The Craft of Teaching Writing

January 1 st 2004

I vividly remember my first day of college. I swaggered into the musty composition classroom, winked at the cute brunette that I had met at orientation, and traipsed to the filthy seat in the back row. I plopped down into my chair and kicked off my flip-flops. As I closed my eyes, I caught one last glimpse of my buddy Jake fiddling with the gum on the bottom of his desk. I awoke abruptly to the pitter-patter of feet scurrying out the door and the humdrum mantra reverberating from the stodgy proser at the front of the classroom: "Please sign your syllabus before you leave." I groggily shuffled to the cafeteria to campaign for freshman class senator.

Somewhere along my college journey, I became disenchanted with politics and enchanted with books. Now I serve students in a different capacity: I am an English teacher. And at the beginning of each semester, I pray that I do not resemble the dreary pill that stood before me my freshman year.

When I suffered through college, the prospect of writing filled my mind with images of a man setting himself on fire. So when I saunter into the classroom each semester, I know the task ahead of me—to change lives.

I teach basic writing. Students must fail a test in a miserable manner to even get into my class. Each class period, my students spend the first 45 minutes of class running their pens over sheets of paper. Then comes the mini-lecture. Finally, peer reviews comprise the last portion of class.

Within this classroom schedule, I have settled on three rules of thumb that have had proven results in my classes:

1. Make the Puritans look lazy, but be flexible. Practice makes perfect, so a writing class should be filled with, well, writing. Students need to write every day. For my classes that meet twice a week, this means I assign one in-class essay and one out-of-class essay for each period. Each period students bring a rough draft of the out-of-class essay, a revised copy of the previous period's in-class essay, and a second draft from the period before that one. This may seem like a lot of work for an 18-year old.

Granted, on the one hand, teachers need to be sensitive to students with special circumstances, such as those who have full-time jobs or children. However, with massive federal aid programs, most students have plenty of time to handle this kind of workload. Peer review cuts down on student errors, and grading on a portfolio system minimizes the number of papers that need grading. My students never know which papers I will grade, so they recognize that they must put out a valiant effort on each paper.

2. Keep my mouth shut; what I have to say is pretty boring. This may seem a bit peculiar, but keeping my mouth shut means my students will open their mouths. I employ a method that my colleagues call the "mini-workshop." This means I never lecture longer than 15 minutes and rarely reach 10 minutes. For these few minutes, I summarize basic rules of grammar that students should have perused in the readings assigned the previous class meeting.

Grammar rules were tedious when I went to school. They still are. If students are writing every day, they will see which grammar rules they consistently break and work on fixing those rather than wasting time listening to me repeat much of what they have already stored in their brains. If a student asks me about a certain grammar rule, I may tell the student where to find the answer, but I will never give the student the answer directly. Students easily forget information that can be attained so easily. If I force students to look up answers for themselves, they tend to try a little harder to memorize the solution.

3. Let them talk. They enjoy it. Any teacher at any level knows students like to talk. Peer review sessions let them do so. In a peer review session, three to five students read each other's papers and make comments. Students should be prepared to bring four copies of each essay, so their peers can write down their thoughts. This gives each student tangible opinions on their own work. If each group has at least one strong student, these sessions will be highly effective.

These rules of thumb seem pretty basic—perhaps even a bit silly. To be honest, when I first heard them, I strongly disliked them. How can a student learn grammar without ever being taught grammar? However, the results consistently surprise me. Time and again, my students pass state exit exams without taking a grammar test all semester. They easily pass the same exam that they had to fail to get into my class in the first place. Last semester, every single student of mine passed Florida's state exit exam. And in one class, three students received a perfect score.

With a little guidance, students will teach each other.

Topics: Journalism

Rick Capezza teaches literature and composition at The University of Louisiana, Monroe. He holds a Master of Arts, which concentrated on the metaphysical poetry, devotions, and sermons of John Donne. He is currently pursuing a Diploma in Anglican Studies and enjoys spending time with his wife, Rachel, and daughter, Kyrie Eleison.