Principled Practices at Work: Curricular Structures

As I mention above, I generally teach courses that are focused on writing as a subject matter.  English 101, for instance, has a “writing about writing” focus.  Students read recent research on writing, and in doing so gain experience (and successful practices) for reading difficult scholarly texts, while also learning some concepts that can help them make sense of the writing demands in their majors.

Of course, that approach is definitely first-year-writing-specific.  My English 402 class also treated writing as a subject matter, but this time in a much more disciplinary sense: we spent the semester learning to conduct research on writing throughout the lifespan.  We read recent research, developed questions, collected and analyzed data, and came to new insights about lifespan writing development.

Obviously, I could go on, but I don’t want to get too far into the weeds of each course.  Instead, I’d like to highlight the common curricular structures across each of the courses I teach.  These will be tailored to the needs of each class, but overall remain rather invariant across my course offerings.

Universal Design: Multiple Points of Entry, Multiple Artifacts

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is, at this point, a pretty well-known phenomenon in education.  The idea behind UDL is that we can design courses in such a way that diversity in all of its forms are equally able to contribute to classroom life without accommodations—in other words, that a respect for diversity is baked into the design of the course.

There are a great number of ways in which UDL has been taken up.  My own take-up of UDL attends carefully to two aspects of the classroom: providing multiple points of entry to any given classroom activity, and providing multiple artifacts of learning from any activity.  These two aspects work together to make sure that the central challenge, the central uncertainties about my courses are the materials that I assign, and the work that I ask them to do, not things like finding a seat in the class, or participating in discussion from a distance, etc.

Multiple Points of Entry.  In any given classroom activity, I try to provide a number of ways for students to engage with the work we are doing.  This is best indicated in an example.  Let’s take, for instance, a common assignment at the start of each semester in my English 101 classes: I ask students to read and annotate the course description and develop some generative questions about it, which they submit to me before the next class.  Then, in class, we read some questions generated by students and discuss them together.  It’s a pretty straightforward, first-week-of-class activity.

When class starts, students will see “Anonymous Samples Assignment 2” populate in their Google Classroom feed.  I will direct them to click on that, and give them several minutes to download, read, and annotate the questions.  They will then be asked to summarize their annotations in a Google Doc that is also attached to “Anonymous Samples Assignment 2” in Google Classroom.  Once this is finished, we’ll discuss in small groups what people posted on the Google Doc.  At the end of small group work, students will generate more questions / concerns, and post those at the bottom of the Google Doc.  Then, we’ll discuss those as a class.  During large class discussion, I’ll take notes on the board, marking down the names of people who speak and what they said.  At the end of class, either I or a student will write an email that summarizes what we discussed, and send it out to the whole class.  I’ll be sure to take pictures of the board and post them to Google Classroom as well.

Throughout all of this work, I’ve provided multiple “ways in” to the discussion.  First, students have time to read and annotate the text on their own, and make sense of it as best they can.  Then, they post their thoughts to a Google Doc.  They can then discuss what they read in small group work, and are provided with another chance to post thoughts to a Google Doc.  Finally, they have one more opportunity to discuss things as a class.  At the end of class, students receive a review of what happened from myself or a peer, and have a chance to look through the documents and see if they’d like to add anything else (they would also receive participation credit for this).

So, students can participate in a range of ways: vocally or in writing, individually or in small groups or as a whole class.  And, if a student happened to be absent in this class, they would find it easy (relatively) to look through our written records and make sense of the work we did.  So, even an absent student can have a “way in” to participating.

Multiple Artifacts.  You may have noted the plethora of artifacts that come out of a simple class discussion in my above example: anonymous samples, Google Docs, board notes, and emails all emerge from our work together.  I aim for as much documentation as possible from any given class, as it allows people to reconstruct their understandings of what happened in class so that they can more easily make sense of what will happen in the next class.

To be sure, simply posting copies of what happened in class is not, in and of itself, particularly helpful for students.  But the end-of-class email, which is kind of a guide through the documents, can be helpful for making sense of all of these documents.

