English 1105: Freshmen Composition
Writing through the Wide (wide) Wide World of Sports
When asked to write about the course I created for English 1105, I find myself doing that familiar dance of two sentences forward and one-and-three-quarter sentences back, which reminds of this: writing is hard. Writing about writing, talking about writing, teaching writing perhaps an even more difficult task. Actually, scratch that perhaps. For me this “stuff” and discussing this “stuff” has been a real a challenge and while stumbling (grouse understatement) through my first semester of teaching I came to note a couple things. The first being that majority of the time I knew what I wanted to say, but just didn’t have the words to articulate the right “stuff” to my half paying attention, half out the window students. Second, I found myself nervously defaulting to sports metaphors as a means to explain concepts with writing and as a result, open up conversation about writing. Not just “stuff.”
For most that semester, if not all that semester, I felt “I sucked” at teaching composition, but looking back, I realize I just didn’t have the language to discuss composition and only failed a percentage of what felt. And, so, henceforth, etc… my course titled Writing through the Wide (wide) Wide World of Sports was born.
Alluded to above, the beginnings of this course came from a very personal place: me, my long time involvement with sports, and my struggle to can a foothold in an academic field that’s in constant flux and growth. However, once I found some traction, my focus quickly shifted to the relationship between sports and writing, and more importantly, how this relationship can be used to excite and help students in their understanding of composition. With that, what I have for you here is by no means the king size posturepedic reasoning behind my course, but rather a glimpse at a few key ideas in the construction of it.
For starters, I stopped viewing the classroom as a classroom, but rather a playing field, gymnasium, rock course, etc. While I find these places share a similar root purpose—a venue to learn and grow—the classroom, for me, feels stiff vs. a gymnasium where one is confined but more able to move and willing try and trip and fail and get up and do it again. You say classroom, students think grade. You say gym, and students think play. Likewise, I worked hard to create an atmosphere that not only allowed students to display their best work, but one that gave them the space and time to explore and practice without consequence.
Practice, practice, practice: this became a mantra for my course and something I emphasized from day one of class. As articulated on my syllabus:
This class is about making connections. It’s about becoming critical readers and writers. It’s about practice. It’s about more practice. It’s about practice and through practice gaining awareness: awareness of yourself, awareness of your writing process, and awareness of the world in which you interact through language day in and day out (and in) and out.
And this combined with using sports as a springboard into discussion, became the basis for my lesson plans and assignments.
So, onto to talking a bit about my assignments. First off, I enjoyed writing them as much as I enjoyed reading the subsequent papers that were produced, and I think this shows in the introductions that lead into outlining the actual assignment itself. As a class, we spent a day or two talking about voice and the importance of it in writing. However, through assignments sheets, journal prompts, and even the feedback I give on student work, I am constantly offering up my own voice to show the possibilities of what they can do with theirs. It’s a subtle way of leading by example, but also a way to get students engaged with an assignment rather than immediately cringing at the page requirements, due dates, and etc. With that, another incentive I found in opening assignments this way is that it creates a sense of continuity to the course and ultimately beefs up my ethos. Students know what to expect when I hand out an assignment sheet (intro, objective, steps to get started, tips, game plan) and students who have a handful of other courses appreciate this. In other words, assignments should be challenging, assignment sheets not so much.
As a rookie instructor I’m somewhat obsessed with all that flops and fails over a semester, and organization and pacing were two areas where I needed help. In making my syllabus for Writing through the Wide (wide) Wide World of Sports I put a lot of energy in creating purposeful assignments with the objectives in one being the groundwork for the next. This past semester I opened up with a Rhetorical Analysis that focused on what I call the Fab Five + One (what’s the rhetorical situation? your purpose? who’s your audience? what genre will you use? tone/voice?). From there, I had my students construct a Memoir in which we addressed the Fab Five and then moved on to discuss description, using voice, and ways to open, end and organize a memoir/paper. And from there, I had them create Profiles drawing on what they learned from the previous two assignments and then moving on to throw interviews into the mix. And from there, well, the semester concluded. Three major assignments, one due every five weeks, which left a vast amount of time for students to “practice” with purpose by reading sample texts, completing journals, and in-class writings.
My Misc List:
1. Someone with the initials of M.V. once told me if you’re not excited to read an assignment, students were most likely not excited to write it. This changed my life.
2. This past semester I worked solely with Composition at VT and supplemented with outside texts, some I selected and others that the students chose. If looking for a way to get students involved, I highly recommend doing something of the like.
3. Procrastination: I’m a victim as many of my students have been victims. To demonstrate the potential value in not putting a paper off until the night before, I choose one major assignment, have my students bring it to class on said due date, and then tell them to hold on to it for a week. I admit this is a bit cruel, but for some students this extra time shows the value in planning ahead (even if that means beginning a paper at noon instead of midnight the night before).
4. In reading student memoirs, I found myself rolling in laughter at some of the typos (i.e. a student who ordered “cream of crap” soup and another who described his 6-year-old self as undressing like a sex crazed maniac). They were that good. So good I decided to do a “Bloopers” segment the day I returned papers. Again, this could seem cruel, but what resulted was the whole class laughing and sharing in the fact that we all slip up from time to time.