighth graders.

Question: If you were able to communicate one thing to secondary English teachers and it was guaranteed to change, what one thing would you communicate?

Question: What other metaphors/analogies/strategies do you use to help students understand the research process?

Time, Play, and Literacy

1.What’s in this title?

Three key words. Three words which means our first stop on this literacy journey is Richard Ohmann.

  1. Why is time so important?

Ohmann takes his reader on a journey back in time: “By coincidence–or maybe not–the term ‘literacy’ came into use roughly at the beginning of the epoch of monopoly capital. A word about the transformation I have in mind: in the mid- and late-nineteenth century, competitive capitalism ran its energetic course, building a huge industrial system with unparalleled speed.” (702)

This idea of speed and time surfaces again in Gifford Brooke’s “New Media” chapter in A Guide to Composition Pedagogies: “Making space in our classrooms for this kind of work [new media] requires us to negotiate among the different pace implied by our institutions and our technologies, and this can mean preparing our students to move with ease from ‘class time’ to ‘Internet time'” (182).

This idea of time is further expanded (or is exploded a better metaphorical term here?) by Anne Frances Wysocki and Johndan Johnson-Eilola in “Blinded by the Letter: Why are We Using Literacy as a Metaphor for Everything Else?”:

“Begin here, in a linear flow of text that suggests a flow of time, by imagining what                 literacy might be if we conceived it primarily as a spatial relation to information. Although literacy has long been bound up with spaces (consider the geopolitical stories in the bundles we discussed above/earlier, for example), literacy changes profoundly if we choose to prioritize space over time.” (731)

“In one way of looking, then, this is not just about privileging space over time, but  about time and space collapsing into each other…and if we can work as though times does not ration out what we can do, then we can work as though space doesn’t either: with new communication technologies, space, like information, can become less something we experience and more something we simply work with/in, making creative connections and reconnections.” (733)

“Making creative connections and reconnections” is perhaps how I have always tried to define writing. I like to write because I like to make connections, and I have heard myself tell many classes, “As a writer, your job is to connect the dots, whatever the dots may be.”

For me, writing has (mainly) been a fun challenge, an opportunity to play (with language, with ideas). And I think this foundation of play is why I, despite my complicated relationship with technology, am continually drawn to the field of Computers and Writing.

Last semester, I was in a group project where we presented on the field of Computers and Writing. The idea of play kept coming up over and over and over in the literature.  Thus, in the spirit of play, we decided to use Twitter as our presentation medium to reflect that play. (If you want to learn a little more about the field from some non-experts from last semester, check out the report by starting at #GradScholFieldReportCW)

  1. Who can play?

First, an excerpt from my Graduate Scholarship paper from last semester:

“In Play, Playfulness, Creativity, and Innovation, Patrick Bateson, an expert on the development of behavior, and Paul Martin, a behavioral biologist, maintain that play leads to creativity, which in turn can lead to innovation, although it is not necessarily a natural progression. Bateson and Martin explain, ‘Creativity is displayed when an individual develops a novel form of behaviour or a novel idea, regardless of its practical uptake and subsequent application. Innovation means implementing a novel form of behaviour or an idea in order to obtain a practical benefit which is then adopted by others’ (3).”

Second, “innovation” seems to be a ubiquitously popular buzzword lately, or at least in the education articles I am reading.  However, I cannot help but wonder who is allowed to play. Who gets to experiment in the classrooms? This question reminds me of Ann Johns article when she talks about experts in a discourse community pushing back and of Peter Elbow “Inviting the Mother Tongue” into the classroom and finding his students wrote adventurously (which I read as they played with norms, with conventions).

But again, I ask the question, who gets to play? Who gets to innovate? Who has that access?

  1. What does literacy mean?

Anne Frances Wysocki and Johndan Johnson-Eilola  ask their readers to think critically about literacy and all the “bundles.” In an early “bundle” from a small sampling of literacy promises, they noted: “It is thus a large but not unruly bundle that comes with ‘literacy’: John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, the taming of the U.S. west, democracy, an upgraded workforce, less welfare dependency, our forms of production and social organization, science, and philosophy” (720).

