40 Years Teaching College Composition


a teacher
As a young teacher
I’ve been fully retired for a year and a half now, and I deleted all my teaching files a couple of months ago, so I can’t pass along any specific course materials. For Labour day, though, I’m going to share the distillation of my 40 years of teaching college composition and other language skills to college and university students, and my studies on how people learn to write from two advanced degrees in mid and late career.
1. Many community college students come in already resistant to taking English, and convinced they can’t write. It was my experience that many students were dyslexic and/or discouraged. Many believe that if they can’t write grammatically perfect, with no spelling errors, first drafts, that means they can’t write. They’re wrong, of course, but it takes a while to convince them. And sadly many college English courses insist on using the same decontextualized drill and kill exercises that had no benefit for them in their high school English courses.
Here’s what works in my experience.
  • Whenever possible, get students writing about something they know about and care about. Many of my students were visual, so I’d get them describing what they could see. Sometimes it helps to get them to describe how to do something they are good at, and encourage their use of detail.
  • Remind them over and over, directly and indirectly, that their first efforts will be messy and encourage them to NOT WORRY about messy-looking, roughly planed first drafts.
  • I learned how to make it a ritual to start classes with what I called a “free write” – students had to turn off their screens or reduce the page to an unreadable size, and then I’d set a timer for five minutes. The rule was that they had to write about whatever they wanted to and they couldn’t stop and think, they couldn’t stop moving their fingers; they had to constantly be writing. If they had nothing to say, they had to write something like, “I have nothing to say” over and over till they had something to say. After the 5 minutes were up, I never looked at what they written, but they could use any ideas or stuff they’d written for class assignments, or not. Some thought it was a waste of time but if you have them do it, and model for them by doing it yourself too, with them, at the very least their keyboarding facility increases, and often their ability to string words together gets stronger too.
  • Sometimes I’d have students work in pairs or small groups and read their drafts aloud to each other. This helps them feel the flow of what they’ve written and gives them ideas from hearing each other’s work.
  • I had 3 rules for feedback –
    1. Everybody has to give solid feedback to everybody. No “correcting” or suggesting allowed.
    2. Ask questions where you the reader / listener need more information to understand or are just curious and want to know more. (This helps students learn more about audience reactions.)
    3. Tell writers SPECIFICALLY what you like. Never, never. Never just say “That’s nice.” And let it go at that.
  • Put them to work. There are a lot of sites that give writing and grammar advice, like, for example, Grammar Girl – http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/grammar-girl – get students to find as many as they can and maybe have them compare them in small groups, or do brief presentations on why they think they’re helpful, or not. This sets them up, possibly, to know how to support their writing when they’re working independently in other courses or on the job.
Some technical suggestions:
  • If you’re in a computer lab, I’d suggest you get them on Google Docs – they can access their Google Account on their own or other computers or tablets and work outside of class. Google Docs is similar enough to Word that it’s no trouble to learn and it’s free.
  • If you create a PowerPoint and you want them to have a copy, move it to, or create it in, Google Slides because you can then give them a link and they can access it themselves.

Much respect and gratitude to those teaching as this new school year starts!

Good luck and happy teaching,

3 thoughts on “40 Years Teaching College Composition

  1. I am in a situation where I find that I need to start doing some creative writing for work. Fondly remembering taking your writing class at Sheridan 20+ years ago made me seek you out to see if I could get the inspiration to write again.. and then I found this blog entry of yours. Exactly what I was looking for! Thanks JVC!

  2. Thanks, I really appreciate hearing that. I hope you enjoy (and struggle successfully) with your writing. Feedback to someone who is retired is always appreciated.

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