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Building connections through reflective writing.

Abstract

One important challenge liberal arts teachers in all disciplines face at the post-secondary level is to help students see the larger connections of a course. Teachers can integrate a strand of reflective assignments, such as reflective letters or essays, research journals, or response papers, to help students connect content with both prior experience and life beyond the classroom. This essay establishes the problem, explains a sequence of reflective letter assignments, and shares the discoveries of composition students who completed those assignments.

Introduction

One of the most important challenges liberal arts teachers in all disciplines face at the postsecondary level is to help students see the larger connections of a course--to understand how a discipline interconnects not only with other disciplines, but within students' lives. Teachers know that students learn best when they are connected to the subject matter--when they develop a personalized value for and understanding of the material. Teachers are also often aware of the never-ending stream of private and public sector anecdotes about businesses wanting to hire "well-rounded" individuals. Whether from the pedagogical perspective of wanting to create an energetic classroom of dedicated learners, or the practical perspective of wanting to help students become more appealing job candidates, teachers in all disciplines understand that the connection between and among student and disciplines must be established.

The problem in establishing this connection however, is that colleges and universities often pay lip service to the idea without implementing institution-wide programs and strategies to make it a reality. College and university mission statements, both for whole institutions and liberal arts programs, emphasize development of the whole individual. For example, West Virginia University Admissions & Records (2004) justifies the university's Liberal Studies program by noting that "[i]n our world of rapid economic, social, and technological change, universities recognize that a broad educational foundation is necessary for the life-long learning that makes meaningful careers and other goals attainable." They further assert that "[g]eneral education helps students to become thoughtful participants in a democratic society and to achieve the intellectual integration and awareness they need to meet changes and challenges in their personal, social, political, and professional lives.'" Indiana University of Pennsylvania (2005), a four-year teaching university in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, argues that "Liberal Studies provides the broad vision and understanding that enable individuals to enjoy full, rich lives and to play constructive roles in their communities." Finally, Gordon College aligns its purpose with other two-year schools in the Georgia System. Their goal is "to educate the whole person" and provide "practices and programs that embody the ideals of an open, democratic society" (2004, p.2). These examples from diverse yet representative public institutions all make the same argument: participation in a range of disciplines helps students engage the real world throughout their lives. However, it is not merely the exposure to a range of disciplines that helps students engage the world; students must recognize and construct meaningful connections among the disciplines and between the disciplines and their own lives to fully grasp the value of a liberal education.

Although there are a few pedagogical strategies for achieving the stated goals of a Liberal Arts education, such as requiring cross-disciplinary writing activities or presenting content from a multi-disciplinary perspective, most of these are often situated in specialized programs such as Honors Colleges or Interdisciplinary Studies programs with smaller class sizes and specific demographics, separated from the larger academic population. Reflective writing, however, is an easy way for teachers in any discipline to encourage this connection building. In my composition classroom, a reflective strand of writing assignments has helped students understand the role of writing in their other courses as well as in their daily lives.

Reflective Assignments

In my College Composition courses, I ask students to do three assignments that I present as reflective activities:

* A Literacy Narrative (ENGL 1101:College Composition I only)

* A Mid-Term Reflection (ENGL 1101 and ENGL 1102:College Composition II)

* A Final Reflection (ENGL 1101 and ENGL 1102)

When I discuss these assignments in class, I specifically frame them as reflective learning-opportunities for students to conduct self assessments of their experiences reading and writing. Each assignment builds upon the prior one. The literacy narrative frames the 1101 course by getting students to discuss their reading and writing experiences up to the start of the term. The mid-term reflective letter asks both my 1101 and 1102 students what they have learned since the start of term. The final reflection asks them not only to discuss their learning, but to look ahead, toward their future literacy needs and paths.

The Literacy Narrative assignment helps undermine some negative expectations and other inhibitions that students bring into the writing classroom. Among the fears and complaints that emerge in student literacy narratives are the following:

* Students expect to be told what to write.

* Students expect to hate writing assignments, or they already hate writing.

* Students expect teachers to be grammar mavens, ready to use their red pens until the ink runs out.

