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Reflection on Summer 2012 Independent Study

Designing Design: The Process and Product of “Getting” Basic Writing Course Content

Teachers use the word “design” so freely to describe the process and product that results in a course outline that it deserves a closer look. As a noun, design is a passive product, to be admired yes, but not truly appreciated as the dynamic force that can be.  As a verb, on the other hand, design has movement; it changes form and it experiments with mediums; it breathes emotion and intelligence. “Teacher are designers” is the short, opening sentence to Understanding by Design, by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, that juxtaposes the difference between the noun and the verb forms of the word “design.” The authors clarify that they don’t intend for their templates for course design and assessment to be a passive, paint- by- numbers formula, but rather as a dynamic tool for discovery and creativity.  I must divulge that at times during the process I fell into the trap of just filling in the blanks, but then quickly realized that by taking short cuts the results suffered.  The purpose of this course design project is to create a dynamic, student-focused basic writing course that fulfills institutional standards, clearly and effectively teaches and fairly and consistently assesses transferable, interdisciplinary educational skills that reflect valuable habits of mind, while also expressing and examining my own individual teaching style, including the use of website technology.  The goal was to distill and apply what I have learned thus far in my studies about the various aspects of writing pedagogy and content delivery and to identify my own strengths and weaknesses in these areas in order to become a better teacher.

The foundation of course design, what to teach, how to teach it, and the assessment of learning, usually starts with institutional and departmental standards including a more recent focus on interdisciplinary and transferable skills.  Erika Lindemann, in A Rhetoric for Writing Teachers, however, previews her discussion on writing course design with an even more fundamental question; is the course to focus on the expressive nature of the individual writer, or on students as members of a discourse community in which “the teacher deliberately fosters collaboration so that the students must help one another learn and may share in the group’s achievements” (261)?  Lindemann might resist Wiggins’ and McTighe’s suggestion that teachers jump in so quickly, to begin the design process by first isolating the nouns and verbs in course standards, and to define immediately the “big ideas” and “core tasks” on which all other aspects of the course hinge.  I must say however, that having deliberated on the theoretical discussions of Lindemann and others and deciding that collaborative learning is the way to go, by using Wiggins’ and McTighe’s method, I was able to fairly quickly and efficiently condense five wordy statements into one tightly packed course objective: “Students will develop writing and critical reading skills that are transferable across disciplines and relevant to an engaged academic, work, and community life.”  Something about Lindemann’s personal and empathetic teaching style reminds me of Mina Shaughnessy’s realistic goal to reduce rather than eliminate writing errors and thereby foster confidence and self esteem in basic writing students.  For Shaughnessy, in 1970, at the dawn of college open admissions policy, teaching and assessment of basic writing is all about creating confident students by concentrating mainly on prescriptive grammar instruction assessed holistically. Although Shaugnessy’s goal to reduce sentence-level and paragraph error is vital, for my purposes, the broader assessment goals of Wiggins and McTighe are more transferable and analytical, especially conducive to my goal of a collaborative, discourse community.

Whatever basic writing assessment focuses on, whether grammar or content, the criteria must be clear, effective, and consistent, so that students know what is expected of them and how they will be graded. Wiggins’ and McTighe’s rubric matrix, based on their “Six facets of Understanding,” encourages continual assessment of student learning. The six facets state that as evidence of true understanding of what’s been instructed, students will be able to:

  • explain
  • interpret
  • apply
  • empathize
  • have perspective
  • and have self-knowledge

Creating analytic rubrics using any method is time-consuming, but they encourage teachers to reflect on how clear and effective their assignments are. Deconstructing an assignment for the purpose of assigning assessment categories can be accomplished several ways including, reflecting on one’s goals and purpose, gathering evidence from previous assignments, or designing collaboratively with students. The reflective process advocated by Dannelle Stevens and Antonia Levi in their book, Introduction to Rubrics, which involves asking what and why questions about the purpose and course context of the assignment was especially helpful to me as a pre-service teacher.  Reflective questions evolve smoothly into a list of assignment objectives to use as assessment criteria.  Like Wiggins’ and McTighe’s suggestion to use course descriptors to create goals, Anson and Daniels similarly encourage the use of the course description to define rubric categories, cautioning however, that “the greater the number of categories, the more complex and time-consuming the grading” (Roen 393).  One experienced teacher I spoke with resists rubric grading altogether, believing that to put student writing into “boxes,” especially when categories are narrowed down for time purposes, is unfair and incomplete. While I respect this teacher’s knowledge and skill, I would question my ability to be consistent using holistic assessment.

