The Shift from Teaching Content to ... Teaching Writers

I wrote this post originally for an #OpenTeachingOU chat on Textbooks and the Content Ecosystem, but it seems relevant to the challenge for #Rhizo15 this week, so I am sharing it again. :-)

This blog post is a follow-up to an earlier post: Storybooks: Student-Created Content for Long-Term (Re)Use. I'd urge you to take a look at that post first; if you have seen the student writing projects, the argument for "teaching writers" that I present in this post will hopefully make more sense. :-)

In this post, I explain why I decided to turn my Gen. Ed. Humanities classes into writing classes, with the goal of "teaching writers." As a natural consequence of those choices, the most important content in my classes is now the content that the students themselves create. That doesn't mean they do not read a lot of traditional Humanities content. The difference is what they do with that content: instead of taking a test to demonstrate their knowledge of the content, they re-use the content in their own writing.

Here's how all that came together for me, starting back in 1999 when I first began teaching Humanities courses at the University of Oklahoma.

General Education at OU. I teach two online General Education courses: Mythology and Folklore (MLLL-3043) and Epics of Ancient India (MLLL-4993). These upper-division Gen. Ed. courses are not designated as "writing courses." In fact, there is no "writing course" requirement after the Freshman Composition sequence at OU.  Instead, these are content courses. Specifically, they are part of the Gen. Ed. Humanities requirement: the Myth-Folklore course is a Western Humanities course, while Indian Epics is Non-Western Humanities. Students need to cover some Western content (two courses) and some non-Western content (one course) in order to get their undergraduate degree from the University of Oklahoma. This applies to all undergraduate students: engineering majors, accounting majors, opera majors, everybody. Because the Gen. Ed. courses are required for graduation, they are in high demand, and because online courses fit everybody's schedule, the online Gen. Ed. courses fill up almost instantly.

So, easy-peasy, right? Find a textbook, prepare some lectures (hey, Powerpoint!), get the midterm and final exams ready, and you've designed your course. . .

. . . But wait: what's the point of that exactly?

Humanities as Skills, not Content. Even though I am someone with a passion for literature, language, and the history of both, I am not someone who is a big believer in the teaching of Humanities content as an inherently valuable activity. Especially when you look at the hodge-podge way the OU General Education Humanities requirement is structured (no connection from course to course; instead, just two from Column A, one from Column B), I am not persuaded that students will get a lot of long-term re-use and retention of that content. The way you really retain something is by using and re-using what you have learned. So, let's be honest: except for random tidbits (watching a Hollywood movie loosely inspired by ancient mythology, meeting a coworker named Parvati or Arjun, etc.), most of my students are not going to have any occasion to keep on using the content I might teach in my courses. That's why I would argue that teaching Humanities should not be about content, but rather about skills, a whole range of skills, preferably transferable skills, that are essential to the Humanities as a discipline. By focusing on skills rather than content, I feel like I can do a better job of making the required Gen. Ed. courses worth the time and tuition my students must spend on those courses.

So, the next question: what skills to teach? My answer: writing skills.

Student Writing. I was very naive when I started teaching at the University of Oklahoma, and I suspect I was not alone in my naivete: I assumed that all the students would be able to write college-level work, so that I could assign written papers without really having to worry about their writing per se. Instead, I discovered that my students had a mind-boggling range of writing skills, from excellent college-level writing skills to writing skills that were at a high-school or even junior-high-school level. So, my self-imposed task was clear: I needed to design Humanities courses with an emphasis on writing skills that would benefit all my students, both those with excellent writing skills and those who needed a lot of remedial help.

As I pondered the question of how to teach classes of value for that whole range of students, I eventually realized: I need to teach writers, not writing.

Teaching Writers, not Writing. This chart (which comes from the wonderful people at MovingWriters.orgexplains very clearly just what it means to teach writers as opposed to just assigning writing or even teaching writing. When I first found this chart circulating on the Internet a year or two ago, it was kind of eerie: it had taken me years to figure this out on my own, with so many missteps along the way. If only someone had shared a chart like this with me back in 1999!

Because, really, this chart says it all for me: by teaching writers, I can support every single student as they follow the way of the writer, wherever that may lead them and no matter where they begin that journey. Every one of the principles there in the "teaching writers" column of the chart is important in my classes: long-term writing plans with forms and genres chosen by the students, a focus on growth from paper to paper (or, in my classes, from story to story) where students continuously transform previous work and also benefit from mentor texts (the work of other students, past and current), with lots of self-reflection by the students and lots of narrative feedback from me so that skills will build from week to week, culminating in a portfolio product at the end of the semester.