* Students expect writing to be a science, a chore, and a tool for academic success only; the course is a hoop to jump through on the way to a degree.

A student who operates under these assumptions often produces, at best, formulaic writing that demonstrates none of the creativity, critical thinking, or insight that should emerge based on Emig's (1977) argument that writing is a way of thinking and learning. At worst, these assumptions lead students, especially those whose confidence and faith in writing has been nonexistent for considerable time, to take only half-hearted stabs at writing that attempt to "jump the hoops" of what Reigstadt & McAndrew (2001) identity, as Low (or Later) Order Concerns-Grammar, Mechanics, Punctuation, and Spelling. Although I knew about these apprehensions long before I entered the classroom, the Literacy Narrative assignment was the first place where I observed students regularly and repeatedly raising the same concerns. Though the assignment has varied slightly over the years, it has not deviated much from the assignment description provided below: Literacy Narrative Assignment Goals:

* To spur your thinking about your expectations for and approach to this course by considering previous reading and writing experiences

* To inform me of prior experiences that have shaped your literacy experiences

* To provide a brief sample of your writing.

Instructions:

* Tell a narrative of your experiences with reading and/or writing. You may discuss a single event in depth, or cover a length of time. If you discover that you have a central point you would like to make in this paper, state it clearly.

Form Requirements:

* 2 full pages, typed and double spaced.

* Other requirements as identified in the syllabus. (These involve form, not content). Grade:

* This assignment is worth 5% of the total course grade. It will be assessed on the depth and detail of the text.

The assignment structure is intentionally loose because my unstated goal for this assignment is to build students' confidence in their ability to put pen to paper. Once they see that it is alright to "write their minds," they are usually more receptive to instruction. I have therefore adopted an unspoken rule of giving nothing below a "C" on this assignment. However, when a student receives a "C," she or he must attend an office hour conference with me to look at her or his writing in more detail. While grading these assignments, I also look ahead to issues of thesis and development, both higher order concerns that I indirectly refer to in the assignment instructions. I take notes on the high and later/low order concerns that seem to be most prevalent or pressing, so that I can plan lessons around these topics sooner. When I return the narratives, I engage the class in a general content discussion specifically to debunk the expectations created by some of their prior negative experiences and to encourage them to trust themselves as writers. Beyond a conscious effort to give students an initial boost of confidence heading into the semester, this assignment serves as a means of contextualizing my course in the larger picture of students' literacy experiences. The assignment is a form of what Yancey (1998) calls reflection-in-action, a reflective activity in which authors consider writer-reader-text relationships during or after text production (p. 24). The Literacy Narrative achieves its purpose as a synthesizing and reflective tool when students begin to explore how the composition course is connected to--and different from--prior courses and experiences with reading and writing.

At Mid-term, I require students to write a reflective letter. For this assignment, I have allowed students to use their literacy narrative as an invention prompt. When I have assigned reflective notes and letters as an accompaniment to individual essay assignments--forms of reflection-inpresentation--I have allowed students to use these shorter letters as invention material as well. In these cases, the Mid-Term operates as an act of constructive reflection (Yancey, 1998), in which students see the evolution of their thinking about writing across letters and over time. This allows students to assemble discrete reflection-in-action activities into a larger understanding of individual growth and course interconnectedness. My purpose in this assignment is to explicitly require students to reflect on their learning in the first half of the course. ENGL 1101 Mid-Term Reflective Letter Assignment Goals:

* To explore your individual learning in the course by reflecting on course experiences

* To produce a developed and insightful text that is grammatically and mechanically correct.

Requirements:

* Discuss what you have learned about one or more of the larger topics of the course-High Order Concerns, Low Order Concerns, rhetorical modes or strategies, writing process, technology use, or any other smaller topic within these larger categories. Do not repeat what, how, or why, you did a particular assignment. I provide what, why, and how in my syllabus, in assignment sheets, and in class discussion. I don't need you to tell me what I already know! The best letters are those which develop a particular discovery or discoveries through specific examples from moments throughout the course.

