List of Ten: Food Story Ideas


A light blue plate filled with perfectly browned latkes. A paper towel rests under the latkes on the plate.
Photo: Latke Time [345/366] by Tim Sackton on Flickr, used under a CC-BY 2.0 license

I’m using a food-related theme for my summer technical writing course. The first assignment is an oral presentation (video) that they will use to introduce themselves to the class and then share a personal food story with the class. To kickstart their ideas, I created this List of Ten. I should work for any course that is focusing on food.

  1. What food must be in your home? Why? What happens if it’s missing?
  2. Tell us about a favorite (yours or your family’s). It can be a favorite meal, restaurant, dessert, cook, or something else.
  3. Tell us about the most complicated thing you’ve ever prepared or seen prepared. How did it go?
  4. What is your food indulgence? Tell us a story about the food that takes you to your happy place.
  5. Tell us the story of the weirdest thing you ever ate/drank. What was the experience like?
  6. Share a story of a time you were judged (or that you judged someone else) because of what they ate/drank.
  7. Tell the story of your experience with a food you hate.
  8. What has been your biggest food fail? Tell us about a meal or food situation that went wrong.
  9. What food is your enemy and why? Tell us a story of your battle with that food.
  10. What food aroma/smell takes you somewhere else? Tell us the story of where you go and how the smell is part of that trip.

Extra Tips

  • Your story does not have to be on the numbered list above. It’s just a list of ideas to help you get started.
  • For our purposes, food is widely defined. It can include meals, ingredients, beverages, candy, and so on.
  • You can talk about your food experiences, the experiences of your family (however you define family), or experiences related to your culture or community.
  • Please no stories about topics like the first time I got drunk.

 

10+ Things to Add to Your Community Action Toolkit

Vintage wooden toolbox filled with tools for woodworking
Image Credit: Toolbox by Florian Richter on Flickr,
used under a CC-BY 2.0 license.

As I mentioned on my List of 10 on hashtags, I’m working on a series of assignments and classroom activities that will support the “Digital Assignments for Activist & Justice-Oriented Projects” presentation that I’m giving at the Computers and Writing Conference this year. In this list I’m moving on to community action toolkits (see examples below) and several overarching assignments.

First, let me explain what these toolkits are. Imagine you have a group of people all interested in a specific cause, but unsure how they can promote their work and gain other followers. That’s where these toolkits come in. They provide some background on the cause and why it’s needed, and, then, they outline how to promote and participate in the common cause.

Because community action efforts are typically grassroots movements, toolkits help those organizing and promoting their cause. Toolkits can include advice on reaching out to community supporters, the media, and the public. Further, they can include step-by-step instructions for common tasks that support community efforts, such as writing letters to politicians and government officials as well as to media outlets such as letters to the editor and comments on news websites. The name of these collections, toolkits, are a perfect analogy: these collections provide the tools and resources that a community effort can use to promote its cause.

Deciding on the Composing Strategy

These assignments and activities present opportunities for students to create their own community action toolkits, focusing on the ways that writing and digital composing contribute to activism and social justice efforts:

  • Individually-authored Toolkits: Use this assignment as a course-long project by asking each student to create their own toolkit, working individually. Based on the length of your course, suggest the number of documents students should compose. If appropriate for your course, choose specific items students need to complete. Allow for some choice among options as well.
  • Small Group-authored Toolkits: Arrange students in small groups, and have each group choose a community effort for its focus. Ask each group member to contribute to the toolkit by creating one (or more) components of the report. The entire group is responsible for framing the toolkit and ensuring consistency in the overall document.
  • Class-authored Toolkits: Choose a community effort as a class, and have each student in the class contribute to the overall class-authored toolkit. The class can begin by collaborating on design guidelines to make the assembly of the document smoother.
  • Individual Projects: Instead of creating a complete toolkit, choose any of the components listed as an individual writing assignment. For example, everyone in the class writes an FAQ on a local community action campaign.

Choosing a Local Focus

If possible, students will choose a local community action efforts and create their toolkits to support those efforts. The activities can work for larger efforts as well; however, students may find that resources already exist. For example, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has published a StopBullying.gov Community Action Toolkit that takes on the campaign to end bullying in schools. Rather than duplicating such work, students can provide resources specifically focused on what the local community needs.

When working on local community efforts, students can also benefit from closer access to the audience and stakeholders for their toolkits. For instance, students working on an anti-bullying campaign on campus can connect with administrators and faculty who support their cause and with some persuasion, possibly have their toolkits adopted for local use.

Deciding on Media for Interaction

In addition to choosing the kind of community action students explore, you can narrow their projects to particular kinds of interaction—anything from fairly traditional print communications to highly visual or interactive broadcast or social media. Here are the most obvious options:

  • Open Guide: Students can write a general guide without restrictions. Anything that fits the genre goes. Students can decide if they want to focus more specifically.
  • Guide for All Media: Students ensure that their guide covers a variety of media, including print media, social media, video and broadcast media. A broader toolkit of this sort is perfect for class-authored toolkits, as it broadens the list of components to include.
  • Guide for Social Media: Students focus specifically on community action that uses social media as the primary communication tool. Resources in the toolkit would focus on sites such as Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, YouTube, and TikTok.
  • Guide for Broadcast Media: Students produce broadcast-ready videos that can be shared on sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. Videos can also be embedded on websites and in blog posts as well as distributed to local media outlets (e.g., open access channels and local community television stations).