And that brings me back to where I started this post: student writing as the most important class content.

Student Writing as Class Content. So, when the goal is to teach writers, the work of those writers is naturally the most important class content. The culmination of each week is the students reading each other's writing, and the culmination of the semester is not an exam over the traditional reading but instead the body of work that the students have created. As students share their writing with others, they gain confidence as writers. Just as importantly, by looking at the writing of other students critically and analytically (more about that here), students get the benefit of those other students' ideas and skills, while also learning how to turn a critical and analytical eye on their own work.

But hey, what about Mythology and Folklore? What about those Indian Epics? Don't worry: they are all still there!

Traditional Content: Reading to Write. Yes, there is a "traditional" reading component in my classes, just as you would expect in a Humanities Gen. Ed. class. Each week culminates with a focus on the students' writing, but each week begins with the students reading the kind of content you would expect in a Myth-Folklore or an Indian Epics course; the difference is that the reading provides raw material to use in their own writing every week. They read stories and then re-create those stories in their own way, just as traditional storytellers reworked traditional stories in new ways for new audiences. So, in the Myth-Folklore class, the students read myths and legends from different cultures every week, choosing what they read from our "UnTextbook" of online stories; you can get a sense of how that works by reading the Introduction to the UnTextbook here: Welcome to the Myth-Folklore UnTextbook. In the Indian Epics class, I am switching to an UnTextbook model for Fall 2015, but even now the course is based on reading multiple versions of the epics by different authors; you can see how that works here: Indian Epics for Spring 2015.

Update Fall 2015: Here is the Indian Epics UnTextbook.

So, in the end . . .


But does it all fit only because of the classes I teach, the person I am, and the school where I happen to work...? Or are there ideas here that can be generalized to different classes, to different teachers, to different students and schools...?

Those are questions that you will have to answer for yourselves.

Personally, I suspect that there are dynamics at work here — dynamics of learning and creativity, dynamics of identity and sharing — that mean these same ideas really can be of value in any classroom anywhere. But all I can say with 100% certainty is that it all fits together very nicely in my classes.

That is not to say that I do not face challenges. Every day has its challenges! But I am very happy for the foundation on which I have built my classes. It is a deep foundation that has allowed me to reach high, so that with every new challenge I am able to find solutions that improve my classes from day to day, semester to semester, and year to year!

So, what do you think? Do you teach writers in your courses? Should you...? Could you...?

~ ~ ~

I'll close with some words of wisdom from Adrienne Rich: You must write, and read, as if your life depended on it.

Project Nominations: a special post for #Rhizo15

Today was a big day in my classes: the students turned in nominations for their favorite projects this semester, and I tallied up the results, putting the projects with the most nominations on a ballot for the students to look through and then vote on. It's kind of like the Academy Awards: it's really hard for students to choose just a few to nominate, and then, when the ballot is done, it's also very hard to choose from the ones on the ballot. I would call that a good kind of hard, though: too much wonderful stuff to choose from!

Here is the page listing the nominations in the two classes I teach, Myth-Folklore and Indian Epics: Favorite Projects of Spring 2015. For those of you who enjoy Pinterest, I've also created a Pinterest Board where I've pinned these projects: Pinterest Board of Favorite Projects. The Myth-Folklore class is the bigger of the two classes, and it also has a higher proportion of Storybooks to Portfolios; that's why there are 9 Storybooks listed for Myth-Folklore, instead of just 6 as for Indian Epics; I'll explain more about that below. Also, there are still two more weeks of the semester, which means that some new stories are still being added to the projects — some are done, but some still have one more story to go!

Here's a screenshot of the Pinterest Board. I like Pinterest because it gives me a way to represent something visually rather than just with a list of text links; same stuff, different representation:

I have two goals for event: the first is to let students who have worked really hard on their projects get some well-earned recognition from their peers, and the second is to create one last opportunity for students to see some really excellent projects. I was also thinking this nominations process might be a good way to introduce my fellow adventurers in #Rhizo15 to my classes, so I've included some information below about just what these projects are and why I am so proud of them!

Storybooks and Portfolios. In both classes, the students read traditional legends and epics, and they then retell those old stories in new ways. Each week, they tell a story in their blog based on the reading they did that week and, in addition, they work on a semester-long project. The Storybooks and Portfolios are those projects. Some students choose a specific topic to explore all semester long, collecting several related stories in a Storybook. Other students choose the best of their storytelling blog posts and collect them into a Portfolio section of their blog. All the students brainstorm Storybook topics at the beginning of the semester, but if they are not really excited about how the project is developing after a couple of weeks, they can opt for the Portfolio instead. It's totally up to the students, and both options offer great possibilities. In Myth-Folklore this semester, there were 32 Storybooks and 19 Portfolios, and in Indian Epics there were 20 Storybooks and 19 Portfolios. You'll see that there is a larger proportion of Portfolios in the Indian Epics class; this is because the content of that course is really new to most of the students, while in the Myth-Folklore class, students often have a very specific idea for a Storybook project right from the start of the semester based on their personal interests in mythology and/or folklore.

