Writing an ERWC-Style Module: Choosing Texts

I have written four ERWC modules and substantially revised several more. Most of my own modules turned out to be about full-length works, including Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, George Orwell’s 1984, and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Writing a module around a novel is an interesting, complex, and time-consuming task. I will take that up later. The first module I wrote, however, was “The Rhetoric of the Op-Ed Page,” written around a short piece by Jeremy Rifkin, “A Change of Heart about Animals.”

I had found the Rifkin article in the L.A. Times long before the ERWC task force had even been formed. I am a voracious reader of newspapers and I have long been in the habit of noticing interesting, teachable pieces that I might be able to use in a writing class. I used to cut articles out of the newspaper and paste them up on 8 ½ X 11 paper with rubber cement so that I could photocopy them. The internet has made that process much easier. I collected the Rifkin article because it was about an interesting issue, it was short, and it was rhetorically interesting, in that it used scientific studies largely to make emotional appeals. When the ERWC taskforce decided to try to write teaching units, this article immediately came to mind.

The “Rhetoric of the Op-Ed” module started with an interesting text. It is also possible to start with an issue or topic and then search for appropriate texts. The issue should

  • Be interesting to students.
  • Be appropriate for the age and maturity of the students.
  • Be debatable in that there are at least two possible positions (and preferably more) that reasonable people could hold.

The text or texts that form the basis of the module should

  • Be interesting to students.
  • Be well-written, or at least not poorly written, in terms of style, organization, and argument (unless the educational purpose of the module is to analyze poorly written texts).
  • Be rhetorically interesting in terms of the writer’s appeals to ethos, logos, and pathos, arrangement of evidence and arguments, and conformity to genre conventions, or lack thereof.
  • Be “right-sized”: short enough to teach and long enough to accomplish the purpose.
  • Be appropriate to the age and reading level of the students in terms of ideas, sentence structure, and vocabulary (though with the scaffolding provided in an ERWC module, students can read more difficult texts than they otherwise would be able to).

In the last update and expansion of the ERWC curriculum, I served as module troubleshooter. Most modules that we ended up not being able to salvage had fundamental problems with the nature of the issue, the quality of the texts, or both. Other things can be revised and improved, but if the beginning premises of the module are flawed, it is nearly impossible to fix.

It is quite possible to write a module around a single short text. The original version of the “Op-Ed” module contained only the Rifkin text. The current version of “Racial Profiling” has only one text. If both the issue and the writing are interesting, a single text can carry a whole module. Of course, there are also modules, such as “Bring a Text You Like to Class,” that include no built-in texts and are essentially sequenced activities that revolve around students finding and bringing in specific kinds of texts to the project. Such modules are complex to design, but offer clear advantages as well.

However, most modules involve multiple texts. The revised version of the “Op-Ed” module includes the Rifkin text, a similar Op-Ed piece by Victoria Braithwaite called “Hooked on a Myth: Do Fish Feel Pain?” and an online magazine article by Ed Yong, “Of Primates and Personhood: Will According Rights and ‘Dignity’ to Nonhuman Organisms Halt Research?” While Rifkin is a journalist summarizing research to make philosophical and ethical points, Victoria Braithwaite is a neuroscientist reporting on research about the pain-sensing systems of fish done in her own laboratory. While Braithwaite’s conclusions are consistent with Rifkin’s ethical concerns, her ethos is quite different. The Yong article explores some of the possible consequences of granting rights to great apes and some of the divisions in the animal rights community, taking the argument about the treatment of animals to a new level. The three articles do not take different sides on one issue, but explore different aspects of issues related to the relationship between humans and animals. The module avoids binary pro and con arguments in favor of nuanced positions, moving from consideration of individual ethical choices to the social consequences of legislation on these issues.

Even at the early stages of module development, the developer should also be thinking about the writing assignment. All of the pre-reading, reading, and critical activities of the module should lead up to the writing at the end. The first version of the “Op-Ed” module was designed around a “letter to the editor” assignment because one of the directives of the English Language Arts standards was that students should write in multiple genres. The revised version includes a possible essay assignment about whether an “Animal Bill of Rights” would be a good idea. Everything that the students have learned up to this point—the ideas, the arguments, the vocabulary, the data, the discussions—is relevant to the writing project at the end.

Of course, the writing assignment may evolve and change as the module is written. A module has a beginning, a middle, and an end, with an arc from beginning to end. As you write your module, it is important not to focus only on what the student is doing at that particular point, but also what they have already done and learned, and what they will do and learn in the future.

Next up: Designing pre-reading activities.

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