Toolkit Components

Your Community Action Toolkit can include a variety of resources. Depending upon the needs of the community and the goals of the community action group, you can add information to tell readers about the group and its work as well as resources to help readers participate in the work of the group. Once you determine who your readers are and establish the purpose for your toolkit, choose among the following items to include in your toolkit:

  1. Background on the Campaign & Need
    Every toolkit needs some background information that explains the cause and persuades readers to join in working for change. Tell the story of your cause and the needs it will serve. Remember that stories make your cause personal, so focus on a specific person or people who have or will benefit from the campaign. Be sure that your background information convinces readers why the cause is important to the community. Keep your paragraphs short and clear, and add photos that help tell your story.
  2. Timeline
    Provide a fast review of the key accomplishments the community has reached and the levels of need that exist. Your timeline can include past events as well as upcoming milestones. Try using a tool such as Knight Lab’s TimelineJS to create an online timeline for a web-based toolkit.
  3. Info Sheet or Fact Sheet
    People interested in the community effort can use the fast facts from an info sheet or infographic to convince others to support the cause and to promote the group’s work. Create a one-page sheet that provides the most important details about the cause and how the community works to solve it. See the “Intimate Partner Violence and Transgender Communities: Factsheet” (on page 7) for an example of the genre. If your toolkit is to be a print document, you might increase the size of your info sheet to a two-page spread. Incorporate document design and graphical details to make the info sheet easy to understand. Use the Fact Sheets resources from Kent State to learn more about info sheets.
  4. Infographic
    Identify significant data related to your cause and create an infographic that visually presents the details.
    Read the article “Designing Effective Infographics” (2018) from the Nielsen Norman Group to find out more about infographics. You can find Infographic templates on sites like CanvaVenngage, or Easel.ly. [Teaching Note: For a more structured assignment, use The Infographic Project from Writing Commons.]
  5. Campaign Schedule/Key Dates
    If the community action group has upcoming events, create an agenda or a calendar that indicates the dates and provides those who use the toolkit with the basic information they need to participate in the events. For events that take place regularly (like an annual activity), you can point to past resources to show the successes the campaign has had. Adobe Express (formerly Spark) and Canva include calendar templates.
  6. Case Studies
    Stories will draw people into the campaign, as they read how others faced challenges and worked to succeed. Add case studies or success stories to the toolkit to demonstrate the impact that the community effort can make. Tell the story from a participant’s point of view, integrating quotations and descriptive details that show the reader how community action has made a difference. Photographs of the people in the story will emphasize that these are real members of the community who have benefited from community action. For examples, see the Appendix: Stories of Success (p. 71) in the Be the Change—Community Action Toolkit. If you have before and after images that you can include, use the Juxtapose tool from Knight Lab to create slick comparisons that show the change.
  7. Instructions on How to Participate
    Readers who are new to the community need instructions that show them how they can participate in the work of the campaign. Choose activities that fit your toolkit, and provide step-by-step details on how to accomplish them. For a social media toolkit, for instance, you can provide instructions on how to participate in an Instagram Hop, a Tweetstorm or a Twitter Chat. Consult the technical writing resources on Writing Instructions for help with the genre. Read the StopBullying.gov Resources (p. 33) for an example of step-by-step instructions.
  8. How to Contact a Politician
    Add instructions on how to contact government officials and elected representatives to ask for support of the community action project. Include step-by-step details on how to identify specific people to connect and how to compose effective messages. Further, provide sample letters, text messages, and phone/voice mail scripts that readers can use as models. Consult Section 1. Writing Letters to Elected Officials from the Community Tool Box for examples of what this section can include. To understand how audience effects toolbox documents, compare Contact Elected Officials (written for family adults) and Contacting Your Representatives (written for youth advocates)—both from the Community Action Toolkit: A Guide to Advancing Sex Education in Your Community.
  9. How to Write an Op-Ed or Letter to the Editor
    Letters and public statements can share the community action through newspapers and television sites as well as through blog posts and similar forum sites. Add instructions that show members of the community how to compose their messages and provide advice on submitting them to local media outlets. The “Writing Opinion Editorials and Letters to the Editor” resources from the CDC’s “Community Action Toolkit: A Guide to Advancing Sex Education in Your Community” (2021) are a good model. You can also find useful ideas in Tips for Working with the Media (p. 22) from the StopBullying.gov Community Action Toolkit.
  10. Shareable Images or Videos
    Create a collection of easy-to-share images and videos that community members can post in their social media networks. Focus on images and videos that focus on your main message without any clutter. Videos can focus on public service announcements, brief testimonials, and news from the community. Follow the guidelines for image size and shape and video resolution and length that are recommended on the sites where they will be shared. For instance, choose square images to be shared on Instagram.
    Section 19. Using Social Media for Digital Advocacy from Justice Action Toolkit | Community Tool Box outlines useful background information. The shareables and Twibbon resources in the 2020 Global 16 Days Campaign Social Media Toolkit and Social Media Posts for COVID-19 Vaccine Boosters are useful examples.
  11. Sample Posts
    Compose ready-to-post status updates that community followers can easily copy and paste on their social media networks. As with shareable images and videos, Section 19. Using Social Media for Digital Advocacy from Justice Action Toolkit | Community Tool Box provides useful tips. Text Messages for Community-Based Organizations to Encourage Vaccination and the Community Action Month- Mini Toolkit #1 provide sample text messages to copy and use. In addition to posts meant to be copied and pasted, consider other kinds of messages that community members may find useful. The Social Media Safety Toolkit for Veterans, Their Families, and Friends, for example, directly addresses the possible issues that their community may face by including Sample Responses to Posts and Tweets That Indicate Emotional Distress (p. 4).
  12. Slideshows
    Design PowerPoint, Keynote, or Google Slides presentations that can be used to share details about the accomplishments and goals with the community and that community members can use to encourages others to participate in the efforts of the group. Check out the Presentations section (pp. 12–18) of Effective Tools for Communications and Leadership in Indian Country for useful advice on creating presentations. For examples, the sections of the Justice Action Toolkit | Community Tool Box include Powerpoint presentations that summarize the information included on each topic in the toolkit. Use the tabs above the Main Section to switch to a link allowing you to download the presentation. You can also create slideshow carousels, or Stories, that rotate on social media sites like Instagram. See How social justice slideshows took over Instagram for more details.
  13. FAQ
    Gather a list of questions that community members may have about the cause or about the community actions to support it, and then provide clear answers to each one. Use the
    FAQs on COVID-19 Vaccines for Essential Workers in Agriculture as an example. Find advice on writing FAQs from ZenDesk’s “8 great FAQ page examples and how to create your own” or Truckee Meadows Community College’s “FAQ Writing Guidelines.”
  14. Glossary
    Go through your toolkit and identify words and phrases that community members may be unfamiliar with.
    Your list can include abbreviations and acronyms, proper names of relevant parts of the organization or of documents that the group relies on. For each word or phrase, explain what it is and how ti relates to the community. See the Glossary (p. 72) in the Be the Change—Community Action Toolkit for an example, and consult Writing Definitions from the Purdue OWL for help with the genre.
  15. Additional Resources
    Gather links to additional resources that provide community members with more information or tools to use as they work toward the community’s goals. Include direct links to the resources and short annotations that explain what the resource is and how it will help the community member. Add subheadings to help community members find what they need easily. For examples, see the list of Further Resources (p. 10) from the Community Action Toolkit for Addressing Intimate Partner Violence Against Transgender People and Social Media Suicide Prevention Resources and Additional Suicide Prevention Resources (p. 8) from the Social Media Safety Toolkit for Veterans, Their Families, and Friends. Consult the Annotated Bibliographies resources from the Writing Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for tips on writing annotations.