Proponents of analytic rubrics argue that although “for beginners . . . the first few rubrics may take more time than they save . . . This time is not wasted”(Stevens and Levi 14) because a well prepared rubric is equally conducive to classroom success for both teachers and students.  Since grading is one of the areas where new teachers feel least prepared, using rubric templates on websites such as Rubistar is an even more efficient option while gaining classroom experience.  But, experience is at the base of rubric creation using the Understanding by Design method.  Wiggins and McTighe use samples of student writing to define traits that represent categories and performance levels. They are adamant that “a rubric is never complete until it has been used to evaluate student work and an analysis of different levels of work is used to sharpen the descriptors” (180). While the “Six Facet Rubric” is effective for experienced teachers and gracefully incorporates more subjective aspects of understanding including habits of mind into the mix, for a pre-service teacher like myself, it became increasingly complicated to translate those ideals into words.  I finally designed a sample rubric for one assignment by borrowing ideas from different sources, including Understanding by Design. Optimally, I would like to collaboratively build assignment rubrics with my students for most assignments.

Including students in the assessment process builds their confidence by clearly defining expectations and reinforcing responsibility for their own learning.  I was concerned, however, that basic writers might be overwhelmed if asked to produce a rubric at the beginning of the semester, so I opted to have students contribute to the rubric for the simpler, presentation portion of the second major assignment, the career exploration project, as their first attempt.  During the final research assignment, designing the rubric will begin with the introduction to the assignment and will be revisited during the next few class periods to be refined as needed.  This process will allow me, as a beginner, to get to know and grow along with my students, to assess the different levels of knowledge they have of the course material we’ve covered thus far, and also assess the clarity and effectiveness of my assignments.

Both Lindemann and Shaughnessy stress that it’s not only important to have clear and effective course goals, writing assignments, and fair and effective means of assessment, but also to understand the intellectual and emotional needs of adult basic writers in order to determine course tone and content, and the resources and support systems needed for each individual student.  For students, “grade points are currency” and assignment tasks need to be pertinent to life outside the writing classroom. This transferability of knowledge and skill informed my choice of the American workplace as the theme for my basic writing course design project.  Shaughnessy reminds basic writing teachers that “the aesthetic that dominates English teachers’ judgments has generally been shaped by years of belletristic literature, and the pleasure in the arrangement of words” leaving students to define acceptable college writing a “writing you can’t understand” (196).  This type of thinking doesn’t result in “currency” that students can “spend” in their daily lives.  Citing Kenneth Burke, Lindeman paraphrases his description of rhetoric as “a function of language that enables human beings to overcome the divisions separating them” (53).  This statement describes the purpose of basic writing classes as social currency that “[connects] to the social fabric of the culture in which they occur” (54). Students, therefore, should be encouraged to write clearly and simply, with attention given to writing for specific audiences in an appropriate way, and basic writing teachers should consider texts and design assignment tasks that reflect real-life situations.

The autobiography assignment unit allows the expressivist in the student to surface while beginning to address thought processes used to explore topics, essay organization and structure, using resources such as handbooks and online tutorials to self-correct mechanical errors, and the peer review process.  Although writing autobiography strengthens narrative skills that can later be used in resume and letter writing, my primary purpose for the assignment is to build confidence and self-esteem by having students write reflectively about their own history.  During this initial unit, I will set the tone for the class by introducing the Values Analysis which is adapted from an example on the Council of Basic Writing Resource Share website.  I adapted it to focus on habits of mind included in the Council of Writing Program Administrators “Framework for Success in Secondary Writing.”  The autobiography assignment is the student’s chance to identify and reflect on values that inform their lives and how those values impact their educational and career paths.  Another activity I plan for early in the semester that meshes well with the Values Analysis and the autobiographical essay is a class video that will be an informal, autobiographical sketch about students’ initial thoughts, concerns, and fears about their writing and this class; we will review and comment on the video on the final day of class ― hopefully in good humor.  After making the video will be the opportune time to form the small, static groups, which will be based on student’s similar occupational goals and interests and will reinforce the collaborative goal for the remainder of the class. Forming relationships in small groups will create a feeling of safety, community, and mutual responsibility in the classroom.  Initially, these groups will do some in-class activities together, then, after a peer review orientation session, students will enrich their learning experience by assessing one another’s writing.

