“Are you a writer?” or 5 things I have learned about writing

The other day I was discussing a popular novel with an acquaintance and she asked me “are you a writer?” This question took me aback in the context of discussing fiction. No, I don’t write fiction, but yes, I do write as a part of what I do for a living. In fact, this spring I taught a course on Writing Educational Research. In true teacher fashion, I learned as much as my students. Or rather, in discussing writing I realized some of the things about writing I have learned along the way. (My apologies to past English teachers/professors of mine if you find yourself saying “I taught you that”. Honestly, like most students, I had to discover some things myself: the hard way). These observations pertain primarily to academic writing, the genre I work in, as interpreted by APA writing and referencing style.

1. Speaking of the American Psychological Association (APA), “APA 6th” is more than merely a way of writing out in-text citations and references. While I used to worry about the distinction between sentence and title case in book and journal titles, I now focus on economy of language. That is to say, how can I say what I want in the fewest words possible. Try that again: Be direct because long sentences confuse readers. Contrary to popular belief, academic writing is meant to be clear, not confusing. Terminology and jargon should be explained. Lengthy phrases should be rewritten. The passive should be avoided. Oops, I mean, explain terminology and jargon, rewrite lengthy phrases and write in the active voice. Writing in APA style means writing with effectiveness and parsimony.

2. Learn to embrace the pronoun “I”. Reading a sentence like “the researcher surveyed 100 students regarding their opinion of what makes a good teacher” sounds like you are having an “out of body” experience or not entirely confident about your work if indeed YOU ARE THE RESEARCHER. I encourage my students to own up to what they have done, primarily in the methodology section of their papers. Now, I understand where the caution comes in. The use of “I” in the literature review section could lead to espousing personal opinions such as “I believe every student should have a university instructor who has taught at the K-12 level”. That’s interesting, but do you have anything to back up that claim? If so, then lead with that: “Studies show that students are more satisfied with university instructors who have K-12 teaching experience (insert citations here)”. For further reading on this topic, I recommend reading Timothy McAdoo’s post of the use of the first person in APA style. I have found the use of the pronoun “I” facilitates stronger, clearer writing.

3. Learn the difference between critical analytic writing and descriptive writing. The purpose of academic writing is to persuade the reader that your point is significant and well thought out. You need to argue this in a way that leads the reader to the same conclusion: “yes, I agree, why hadn’t I thought of this before!”

4. End each paragraph with your own thoughts. Tell the reader why the points you mentioned are important and what they add to your main point. For example:

Recently I wrote the following in a first draft:

Two innovative practices serve to reconcile competing discourses:team teaching and translanguaging. Team teaching in this context is understood to be the teaching of two classrooms of students by two teachers who both remain present in the classroom. Translanguaging is defined as an “instructional strategy that integrates and reflects bilingual usage” (Cummins, 2014, p. 14).

After I edited it and strengthened it, it read:

Two innovative practices serve to reconcile competing discourses: team teaching and translanguaging. Team teaching in this context is understood to be the teaching of two classrooms of students by two teachers who both remain present in the classroom. Translanguaging is defined as an “instructional strategy that integrates and reflects bilingual usage” (Cummins, 2014, p. 14). Both practices are currently found in bilingual education in North America, although their role in reconciling competing discourses is newly emerging.

The addition of the final sentence brings the reader back to how the knowledge of these two definitions will help him/her to understand how these concepts impact the study I conducted.

5. Making writing a social process mitigates the pitfalls of an isolated practice. The image of the writer sitting in an office typing for hours on end is just one way to understanding the writing process. Collaboration can include co-writing (either synchronous or asynchronous); mutual editing (I will find your commas if you find my spelling mistakes); mutual support (meeting over coffee to discuss whether each person is meeting their writing goals and encouraging one another through writing challenges); solicited advice (asking respected others for recommendations of suitable journals, sources, or solutions to writing challenges).  Wendy Belcher, in her book Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks recommends putting your commitment to yourself and other in writing, to solidify the commitment. All or some of these activities can support the writing process from idea to publication.

For me, moving forward as a writer means embracing the process as a continual learning experience, sometimes enjoying it and other times needing the courage to try and fail and try again. Documenting these recent insights facilitate my writing and hopefully the writing of others as well.


Formative assessment in online graduate classes

In my teaching practice, I instruct a number of online graduate classes a year. With the first course I instructed, I began in the way of most beginner teachers: “teach as you were taught”. After the first course, I reflected upon what worked well and what I felt could be improved. One aspect of online graduate courses that appeared to be missing was formative assessment. In subsequent classes, I looked at how to build formative assessment into the course.