Example Toolkits

Center for Community Health and Development. (2020). Justice Action Toolkit | Community Tool Box. Retrieved May 6, 2022, from https://ctb.ku.edu/en/justice-action-toolkit

Center for Women’s Global Leadership at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. (2020). 2020 Global 16 Days Campaign Social Media Toolkit. Global 16 Days Campaign. Retrieved May 6, 2022, from https://16dayscampaign.org/2020-global-16-days-campaign-social-media-toolkit/

National Association for State Community Services Programs. (2016). Community Action Month- Mini Toolkit #1. Retrieved May 6, 2022, from https://nascsp.org/community-action-month-mini-toolkit-1/

National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs. (2017). Community Action Toolkit for Addressing Intimate Partner Violence Against Transgender People. National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs. Retrieved May 6, 2022, from https://avp.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/ncavp_trans_ipvtoolkit.pdf

National Congress of American Indians, & Pyramid Communications. (2011). Effective Tools for Communications and Leadership in Indian Country. National Congress of American Indians. https://www.ncai.org/news/tribal-communicators-resources/NCAI_ConferenceBooklet_FINAL_SinglePage.pdf

Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS). (2018, November 18). Community Action Toolkit: A Guide to Advancing Sex Education in Your Community. SIECUS. Retrieved May 6, 2022, from https://siecus.org/community-action-toolkit/

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2021, December 16). COVID-19 Community-Based Organizations Toolkit. WECANDOTHIS.HHS.GOV. https://wecandothis.hhs.gov/resource/community-based-organizations-toolkit

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2017). StopBullying.gov Community Action Toolkit. Retrieved May 6, 2022, from https://www.stopbullying.gov/sites/default/files/2017-09/community-action-toolkit.pdf

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (2022, February 10). Suicide Prevention—Mental Health [General Information]. https://www.mentalhealth.va.gov/suicide_prevention/prevention/index.asp

Verhoeven, Andii. (2014). Be the Change—Community Action Toolkit. World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts. Retrieved May 6, 2022, from https://www.wagggs.org/en/resources/be-change-community-action-toolkit/

 

 

10 Assignments on Hashtags

Hashtag mark drawn in the sand
Image Credit: Piqsels.com, used under public domain.

I’m working on a series of assignments and classroom activities that will support the “Digital Assignments for Activist & Justice-Oriented Projects” presentation that I’m giving at the Computers and Writing Conference this year. Hashtags seem like the right place to start. Campaigns like #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo have demonstrated that hashtags capture attention and can fuel justice-oriented social action.

Bruce Bimber, Andrew J. Flanagin, and Cynthia Stohl (2005) identify “two foundational aspects of collective action: (a) the binary choice to participate or not and (b) the role of formal organization.” As they unify voices around a common cause, hashtags provide “formal organization” for collective action using social media. In the same way that corporate logos and taglines work, hashtags can become the brand identity for a social movement. By adding a hashtag to a social media post, writers choose to participate and further to align their comments with others who use the same hashtag.

To use hashtags effectively in their activist and justice-oriented projects, students need first to think critically about how hashtags work in social activism (AKA hacktivism). These ten assignments and activities present opportunities for students to examine how hashtags have contributed to collective action in the past.

