before during after

I tried something different in my summer intercession writing-intensive seminar this May-June. In the past, I’ve assigned pre-class reading analysis/responses (sometimes graded, sometimes not). When I started at SFU, before there were such things as writing-intensive courses, asking students to write every week (let alone more than once per week) was relatively unusual. Since then, it’s become a fairly standard practice. And with standardization has come student exhaustion.

And I have grown weary, too.

So in this six-week seminar (two meetings of fours hours each per week) I decided to try something new. New to me, anyway. Instead of having students write a whole page or two in preparation for seminar, I asked them to prepare brief “Talking Points” in response to prompts I gave them each week. These assignments were typically divided into two parts: one that asked students to identify passages from assigned texts that corresponded to a particular question or issue, and another that asked them to formulate a question for discussion with specific reference to the readings. Students turned these in  via Canvas about an hour before seminar so I had a chance to look them over. Then we spent the first hour of seminar each week discussing what they had come up with. Given the fact that we had eight hours to work with each week, this bit of structure was very helpful.

In our seminar sessions during the week, I asked students to do another type of brief assignment, something I called a “WriteNOW”. They wrote during class time, by hand (unless this posed a specific problem for students that they could tell me about privately) and submitted this to me once it was completed. Like Talking Points, WriteNOWs were assessed on a satisfactory/not satisfactory basis. If a student was sick or had an emergency of some kind, they weren’t penalized and could make these up at a later point if this made sense. Otherwise “complete” typically meant “satisfactory”.

So having prepped for the week by reading, picking out key passages, and formulating questions in advance, students had a chance to respond to additional materials (images, brief primary texts, films, etc.) during class time. They also had plenty of opportunity to discuss various materials and issues in smaller and large groups during the week. And then, once our seminar meetings were through, they had a chance to think back on what they’d learned during the week. A graded short reflection, a set of “Afterthoughts” was due a day or two after our last seminar meeting of the week.

Afterthoughts often asked students to revisit other writing they had done earlier in a given week, or to reach back further to previous weeks in the course. And they often asked students to build on (even use bits of) the writing they had done before in and outside of class time. I graded and provided feedback on these mini-essays each week (350-500 words). Students also had a chance to comment on each other’s Afterthoughts online before the beginning of the next week.

None of the individual components of this “system” for pulling reading into writing into discussion and back into writing were all that different from other things I’d done in the past. But something felt different. Giving students an adjusted routine for their writing (including a chance to formulate thoughts after class), a clear set of guidelines and a set of prompts to shape things a bit, along with some slightly different names for these “new” assignments all meant that everyone (including me) felt we were doing something a little unusual while we were still reading and writing and talking to one another, as always. Something about this flow felt more organic to my students, and to me as the person reading things and grading things each week. I don’t know exactly why it all worked as well as it seemed to, but it did. I’m going to try it again next term. Hopefully I can use this set of assignments for a little while before it all starts to seem like old hat and I need to change things up again…