1. I began by requiring students to provide drafts of final reports by a given deadline. This proved popular. Without the deadline, students rarely took up the general offer to have me read over anything they had written and if they did it was usually a small snippet of their writing or very focused questions. What was missing was a chance to read how the student wrote a longer piece. Once I integrated drafts on a deadline, I was able to see how the student wrote: the line of argumentation, use of citations and practical issues such as formatting and APA style. I commented and gave suggested and expected to see a progression from the draft to the final paper.

2. At the same time, I implemented peer editing. Students in online courses are often asked to comment on other student’s posts and there is a danger of “cheerleading” (e.g., “I really liked what you wrote about. . . “) In the Canadian context, this seems to be heightened by our reluctance to criticize. In the first course I implemented peer feedback on writing, all students posted their work and were asked to choose two other pieces of posted work to comment on. This turned out to be problematic. Students didn’t know how far to go in their editing and the results were superficial for the most part.

3. What appeared to be missing was a relationship among the students that would facilitate closer reading of one another’s work, so in the next course I instituted peer editing groups. Groups of three to five students were assigned to work with one another throughout the whole course, beginning with brainstorming, researching and outlining and culminating with reading and commenting on each other’s drafts. Creating these groups allowed the students to focus only on reading and editing a small number of pieces and since they were working together over the duration of the course, they built up relationships of trust. The resulting final papers, compared to the drafts, were outstanding and the improvement was clearly based on more than my comments on their drafts.

4. An added benefit of formative assessment was the privilege of reading each paper twice. Some colleagues have asked me if it isn’t so much extra work for me to read a draft that goes ungraded and then have all of the grading at the end of the course. I always answer that the grading is made so much more manageable by the fact that I am acquainted with the topic. In addition, I feel that the comments that I make on the final paper are more valuable. I no longer feel compelled to comment on minutiae that would only help the student if s/he were intending to work up the paper for publishing, since s/he would never be writing (or possibly even looking at) this paper again. Instead I can give feedback on the work that was done in light of my students’ learning goals and the degree to which they were able to improve the paper over time.

5. My latest challenge has been to improve the feedback I give in the form of comments. I recently read “Embedded Formative Assessment” by Dylan Wiliam  and have taken to hear the research on “feedback that moves learning forward”. I have altered the way I include comments and grades, by separating them physically so that the students read the comments first and then look up their grade in a different part of the online platform. I do not know if this will have the desired effect or just annoy students, but I will be asked the students at the end of this semester if it was effective. I am also trying to limit my comments to the scoring rubric only or, if I do comment on something outside of the rubric, to label it as such and only include it if it is part of the upcoming assignment’s rubric.

Improving formative assessment in online graduate classes will continue to be a goal of mine for improving my teaching practice. Fortunately, successes are almost immediately perceived and as such, the motivation to continue this work remains high.

Update: I went on to research peer and instructor feedback. It was published here:

Dressler, R., Chu, M-W., Crossman, K., & Hilman, B. (2019). Quantity and quality of uptake: Examining surface and meaning-level feedback provided by peers and an instructor in a graduate research course. Assessing Writing, 39(1), 14-24, doi:10.1016/j.asw.2018.11.001

New research opportunity

This summer I had a fortuitous reunion with a former colleague. In my first year of teaching, the educational consultant seconded to Alberta Education from the German government was Rainer Wicke. In the two decades since he encouraged me to write an article about a student letter writing project, both of us have received our Ph.Ds. Now he and a research collaborator are embarking upon a research project in which they would like to include research about the German Bilingual Program in Canada. We met again at the International German Teacher Conference and shared our mutual research interests, only to discover that we might be able to work together on our overlapping interests in the German Bilingual Program. So, he introduced me to his research collaborator, Dr. Kim Haataja, from Tampere, Finnland, who was able to tell me more about their project: Content & Language Integrated Instruction in German. I look forward to working with them and take inspiration in their interest in my work.

Pilot Project: Finding a Place for Emerging Bilinguals in a German Bilingual School

My pilot project is nearing completion. The data is undergoing analysis and I am presenting on the interview data at the upcoming Traditions and Transitions Conference in Waterloo, Ontario. The program can be found on  http://www.wcgs.ca/www/index.php/transitions.html.

In the past, the group putting on this conference has produced a book and I believe that the organizers are planning to do the same with this conference. I am looking forward to feedback on the suitability of this study for the planned book. In addition, having this presentation deadline facilitates the writing of the report which is required by the participating school district.

The conference affords me the opportunity to hear Claire Kramsch one more time. I understand she is retiring, which does not necessarily mean she will no longer be speaking at conferences, but there is no guarantee. I am also looking forward to visiting the Kitchener/Waterloo area for the first time. As one of the areas of Canada with the most German speakers, I am curious as to what the city is like.