Translating Composition Writing Activities into the Literature Classroom

Like many with a literature background, I started teaching in the composition classroom. Also, like many in such a position, I am well aware of the debates that surround such issues. Who is qualified to teach writing and what gives them those qualifications? I am not going to wade deep into these decades old discussions here, but I will say that I knew very little about composition before I started to teach it. However, I am very lucky that I have gotten the opportunity to learn a fair amount about teaching writing and that I also really enjoy it. One of the things that I like about teaching writing is how many available resources there are about the subject. Our Rhet./Comp. friends talk about writing at an astounding rate, and I have learned so much from not only reading books and journals but also from quick Google searches.

One thing that I haven’t done as much as I would like is to translate what I do in my writing classrooms into the literature classroom. This is not to say that my literature students don’t write; they write often, but not always with the goal of focusing on both the content of literature and their writing skills. I usually have my students write directly about the texts we read in class. These writings often take the form of Blackboard posts or response papers. The goal of the posts is to make sure that the students are keeping up with their reading, and they are also great ways for students to develop their critical thinking skills. Any work with writing implicitly develops writing, but I want to make a focus on writing practice a more explicit theme in my literature classrooms. I am working on developing smaller writing assignments that will encourage students to both work with our texts and think purposefully about their writing.

Here are some writing exercises that I have been thinking of implementing into the literature classroom:

Focused Freewriting: When my composition students are working on an assignment, I often have them do focused freewriting in class on either the topic of their assignment or one particular section of it. For example, they might write for five minutes about the research question they are developing for their final paper, or they might write about ways to improve the introduction to a paper. I’ve done something similar in literature classes, but usually in an impromptu way—when discussion stalls or we hit on a particular idea that I want my students to focus on. I have been considering using a period of every class for my literature students to write in a more structured way. For a focused freewriting exercise, I will give my students a question or keyword based on the text we read in class that day and have them write for a period of five or ten minutes on the question. This will help them generate ideas for class discussion. I will need to think about how to transition from the writing section into a discussion—beyond asking them about what ideas they came to while they wrote. In some classes, just asking will be enough to get the students talking but other classes will need more prompting. If discussion lags, I might ask them to circle one thing that they wrote about that would generate a good discussion and then ask them periodically during class to say what they circled.

Group Writing Exercises: I use group writing in composition in a variety of ways. Sometimes students write responses to other students’ thesis statements or ask questions about others’ research questions. I also have had students write descriptions of objects in the classroom in groups or cut and paste portions of their writing on the same topic together to work on transitions. In the literature classroom, I think similar group writing would work well. One idea that I have is to split my students into groups that they will be in for the entire semester. Each group will be responsible for one theme that they will focus on in the texts throughout the semester. For example, one group will focus on the idea of “voyages” in the texts we are reading. The students will meet at the end of the week in class to discuss how their term showed up in the readings for the week. Once a month the group will write an in-class response about their theme and then at the end of the semester they will write an in-class group paper about their theme. There is always a lot to consider when asking students to work in groups, and I’m not sure how I will assess these projects or how I will ask the students to construct their assignments. It might be useful to have assigned group positions, such as recorder or facilitator, and then rotate those positions throughout the semester so they burden of work would not fall on one or two members of the group. It would take some extra planning to coordinate the group activities and make sure that the groups were useful to the students but having students focus on ideas in specific themes they could carry out throughout the course would be valuable to their individual learning processes and our course community.

Reflections: Finally, perhaps one of my favorite parts of writing classes is having students write reflections. My composition students usually write reflections over the course of the semester several times and then write one final reflection at the end of the semester. I think reflections are one of the most useful tools for getting students to think about their own learning process and take accountability for their writing. I have never used reflections in literature, but I think they will work just as well. Students can reflect on their own learning process in terms of what they are absorbing about the content of the course and also how they are responding to the texts. It might also be worth while to chart their process of reading: Did reading the texts get easier over the course of the semester? What style of texts did they respond to the most? What texts were intimidating? What authors would they like to read more by?

The kinks that I haven’t quite figured out in these current ideas are connected to assessment and organization. In composition, I usually give a point or two for having completed the in-class writing assignments and then give more points for reflections. In order to keep my paper work to a minimum, I have my students keep a notebook with their writing exercises in them. I number these exercises and then check the notebooks twice a semester. It is not an ideal system, but it does have some big advantages, which are that I don’t have to keep track of a ton of loose papers from students, and I can concentrate the grading of them into two periods of time. I think a similar method would probably work in literature, but as some of these assignments might necessitate more weight in terms of points I might have to make the collecting of them more formal. In the group work scenario, I will also have to make the outlines for assessment very clear, so students understand the goals of the group work. I might implement these activities over time instead of all at once, but either way, I see these as potentially very positive additions to my literature classroom.

I know that many people will have used similar activities in their literature classrooms for a long time, so I would love to hear examples of what has and has not worked in the past and what people plan to introduce in the future. I also will write an update as I use more of these techniques in the classroom.

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4 thoughts on “Translating Composition Writing Activities into the Literature Classroom

  1. I think group work can be very successful, while the hard part can be showing students that it can be a positive experience. Maybe consider adding a individual reflection component to the group writing assignments. The individual reflection could ask students to specifically account for all of their contributions to the group papers, including which of their ideas they compromised on and/or didn’t make the cut for the group writing. This adds more individual accountability, and if they are being graded on actual collaborative writing, it will also keep one student from dictating the entire direction of the paper.

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  2. I am going back and forth between having the group work build to a in-class writing or a presentation, but either way having a reflection specifically about the group work would be really useful.

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