Literacy sounds like the answer to the world’s problems from that angle. But is literacy the answer to the world’s problems?  Doubtful. (Although most assuredly helpful in the process)

What is literacy even?

In a conversation in a teacher’s lounge halfway across the state a few years back, I remember having a conversation with my former colleague who had just been to a conference.

“What did you take away from the conference?” I asked.

“Today’s literacy,” she said, “is to be able to learn, unlearn, and to learn again.”

That sounds a little (or a lot) like play to me.

Bateson, Patrick and Paul Martin. Play, Playfulness, Creativity, and InnovationCambridge:   Cambridge UP, 2013. Print.

An Explosion of Ideas (and Titles)

Almost Titled: I Have a Complicated Relationship with New Media

Also Almost Titled: New Media and its Vibrant Verbs

Really Almost Titled: “Add technology and stir” (180)

However, I remain with my initial title: “An Explosion of Ideas”

Collin Gifford Brooke’s “New Media Pedagogy” chapter begins with a rationale of why one should even consider using new media in classroom, transitions to challenges faced, and ends with a look to the future.

After reading the chapter, I am reminded anew of my complicated relationship with new media. On one hand, I am enthralled with all the possibilities. Gifford Brooke uses (quite frequently) some of my favorite words: explore, experiment, investigate, energy, responsibility.

The tone of the writing makes me want to play around with possibilities, but it is that last word in my word list that really makes me pause: responsibility.

Gifford Brooke refers to Charles Moran in discussing responsibility: “It is our responsibility as writing teachers, he [Moran] says, to understand the scenes where our students write, the tools they will be using to write, and the often uneven attitudes (and access) that our students may have with respect to these technologies” (177).

Our students are on the writing “scene” already. Engaging students to activate their already existing knowledge and challenging them to go beyond what they know with new media is the task. Gifford Brooke acknowledges that this means a shift in teachers’ view of themselves: “Teachers must abandon the notion that all expertise must flow from the front of the classroom, particularly when it comes to technology” (182).

While this shift has been acknowledged before (the post-process idea of teacher as co-worker comes to mind), I believe that new media brings this shift into the classroom in a real and practical way. The shift allows room for students’ expertise and acknowledges their previous experience with writing.

However, the teacher must still create space for a reflective space as Gifford Brooke acknowledges. The teacher as a leader remains, even if one gives up more control with using new media.

Reflection is a key element to using new media, and this comes back to the responsibility piece as well. I have a complicated relationship with new media in the fact that I have a lot of privacy concerns (and image vs. reality concerns), but at the same time thoroughly enjoy how it can connect people who would otherwise not be connected. Too often, it is easy to use new media without reflecting on its full ramifications. Thus, entering it into the classroom requires a lot of reflection on both the part of the teacher and the students.

The exciting possibilities that new media brings can breathe life into classrooms, but one must be careful to not ““Add technology and stir” (180) as Gifford Brooke’s warns us.

The “add-and-stir” method is sometimes tempting, especially in the ever-changing world of new media where research cannot keep up. This is again an argument for reflective play and practice and responsibility.

And I am left with a set of responsible questions: What is the balance between responsibly meeting students where they are at and responsibly taking them to a different writing place? Where is the writing that they are going to be doing? What is my responsibility as a writing instructor?

Q1: Each of the readings for Thursday had some mention of time, specifically with how everything is speeding up. How do you see the speed of communication affecting writing? Affecting your classroom?

Q2: Gifford Brooke’s mentions new media as having formative assessment value (182). Do you use new media as a formative assessment? Or more summative? If so, how?

Q3: Do you use Zotero (as showcased on page 182)? It is pretty fantastic for organizing one’s academic library.

Choice in Collaborative Writing

Reading Krista Kennedy’s and Rebecca Moore Howard’s “Collaborative Writing, Print to Digital,” one word kept reverberating through my brain: choice.

Collaborative writing can be challenging to say the least. Teachers are faced with an overwhelming amount of choices in all stages of teaching: planning, teaching, and reflection towards revising. I appreciated that Kennedy and Moore Howard provided such thoughtful and practical strategies and options in this chapter, and they ended with a call for choice of methods and platforms as to not overwhelm the teacher with all the potentials available.

