One of the significant challenges educators face in their writing classes today is motivating students to write compositions for high stakes exams when the reason they write is unclear or is lacking in interest. What if we could take this so-called tedious and mundane task and turn it around just enough to stir up some curiosity and meaning?
By Dr MICHAEL KENTERIS M.Eng, Μ.Sc, PhD
Being an avid supporter of the Flipped Learning approach, I am always trying to find ways to flip my student’s learning and have them attend class ready to do the high order thinking in class, after going over the lower order thinking at home. These days, flirting with the pragmatics of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) I aspire to find ways to offer multiple learning paths to develop conceptual understanding in student individual space. Accordingly, students are assigned alternative activities on how to investigate a writing topic on their own given concepts like writing genre and register, and awareness of the rubric for assessment before coming to class in the group space ready to actively engage in small group or individual activities while being observed, and coached. All this when they are struggling the most.
In reality, unless you conscientiously plan for this to work, it is not so easily implemented. When it comes to planning, designing activities or lessons I propose thinking backwards; tapping into ‘Backward design’ planning. This educational planning approach was originally brought to us by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe with Understanding by design. Planning is started backwards by thinking about the end result of my class. What is it I want my students to understand and learn? I try to keep this initial thought to the ‘one big idea’, I want my students to get from this activity. I then think of the essential questions that I would like my students to think about. I tend to write these questions in the first person to help them start thinking about the answers. Next, I think about assessment. What does a successful understanding look like? How will a writing piece be acceptable? This one is easy, I connect it to the rubric assessment criteria of the examination body I am currently considering. Finally, I will look at the steps needed to get my students where I want them to be - successful writers.
Hence, in the case of writing, what do I do? How can I reach every student and have them write an exceptional writing masterpiece? How can they voice their opinions? For starters, you do not need to look too far, the first and foremost choice most students still have in EFL classrooms is their coursebook. Full of ideas and plans on how to write can be found in those guides. How about setting one of those simple tasks of analysing a plan and a model essay at home than take up a long time in? Really? This is an innovative idea? Evidently, some students do prefer it. Here is a suggestion: not only have them go over the simple instructions of planning and doing a few exercises, but also have them draw, write or even sketch note their summaries which later could be presented in class as pair work or small group work. Other alternatives to convey basic writing concepts are setting videos to be viewed at home connecting a formative assessment task like a quiz to it for accountability. Sometimes I make my own, as I have been told, students enjoy following my videos best, other times I curate readily available ones. An interesting alternative task is to have students find (having guided their search criteria) video clips on their own and have them share them with the rest of the group along with a comment to why they found them interesting. The outcome always surprises me. In this case, many more videos, more interesting and relevant are watched and shared between students. Not to mention saving me time too for more challenging group activities.
Having prepared for writing before class, in class, while I become a guide, students take centre stage and share their findings, plan and write their own masterpiece. I prefer old-fashioned pen and paper, but if it is an online class, I sometimes use online document word processors which allows me to observe my students’ writing in real-time. In another session, I use self and peer assessment activities that guide them through assessment criteria prompting them for a grad. Occasionally, I also try to offer personal feedback to each student. I record myself giving feedback and suggestions for improvement and then send the link to be watched in student own time. Students appreciate the personal connection we have when this happens. Finally, we post our work for all to see. Keeping writing authentic gives it a purpose. When students know that others will read their blog post, they do try a little bit more to improve their final draft. At our school, we showcase all our writing and it is there for others to read, get ideas or comment on.
Just a final thought, I am always being asked, “What about the students that don’t prepare for class?” This is a choice students also have. I counter approach this by having them do the homework in class while missing out on the group space activities, which are usually a lot more interesting, not to mention meaningful.