Posted to ACW-L, WCenter, NCTE-Talk,
and TEACH on 7/22/98.
I like to begin the term in any class that
I'm teaching by asking my students some questions about
themselves as writers so that I can better understand their
learning style. After a while, I developed a variety of
writing assignments around the questions that I tend to ask.
I usually use one of these writing assignments very early in
the term, so that I can learn something about the students'
backgrounds. We might discuss all the questions underlying
these assignments, but they'd only write an extended piece
on one of the questions. In a composition class, the
question would be the basis of an essay.
In a literature class, I'd probably use
one of these assignments as an informal or journal writing.
Most of these assignments can be easily modified to focus on
students' reading process as well.
- Write a fable, tall tale, Uncle Remus
tale, or fairy tale that will tell me about you as a
writer and about your understanding of the writing
process. Think about the genre of the tale you'll use. A
fable, for instance, includes animal characters and tells
a short didactic tale. Fables end with a moral, a short,
pithy saying that summarizes the lesson of the story.
It's a lot like putting your thesis statement at the end.
To compose a fable about writing, think of a lesson
you've learned as a writer and compose a tale that fits
the characteristics of the genre. [When I use this
assignment, I usually narrow down the option and provide
explanations for all the genres that are included. I'd
probably offer two options rather than all four. To keep
the example short here, I've only included details for
the fable assignment.]
- How do you compose? If there were a hidden camera
recording everything you did as you worked on a paper,
what events would it capture? How do you get started?
When do you start revising? What do you do when you
revise? Describe the events using basic chronological
order (that is, describe the first thing that you do,
then the second, then the third, and so on).
- Describe your biggest success as a writer. Pretend
you are about to be interviewed on a show such as Today
or the Barbara Walters special. The interviewer is giving
you the opportunity to show off -- what would you say?
What writing accomplishments would you talk about? Script
out the conversation using descriptive language to show
why your writing was successful.
- List the top ten tips you would share with someone
who has asked you for advice about writing a paper, and
explain why you've chosen them. Think about something you
wrote before you came to my class -- maybe a research
paper that you wrote for a class last year, an answer for
an essay exam, or a letter to a friend or family member.
A friend, a family member, or maybe another student is
asking you for help now. What guidelines would you give?
Be sure to be specific!
- What has been the biggest influence on your writing?
Your job here is to write a cause and effect essay -- The
way you write now is the effect. What was the cause? How
did you become the writer you are? To get started, first
you have to think about the qualities that you possess as
a writer. What kind of writer are you anyway? After you
think about what you are, think about what makes you who
you are as a writer. What happened? What changed? Show me
enough about you before, you as a writer now, and the
thing that influenced you to help me understand why this
influence has been important.
- Describe yourself as a writer by using an analogy.
Begin by completing this sentence: "As a writer, I am
like a _______." Or this one: "When I write, it's like
________________." For example, you might complete the
sentence this way: "As a writer, I am like a gardener."
After you've come up with your comparison, draft a paper
that explores the analogy you've chosen. If I were
comparing myself to a gardener, I'd compare the way that
I get started on my papers to the way that I start work
on a garden. You have to do two things in this paper --
show how you write, and draw comparisons to help make the
way you write clearer to your readers.
- What's your language background? What languages do
you know? What have you studied? What is your family's
language background? What language does the community you
are a part of use? Think of your background as a crazy
quilt or a collage. Write several short paragraphs
describing what you know about language and how it works.
Once you've drafted your parts, piece them together. You
might connect the various pieces like a hypertext. You
could use a very large piece of paper and create your own
graphic organization, putting each piece in a bubble and
creating connections with links.
- What are your earliest memories of reading and
writing? Write a flashback. Jump in a time machine. What
do you remember about reading and writing from when you
were younger? Try to be as specific as you can -- do you
remember the titles of books you read? details about the
plot? Do you remember a particular story that you wrote?
What has made these items memorable? Why do you think
these memories have stayed with you? How do they relate
to the way you read and write now?
- How do you know when a paper is done? When you bake a
cake, you can tell it's down by using a toothpick or
tapping the top. When you're filling up your gas tank,
you can tell you're done when the tank is filled to the
top. How do you tell when something you're writing is
done? Are there misleading things to look out for -- can
you be tricked into thinking something you're writing is
done when it's not? Describe the process you would go
through to test a paper, and tell us what you're looking
for in your tests and how you decide whether it's passed
-- how you decide it you're finished.
- Construct a writing kit. Think about the things that
come in a first aid kit, a sewing kit, a bicycle repair
kit, or a starter kit for something like using the
Internet or building models. The kit includes supplies,
tools, and instructions. Describe your writing kit --
what tools and supplies would you assemble? What things
are essential for writing? What items would you include
"just in case"? List the items you'd include, and then
compose the instruction booklet that would accompany the
The exact follow-up I use
depends upon the question students have worked on. For
assignment where students compile advice or reflect on their
language and literacy backgrounds, I like to have students
share their lists or pieces either in small groups or as a
whole class (depending upon the class size). I ask them to
look for connections among the lists, to search for places
where they have similar practices or experiences. After
they've drawn out the similarities, we might have n oral
discussion about what all those similarities indicate about
language, writing, and/or learning.
For assignments such as
writing a fable, I'd probably have students collect the
fables in a class anthology. And, as above, have them read
the collected stories and look for similarities and
For a long-term follow-up, I
like to make copies of the papers and put them away for the
term. At the end of the term, I return the papers and ask
them to think about how the information in the paper has
changed over the term. This reflection exercise works best
for assignments such as a description of the composing
process or describing yourself as a writer by analogy.
Posted July 23, 1998 on the Daedalus Website