Following the autobiography assignment will be the career exploration assignment. Like the autobiography assignment, the career exploration project will begin with an explanation of how this assignment teaches skills that fulfill the main course objective, how the assignment scaffolds on the previous one, and how it teaches skills that will be used for the final, research essay. The assignment is based on Duerden, et al’s “Profile Assignment” for engineering students, designed by the authors after they realized that students had little actual knowledge of the occupation they had chosen to pursue.  The scope of the career exploration assignment is broader, taking five week to fully complete.  The assignment is an especially dynamic design integrating various types of research: interviews, web searches, traditional and online library research, two oral presentations, a mini-library tutorial based on the Perry Library’s research tutorial resources, and a career fair role play presentation.  Students will have the opportunity to use online mapping tools to outline their essays, and they will be encouraged to enrich their career fair presentations with images and other graphic design elements. Class time will be used to target important issues related to research, integrating sources and avoiding plagiarism, and improving writing sophistication through sentence combining and enhancement techniques. These will be hands-on, collaborative activities; lecture will be kept to a minimum.  We will read from Studs Terkle’s Working, emphasizing its theme of American work life, past, present, and future and discuss how it incorporates the use of autobiography, research, and reporting, while it connects the audience socially and culturally to the subjects.

The unit design for the career exploration project focuses on using class time to the best advantage with emphasis on building student confidence through group writing activities, oral presentations, and reading aloud.  Students will practice writing in nearly every class, whether working on their own texts, or responding to peer writing.  In this way, they will acquire the tools to demonstrate their learning.  Organizational skill will be acquired while juggling various tasks in order to complete the assignment effectively and efficiently.  Wigggins and McTighe emphasize the importance of “constant movement back and forth between whole-part-whole and learning-doing-reflecting” to sequence activities in the best organizational context (220).  This was probably the most difficult part of the unit design, what to add, what to leave out, and continuing to address Framework values while moving on to the next assignment.  For this reason, and since the completion of the career exploration projects fall roughly at mid-term, I felt that this would be a good time to conference individually with students about their  strengths, weaknesses, and concerns (and to reflect on mine) as we move into the final major assignment.   The three major assignments for this basic writing class are scaffolded in several ways; by difficulty, mainly length of essay; by types and degree of research required; by formality of vocabulary, based on a specific audience; by level of cross-curriculum and workplace transferability; and each is closely tied to the main course objective.

Another major component of my objective to teach “skills that are transferable across disciplines and relevant to an engaged academic, work, and community life” involves content delivery; how students “get” my course material.  Let’s go back to the discussion at the beginning of this essay for another look at how word meaning reflects more broadly in course design.  For instance, the word “get” has both physical and mental components. First, how do my students physically grab onto all of the material my course contains: syllabus, calendar, lesson plans, announcements, grades, contact information, etc.  Most important in this area is that students have access to the material at all times, that the material is well designed, and that it is complete.  Second, how do my students “get” or understand what the content hopes to deliver.  Melding the two “gets” requires that I speak the student’s language and that they understand mine; theirs being the language of technology natives, and mine being the language of a technology immigrant, realizing also that these categories usually overlap.

The first communication my students will have with me, and therefore, their first impression of me as a teacher and as a person, will be through the course website.  Setting the tone of my language to appeal to my student audience is my primary concern. The homepage of the course website is my first teaching moment, so I seize the opportunity to talk a little about my thoughts about writing and student writers, using a tone that is both friendly and professional.  The hook is the short quiz/poll on the introduction.  What I hope to accomplish by including this quiz/poll is to have students understand that I believe that every moment is a teaching/learning moment.  Each time students visit the site, the homepage will remind them of the question “what is good writing?” The subtitle reminds them that they are “writers under construction,” that they are not “empty vessels,” that they bring a foundation of knowledge with them; my job is to provide tools and a blueprint.

The blueprint of a course is the syllabus, containing the institutional formalities, such as the academic honesty and disability policies, but also containing information such as the main course objectives and classroom policies that are important to students’ success in the course. The syllabus is located second from the top in the vertical navigation bar on the left side as a reminder of its importance.  I picture the syllabus much like an “employee handbook,” important, but seldom referred to after the first day unless there is a problem, therefore, it’s important that it be readily available and prominently displayed.  For better readability, I’ve made it as short as possible, with links to official policies, buttons to other course site pages, and with images to draw attention to important points. By placing the grading policy at the bottom of the page, students will be encouraged to at least give the rest a scan.

