Help a novice English professor effectively teach essay writing and analysis!
January 15, 2011 3:40 PM   Subscribe

Looking for group exercises, videos, exciting material to teach easily-distracted college students the building blocks of essay-writing and analysis.

Dear Experienced Professors of MetaFilter:

I’m a novice English professor at a community college, teaching essay writing and literary analysis, and another class focusing on technical writing for engineers. At the end of my essay-writing class, my students should be able to write a cohesive, classic five-paragraph essay. Most of the writing is done in class.

I finished grad school this past May and just completed my first week of teaching in my first semester. I’ve taught graduate-level actors analysis of plays and a certain amount of history, and had short teaching projects in both grad school and undergrad, but these always involved my peers: highly-motivated Ivy League students. My students at the college (avg. 30 per class) are great kids (well, not “kids” – several are older than me, and the diversity of experience is just breathtaking) but, as this is a required course, many of them are not necessarily that interested in the subject material. A survey of students revealed that the only writing most of them do regularly is text messaging. Many of them are ESL (there are 80 different first languages spoken at my college).

Most of them can express themselves perfectly well verbally, but writing (which is most of the final grade) is another story; the diagnostic paragraphs I have been reading are filled with really basic errors. We attempt to place the students having the most trouble with English in another stream (through Accuplacer and then diagnostics), but the college doesn’t like to do so for students who are native to the country or permanent residents, and if students show up past the first week we can’t move them into another class.

How do I teach these students in a way that addresses both analysis of form and subject, but also covers grammar and structure in a basic and meaningful way? How do I maintain interest? I have a textbook that I am required to use, and all the readings essentially need to come out of it; I can’t ask them to purchase anything else, nor would I want to strain their budgets. I’m looking for short exercises, particularly group exercises, videos, handouts about essay components, relevant websites; anything to break up the three-hour class and keep my students engaged. (I've searched a bunch of previous questions and found a few great points already, but if you think there's a question I've missed, please point me to it!)

The survey also revealed an interest in mystery, suspense, and romance novels; is there anything connecting this to essay writing I can use? (I’m thinking about how a mystery writer’s detective introduces their suspects, details motive and circumstance [body paragraphs] and then draws a conclusion.) This week, we took a look at two sample student finals (one good, one failing) and talked about them (first in groups) in terms of what the department, and any reader, is looking for in terms of clarity, structure, and content. Is there any way to use my theatre background while sticking to the textbook’s essays?

Is there a book experienced teachers might recommend? I just picked up Pollard and Hess’ "Zero Prep," Mackenzie’s “Essay Writing,” and Reardon and Derner’s “Strategies for Great Teaching,” but haven’t gone through them yet. Bonus: any strategies for combating nervousness? I’m 26, hearing 140 students call me “Professor,” and it’s a little terrifying.

I don’t want to condescend or pander to my students; I’m impressed by their experience and successes, particularly those who are studying in their second or third language. I want everyone to succeed in my class; I’m just on surer footing teaching seriously academic analysis rather than the building blocks of writing.

Thank you AskMe!
posted by ilana to Education (2 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
They Say, I Say

Super practical. I also use Kerry Walk's "How to Write a Comparative Analysis" (available online) to introduce the basics of non-pointless compare & contrast and the more academically useful lens analysis.

These are simple, practical things that will make them better writers.

You can use these techniques with virtually any textbook or reading material.

MeMail if you want more specific advice or are curious what I do with this stuff.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 5:13 PM on January 15, 2011

I only ever taught high school, but no doubt your students are my former students figuratively speaking.

The best way I have found to make non-academically detail-oriented people start to care about their writing is by 1) grounding the writing task in some authentic form that they see as important and meaningful 2) make the writing public (audience is not just the teacher? Other people are going to be able to read my writing! Ack! Time to bring my game!). Also, if you can, rope in some professionals in fields that interest your students to talk about what kinds of writing tasks working in this field requires, and what they look for in prospective hires. This puts grammar, mechanics, and analysis on a practical footing--they learn that caring about which form of there/their/they're and other very basic errors that seem to riddle written language these days are as important to their career prospects as their computer classes.

So how to do this? It sounds like since they text message a lot, they may be going online. Do you have access to a computer lab at your college? Start a class blog, and have all major assignments live online where they can comment on each other's work. Take baby steps into analysis. Instead of starting with literature, start with a Yelp review. They're probably much more familiar and comfortable with this form and genre, which means they can focus their brainpower on making sure that they've got healthy analysis happening. Then once they've gotten healthy paragraph writing down, move into the essay.

For really, really remedial paragraph writing work, I recommend checking out Jane Schaffer. It's really formulaic and basic, but it's a place to start for your most low-skilled students.

Good luck! English teaching...oh man, there's nothing like it.

Please forgive any errors; I'm getting over a bout of food poisoning
posted by smirkette at 6:12 PM on January 15, 2011

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