Websites and Blogs. As you can see if you browse around, the Storybooks are websites (almost all the students use Google Sites, although occasionally a student might use Wix or something other web publishing option), while the Portfolios are blogs (again, almost all the students use Google Blogger, although there are sometimes a few WordPress blogs). When students do blog-based Portfolios, they can comment on each other's work using the blog comment feature. For the websites, though, the students comment on a "Comment Wall" that each student creates at their blog. So, every student does have a blog, and all the commenting takes place using the blog comment space; the "Comment Wall" links on the nominations list are there so that students know where to leave comments for the Storybook author.

Connected Students. One of the biggest challenges I face is finding good ways to get the students connected. The classes are big enough (appx. 50 students in Myth-Folklore and appx. 40 students in Indian Epics) that the students don't all get to know each other. I am the only person who reads all the stories at all the projects; the students read each other's stories every week, but even so they don't get a chance to visit all the projects, much less read all the stories at each one. The way I build the class network is by having students comment on each other's work every week using a combination of random groups and student choice. Each week, I put students in random groups of three so the students comment in a kind of round-robin in their group, giving comments to two other students and getting comments from them in return. They also have a free choice each week, choosing a project to read either based on the title of the topic or because they have connected with another student in class in some other way (they are also reading each other's blogs each week in addition to the project comments). Once the projects really get going, there are also extra credit options for students who want to read more projects; some students are really enthusiastic and curious about exploring the other students' work, which I think is great — the more the students can connect, the better!

Favorite Projects. That leads me to the big event of today: students nominating their favorite projects. As I mentioned above, one of my goals for this process is to give students a chance to see some excellent projects that they might not even have seen so far this semester! I'm always so curious to see which projects are popular favorites. Sometimes my own personal favorites get lots of nominations, but not always: everybody has their own likes and dislikes, and I think it's really important for students to get feedback from lots of readers, not just from me. One thing that makes me really happy is when I see students who were very hesitant writers get this recognition from their fellow students. Many of the students start off the semester unsure about writing creatively and hesitant to share their writing with others. When they find their voice and win over an audience, I am really excited for them!

You can probably see now why I feel so at home here in #Rhizo15: I believe very strongly that learning happens best by discovery (including self-discovery) and by sharing what we discover with others. I really want for my classes to be open-ended adventures in learning that are propelled by the learners themselves, and I've written elsewhere about why student-generated content is the most important content in my classes.

Meanwhile, if you have a few minutes to take a look at this semester's projects, I think you will be really impressed: just like every semester, I am so proud of what the students have accomplished this semester, and it's all a result of working together and sharing stories all semester long. Every semester is like this: so much goodness, thanks to the creativity and persistence of these wonderful students... Enjoy!

Storybooks: Student-Created Content for Long-Term (Re)Use

In preparation for our upcoming Twitter chat this week on textbooks and open content, I'm going to be writing some posts about how I use — and reuse! — content in my classes. In particular, I want to focus on student-created content and how I reuse that from semester to semester.

The Storybooks. Although I do have class readings, that is not what I consider to be the most important content of the class. Instead, the most important content in my classes is the content created by the students themselves. In addition to their weekly blog posts, the students create semester-long storytelling projects called Storybooks. In this post, I'll explain some of the ways that I am constantly re-using my archive of student Storybooks to provide ideas and inspiration for the new students every semester. Then, in a separate post (this one is already too long!), I'll show how this focus on the Storybooks as the central content of the course is an organizing principle that drives my whole approach to course design.

First... some history. The students have been created Storybooks in my classes since 2002 using webspace (3MB per student) provided by my school. Sadly, my school's IT department deleted hundreds of the Storybooks in August 2010; it happened without warning just before classes started for Fall 2010, and that was the hardest semester I ever faced as an online instructor. Luckily, a few students had been using Google Sites already (mostly Study Abroad students working in Internet cafes who needed a 100% browser-based web publishing option), so in Fall 2010, I switched from recommending that the students use OU webspace and urged them to use Google Sites instead.  That's proved to be a great choice. I'm now into my fifth year of students using Google Sites, and it's still working really well as a solution! Most of the students leave their projects online after the class is over, and I've now got 600 Storybooks in my archive.