Form:

* The assignment must adhere to the requirements of the letter genre. I am your audience.

* Attend to all issues of organization, development, grammar, and mechanics discussed throughout ENGL 1101.

* Since this letter is the mid-term exam, it must be handwritten in class.

* Attend to other format requirements as outlined in the course syllabus.

Grade:

* This essay will be graded on the depth and quality of discussion related to your individual course discovery or discoveries. This letter counts as 5% of your total course grade.

The Final Exam is nearly identical to the Mid-term. In addition to the literacy narrative (and any smaller reflective pieces), students may also use their Mid-Term essay as invention. As with the Mid-Term, this examination functions as both an opportunity for constructive reflection, in which students examine and discuss the evolution of their knowledge over the semester, and as an instance of reflection-in-presentation, in which they share what they have learned with an outside audience. I grade both the Mid-Term and Final Exams much tougher than the literacy narrative. Whereas it was unheard of for students to receive less than a "C" on the Literacy narrative, it is entirely possible to fail the Mid-Term and Final Exams, although this has rarely happened. Most students, when they see how this assignment ties into their own assessment of learning, take it pretty seriously, even though each is only 5% of the total course grade.

A Closer Look at Responses

In mid term and final reflective letters, students often demonstrate growth in three ways. First, students may speak of added confidence in their ability to read and write. Second, they may discuss their potential for growth as writers and readers. Essays in which students demonstrate a renewed desire to read and write, or essays in which class activities have encouraged future reading and writing activities demonstrate an inclination to develop a longer-term notion of literacy, and may seem like the most successful types of reflective assignments. However, the third demonstration of growth, in which students draw clear connections between activities or skills developed in class and applications beyond expected reading and writing activities may perhaps be even more valuable, since an articulation of learning at this level suggests that the course has been situated into the larger scheme of students' lives.

Often times, students will write that one of the most valuable lessons they learn in the course is to trust themselves to make decisions as writers. This is not a new issue. The desire for individual writers to take control of their own writing is the purpose behind Elbow's (1973) seminal text Writing Without Teachers, so the profession has been trying to respond to this problem for at least 33 years--and probably longer. Hephzibah Roskelly (1993) attempts to resolve fear through the use of group work in her first year composition classroom. In his presentation at the 1993 Conference on College Composition and Communication, Robert Sledd reminds his audience that confidence is an ongoing problem among basic writers who "have become convinced that surface errors in their writing not only make them look stupid [...] but occur because [they believe] they are stupid." Although Sledd's assessment of students' self-perceptions could be articulated more gently, he recognizes surface errors as indicators that identify students who are likely to have confidence issues. In his presentation, he discusses how to treat the indicator--the symptom--of this lack of confidence. However, in reflective writing that asks students to discuss what they have learned and how they have grown as writers, we are more likely to help students see their strengths, and thus treat the illness itself. The lack of confidence students often bring to the writing classroom is particularly rampant at open enrollment junior and community colleges, where students enrolled in freshman composition courses are just as likely to have taken remedial reading or writing as they are to have enrolled in AP English in high school. At my home institution, of the 1247 Freshmen who enrolled in Fall 2005, 354 (28%) enrolled in ENGLISH 0098, while 275 (22%) enrolled in Reading 0098. 179 of these students (14.3%) enrolled in both courses. Clearly, confidence building is an important activity with this demographic, as well as with more prepared first-year writers.

Regardless of their remedial experience, students who have written reflective letters in my English Composition I and II courses have stated that gaining confidence was one of their most important lessons. John, an 18-year old aficionado of science fiction/fantasy and an aspiring fiction writer, noted in his opening literacy narrative that he had little faith in his own writing. In his final reflective letter, however, he wrote "even in class settings, my writing [style] can be acceptable. This class gave me freedom, and with that freedom I was able to grow." John recognizes freedom as the key, a sentiment suggested by Expressivist scholars such as Elbow, discussed earlier, and Murray (1972), who argues that writing is a process of discovery. In this way, Expressivist Theory informs my pedagogy, especially as it applies to writing topics and journals. In these assignments, I provide broad themes and guidelines, but let students select specific topics within that framework in order to take charge of their own writing and discover their own ideas.