Assignments and Activities

  1. Ask students to hashtag themselves.
    As an icebreaker, invite students to introduce themselves by hashtag. Have students list seven to nine hashtags that describe who they are, what they care about, and/or what they like and do. Students can post anonymously if they desire. Collect all of the hashtags for the class in one document. Students can enter their keywords in a Google Form to simplify this process. Go to the Voyant Tools website, and paste in the class list of hashtags to generate a word cloud showing frequency as well as additional statistics on the hashtags. As a class, discuss what the hashtag data reveals.
  2. Tell the story of the local community hashtag.
    Begin by examining the story of a highly visible hashtag. Time‘s “The Silence Breakers: Time Person of the Year 2017” reviews people who spoke up during the #MeToo movement. Supplement the Time article with the 2018 Pew Research Center’s “How Social Media Users Have Discussed Sexual Harassment Since #Metoo Went Viral.” As they review the story behind the #MeToo hashtag, ask students to identify how the story connects with details on the impact of the hashtag. After examining the #MeToo story, ask students to choose a local hashtag used by community members to influence collective action. Suggest a chronological order for the stories, perhaps with flashbacks. Remind students of the importance of including a discussion of the impact of the hashtag (the “so what?” for their stories). As an alternative to writing a narrative essay, students can enter key moments that tell the story of their hashtags on a timeline, using a tool such as Knight Lab’s TimelineJS.
  3. Create a one-page info sheet for a hashtag.
    After examining resources on info sheets on local issues, have the class create a list of useful information to include on an info sheet for a local community hashtag. At a minimum, lists should include the hashtag, details on who uses it, and its purpose. Further details depend upon the hashtags and how they are used. If students are examining existing hashtags, they can add some background information on the creation of the hashtag, for instance. Encourage students to create and add graphics to illustrate their info sheets. Students can add embedded posts that include photos or other graphics related to the hashtag.
    To support students as they structure their info sheets, use the Fact Sheets resources from Kent State.
  4. Design an infographic for a local community hashtag.
    Have students read “Designing Effective Infographics” (2018) from the Nielsen Norman Group to learn about the characteristics of a strong infographic and use the information from the Nielsen Norman reading to analyze recent infographics. Once students understand the infographic genre, ask them to create infographics for local community hashtags. Share one or more of these readings from the Pew Research Center to demonstrate the kinds of data students can gather about their hashtags:

  5. Define and describe a hashtag.
    Ask students to write technical descriptions
    of their hashtags that explain what the hashtags are, how they are formed, and how they function. For example, students might discuss how various word or numbers are combined to form the hashtag. Have students include photos or embedded media that show the hashtag in use, integrating the graphics with the text description. Suggest students add details on history, privacy, and other background as appropriate for their hashtags.
  6. Explain how (and why) to use a hashtag.
    Discuss the complex ways that hashtags are used, asking students to unpack rote practices and typical expectations. Consider questions such as the following:

    • Where do you include the hashtag—the beginning? the middle? the end? wherever it falls in the statement? How do you decide?
    • How does the social media tool that you use (for instance, Twitter, Facebook, TikTok, YouTube, Instagram) influence the way the hashtag is included?
    • How are hashtags used with other ways of communicating, like sound, photos, and drawings?
    • What persuasive information belongs in explanations of how to use a hashtag?

    Once students have explored the conventions for using hashtags, ask them to write step-by-step instructions for using a hashtag in a particular way (e.g. for a particular medium and purpose). Ask students to consider the audience for their instructions as someone who understands and uses social media personally but has never used social media as part of collective action in an organized way. Supplement the assignment with outside resources on Writing Instructions.

  7. Propose or recommend how to build a collective action campaign with hashtags.
    After exploring how hashtags can be used as part of collective action, ask students to write a proposal or recommendation report on how to engage with hashtags as a company, nonprofit, or community. The audience for the project will depend upon the group involved. If a company will be participating, the audience might be marketing management within that company and possibly the company’s owners or executive directors. For a community-oriented project, the audience might be members of that community who are unsure how to participate or want to have a stronger impact. Encourage students to think broadly about the ways that hashtags can be used, rather than limiting themselves to a single kind of use, such as status posts on Twitter.
  8. Curate an annotated bibliography that illustrates how a hashtag has been used for collective action.
    To learn about how hashtags work in community action campaigns, have students compose annotated bibliographies of resources on topics such as the stories behind hashtags, how hashtags evolve with use, viral distribution of hashtags, public impact of hashtags, or how to use hashtags effectively. Alternatively, students can focus on a particular hashtag. For instance, students can begin with an article like “The Hashtags that Brought Black Scientists Together,” from Nature (2021) or “How Black Lives Matter Came to the Academy,” from The New Yorker (2021) and then investigate the hashtags involved. Share the Annotated Bibliographies resources from the Writing Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to provide background information and tips for the genre.
  9. Compose an FAQ about hashtag use in a collective action campaign.
    Ask students to imagine themselves as people who want to participate in a campaign but aren’t quite sure if they understand enough about how hashtags work in an organized campaign.
    Brainstorm questions and relevant issues that people may have about using hashtags for collective community action. Spend some time discussing how to phrase questions for the FAQ so they fit the language and style of the audience. Next, ask students to choose five or more questions and then provide clear and complete answers for each, again with attention to the language and style of the audience. Share advice on writing FAQs such as ZenDesk’s “8 great FAQ page examples and how to create your own” or Truckee Meadows Community College’s “FAQ Writing Guidelines.” If desired, talk about document design and the formatting tools in the composing software to ensure that they know how to make the separate questions and answers easy to read and use.
  10. Write an Op-Ed encouraging support of a campaign by using a hashtag.
    Choose a hashtag that has been used as part of local community action, and write an op-ed that encourages readers to use the hashtag to share their support for the community action campaign.
    For background, read “Hashtag Activism Isn’t a Cop-Out,” from The Atlantic (2015) and “The Second Act of Social-Media Activism,” from The New Yorker (2020). As a class, discuss the successes and challenges of community hashtags as explored in the articles. Based on their reading and analysis, have students look critically at their hashtags, assessing the impact of their hashtag on the local community. Write your op-ed that encourages readers to use the hashtag to support the community action, using their research on its impact to support their argument. As students work on their op-eds, share the “How to Write an Op-ed or Column” from Harvard or the “Writing Opinion Editorials and Letters to the Editor” resources from the CDC’s “Community Action Toolkit: A Guide to Advancing Sex Education in Your Community” (2021) to support their understanding of the op-ed genre.