Once teachers assign collaborative writing, students are then faced with a myriad of choices: trying to come to an agreement of a product and often more importantly, the process to achieve said product.   This process looks different for each classroom, even if the class instructor has taught the same assignment before.

Teachers make choices; students make choices. However, sometimes students need more guidance with their choices. Thus, I even more so appreciated that they built in choice for students to have responsibility of not just the product but the process. A few examples I want to try in my classroom:

  1. Asking students to decide what type of groups to have while discussing the pros and cons of both (41)
  2. Allowing students the option to write a minority opinion (42-43)
  3. Including students in on the discussion of how the “shirker” (if one were to exist) would be fairly assessed (43)

Although some teachers might be afraid to allow students into the conversation of how to structure some classroom components, this does not give up control, but instead accomplishes a few important elements.

First, it allows the teacher to model the collaborative process in a respectful, productive manner. (Perhaps the teacher can be seen as a mentor allowing access to a discourse community a la Gee.) Second, it creates an environment in which students (hopefully) feel comfortable participating as they have noticed that their voice is a valid and slightly powerful one in the classroom.

Allowing students more control in the classroom is vital if teachers want collaborative writing assignments to succeed; however, one must never mistake allowing students more control and choice in the classroom with a lack of structure. In fact, this approach often requires much more structure on the teacher’s part, but the reward is that students should learn that all collaborative writing needs a semblance of structure or chaos could quite readily ensue.

Collaborative writing is risky, yet it is a reality of many workplaces as the authors point out in their first paragraph of the chapter (37). Thus the question becomes

To assign collaborative writing or not to assign collaborative writing?

That, dear addressed/invoked audience, is a choice.


  1. Kennedy and Moore Howard include some ideas for allowing dissensus. Any other ideas?
  2. What about students who are concerned about privacy when writing digitally? Or conversely, what about the lack of concern about privacy? Should discussions of privacy be inherent in a classroom that employs/requires public digital writing?

Responsibility and Respect in Audience/Reader Awareness

Two words stood out to me in Ede and Lunsford’s “Audience Addressed/Audience Invoked: The Role of Audience in Composition and Pedagogy”: responsibility and respect.

Early on the in their argument, the authors address ethical responsibilities and consequences, noting that to prioritize audience “in its extreme form becomes pandering to the crowd, tend[ing] to undervalue the responsibility a writer has to a subject” (82, emphasis mine).

The albeit brief (but I think quite necessary) discussion about the troublesome overemphasis on unethical audience promising in marketing (82) sets a tone for responsibility for the rest of the essay.

A writer needs to be aware of her audience; however, that awareness should not lead to irresponsibility with the subject at hand.

Additionally, I felt that Ede and Lunsford respectfully ended their essay with describing their “audience thought process” to their audience: “As we read and reread their [authors to whom they are responding] analyses and developed our responses to them, we felt a responsibility to try to understand their formulations as fully as possible, to play fair with their ideas, to make our own efforts continue to meet their high standards” (91, emphasis mine).

Reading as a writer and (perhaps more importantly) as a writer/teacher, I appreciated their documentation and analysis of their “audience thought process” in writing this essay. They “pulled back the curtain” to show how they applied their ideas directly to something that every one in their audience (Or readership? Readers? What would Ong say? Readers.) had read—unless, of course, a reader only skipped to the end: the very essay itself.

As a teacher, I give my students examples of different writing genres and often talk through them; however, perhaps this would be an excellent strategy to employ: a written (so students can revisit the comments unlike in class) analysis of the thought process that went into the writing.

However, this strategy only works if teachers are writing beside their students and are willing to actively “pull back the curtain” of their own writing process. This conjures up the idea of mentors as a way to access discourse communities a la Gee.

This can be a scary prospect, but specific and concrete examples of the thought process itself can be ever-so-enlightening for students. We are not simply teaching an end product, but a way of approaching situations that call for writing, situations that are ever-changing. One cannot respectfully and responsibly simply teach a model of a genre; one must model (as a mentor) sustainable strategies, and understanding the complexities of audience is one aspect of that process.

