traci's lists of ten

Traci's 3rd List of Ten:
Ten Ways to A Writer's Background

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.

  1. 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.]

  2. 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).

  3. 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.

  4. 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!

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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?

  9. 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.

  10. 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 items.


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 differences.

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.