Integrating these Activities

Because these ten activities all deal with hashtags, each can be a segment of a larger course-long project on community action, social justice, or digital media.

  • Students can spend the term working on a community action toolkit, including a variety of the projects on the list. The story behind the hashtag (#2 above) can become part of the opening of the toolkit, providing background on the campaign. The info sheet (#3) or infographic (#4) can be included in the toolkit to show the impact and use of the hashtag in the community action campaign. Instructions on how and why to use a hashtag (#6) can be part of the body of the toolkit, as they provide details on how to participate in the campaign. The FAQ (#9) can be included toward the end of the toolkit, to address questions not covered elsewhere in the document.
  • Students can first write the info sheet assignment (#3) and then after gathering the data in the info sheet, they can convert their ideas into a more visual composition by creating infographics (#4).
  • Students can write recommendation reports (#7), beginning their work with research on their hashtags, the community involved, and the intended influence and impact of using the hashtag. They can organize their research in an annotated bibliography (#8), which can be added to the appendix of the report (and referred to in the Methods and Results sections of the report).

References

Bimber, Bruce, Flanagin, Andrew J., & Stohl, Cynthia. (2005). Reconceptualizing Collective Action in the Contemporary Media Environment. Communication Theory, 15(4), 365–388. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1468-2885.2005.tb00340.x

Background Readings for Instructors

Haltiwanger, Shannon. (2014). Embracing Social Media AS PART OF A Storyteller’s Toolkit. History News, 69(4), 7–10.

Jackson, Sarah J., Bailey, Moya, & Welles, Brooke Foucault. (2020). #HashtagActivism: Networks of race and gender justice. The MIT Press.

Losh, Elizabeth. (2019). Hashtag. Bloomsbury Academic & Professional.

Shirky, Clay. (2011). The Political Power of Social Media: Technology, the Public Sphere, and Political Change. Foreign Affairs, 90(1), 28–41.

Strickland, James. (2004). Just the FAQs: An Alternative to Teaching the Research Paper. The English Journal, 94(1), 23. https://doi.org/10.2307/4128843

 

Why I’m Failing & How to Change

A pink and yellow poster with the word FAIL spelled out vertically and expanded as an acronym stating First Attempt In LearningThings are going awry in my tech writing course this term. Somehow students are struggling with assignments—not understanding the purpose, working on topics that don’t fit the assignment, mixing up the genre conventions, and more. I’m not happy. Students aren’t happy. I need to figure out why, and that means that I write to think it through and determine what I can do to make it better. So here goes.

What It’s Not

It’s Not Students

I’m not a fan of blaming students. It’s easy to say that students aren’t reading the assignments or buying the textbook. Likewise it’s not that they have pandemic fatigue or the fault of online learning. When the majority of students are struggling, there has to be something bigger going on. It’s not reasonable to argue that 80% of the class is at fault for what’s going wrong.

It’s Not Ungrading

I use an ungrading approach, with grades of either Complete or Incomplete. Students have to reach a certain level of effort by attempting a number of drafts, completing a number of logs and class activities, and so forth. It’s possible to pass the course without getting everything perfect. Taking risks and trying the projects is more important than perfection in my philosophy. That said, putting in strong effort and working to improve is also extremely important.

With the range of what is possible, a devious student could aim low with the knowledge that they could easily do better later. Sure, that could happen. But it’s not going to happen with 80% of the class. Most students are trying to improve. Their logs show me the work that they do. Giving students the chance to try again just isn’t at fault. They want to get it right the first time, but they appreciate the chances to try again. Bottom line: I don’t believe that so many students are trying to game the system.

What It May Be

I Don’t Feel Good about My Assignments

To fit the requirements of our PTW program, I have adopted assignments I don’t like. They’re okay. They just don’t sing to me. They don’t excite me to read what students have to say. I have written them. They’re not adopted from other teachers. But they still don’t fit me. They don’t feel like activities that will be fun or interesting to students. They’re not full-on busy work, but sometimes they feel like it. And if they feel like busy work to me, I’m sure students are feeling the same way.

I Am Trying to Connect Things that Don’t Fit

Assignments and activities that have smooth connections provide students build on consistent content knowledge and related audiences. With this approach, students aren’t asked to learn new content while they are also learning new genres and writing strategies. Following this philosophy, my assignment sequence follows the same issue and connected assignments through the entire term. To connect things further, I have tried to create assignments that build together toward the final longer project (a recommendation report). For example, students write instructions for someone else to gather the primary data they will use in their recommendation report, with the goal of making duplication and validation of their research possible. The instructions end up discussed in the methods section of their recommendation reports and included in the report appendices.

While the philosophy of connecting projects and using a consistent content focus work, the assignments aren’t connecting well. I can see the connections, but I don’t think students do. I’m forcing things to connect that don’t fit well together. It’s an awkward structure, which seems to make the goals of the assignments harder for students to understand.

I Am Not Succeeding at Transparency

Transparency in what we do in the classroom helps students understand the projects and ultimately do better work. In my assignments, I try to explain why we are doing all the different activities we are in the class. Based on ideas from Small Teaching and from Small Teaching Online, I structure activities so that they include a section titled, “Why I Want You to Do It,” where I explain my goals. Perhaps I’m overexplaining and the information gets lost in the sea of words that is their assignments. Maybe I’m not explaining enough so the connections and purposes of activities are not clear.

What to do?