The word "archive" makes it sound like a static collection of content, but that's not actually the case. The Storybooks are published in the students' own Google accounts, so I don't actually control the content. Instead, I keep track of the Storybooks by means of links, and I display and share those links in different webspaces using a variety of tools. Here is how that works:

E-Storybook Central. This is a Blogger website that is my main link repository. After each semester is over, I update the list of links for each class with the Storybooks that the students have left online: Myth-Folklore and Indian Epics. I don't keep track of the students' names as you can see; many of the students do put their names on their Storybooks, but that is their choice. All I need is the Storybook title.

Randomizing Widgets. Using the links along with screenshots I make of the Storybook homepages, I use Randy Hoyt's tool to create three different javascript widgets that present a showcase of the Storybooks at random: a Myth-Folklore widget, an Indian Epics widget, and a combined widget. These widgets are incredibly useful! You can see these widgets on the front page of my class procedures wiki, in the sidebar of the class announcements blog, at the top of the Myth-Folklore and Indian Epics link lists, and also in various assignments where I ask students to browse the Storybooks for ideas, like in this Storybook Favorites assignment from the first week of class. Here's a screenshot of how it looks at the wiki; a new Storybook comes up each time at random.

Daily Announcements. In addition to specific assignments that ask students to browse the Storybooks, I include a Storybook every day in the class announcements. Because there is only room for appx. 100 daily announcements in the semester, I run this list of links with a spreadsheet which I update at the end of every semester, adding in the Storybooks that seem like they would be especially useful to share in this way. My goal in sharing a Storybook every day like this is both to give students ideas and inspiration for their own work, while also reminding them all semester long that the Storybooks they are creating are as much for future use as for the present.

Pinterest Boards. I use Pinterest Boards to give students a different way of browsing the past Storybooks: Myth-Folklore and Indian Epics. Like the randomizing widgets, these Pinterest Boards are a kind of showcase of Storybooks, ones that I think will be especially useful to future students. Here's a screenshot of the Myth-Folklore Board:

Diigo. I use Diigo to tag Storybooks so that I can share groups of Storybooks with students as they explore different topics and different storytelling styles. So, for example, this Diigo link is for Storybooks in diary style, and this Diigo link is for Storybooks about Vishnu.  I have not been doing a good job of keeping up with the Diigo links, mostly because the totally UN-visual style of Diigo is not really appealing to the students, even though Diigo is very useful to me for record-keeping purposes. You can compare the Pinterest Board screenshot above with the Diigo screenshot below and see why students are intrigued by Pinterest and not by Diigo:

One of my projects for Summer 2015 is to transfer the most useful Diigo link lists to Pinterest Boards: I will keep using Diigo for myself because it is great for record-keeping purposes, but for the students, I need something more visually attractive.  Since Pinterest will let me have up 500 Boards and 200,000 pins, I won't run into any limitations that get in the way: I really can have all the Boards I need! Plus, it is far more likely that students will grab and re-share Pinterest pins; I have never had any luck in getting students interested in using Diigo for their own research and bookmarking purposes. And, to be honest, I don't blame them. I use Diigo because it is powerful, but it's never really fun to use... and fun is a big motivating factor — not just for the students, but for me too!

Closing Thoughts on Student-Created Content 

When I say that the student Storybooks are the most important content in my classes, I mean much more than content as "information" to be digested and regurgitated, as is so often the case with textbook content. The way students use the Storybooks is not to get information (sometimes that is the case, but not often). Instead, the students are using the Storybooks for ideas and inspiration as they develop their own projects that reflect their own interests. That's why it is so important that this is student-generated content. When current students see the work of past students like this, it sparks an "I can do that too" moment. I really need that spark because most of my students are not confident as writers, and most of them have never published anything online before.  The Storybooks also show students that there are really no limits to the topics and styles they can explore. Sure, I can tell them to be adventurous in their brainstorming about topics and styles, but the enormous variety of the Storybooks shows them with examples more powerful than mere words from me.

So: GIVE IT A TRY. This is the kind of effort that builds and builds over time, but it also pays off after just one semester. I love the fact that I now have hundreds and hundreds of Storybooks in the archive (all of which bring back happy memories for me as a teacher), but nothing so enormous as my archive is required for this content strategy to be effective. If you are thinking of doing something similar in your classes, even just one semester is enough to get a good start on a student archive, and in just two or three semesters you will have an archive that will be really exciting for students to explore. So, don't let your LMS consign your students' work to the digital trash can at the end of the semester. Instead, start saving it online, in open spaces beyond the LMS. Who knows: it might even turn out to be the most important content in your classes too!