However, even before some students can embrace the freedom offered by course assignments, they need to overcome fears they may face in their writing. Grace, a student who took remedial English prior to my English 1101, writes "you have helped me explore my writing ability and shown me not to be scared." Students who fear failure, or who fear their own inadequacy as writers, are often less inclined to take exploratory risks. Yet exploration is a requirement of the essay-based composition classroom, evidenced by Montaigne's decision to call his exploratory writing essais, or "attempts" (DiYanni, 2005, p.1). Fear certainly inhibits the bravery required for students to take risks and grow in their writing, so for Grace to make this leap of faith is a great accomplishment on her literacy journey. Furthermore, confidence is just as much an issue among non-traditional students. Because my college enrolls a large number of older students, I am constantly reminded of their needs. Jodie, a student within three years my age, states in her English 1102 reflective letter that "I am more confident in my writing abilities. This confidence will continue to benefit me in my other classes." Like John, Grace, and many of my other students, Jodie has made the leap in confidence, and has connected that confidence to using her skills in other academic contexts. The reflective letter allows her the opportunity to consider and discuss that confidence as it has emerged during the course.

The second way in which students often demonstrate growth through reflective writing is to articulate their plans for future reading and writing activities. Alice Homing (1997) writes that students "tell us the story of their learning through their reflections on the experience of doing so" (p.7), coinciding with Yancey's (1998) recognition that reflection is "the articulating of what learning has taken place, as embodied in various texts as well as in the processes used by the writer" (p.6). I might argue that here we can learn what teaching has taken place as well. We can discover which of the many ideas we present and statements we have made in the classroom have resonated. We can learn how our teaching has prepared--or failed to prepare--our students for future literacy activities. No doubt many teachers wish that their specific lessons and discussion activities lead to good long-term reading and writing habits. Reflective letters often reveal this kind of growth. John, my aspiring fiction writer, paid careful attention when I encouraged students to read each others' work out loud, conscientiously, and with attention to the pauses and stops indicated through commas and periods. He writes "I find your advice on listening to the writing ... has allowed me to produce better work." Similarly, Harriet learned about reading as a tool for invention. She writes "that group discussions in our class can lead to brilliant topic (sic) to write about. For example, the story about Barbie [Emily Prager's essay "Our Barbies, Ourselves"] ... made me want to write about my feelings." As I recall, one of Harriet's papers in the course involved a social critique of body image, and I am certain she wrote about this issue in her journal as well. In both of these cases, the reflective letter reinforces common classroom practices.

Sometimes, students learn or discover ideas from the suggestions we make that are not part of the course itself. For example, late in each semester, my students have the opportunity to revise a previous essay to improve their grade. Grace, my former student, learned enough from doing this that she decided to "go back to some of my older writings and compare them to my writings today, I know that you have made my future a lot easier on me." Although I didn't ask students to compare and contrast their drafts from start to finish, the revision activity piqued her interest enough to examine how much her writing has changed over time. In another example, John accepted some reading recommendations that I made after class one day: "No doubt I'll do a good deal more reading, some of which will likely be some of the works and materials you've suggested." These reflections remind teachers that we are under constant scrutiny, and that our opinions and ideas can lead to surprise learning opportunities for our students.