For This Term

  1. Acknowledge the problems.
  2. Loosen expectations on assignments with wide confusion. Genre required; focus can be flexible.
  3. Create one-page fact sheets for the remaining assignments. Focus on the bare basics.
  4. Create one-page cheat sheets for genres. Stress difference between assignment requirements and genre expectations.
  5. Add options where possible (e.g., making up peer review).

For Next Time

  1. Incorporate changes from above (i.e., fact sheets, cheat sheets, additional options).
  2. Get rid of the awkwardly connected writing assignments. They aren’t working.
  3. Streamline the assignments so there is less information to dig through.
  4. Add assignments that feel fun or interesting, that will result in better student buy-in.
  5. Look for prior knowledge (e.g., instructions are like lab reports?).

 

Image Credit: Fail by mrsdkrebs on Flickr, used under a CC-BY-2.0 license

How I Almost Undermined My Ungrading System

It seemed like a simple explanation at the time. By the time I was almost done, I realized that I had almost undermined my entire ungrading system.

This fall, I have a few hard deadlines. Most work has a grace period that does not end until the last full week of classes. For example, peer review activities have a firm deadline for technical and logistical reasons. I explain the system in my Short Guide to the course:

Firm Due Dates explanation, transcript at the link

I further explain the two rounds of peer review in a course FAQ:

How do the two rounds of peer feedback work? Do I have to do both of them?

The idea of two rounds is more to help people who are working more slowly. Nearly all students I’ve had either choose the first round or the second-chance round. I don’t remember anyone trying both, but you can. You do provide feedback to 2 other people whenever you participate (but you get feedback from 2 people too). The activity is essentially the same. It’s just the time frame that changes.

Despite the fact that information is out there, some students remained confused. I wasn’t worried. Students cannot possibly remember everything I tell them or recall where are the details are in the course documents. What did worry me was that their email messages communicated a bit of panic through comments like this one, “I missed the feedback post. Can I still achieve the grade that I want?”

My first impulse was to find a way to clarify in a way that would calm the panic (and end the extra emails I was receiving). I decided that perhaps students needed a better understanding of the expectations for the work. For the peer review work, they needed something to clarify that I only expected them to complete half of the posted activities (either the first or second opportunity).

I immediately thought, “Infographic!” and I worked up the image below. Pie charts seemed like the perfect way to express the expectations. I started with the “Complete Half” section of the graphic and then added the other sections to represent all the work in the course.

I was quite pleased with the emerging look of the graphic: very polished, and very Virginia Tech (If I do say so myself). It was that “Complete Most” section that started my teacher-senses worrying.

Activity Expectations, with transcript at link

I couldn’t decide how much of the pie chart properly represented “most” of the work in that section. Obviously more than half. And the image needed to be visually distinguishable from the Half Pie. Alternately, shading 3/4 of the pie seemed wrong too. I didn’t want a pie chart that suggested a firm number. I wanted a visual representation that was less specific. I settled on approximately 60%, as shown in the image.

I felt that the infographic was about ready to go and turned my attention to writing up the transcript. As I wrote it up, I realized that it was likely to raise more questions:

  • Exactly how many is most?
  • How many activities are there? I need to figure out if I have most of them done.
  • What if I completely only 51% of the activities? Is that most?
  • If I have 60% of the work done, can I skip the rest?
  • What happens if I don’t complete all of the activities in the “Try to Complete All” section?

As these questions bubbled up, I realized that I had almost undermined the entire system. The moment I started to put numbers on the work, I turned on the traditional grading system. Students were going to shift immediately from a focus on improvement and their best effort to an obsession with reaching the right number. And so this infographic will never be used in my courses. Instead it prompts me that I have to be careful to return students to details on the ungrading system when questions come up. I have to remind them that they are in charge of their grades. I have to turn the question to them. When a student asks, “Can I still achieve the grade that I want?” I need to remember to reply, “Are you putting in the effort that grade would require? Does your work represent your best effort?”

Transparent Feedback Strategies

A Guide to Feedback on Your Writing, with transcript at linkMy assessment this term focuses on feedback, as a part of the #ungrading approach I have adopted. Since I do not put A’s and B’s on student work, feedback is critical.

Understandably, some students are a bit nervous about this approach. In particular, they worry that they will not be able to tell what the feedback tells them about their work. Their uneasiness is a strong indication of how they have used grades to determine their accomplishment in the past. Combine their apprehension about #ungrading with the fact that every teacher provides feedback differently, and it’s little wonder they aren’t quite sure how all this feedback is going to work.

As I began adding feedback to the work they have submitted, I realized that I could tell students more about the logistics of my feedback system and that it was in my benefit to do so for several reasons:

  • I do not comment on every piece of writing students do, but they have no way of knowing whether the lack of a comment means I haven’t seen their text or I saw it and chose to say nothing.
  • I use boilerplate for those frequently-used comments, but students do not know why I might repeat exactly the same feedback.
  • I automate some feedback in Canvas on activities that count like check-ins. If students have not done those activities, Canvas can assign them an Incomplete (or zero). They need to understand how to use that feedback as a reminder to get the activity done.

To explain all these practices to students, I created the simple infographic on the right, with an online transcript of the text. I aimed at short and clear explanations, without expansive details on pedagogical or practical reasons for the different strategies.

I plan to share it on Tuesday, after our Labor Day holiday. I’m hoping to hear that the details help make the logistics more transparent.

Rethinking the Syllabus Quiz

Game of Thrones character Eddard Stark meme with the caption 'Brace yourself . . . a syllabus quiz is coming'Since my summer course, I have been using an #ungrading approach, built on the anti-racist assessment strategies that I used previous semesters. With such an approach, the standard syllabus quiz is a poor fit. I don’t have any interest in tricking students or torturing them with “gotcha” questions on minor details.