A question semi-unrelated to the previous content, but it intrigues me:

Both Ong and Ede and Lunsford use the metaphor of a recipe. While Ong observes, “Nashe gives a foretaste of other trial-and-error procedures by which recipes were to be developed for the reader of the narrative prose works we now call novels. Such recipes were being worked out in other languages, too […]” (68).

While Ede and Lunsford note, “One of the factors that makes writing so difficult, as we know, is that we have no recipes: each rhetorical situation is unique and thus requires the writer, catalyzed and guided by a strong sense of purpose, to reanalyze and reinvent solutions” (87).

Recipe seems to be used in Ong as genre conventions, while Ede and Lunsford are reacting against a set-form of writing. What benefits and limitations are there to using “recipe” as a metaphor that conjures up cooking?

Writing Classrooms: Adventurous Stories?

First. A memory, a story. Anytime from 4th to 12th grade.

Having gone through my mom’s and my bedtime ritual, I read for what seemed to be an appropriate time with my light that could be seen underneath the closed door. Then I turned off the light, grabbed the flashlight underneath my pillow, and relocated my reading underneath my covers, from whence the light that allowed the stories to come alive could not be seen through the crack in my bedroom door.

 A nighttime ritual of my own, not to be shared with anyone else but the characters in the stories and the wee hours of the night.

Second. A remembered connection from my reading log.

Over the winter break, I read the book How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where and Why It Happens, by a long-time science reporter Benedict Carey. The first chapter about brain science is entitled “The Story Maker: The Biology of Memory.” Carey called our brains not a computer, but a storyteller. He depicted our brains as directing the documentary of our lives, complete with a “left brain narrating system ‘the interpreter’” (19).

Third. A quick review of the elements of a story.

Setting, plot, characters, conflict, and theme.

 Fourth. Some ideas.

Conflict is what makes a story interesting, worth reading. If a story does not have conflict, the characters do not struggle, do not change, do not mature.

Both Villanueva and Elbow showcase conflict in their writings.

Villanueva is calling for discourse to reflect conflict, to reflect the conflicting identities–especially for people of color (576-577). And what best represents conflict but stories, narratives.

Ultimately, Villanueva argues for the addition of more pathos into academia because even though “[a]cadmic discourse is cognitively powerful” (571), it is limited in the fact that it cannot fully encapsulate the personal. Villanueva claims [t]he personal here does not negate the need for the academic, it complements, provides an essential element in the rhetorical triangle, an essential element in the intellect—cognition and affect (573).

Villanueva and Elbow can be connected through this power of story: recognizing that each student, each person brings a unique collection of settings, plot, characters, conflicts, and themes (and varieties of language) into the classroom. Elbow clearly values the individual differences his students bring into his writing classroom.

The important thing to remember about stories is that there are major and minor characters, settings, conflicts, themes, and plots.

For students who want to advance their own plot line via the university, the writing classroom becomes a minor (or major) necessary obstacle and the teacher a minor (or major) character to briefly enter into their story for a semester.

The teacher and the students then set out on a “chapter” together. This chapter can greatly aid the students in their next chapters, be somewhat neutral, or even (and tragically) set the students back.

However, perhaps one of the challenges of writing teachers is to show students that their story fits into a larger story or stories–and that their story, if they are adventurous enough, can change other people’s stories as well. It is not enough to simply know one’s own story, but to know the larger context within his or her story fits.

Elbow uses the word “adventuresome” to describe first year writing that does not conform to the typical “standard” (660) and again when hoping students will be more “adventuresome in finding audiences for their writing in nonprestige dialects” (663).

I cannot help but connect these “adventurous” writings to the idea of rule-breaking.

Rule-breaking is often inadvertently done by novices, which can result in beautiful, insightful, innovative creations. Johns, in discussing discourse communities, talks about rule-breaking after one has learned the conventions as a way to push-back. However, what about these often inadvertent rule-breakers who might stumble upon something truly innovative? Too often they are “corrected” without acknowledgment of what they tried being a valid attempt.

