The ERWC Arc and Terms for Transfer

In Writing Across Contexts: Transfer, Composition and Sites of Writing by Kathleen Blake Yancey, Liane Robertson, and Kara Taczak design a composition course specifically for transfer of concepts and practices to other writing situations.  Because research on transfer of writing skills shows that students have trouble finding language to describe what they learned in their writing courses, part of their design is the teaching and reinforcing of eleven key terms chosen “to help students describe and theorize writing,”  These key terms, organized into four groups, are:

  1. Audience, genre, rhetorical situation, and reflection
  2. Exigence, critical analysis, discourse community, and knowledge
  3. Context, composing and circulation
  4. Knowledge and reflection (57)

Each set of terms is taught and reinforced in a particular writing assignment. “Knowledge” and “reflection” are repeated in the last assignment. “Exigence” could be defined as the situation that gives rise to the need for writing.

Yancey et al argue that “students would understand writing differently and better were a course organized through key terms or concepts rather than through a set of assignments or processes” (40). They cite Bransford, Pellegrino and Donovan, How People Learn:Brain, Mind, Experience and School who say, “The ability to monitor one’s approach to problem-solving–to be metacognitive–is an important aspect of the expert’s competence. Experts step back from their first, oversimplistic interpretation of a problem or situation and question their own knowledge that is relevant.”

Terms represent concepts and bringing concepts learned in prior situations to bear on current situations is an indication of transfer of knowledge. Knowing the right terms allows the concepts to be recalled and used. But what are the right terms?

The terms embedded in the “Teaching for Transfer” course designed by Yancy et al are a mixed bag. Some are elements of the rhetorical situation–audience, genre, exigence, context–while the umbrella term “rhetorical situation” is also part of the list. Others are cognitive: knowledge and reflection. “Composing” is part of the writing process, part of another list of terms that has been part of composition research since the 1970’s: pre-writing, composing, revising, and proofreading. “Circulation” (by which I think they mean the way texts circulate in a community; they do not define it) and “discourse community” are sociolinguistic concepts. In the context of the assignments and the course, these may be memorable concepts, but as a list, not so much. Given that terms are so important, I wonder if a better selection could be made.

ERWC, as currently expressed, has a similar problem. Our template, while it guides students through a well-defined process of prereading, reading and re-reading for different purposes, and repeats and reinforces this process until students have internalized it, doesn’t provide a convenient list of terms. Students may have internalized these processes so well that they do not need terms to recall them. However, a list of memorable terms certainly could not hurt.

After many conversations with ERWC committee members and teachers participating in the ERWC Module Writing Institute that is currently underway, and especially with Mary Adler, who is co-facilitating the Institute with me, I would like to propose the following set of terms to describe the intellectual processes embedded in the ERWC:

Prepare–>Understand–>Question–>Select–>Write–>Revise

Of course, there are many complexities lurking under each one of these terms, which I will discuss in a subsequent post.

The Organization of a Roman Speech

In the Module Writing Institute today we were talking about a metalanguage for commencement addresses. I suggested that it was worth looking at the six-part organization of a classical Roman speech as described by Cicero in De Inventione and De Oratore. This pattern has lasted for thousands of years.

  • Exordium–An introduction in which the speaker states the subject and purpose of the discourse and establishes his or her ethos.
  • Narratio–A narrative of the facts of the case.
  • Partitio or Divisio–A statement of what is to come, consistent with the point at issue.
  • Confirmatio–Arguments in favor of the case. Oriented toward logos.
  • Refutatio–A refutation of the arguments against the case.
  • Peroratio–A conclusion, often oriented toward pathos.

I argued that if we were still teaching this pattern, instead of the five-paragraph essay, our society would be much more advanced. All of the requirements of good logical argumentation are built into this pattern, though it also addresses ethical and pathetic appeals. And it is still in use in sermons and other ceremonial discourse.

More can be found at the Silva Rhetoricae site.  Click on “Canons of Rhetoric/Arrangement” in the column on the left side.

“Text to Text” and the “Arc” of a Module

As I noted in my speech at the Leadership Certification events, the i3 study showed that classes often have trouble completing an ERWC module. They tend to do a lot of the activities at the beginning, mostly in the Prereading and Reading sections, and start skipping activities in the latter part of the module, sometimes not getting to the writing assignment at all. We do not blame teachers for this pattern. It is part of the existential reality of teaching high school that there is never world enough or time. However, this led us to start talking about how we can help teachers complete the “arc” of a module. We came up with the slogan “Text to Text” to remind us that a module begins with published texts and ends with a student text in response. But what exactly do we mean by an “arc”?