Multiple points of entry and multiple artifacts represent my most current approach to a UDL framework in my writing classes.  I see my work with UDL as a work-in-progress, and I’m always looking for ways to make more universal the approaches that I take in my classroom.  These two aspects of my UDL approach, however, are at the core of how I currently operate in my classes.

Labor-Based Grading Contracts

Note, February 9, 2022: What you’ll find below is, at this point in the pandemic, a bit dated.  I’ve learned a great deal about the limits and possibilities of the labor-based approach described below.  Unfortunately, my attempted descriptions of what I do now are not ready to be on this site just yet.  So see this as more of a pre-pandemic understanding of labor-based grading contracts.  I hope to update this soon to bring it more in line with what I do now.

Supporting a UDL framework is my emphasis on Labor-Based Grading Contracts.  I draw on the work of Asao Inoue—particularly, his work in Anti-Racist Writing Ecologies and Labor-Based Grading Contracts.  Inoue (2019) argues that using labor-based grading contracts “builds equity and inclusion in writing classrooms while also engaging students with the politics of language” (p. 4).  A labor-based grading contract, for Inoue (and, by extension, for me) is one that calculates students grades entirely according to the labor that they put into the course.  This is not to say that student writing is not carefully attended to, or that outcomes are not at the center of the work of a course, but rather that student progress toward the outcomes and the final grade of the course are disconnected from one another.

I became interested in labor-based grading contracts when I first read Anti-Racist Writing Ecologies, although I definitely played it “safe” in my own mind and used what Inoue (2019) calls a hybrid contract—that is, one that involves both student labor and some measure of quality of writing.

As I developed my thinking on the matter, however, I turned more and more toward simple grading according to the labor that students put into the work.  By the time I read Inoue’s Labor-Based Grading Contracts, I was pretty well convinced to kick over to entirely labor-based grading.  So, that’s what I did.

The specifics of labor-based grading vary widely from course to course for me, as the needs of a grading contract for freshmen are often quite different from the needs of a grading contract for graduate students.  But there are a few common trends in each:

  • Timely submission of assignments: Students are given a deadline for assignments that they must meet.  This deadline can be re-negotiated if need be (though it’s often not needed).
  • Preparation for class: Students need to be in class, on time, with the materials that they need.  If they are absent, there are procedures (I won’t get into them here) for them to make up the absence.
  • Participation in class: Students must find ways to participate regularly in class activities.  This does not have to be participation in a whole class discussion: they can participate in small groups, add to shared documents or board notes, and even add after class if they’d like.  It’s my responsibility to make sure that there are a range of options to participate.
  • Responsiveness to feedback: Students need to be responsive, in some way, to my feedback.  This does not mean that they have to do what I tell them to do.  They are welcome to decide not to take up questions or suggestions that I have, but they have to think those choices through, and arrive at the choice with particular reasoning in mind.

These four characteristics shape my grading contract.  I also ask them to attend to and reflect upon their labor, but that’s caught up in the assignments themselves.  Generally speaking, the “timely submission of assignments” puts students in a particular grade bracket (A to A-, B+ to B-, and so on), and the preparation, participation, and responsiveness determines the specific grade within that bracket.  But I also have been tinkering with unit-based grading contracts.  So, there are specific criteria (under the broader umbrella above) for students to complete an assignment that will take place in stages across a period of several weeks.

Frequent, Low-Stakes Writing Assignments

Students submit writing ahead of nearly every class meeting that I hold.  This, I think, is central to a writing class: that students write regularly.  The writing, to be sure, is low-stakes, as there is not much riding on any given assignment.  But students are required to turn in all (or most, depending on the grading contract) of this work by semesters’ end, and it behooves them to get those assignments in in a timely manner.

These assignments are not busy work, of course.  They add up, over time, to the larger projects that I ask students to do.  I try to treat the assignments as creating a base of writing from which the students can draw as they go about building the more complex, end-of-unit assignments that I ask of them.