During the last several years, I have used a short syllabus confirmation-focused quiz. I set up a True-False series of questions that asked students to confirm they understand basic policies and course setup. Here are some examples:

  • I read and I understand the Short Guide to Technical Writing and the Technical Writing Course Manual, including all information on in the section on “Assessment & Grading Policies.”
  • I understand that this course uses Modules to organize the readings and activities for each week, and I reviewed the page that explains what a Module is in the Short Guide so that I understand how Modules work in this course.
  • I understand the details on Accessibility in this course. If I need special accommodations, I will send a message using the Canvas Inbox during the first week of the course to give you more information.

All straightforward questions, but they aren’t very engaging. Students could easily click True, True, True, down the page without reading the statements carefully or looking for more information on anything they didn’t understand.

I asked colleagues for advice on alternatives. Since my course is fully online and asynchronous, I wanted a new way to get students to read the main details. Susanmarie Harrington, from University of Vermont, suggested The Interactive Syllabus Project. Guy McHendry (Creighton University), creator of the site, explains on the About page:

</SYLLABUS> is an interactive course syllabus built on a popular survey platform. The interactive syllabus is sent to students before the first day of class. The interactive syllabus takes students through all of the material on a traditional syllabus but also asks students questions about their goals, concerns, and questions about the class empowering professors to engage students from day one.

McHendry uses Qualtrics to create the survey for his courses. I liked the approach, but wanted to avoid linking in yet another piece of software. I prefer to keep everything in Canvas and Google Docs. I attempted to set up my questions in Google Forms, but they don’t support images. Since most of the text explanations I used came from my Short Guide, I definitely wanted to keep my images.

I settled on using the Quizzes tool in Canvas. Because the New Quizzes tool has no HTML editor access, I used the classic tool in order to control the layout of the text and images with in-line CSS. The resulting questions include multiple choice and essay questions that ask students to read and respond to the policies and logistics of the course. Where the previous confirmation quiz asked students to affirm their understanding of the Modules system, my more interactive activity explained the Module system and then asked the following:

Do you feel confident about using Modules in this course?

  • I’ve used Modules before, so navigating the course should be no problem.
  • I’ve never used Modules, but I think that understand how they work.
  • I’m not sure I understand, but I’ll try it out.
  • I may need more help before I understand.

The responses students provide with their choices are much more useful than the affirmations of the previous system. Later questions ask students to explain their responses in their own words and offer them the chance to ask about anything they don’t understand. Those who responded to it in my summer course liked the system. The students in my Fall courses are taking the Syllabus Review (as I have named it) this week. It will be interesting to see how they respond.

If you would like to see the full version of the questions, check out the PDF version of the Syllabus Review.

Decoding Racist Language in Technical Writing

Yesterday’s Marketplace broadcast included a story that demonstrates the power of racist coding in less than 2.5 minutes. “Can changing home appraisal language help close the wealth gap?” examines how the word choice in home appraisals, which are essentially technical descriptions, communicates who lives in a neighborhood and impacts the value assigned to homes.

After listening to this story, technical writing students can look for similar coded language in other documents:

  • How are workplace locations described in job ads?
  • How are possible building sites described in proposals?
  • What descriptive words and phrases are used in incident reports?

These conversations can move beyond the language used to describe places to many other kinds of technical writing as well:

  • What coded language do you find in job ads? How is the kind of person wanted for the position described?
  • How are potential contractors described in RFPs and applicant analysis?
  • Is coded language used in dress codes or social media guidelines?
  • Does coded language appear in employee evaluation documents?
  • How are the words professional and professionalism used to communication information about race?

Listen to the story below or on the Marketplace website:

Making Outlines Work in Tech Writing

Beginning of an outline for a technical reportI am not a fan of outlines. I never could figure out how someone was supposed to know all the bits of their document before they wrote it. Sure you can make a working sketch of what you want to cover, but all that I. A. ii. a. stuff? How about no?

Since I have bad feelings about outlines, I didn’t ask students to do more than a jotted plan for the sections of their work. For shorter documents, I didn’t even ask for that. That all is, until recently. My experiences during spring semester and the summer term have changed my thinking. When I added a formal outline assignment to the technical recommendation report project, students were more likely to include all the required elements in their drafts.

Previously, students left sections out, combined sections, and added sections that didn’t fit the project. No matter how many times I suggested that they look at the sections in the textbook and examine the structure of the sample reports, I failed. I couldn’t consistently persuade students to use the structure appropriate for the genre.

Frustrated with the challenge, I tried explaining how I would approach such a project, providing step-by-step instructions for how to create an outline that would ensure structure of the project included all the required elements.

Whenever I am working on something with a specific structure, from a conference proposal to a formal report, I copy the required structure (or type it if it’s not something I can copy), and paste the information into my draft. Frequently, I copy any instructions, notes, or tips as well. As an example, If I were writing a proposal for the Call for Proposals: 2021 CPTSC Research Grants to Promote Anti-racist Programs and Pedagogies, I would copy everything in the “Organization of the Proposal” section, paste it into my draft, and then convert it to a formal draft with notes. The resulting outline would look something like this:

  1. Cover sheet
     Include applicant name(s), institutional affiliations, contact information for the project leader, and project abstract of no more than 200 words (this page does not count as part of the length requirements). After this cover sheet, please do not include any information that references your name or institution, so that entries can be peer reviewed without mention of names or specific institutions.
  2. Problem Statement
     Explain the problem or question that the research project is attempting to solve.
  3. Background
     Describe the significance of this question or problem by situating the proposed project in the context of current and previous program-based work in the field, drawing on field literature.
  4. Methodology
     Outline the proposed method(s) and methodology  
  5. Timeline
     Include an annotated project timeline that notes the various major research activities/tasks associated with the project, including IRB approval if necessary. (For applicable research, funding will not be released until an IRB approval or exemption has been obtained and submitted to the grants coordinator.)
  6. Budget:  Include an itemized project budget. Funds may be used for research expenses only, including materials, research assistants, travel to collect or analyze data, software, etc. Funds may not be used for salary, release time, or conference travel. Institutional overhead and indirect costs are not allowed. Proposals with matching or in-kind contributions are strongly encouraged.
  7. Statement
     Include a statement that the researcher(s) understand and are willing to adhere to the requirements of the grant recipient.

