Wednesday, June 18, 2014

IWAC 2014: Meaningful Writing

More from IWAC 2014 today! What a wonderful conference!

This time I'm going spend some time considering the presentation by Anne Ellen Geller, Michele Eodice, and Neal Lerner about the Meaningful Writing Project, a massive grounded theory study that questions what makes writing assignments meaningful to students and how faculty that have composed these meaningful writing assignments think about writing and writing pedagogy. This particular presentation was focused on the latter.

Disclaimer: I have a very positive bias towards the panel I'm going to write about in this post. I strongly believe in the importance of student-centered research when it comes to describing student learning experiences. I love to hear the voices of writers and educators; narratives are exciting. I also admire an approach that works from a strength-based concept of student learning experiences rather than a deficit one. And of course, Anne Ellen Geller is my dissertation chair, and one of the most kick-ass women I know (for lack of better words).

During the presentation, the team of scholars asked audience members to consider, through writing and discussion, their most meaningful writing assignment. They followed this up by sharing interview responses from three professors whose assignments had been nominated as most meaningful by students involved as participants in the Meaningful Writing Project.

Their big takeaway for the day was that there was no magic formula for a meaningful writing assignment, but that there seemed to be something about student-faculty relationships built into these assignments that shaped their reception. How teachers saw students and how students understood the role of that particular professor really had an impact on how that assignment was done--something I've seen in my own research.

My Meaningful Writing Assignment

In the meantime, what I really want to share is the thinking that I was allowed to do within the context of the discussion of the research. As I said, faculty audience members were asked to consider what their most meaningful writing assignment was. Here is what I wrote:

My favorite writing assignment is the Write for a Change assignment in my first-year writing class. It's a multi-part project where students begin by thinking about what they want to change in the world, no matter how small or big (I encourage them to think locally and consider the ripple effect-- what change could you actually implement?), and then to find a way to advocate that change through writing. First, they write a proposal that includes what they want to change, what form they will use, who their audience(s) is, and why that form and audience is most effective for causing change. Then, they actually all do their projects. They go through a multi-draft process with peer review, but as the projects vary, they can also vary greatly in the drafting process. Some people are writing pieces of websites, some are writing chunks of script, some are doing multiple marketing/PR-like pieces, etc. I typically  have the whole class read each of their proposal drafts and workshop as a whole class. At the end, they each do a very brief presentation on their final project, which sometimes includes the showing of short films or presentations.

The learning goal is to get students to use what they have learned about writing to help them achieve personal goals. I want them to think about genre, audience, and writing as a social transaction. I also want them to learn to use research in real-life scenarios, not just a research paper, and see how it actually part of life beyond academia.

Students only get a grade on this project if they turn it in as part of their final portfolio, as I use contract grades throughout the semester. I give extensive feedback, though. Typically, students are passionate and do a great job. It is hard to assess sometimes, though, because projects can be so different.

I love seeing students learning to use writing to empower them and to help create a better world, in whatever small or large way they think that is. I like giving students opportunities to vent their frustrations, but also learn how to deal with them in productive ways. It is hard to assess them, as I said. I also find it frustrating when students think picking an "easier" topic will get them a good grade. Inevitably, they become bored over the course of the month-long assignment and don't do as well as they would have if they actually thought about what they wanted to change, rather than what they wanted to get in the class.

Students are asked to see the way writing can be used in other contexts based on their own personal view of the world. They have to research and figure out how to do things/forms they may not be familiar with or information they didn't know before that they will have to communicate. They're also being asked to learn writing terminology, such as form, genre, and audience. 

The second part of that process was to talk to a colleague and then to think about what similarities we saw in our assignments and experiences. I really enjoyed hearing about the work a colleague, who I had only met the night before, was doing with her history students, and I saw how, though very different from my own, her assignment also focused on getting students to think, make connections, and engage with the course content. We both agreed that an indicator for a "good" assignment was typically that we were excited to read the student products.

My Meaningful Writing Project

Finally, something that we weren't asked to formally consider, but I couldn't help but think about was their interview question for faculty-- what was the most meaningful writing assignment of your undergraduate experience?

That question was hard for me. I had lots of great writing experiences in college, which is how I wound up teaching college writing. As an English and Communications major, I was always writing. I do see that some of the best writing experiences I had, though, were maybe not the best writing I did, but the ones that let me think about things in new ways or the ones where the professors engaged me in the feedback process. So what were those meaningful writing projects for me?

I loved my independent research project on Children's Fantasy heroes, not only because it was an impressive feat for an undergrad and well-received by others at the school's research conferences, but also because I learned so much from the mentorship process. For example, I didn't know how accept information that didn't fit a box or examine the complexities before this project, but in a one-on-one meeting, my professor explained how that worked. I felt the same way about my poetry independent study, where I worked very closely with faculty and another student who was doing short fiction.

On the other hand, I also loved putting together the final portfolio of public relations writing for an imaginary fundraising event in my Public Relations for Non-profit class, even though I had far less, if any, interaction with the professor one-on-one. It was different, and it was fun. I don't remember the grade, but I do know that I left feeling like I learned something valuable, applicable to the world outside of class, and actually, to this day, I use what I learned while putting that project together whenever I write an email, a memo, web content, or other professional writing genres.

These experiences definitely shaped how I have gone on to teach my own students. I really like project-based learning, and I try to make myself available to students as much as possible, to act as a mentor or role model where possible. For the most part, I came from the same place as my students, nearly literally, as I teach in the same classrooms where I was taught as an undergrad, and I want them to see that my success is not the result of some magic gift of intelligence, but of applying myself, connecting my passions to my school work, and of being willing to put in the time to do something exceptional rather than mediocre. In these ways, I see again how my concept of the ideal student-faculty relationship shapes my assignments. I can also see how understanding what I consider meaningful as a student and a teacher will have an impact on those relationships.

With all that said, the Meaningful Writing Project has a great website:, and the work is set to be published in book-length detail sometime in the near future. I highly recommend everyone read about the methods, the findings, and the interesting stories involved in the research, if for no other reason than to reflect on your own experiences with meaningful writing.

No comments: