Five Things Freshman Composition Students Need to Learn
Many MFA students plan to teach writing at the college level, but being a good writer does not necessarily mean you know how to teach a freshman composition class (the class you will most likely be scheduled to teach as a new instructor)—especially since, as a strong writer, you may have tested out of freshman composition when you were an undergrad. In case you need some guidance as you begin to plan your classes, here are five important things that your students need to learn:
1. Writing is a process. On the first day of class, ask your students about their past experiences with writing assignments—have they had teachers who simply gave them a due date for a paper, with little direction about how to write it? Did they have teachers who marked up their essays so much that the paper seemed to be bleeding red ink? Did they have to write on topics they cared nothing about? (These things won’t happen in your class—they will learn how to write an essay; you will note patterns of errors on their essays as opposed to marking every single error; you will allow them to find a topic for each writing assignment that interests them in some way.) Finally, ask them what the hardest part of writing is. They may have many things to say (or nothing at all to say)—but the hardest thing for many students (and many writers) is just getting started.
Let them know that approaching writing as a process, rather than as a final product, makes getting started much easier. Tell them—or better yet, ask them, since some may know—what the steps of the writing process are:
Brainstorming / Freewriting / Prewriting / Drafting / Peer Response / Revision
The writing process is not necessarily one straight line; when you get stuck and run out of things to say in your draft, go back to freewriting. After you’ve revised, you can ask a peer to read your paper again.
Emphasize these things to your students:
* The steps of the writing process may seem like more work than “just” writing a paper all at once, but they actually make it easier—when you freewrite on your essay topic in class, you’ll go home armed with notes you can type up, move around, and expand upon, which is much easier than staring at a blank computer screen, wondering how to begin.
* Procrastinating does not make you a bad writer. It makes you a writer. Share a story of your own—vacuuming at 2am when a paper was due the next morning—to let them know you understand that weight, that dread you carry around knowing you have to write an essay. Then remind them that the best cure for procrastination is freewriting. Just sit down and start to write (or type). No expectations, no corrections—just let the writing be a form of thinking.
* Find what works best for you—maybe rather than freewriting, you prefer listing or clustering. Maybe you need complete silence while you write; maybe you need to have music in the background. Find your favorite place to sit, your best time of day to write, your favorite pen; curl up with your laptop, or sit up straight in the school computer lab—whatever feels right to you and helps you get started.
* Editing for grammar, spelling, and punctuation comes later in the process. At the prewriting phase, focus on content, getting your thoughts on the page. Once you have a draft to work with, then it’s time to spell-check and line-edit. If you focus on mechanics in the early stages of your essay—rewriting sentences as you go, worrying if you spelled something correctly—then you’re interrupting the flow of thought that will allow you to get your content on the page. Just write down everything you can think of about the topic first. The cleaning-up, revising, and editing will come later to polish all the good thoughts you’re sharing in your essay.
Have your students freewrite for five minutes at the very first class meeting. Give them a specific topic (for the first class, it may be to describe themselves; other freewrites should be directed toward their essay topics—and even that first freewrite can be useful for more than introductions if you assign a narrative essay). Tell them to relax their shoulders and hands, to write at a normal pace, and to write without stopping, without trying to think things out first or make corrections along the way. They may dread doing this at first, but eventually they will get used to freewriting every class, and they will see how their freewrites can be very useful as they draft their essays.
2. Every student has something worthwhile to say. Ask your students how many of them hate writing. Almost certainly you will see some hands go up. Others may want to raise their hands but are afraid to admit their dread of writing to a teacher. Remember that Freshman Composition is required for all majors—you may have students who are brilliant at math but struggle with writing. You may have students for whom English is a second language; perhaps they can express themselves eloquently in their first language, and they may be extremely frustrated that they are not yet able to do so in English. Students need to understand why this class is worthwhile for them, beyond fulfilling a general education requirement. Along with assurance that they will learn communication skills that will help them in a future career (and in life), possibly the most important thing you can teach your students is that they have a unique perspective on the world around them—you are the only person who sees things exactly the way you do—and by simply being who they are, they have something worthwhile to say through their writing.
Sharing writing in class—each student reading a few lines from an in-class freewrite, for example—can be a wonderful way to prove this to students. While they may be reluctant to read their work aloud, often they will get a good response from the class (laughter at a funny line, agreement on a point of view, or at least acknowledgment from the teacher that a good point was made or that something was phrased in an interesting way). This lets students know they are being heard, that they are saying something that matters.
Freewrites allow students to write in their own natural voice. While some of this must be adjusted as essays are polished—revising overly-conversational phrasing, for example—it’s important that students realize that this unique voice should remain a part of their final essay. Their essay should sound like them—just the best version of them, the most polished and clear version of their voice.
3. Essay structure: You may have students who never learned the basics of essay structure. Maybe their high school English classes focused mainly on literature rather than writing; maybe they never paid attention in class; maybe they learned it at some point but need a review. Teaching essay structure is an essential part of teaching a freshman composition class. Engage the students as you discuss the parts of an essay—ask them what the first paragraph is called, what a thesis statement is. Write on the board or display on a screen or give a handout with these basic reminders:
INTRODUCTION: The first paragraph should draw in the reader (perhaps by describing an interesting example related to the essay topic) and should include a THESIS STATEMENT that makes the focus of the essay clear.
BODY PARAGRAPHS: Each body paragraph should have a main point—a topic sentence—and all the sentences in that paragraph should give details and specific examples that fully develop that point (and tie back to the essay's thesis statement). Transitions between sentences and between paragraphs should help the essay flow smoothly—give them a list of transitional phrases for reference. An essay should have at least three body paragraphs to fully support and develop the essay’s thesis statement.
CONCLUSION: The final paragraph should wrap up the essay in an interesting way—perhaps circling back to an image or phrase from the introduction paragraph—and should restate the thesis. It can briefly tie together the essay’s main points. The last sentence should clearly feel like the end of the essay.
Remind your students that while a freewrite can be in first person, an academic essay should be in third person. The final essay is still the student’s perspective and uses the student’s voice, but the points are stated objectively (for example, instead of writing I think smoking should be illegal in all restaurants, write Smoking should be illegal in all restaurants).
4. Common errors in punctuation and grammar: Writing mechanics—punctuation, spelling, grammar—can be daunting for someone who never really learned these rules, who has habits that can be hard to break. A good way to initially approach mechanics in the freshman comp classroom is to focus on common errors. Give them a handout with interesting or funny examples of errors—comma splices, fragments, apostrophe errors, common misspellings, etc.—and discuss them in class. Why are these usages wrong? How do we fix them? Have your students look for these errors out in the world (billboards, magazine articles, store signs, online) and bring examples to class. Give your students a sheet with several sentences containing these kinds of errors and have them make corrections in pairs or in groups. Once they are used to catching these errors, they’ll be more likely to find and correct them in their own essays as they revise.
5. The more you write, the better you get. This is why you have your students write at every class meeting. This is why there is hope for every student, even if he or she enters freshman comp without having learned the basics of writing an essay in high school. When students write consistently, with focus, with helpful guidelines, on the lookout for their own habitual errors, and convinced that they have something worthwhile to say, they will get better and better. They will be stronger writers at the end of your class than when they began it. They will communicate their point of view more clearly. They will become more confident, they will find the act of sitting down to write less daunting, and they will be armed with the knowledge of exactly what an academic essay should be. Assure them of this: if they keep writing, they will get better.
Handouts from the Teaching College Writing Colloquium are available HERE under Other Resources.
For more teaching tips and helpful information, visit LU MFA alum Sarah Jones' site https://sites.google.com/site/adjunctsunite/