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Pre-Writing: Surveying Expectations on the First Day of Class

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The Writing Process Diagram with arrows showing the interrelationships between prewriting, writing, and revising.
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Gallaudet University Tutorial & Instructional Programs:

Brief Assignment Overview: 

On the first day of class, students think about the course topic and document their personal definitions of and understandings of the topic. In our case, students had to think and write about "Disability in Pop Culture." This type of writing serves multiple functions; it allows the instructor to glimpse the students' thinking and writing processes. It allows students to express or face any anxieties they have about writing/the course topic. It serves as an ice-breaker, and it serves as evidence of student development as this piece of writing can be referred to after students have developed a critical framework for understanding the course topic.

Pedagogical Goals - Rhetoric: 
Pedagogical Goals - Writing: 
Additional Pedagogical Goals: 

1. To have students examine their personal conceptions of "disability" and think about examples of "disability" in pop culture.

2. To have students demonstrate their writing skills in a low-stakes, in-class writing exercise, in which they must write in complete sentences.

3. To document a "starting point," which can serve as evidence of the development of critical thinking after students have read about and discussed the critical frameworks for the class. (In our case: rhetoric and disability theory.)

4. To have students become familiar with our class wiki and develop their digital literacy skills from the first day of class.

5. To expose students to the ways in which one activity may apply to multiple course strands and dimensions of learning under The Learning Record assessment system.

Required Materials: 

I planned this exercise for a classroom with computers as well as a media console and projector as our class work is primarily documented and stored in a PBworks wiki. However, it could be adapted for a classroom without computers as students may write on paper rather than on a computer or in a classroom wiki.

Timeline for Optimal Use: 
Full Assignment Description: 

I designed this as an in-class writing exercise so I could address student concerns or challenges with writing in an online environment (as most students had not yet joined the class wiki that I invited them to prior to our first meeting). After introducing the class and reading through the course description, I invited students to free-write on the topic of the course. I indicated that there was no right or wrong answer, as I wanted this to be a low-stakes writing exercise. I gave students about fifteen minutes to set up their wiki page and write their thoughts before hitting "save." I also explained that this would serve as evidence of their thinking and writing processes from the first day of class and that we would refer back to their thoughts during class discussions as well as in a Unit Two short reflection paper--when they would revisit these concepts--after having developed a critical framework for thinking about and through rhetoric and about disability theory. Because the "firstness" of this exercise--first time using the wiki, first time writing for the class, "first day" evidence of thoughts about the course topic--was very important to the pedagogical goals, I assigned this as homework to those who did not complete writing their thoughts out to their satisfaction. I also assigned this as homework to students who added the class later and asked that they write their thoughts before they delved into the course readings on disability theory and disability studies. I also indicated the exercise's relevance to our course goals and the dimensions of learning by emphasizing the goals in bold and underlining the dimensions, so students would realize how each activity was relevant to mutiple course goals and relied upon several dimensions of learning as their progress is measured not by traditional methods of grading, but by The Learning Record.

Suggestions for Instructor Preparation: 

Prepare your list of questions to prompt student thinking about the course topic.

If having students post their work online, create the webpage or wiki page with the writing prompt.

Or, make copies of the writing prompt for students to write on (for classes without technology).

Instructions For Students: 
  1. In your student folder, create a page titled "1st Day Pre-Writing Exercise" (with your preferred name, major & year in school in the top right-hand corner of the page). [Digital Literacy & confidence and independence or prior and emerging experience] 
  2. Free-write, or write a brief, one paragraph reflection (full sentences) on how you think pop culture has influenced your perception of (dis)ability & what (dis)ability means to you. [Presentation & prior and emerging experience]
    1. Here are some writing prompts to get you thinking (answer as much as you can/feel free to add to this anything you think is relevant to the discussion) [Writing Process & creativity, originality, and imagination]
      1. What does "disability" mean to you? What does "ability" mean to you?
      2. How might pop culture have influenced your perception or understanding of these terms?
      3. What kinds of images come to mind when you think of (dis)ability?
      4. What kinds of pop culture have you seen or heard--relating to (dis)ability?
      5. How do these images or sounds persuade you to think a certain way about (dis)ability?
Evaluation Suggestions: 