The most useful components of hypertext course websites are, for students, the ability to connect quickly to the information they need most urgently in a logical, but non-linear way, and for teachers, the ease of creating a basic class site.  Each assignment can have its own link, and all handouts, readings, checklists, etc, can be accessed within the assignment; each can be quickly and easily changed if needed. I used six main pages, three assignment subpages with eight tertiary pages, and eighteen links to various other websites to create my course site design.  In a fully-functional course design, I would have individual links to each class unit so students would know exactly what we would be working on each class period.  I have used WordPress and Google to create other websites, but I wanted to use an application that I hadn’t used before, so I chose Weebly.  I learned to use the program just by a watching and reading the tutorials on the site.  I used the free program which didn’t have all the options of the professional program, but it allowed me to do most of what I wanted to do except embedding videos and PDF files. I especially liked how easy it was to manipulate and layer images with the free Weebly program.  All of the images I used on the site were manipulated in some way, either by changing the color or opacity, or by cropping or rotating the image.  If I was to do anything differently, I might choose another design template because I would have preferred a different background color on my site, but the free Weebly application doesn’t allow you to change colors. Although I will become naturally more proficient with the technology as I experiment further, overall I feel that I met my goals of a clear and accessible class website that I hope will be as enjoyable for students to use as it was for me to create.

We learn best by doing, taking ideas and using tools and blueprints to construct a well designed, solid, aesthetically pleasing, and dynamic structure or product; this is what we teach basic writing students, and this is how teachers should approach course design.  What this process taught me is that I will always be a student; gleaning knowledge and ideas through texts, from students and colleagues, and through my own curious nature.  This means that not only will my course designs change, but my teaching style and philosophy will evolve as my toolbox fills with experience and skill.  I have learned four things so far about my personal style while designing this course that I hope to pass on to my students through my teaching; one, I believe life is a conversation, not a lecture; two, I hold personal responsibility in high regard, you have to do the work; three, that I can be nurturing and still have a tough shell, that standards shouldn’t be compromised; and four, that the project is never finished.   I’ve also learned that regardless of our ideals, values, and skills, it is essential that we critically assess our strengths and weaknesses in order to grow.  Strong points that I discovered about myself as I constructed this course design are; my ability to connect with and show empathy for others though my writing style; my ability to motivate others through personal example, the reason behind the links on the teacher’s page; and my ability to take an idea and run with it.  The last point emerged as I visualized scenarios for my project prompts.  I found I could easily express an entire process from beginning to end as a script that was not only helpful to me for designing and sequencing units, but that will hopefully engage my students and spark their creative imagination.  Areas that call for improvement, on the other hand are; my difficulty in letting go when something is clearly not working, this is a big time waster; estimating time for and prioritizing class activities, I could always imagine my plans being derailed; and the need to discover best practices based on twenty-first century literacy skills, the best reason I know for attending conferences and being otherwise engaged with colleagues.  In closing, like Wiggins and McTighe insist in their estimation of the recursive nature of rubrics, a course design, no matter how well designed, is never complete until it has been evaluated in the classroom.


“Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing.” Council of Writing Program Administrators, National             Council of Teachers of English, and the National Writing Project. 2011. Web. 6 Aug. 2012.

Lindemann, Erika. A Rhetoric for Writing Teachers. 4th ed. New York: Oxford UP, 2001. Print.

Roen, Duane, et al., ed. Strategies for Teaching First-Year Composition. Urbana: NCTE, 2002. Print. ALTEC at U of Kansas. 2008. Web.

Duerden, Jeanne Garland, and Christine Everhart Helfers. “Profile Assignment.” Roen 152-164. Print.

Kyburz, Bonnie Lenore. “Autobiography: The Rhetorical Efficacy of Self-Reflection/Articulation.” Roen   137-150. Print.

Shaughnessy, Mina P. Errors and Expectations. New York: Oxford UP, 1977. Print.

Stevens, Dannelle D. and Antonia J. Levi. Introduction to Rubrics. Sterling, VA: Stylus, 2005. Print.

Wiggins, Grant, and Jay McTighe. Understanding by Design. 2nd ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson,      2005. Print. Weeby, Inc, 2012. Web.