Going Maverick: Writing Textbooks and Superheroes

Once again this semester, I’m teaching composition at a new campus. Ah, the life of an adjunct!

This time I was given a required textbook with writing instruction and readings, as well as a required sequence of essays. I have used chapters from that textbook before. I like the premise of the book, and I like a couple of its chapters. But I don’t like its overall structure. In my opinion, it doesn’t teach the basics of writing. It talks about the complexities of entering academic conversations, and it talks about broad rhetorical moves – but it does so in mostly theoretical terms, without specifics.

The department’s handbook stipulates that we may provide a few additional texts, but that the majority of assigned reading should be from the book. I see the point of that, of course, for a number of reasons – not least the financial burden of making students buy a book they won’t use for most of the class!

And since I picked up this class exactly four days before the first session, I was perfectly okay with just finding texts from the book.

The slight hitch in that was that the department didn’t have copies of the textbook to give new adjuncts yet, and they were relying on the company rep to give adjuncts electronic access. By the time I spoke to the director and was officially given the class, though, it was past 5pm on Friday, which meant that the company rep was out of the office and I didn’t get access until Monday morning – and I needed to have my syllabus all ready to go by Tuesday morning. So I used an old edition of the book, along with the freely-accessible online table of contents of the new edition, and slapped together a syllabus. I never did get a physical copy of the book, and I’m not able to print directly from the ebook, but I’ve been making do.

For the first few weeks of the semester, things were going okay. My students were quiet and didn’t really respond to my efforts to draw them out during class discussions. But we began to read texts and break them down; we read a couple of chapters about critical reading and about how texts position themselves in broader conversations; and a few students began to have ideas of their own in response to the texts we read.

I thought, at first, that the lack of engagement and participation was due to the early morning class (8am, dear lord – how many times have I said never again to early morning classes and yet went with it when one was offered to me later…), or the difference in campuses (this is my first class in a community college), or just the combined personalities of the students – which often is a major factor in determining how the class goes.

It wasn’t such a big deal for the first month. I wasn’t enjoying class as much as I usually do, but that’s not always a possibility. I assigned a lot of groupwork to avoid the excruciating silences during full-class discussion, but even during groupwork there was barely any interaction.

By the time I was receiving drafts of their first paper, students began to miss class more often, come to class without reading or without the text – a few students hadn’t even gotten the text by a month and a half into the semester. It felt like I was letting them down, but I was out of ideas. I suspected that these things were all connected to a lack of interest, and perhaps a lack of motivation. I was frustrated and resigned to not getting through to my students.

But one week the frustration bubbled over and I said, screw it, I’m redoing the syllabus and forgetting about the writing chapters of the textbook. I’ll use a couple readings from the textbook, but then just forget about it and use all of my own materials and sequences I’ve gathered over the past six years of teaching college composition.

We had already started working on the second essay. Students had submitted topic proposals; started doing research after a library visit; and were supposed to submit a first draft that week. I sent around an email – followed up by a second email to make sure everyone got it – telling them NOT to write that first draft, that we would be rewinding and going over some basics first.

I also decided to do some silly exercises at the start of each class to get students up and moving and talking to each other.

Both of those decisions turned out to be very excellent decisions.

The activity I did – just for fun – was this:

1. Write down five superpowers you would like to have.
2. Assign a value from 1 to 5 for each superpower, based on how much you value it.
3. Talk to your classmates and negotiate trades based on how much you and/or your classmates value each superpower. Make at least 3 trades.

I chose this activity for two purposes:
1. to get them all up and moving, to get the blood pumping and wake them up; and
2. to get them talking to each other, which might help conversations about classwork.

The effects of the activity were immediately obvious. When we all sat down to begin the lesson, students were more relaxed and slightly more alert than usual.

Despite the fact that by that time students had started doing research, based on strategies given to them by the librarian and by the textbook, I went over the skill again, this time using my own tried-and-true methods. I emphasized the need for a research question, I went over the need for establishing a “so what” at the start of research, etc. I used a worksheet I “stole” from UC Merced and revised a bit to fit my purposes. We went through the two filled-in rows together, discussing how it helps to have all this in mind before beginning research and before settling on a thesis.

 


 

I then divided the room into quadrants, with each one assigned one of the remaining four topics and research questions. Each group filled out the underlying problems and significance columns, did some quick little research on their phones, and wrote a potential thesis statement.

Each group shared their thesis statement, and I asked some questions about their process and reasoning. More than the theoretical discussion of how research is a conversation, this hands-on work allowed the students to see how research is a conversation (which the textbook’s end-of-chapter exercises did not effectively do).

Once we had done this exercise, I asked students to think about the topics they had chosen for their second essay (based on the readings from the textbook about various food-related topics), and phrase their interest as a question. Their homework for the following class was to fill out the remaining columns and revise (or write for the first time) a potential thesis statement.

I reminded them to bring their superpower papers with them to class the following session. At this point I had literally no idea what I would do with it. I thought maybe I could use this as an extended role-play game. Superheroes and role play are so not my jam – but if it gets my students energetic and talking and alert and engaged, then so be it!

Prepping for the following class made me see how I could actually incorporate the superhero activity into the lesson itself, though…

The pre-class activity (with the same two purposes of getting students up and energized and getting them talking to each other) was this:

Once the pairs of students had negotiated teams and settled down in pairs, I went over a handout about the five elements of a paragraph (which I got from my colleague Sarah Hildebrand):

I then asked each team to write:

  1. A thesis statement claiming that their team is the best.
  2. A paragraph structured according to these five elements that supports the thesis and includes “textual evidence” by citing events or situations from existing superheroes.

While previous sessions groupwork – using the exercises from the textbook based on readings drawn from newspapers and blogs, etc., were subdued and failed to engage students – this activity generated animated conversation from students whose voices I had barely heard all semester.

I circulated among the groups, as I always do, answering questions and guiding students. I know virtually nothing about most superheroes, and I made that clear – which led to my students excitedly telling me about their favorite superheroes and explaining things in ways that allowed me to say “yes! Put that in your paragraph!” 

So seriously – screw the textbook. Maybe I was following the rules too closely and I was never expected to just give up my personal methods. But whether or not that is expected of me, I’m not doing it anymore. My students are learning. They will be able to do well on their essays and their final exam. I saw major leaps and bounds of improvement in students writing – students who I thought were listless and not putting in effort.

I feel like – two months into the 3.5-month semester – I was finally getting to know my students.

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