Do these inadvertent “rule-breakers” not deserve a safe place? Should we not seek to foster classrooms that follow Elbow’s main argument that the writing classroom be the “safer” place for using language? (643). What does this look like?

Within the framework of seeing all these stories within the classroom, conflict is placed at the center stage. This can be a good thing. When we can see and name our conflict, should we not be grateful? We can be grateful that something previously unseen is now seen and that this conflict can be a site of possibility for growth and maturity.

I became an English teacher in part because I was drawn in by those stories I smuggled into my nighttime routine; I have stayed a teacher because of the stories who enter my classroom. Students who are more complex than I ever will know and to whom I have an obligation, a responsibility to help navigate the complex narratives that the world tells. In order to help them navigate that, I must recognize the conflict that exists within my classroom (a challenging task) and attempt to learn from that “seen conflict” and make it a safe place—as Elbow argues it should be—so that they can, if they want, change not only their own narrative, but the larger narrative into which they enter.

This means I must continually adopt the role of a student in order to learn more about what conflicts are happening in my classroom and the world. I have much to learn. Yes, much to learn indeed.

Grammar, and Expectations, and Writing, Oh My!

In “Grammar, Grammars, and the Teaching of Grammar,” Hartwell introduces five different “grammars” and argues that the traditional formal grammar instruction, especially Grammar 4 “school grammar” (211), should be abandoned.

Traditional grammar instruction is not normally associated with joy. In fact, the word “grammar” often conjures up feelings of fear, hesitation, and a general sense of “we have to do this, so let’s get this over with.”  Not the ideal situation for encouraging students to become better writers, or even people who want to write at all.

The idea of grammar instruction in the English classroom is a deeply rooted idea. That is what students expect in English classrooms, that is what parents expect, often what administrators (depending on the level) expect, and even sometimes what other English teachers expect.

Writing teachers are faced with the difficult task of improving students as writers. The traditional thought is that having the vocabulary of language (i.e. grammar) will give students the vocabulary and awareness to discuss and improve their writing. However, many times grammar is not taught in context and the direct instruction does not help writing. If grammar (and it depends on which of the five grammars one is actually teaching) is to be taught, it must have a direct impact on the writer’s situation.

To become better writers, students need to be transparently shown the writing process from the writing expert in the room, the teacher. This could be seen as a master/apprentice relationship, a la James Paul Gee and “Literacy, Discourse, and Linguistics: Introduction.”

The “master” teaches the “apprentice” the vocabulary and tools of the trade. Sometimes this is explicit instruction including a shared vocabulary (which could include grammatical features) and often it is about observing the “master” at work. Gee acknowledges this: “Discourses are not mastered by overt instruction […], but by enculturation (“apprenticeship”) into social practices through scaffolded and supported interaction with people who have already mastered the Discourse (Cazden, 1988; Heath, 1983)” (7). Thus, writing teachers should be willing to show their own writing process in as “real time” as possible, and giving students access to what it takes to be a successful writer.

Current trends in the secondary world involve this idea of the teacher writing with the students, making the once opaque process transparent. In conjunction with teacher-as-writer, the idea of noticing writer’s craft in “mentor” texts is prevalent as well, which also harkens to the “master/apprentice” model. (See Penny Kittle, Kelly Gallagher)

If writing is something that can be taught (and I believe that it is), we as teachers have an obligation to tell students the truth about writing: it is not the nice, linear process that it is sometimes sold as. It is not a simple set of worksheets to be completed. It is, to use a technical term, messy. And we have to be willing to walk with them in order to lead them through that complicated and often risky process.


1. Hartwell cites Richard H. Haswell’s “Minimal Marking” in which he “notes that his students correct 61.1% of their errors when they are identified with a simple mark in the margin rather than by error type” (Hartwell 223).  Haswell’s minimal marking still leaves 38.9% of errors uncorrected. I am not a statistically-minded person, but does this not seem like a rather large gap? What strategies are in place for those 38.9%?

2. In order for students to write, they must first have something to say. Reading extensively not only helps students internalize grammar, but it helps them have a rich background knowledge, providing them with content. What role should reading have in the composition classroom?

3. What role should Grammar 3, or “linguistic etiquette” (210), play in the writing classroom?