The assignment I set up has students Outline Their Recommendation Reports using the same basic strategy. The assignment asks them to customize the information to their report topics, with this instruction: “Revise the basic information you have copied to make it specific to your report. Just copying over the basic outline is not enough. You need to add details that demonstrate your plans for the report.”

The results of the assignment have been fantastic. Students who completed the outline activity went on to include the required sections and in the expected order. Other activities in the unit reinforced the structure of the reports. The outline assignment does not deserve full credit, but it certainly made a good start!

Midterm Course Progress Report Assignment

Large white poster on a bulletin board with the message: Don't stress about midterms...Just study until you're too tired to feel emotion...It feels like just yesterday I was setting up my course for the summer session–and now, suddenly, midterm is upon us as we begin the third week of this six-week course. By the end of the week, students will turn in a course progress report that reflects on their accomplishments. I’m using a new ungrading approach this term (more on that in a future post), so I need to revise my progress report assignment.

I used a similar progress report assignment in previous courses, requiring students to describe their work on a research report in a memo. In those courses, students typically struggled with accomplishing the goals of the progress report assignment. I provided examples, textbook explanations, and advice from journals and blogs. Among the difficulties students faced, a majority struggled with the requirements of memo format and document design. Over several semesters, I tried providing more support, even designing a  Memo Format Self-Review activity to help them get the format right. But they still struggled. I wanted to find supporting resources that worked.

The Midterm Course Progress Report Assignment I came up with for this term asks students to “Complete a progress report memo form that reports on what you have accomplished so far in the course and proposes the tentative grade you should receive for your work in the course up to midterm.” It goes on to urge students to “Use details and examples from your work logs and writing activities to support your argument.” The instructions for the assignment begin by having students gather evidence of their work in the course:

Review your work logs and gather your data. You are conducting primary research on your accomplishments in the course so far. You should find much of what you need in your Weekly Work Log. Consider these questions:

  • What work have you completed so far in the course?
  • If you have taken additional time on any assignments during the first half of the term, have you caught up? Are there still tasks that you need to complete?
  • Which document demonstrates your highest quality work so far? Why?
  • What work demonstrates that you have invested your best effort so far?
  • How have you supported classmates in your Feedback Discussions?

The rest of the assignment is probably what you would expect. It asks students to write a memo that describes and evaluates the work they have completed, proposes a tentative grade for their work so far, and outline the goals they have set for the remainder of the course. What the assignment still didn’t do however was provide a better strategy to help students with memo format and document design, the two areas I know they struggled with in the past.

I turned to the book I’m reading, James Lang’s Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning (Jossey-Bass, 2016). Lang examines small, research-based changes teachers can make to increase student learning. As I worked on the progress report, I decided to try some of Lang’s suggestions. The assignment already incorporated interleaving, the subject of Lang’s third chapter. Interleaving folds knowledge from previous course work into the current unit. As Lang explains, interleaving “involves two related activities that promote high levels of long-term retention: (a) spacing out learning sessions over time; and (b) mixing up your practice of skills you are seeking to develop” (p. 65). The progress report asked students to use the research skills from the second week to conduct primary research on their own work logs, spacing out and practicing the skills during the third week.

While it reinforced the skills from the previous week, the progress report assignment wasn’t doing any of the connecting work that Lang examines in his fourth chapter. Lang relies on an analogy to small, disconnected islands (borrowed from George Orwell) to describe the connecting challenges that students face: They have isolated bits of knowledge and must work to find and create connections among the information and skills. They need to build bridges and shipping routes among all those disconnected islands.

The expectations for my progress report assignments during previous semesters asked students to bring all their skills to bear on a single document. They had to determine the information to report, organize it in ways that work for the audience and purpose, use document design strategies to add headings and lists, and do it all while following the requirements of the memo genre. It’s no wonder students struggled to get it all right in a single project. They had all those skills to navigate and no pathways built among them.

To help students build the connections they needed, I adapted Lang’s model of providing a framework. In Lang’s use, the teacher provides a partial outline, or framework, for the material to be covered, and students build connections as they take notes, filling in that framework. My technical writing students aren’t taking notes on content however. Their job is to apply the different skills as they produce content. I created a framework, a Progress Report Form, that students fill in with the evidence they have gathered. The accompanying Form Instructions outline the information to provide in each section of the framework.

To ensure that they are more successful with memo format and document design, the Report Form includes standard memo headings. Students don’t have to worry about setting the memo correctly; they only have to provide the specific content in the provided framework. Likewise, the body of the memo in the form has ready-made headings for the information students need to provide. The primary document organization is already there. Students only need to organize the information that they include under each heading. Finally, the framework gives them a head start on document design too with headings in a larger, maroon font and the space for the information students will add in the normal, black font. Later in the term, I’ll have students write memos without the supporting template as well as to apply their own document design strategies.

I’ll find out at the end of the week if this new framework provides students with the support they need. If it works, maybe they can avoid that midterm panic that inspires posters like the one in the image above. I’ll let you know when I review their work.

 

 

 

Photo Credit: Midterm Advice by Eric E. Castro on Flickr, used under a CC-BY 2.0 license.