In a class with traditional grading systems, this piece of writing may only receive "completion" points as it is designed to be a low-stakes writing assignment. However, in courses that use The Learning Record assessment method, this piece of writing becomes an essential piece of evidence that documents the thinking and writing skills of students on the very first day of class. It allows students to better analyze their development when they have a concrete example of the ways in which the course may or may not have transformed their writing and thinking skills when they can contrast writing from the first day of class with writing and thinking at the midterm as well as at the end of the course.

Notes on Reception, Execution, etc.: 

Students were anxious when I mentioned they would have a writing exercise to do in class and that they would create a page on the wiki to do so. Some students mentioned after class that they do not write well within time constraints and were concerned about whether they would be allowed to finish their writing at home. I assured them that they could as the point was not to test their speed. And, for those students who were anxious about writing and using the wiki, writing on the first day allows students to face their inhibitions about their writing and it allows me to glimpse their writing skills as well as their prior experiences on the course topic. With The Learning Record system of assessment, challenges, frustrations, fears, and problems (as well as successes) writing in digital environments are documented in weekly (or daily) observations that students make about their learning processes. So, encouraging students to experience these dilemmas and to strategize ways to confront their concerns gives them an opportunity to develop their skills as well as their confidence and indepenence (two dimensions of learning).  Students who wrote observations about this "First Day Pre-Writing Exercise," noted that their initial anxieities faded away once they were actual in the digitial environment and saw that they were not alone in their concerns--as their peers around them were also encountering similar experiences. Students are also able to build a rapport with one another as students ask a peer for help on creating a wiki page or with navigating the wiki.

With regards to content, some students had very sophisticated thoughts on "disability" and extensive experience with or examples of "disability" in pop culture. Most had common, stereotypical answers to give when defining "disability." These answers were touched on during class discussions on readings by "disabled" writers or during discussions of disability theory. Students will also refer to their thoughts from the first day when we begin Unit Two and they write a reflection on "disability" in pop culture given their new knowledge and critical analyses of (dis)ability in pop culture.

Additional Resources: 

1. The Learning Record

2. To access my syllabus with more information on how I use The Learning Record, click "View" under the column, "Syllabus."

3. PBWorks

Course Description: 

This course is an intermediate writing course, but the activity could apply to any course with a specific topic that instructors want their students to interrogate. Here's my course description:

RHE 309K – Disability in Pop Culture is a rhetoric and writing course in argumentation that situates rhetoric as an art of civic discourse.  It is designed to enhance your ability to analyze the various positions held in any public debate and to advocate your own position effectively.  Your work in this course will help you advance the critical writing and reading skills you will need to succeed in courses for your major and university degree.

In this course, you will focus on analyzing the relationship between pop culture and rhetoric. Your analyses will examine public disagreements about various issues such as: How do popular (mis)representations of “the supercrip” convince us to make political decisions regarding accessibility, advocacy, education, and/or social policy? How can we evaluate arguments that not only depict (dis)abled people as “heroic” but also those that portray the converse: the “grotesque unfortunate” deserving of “pity” and “help”? How do these arguments address questions of basic human rights, needs, drives and “eugenics rhetoric”? Will children (and adults) make political decisions based on recurrent thematic representations of “disability” in pop culture, and, is that a good or bad influence?

Beginning with a selection of readings that introduce disability theory, you will conduct research to explore a controversy of your choice on (dis)ability in pop culture.  Throughout, you will engage with your controversy, analyzing editorials, print and video advertisements, and other contemporary portrayals of “the supercrip” in pop culture to analyze rhetorical appeals.  The last unit will focus on multimodal arguments; you will create a multimodal composition that takes a position on the representations of bodies and abilities.

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