Tightly Sequenced, Linked, Outcome-Based Units

The basic infrastructure of my courses are the outcomes that I am working toward.  I aim to scaffold student work toward these outcomes throughout the semester, with increasing complexity and rigor as the course progresses.

What I try to do is have several (usually three or four) discrete units that focus on building toward a particular outcome in one way or another.  It’s expected that reaching an “outcome” early in the semester is only a starting point, and that future work toward other outcomes will extend and complicate student understandings of the outcome they worked on earlier.

For instance, in my English 402 course in Spring 2019, my first unit worked toward an annotated bibliography.  This represented significant progress in student thinking about how sources operate in a field of study.  But then, in my next unit, students were required to both add more sources and transform the annotated bibliography into a literature review.  This extended their thinking about how sources operate in a study and began working them toward how they might situate their own thinking in a particular discipline.

These units that I work toward are discrete for me, the teacher, because they help me check progress toward course outcomes.  But I try to make the entire course seem to flow together for students.  So, they might see an annotated bibliography as a big project, but that big project emerges out of the work that came before, and serves as a stepping stone toward the work that follows.  I aim to have as few bumps in the road as possible as we work toward a final project.

Language-Generating Activities

As I scaffold students toward particular outcomes across assignments, I focus a great deal of my curricular space on generating language for thinking about the topics of the course.

I elaborate on this further as I detail my pedagogy, but there is a curricular component to it as well that I would like to address here.  For instance, the work we do in class might be concentrated on board notes, or perhaps a shared document, that students will then turn to in their homework.

The purpose of the activity in class was to generate language that students can expand / revise / repurpose for their next assignment.  So these language-generating activities are an important part of the scaffolding work that I do to bring students toward the outcomes I am aiming at.

Shared Assessment Language

In order to be as confident as I can be that students have worked their way to the outcomes I am aiming for, I make sure that we establish and frequently use the language that they will be assessed according to.  This language is always embedded into the assignment prompts and activities that I give them, so it’s central to the curricular materials that I develop.

Consider, for instance, a fairly straightforward outcome that I work students toward in a senior-level English course: students should “distinguish their own ideas, texts, and perspectives from those of sources and influences” (that’s language straight from the UMaine English Department’s draft outcomes).

Since I’m working toward this throughout the semester, the language will be frequently caught up in the assignments that I give students.  They’ll be asked to study how a particular text’s author works to “distinguish their own ideas” from those of the sources they draw from, for instance.  Then, when we read another text, I’ll ask them to do it again.

From there, we can start to look at the work that these two authors did, and discuss what the common characteristics of distinguishing one’s own ideas might mean in this discipline.  Then, we can try it ourselves, see what that looks like, and revise our idea of this outcome further.

You probably get the idea.  This ongoing discussion, this work to build, revise, and sustain shared language that students will be assessed on, is crucial in my classes.  We can’t simply give students the language of the assessment at the start of a course or unit and assume that they will understand what is being asked of them—that isn’t how language works.  We need to discuss it, again and again, expanding our understandings of it together, so that our understandings are as aligned as possible.

Assignment Design

Assignment design is really the cornerstone of any curriculum I teach.  Drawing on the language of David Bartholomae, I like to productively interfere with student writing through the design of my assignments.  You can think of any assignment I give out as having four components:

  • A history of the work we’ve done to this point (often including discussions in class, to help students locate the work they are going to do);
  • Directions for reading the text(s) I have assigned: what to look for, what questions to keep in mind, etc.;
  • Directions for writing a particular text that they will submit for credit; and
  • A summary of the consequences of their writing: what the assignment will set us up for in the next class, in terms of a larger project, etc.

These four parts can help students locate the assignment I give them within the larger structure of the course.  They can understand what knowledge and discussions we are mobilizing to make sense of the reading / writing they are going to do (and, thanks to the multiple artifacts component of my curriculum, they have plenty of material to look through to help them if necessary), and they know where we are headed.