The third, and arguably most important way in which students demonstrate growth through reflective writing is by making clear connections to life beyond the writing classroom. In The Reflective Practitioner (1983), Schon, who provides much of the foundation for Yancey's retheorization and application of reflection in composition, explains that reflection-in-action differs from reflecting on prior events largely because of the potential to alter the course of "current" events. He argues that reflection-in-action "is bounded by the 'action-present'--the zone of time in which action can still make a difference to the situation. The action present may stretch over minutes, hours, days, or even weeks or months" (p.62). In reflection-in-action, the practitioner sets the examples of prior experience against the discoveries of the moment and the specifics of the case. It is arguable that my students will use the experience of my classroom to inform their actions--and to make a difference--in the future situations they describe. Sherry, a nontraditional wife and mother, writes "this class has not only helped me to learn how to properly write a research paper, but it has also helped me to proofread and pass some advice on to my son when he writes a paper. He attends the same school system I attended. If the teachers did not teach me how to write a research paper then they certainly are not going to teach him. This is where I step in, because now I know how to do this. I do not want college to be the first place he learns to write a paper well." Jodie, another non-traditional student, applies the lessons of my classroom not to teaching her child, but to understanding current events: "I have also learned to pay close attention to author credibility. This is especially important when completing a research paper, but also in every aspect of life. Keeping the author's credibility in mind will assist me not only in my schoolwork, but when I read the paper, books, or even listen to the news. This knowledge will allow me to rely on accurate and reliable information rather than just someone's opinion." The ability to stay informed in daily life is an important issue for Jodie, as she continues to explain how she used the research process to not only learn about a topic of personal importance, but, as with some of the other students, to build confidence as well. She writes "throughout my research on social security, I gained an even deeper understanding and knowledge of this program. At first I was so focused on disability and survivor benefits that I was not focusing enough on retirement. Through my research, I began to have an understanding of how privatization will hurt this part of Social Security. With this increased knowledge I feel more confident in voicing my opinion in an educated manner." Ultimately, Jodie is an illustration of what we want from our students. As James Berlin argues in Rhetorics, Poetics, and Cultures (1996), we should want students to become critical participants in the world, and not just consumers of it.

A reflective writing strand, built into any course- through mid-term and final, scientific research journals, one page reflective papers discussing chapter readings, or by any other means--provides a real opportunity for teachers to help students connect course content with both their prior experiences and with their lives beyond the classroom. It is fitting to close by considering the words of my ENGL 1101 student, Harriet, who recognizes, I think without fully realizing it, my point about the role of reflective writing in helping students connect their prior experiences to their coursework. She shares that "I learned so much from your class, but the most important thing I learned is that we gain knowledge through our past experiences." Equally important, however, is that we help them see the future, and how the work they do now connects to it.

References

Berlin, J. (1996). Rhetorics, poetics, and cultures: Refiguring college english studies. Urbana: NCTE.

DiYanni, R. (2005). Twenty-five great essays, 2e. New York: Pearson Longman.

Elbow, P. (1973). Writing without teachers. New York: Oxford University Press.

Emig, J. (1977). Writing as a mode of learning. College Composition and Communication 28(2), 122-28.

Gordon College. (2004). Academic catalog 2004-05. Barnesville, GA: Gordon College.

Horning, A. (1997). Reflecting and revision: Intimacy in college writing. Composition Chronicle 9(9), 4-7.

Indiana University of Pennsylvania. (2005). Indiana University of Pennsylvania-Liberal Studies. Retrieved January 13, 2005: http://www.iup.edu/liberal/

Murray, D. M. (1972). Teaching writing as a process not product. The Leaflet, 11-14. Reigstadt, T. J., & McAndrew, D. A. (2001). Tutoring writing: A practical guide for conferences. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Roskelly, H. (1993). The cupped hand and the open palm. In Wendy Bishop (ed.), The Subject is Writing: Essays by Teachers and Students (pp. 150-161). Portsmouth: Boynton/Cook-Heinemann.

Schon, D. A. (1983). The reflective practitioner: How professionals think in action. New York: Basic Books.

Sledd, R. (1993, March). The dark and bloody mystery: Building basic writers' confidence. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Conference on College Composition and Communication, San Diego, CA.

WVU Admissions & Records. (2004). WVU Admissions Services--Liberal Studies Program Description. Retrieved January 13, 2005, from the World Wide Web: http://www.arc.wvu.edu/courses/lspdetails.html

Yancey, K. B. (1998). Reflection in the writing classroom. Logan, Utah: Utah State University Press.

Robert T. Koch, Jr., Gordon College, GA

Dr. Koch is an Assistant Professor of English at Gordon College in Barnesville, GA.
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Author:Kock, Robert T., Jr.
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Date:Sep 22, 2006
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