In general, a module moves through the following pattern:

  • Prereading
  • Reading for Comprehension (Playing the Believing Game)
  • Reading to Question (Playing the Disbelieving Game)
  • Reading for Use (Finding Material to Support a Stance)
  • Writing in Response (Moving from the Audience Position to Being an Author)

As the student moves through the arc, his or her relationship with the texts under study becomes more and more complex. However, when the student begins to take a stance toward the issues and select words and concepts to analyze, endorse, or refute, his or her relationship with the texts begins to stabilize and solidify. This is why the “Connecting Reading to Writing” and “Entering the Conversation” sections of the Assignment Template are so important. Reading for comprehension is only an early stage of the process of coming to terms with the ideas of a text, not the end goal, which is to turn readers into writers who can contribute to the conversation.

Let’s imagine that an ERWC module is a NASA mission to launch a space probe. “Prereading” is the pre-flight check to make sure everything is ready and A-OK. “Reading for Comprehension” is the first stage booster that lifts the probe to the upper atmosphere. “Postreading” or “Reading to Question” is the second stage that boosts the probe into orbit. “Connecting Reading to Writing” or “Reading for Use” is the gathering of data by the probe to support the scientific mission. “Entering the Conversation” or “Writing in Response” is the interpretation and publishing of that data for the scientific community. A failure at any stage of this process leads to a failure of the mission.

ERWC modules contain many activities at each stage of the mission. In most situations, there is too little time to complete them all. Teachers have to make choices. What we recommend is that teachers make selections from each part of the template, so that the arc of the module is completed. In future modules and future editions of existing modules, we plan to give more guidance on how to select the most essential activities, but for now, we ask that teachers keep in mind that ERWC modules are designed to move from “Text to Text.”

Writing Rhetorically: Entering the Conversation

Composing a Draft

Cheat sheet: “How can you help students write an initial, exploratory draft in which they try on positions, work with evidence, and discover what they really think?”

In the early 1970’s, when compositionists such as Janet Emig were studying the “composing process” (see The Composing Processes of 12th Graders), researchers began with a simple view of the process which consisted of the following stages.

  • Pre-writing (activities such as brainstorming and clustering that were designed to generate content, similar to the concept of “invention” in classical rhetoric.)
  • Composing (The act of writing a first draft. Sometimes “composing” is distinguished from “inscribing” which is actually putting words on paper.)
  • Revising (Re-reading the draft with an audience in mind and making changes to improve effectiveness.)
  • Proofreading (Re-reading with a focus on surface correctness to discover and correct errors.)

The composing process is no longer a central focus of composition research, but later researchers discovered that the process described above is overly simplified, and that different writers cycle through these stages in different ways, often recursively. However, this basic four-stage process is still useful in thinking about the design of writing assignments.

The activities leading up to this point of the module comprise an elaborate and sophisticated pre-writing phase. It is time to put words on paper in the writer’s voice. However, different students will approach this task in different ways.

The classic four-stage process is better suited to writing a personal essay on a simple question. ERWC writing assignments tend to be text-based and to include multiple sources. Writing this kind of essay requires a more complex process.

The other important question here is about audience. The first set of questions in the “Rhetorical Essay Planner” is “Who are your readers? What do they probably think or believe about your topic? Do you share these beliefs or assumptions? If not, how will you change their views?” The essay prompt itself has left the audience undefined and whatever audience we specify, students are always ultimately writing to please their teachers. Some compositionists talk about “writer-based” drafts that are designed to get the writer’s ideas down on paper and later “reader-based” drafts that have been revised to serve the needs of the audience. However, though the concept of audience is certainly important in revising, it is also important in composing. It is easier to think of what to write if you know to whom you are writing.

Let’s tell the student to imagine that they are writing for students and teachers in other classes than their own. This is a mixed group consisting mostly of peers who have not read the articles they have. They could be writing an op-ed piece for the school newspaper.

Considering Structure

Cheat sheet: “How can you help students discover the most effective organizing strategy for their text?”

The best strategy here is probably to make a scratch outline with a thesis and main points plus possible support. Some students will want to just start writing and revise the order later. That is what I would have done when I was a student, but a rough outline, not a formal one, can help keep the writing process flowing.
Some students may try to turn this into a five-paragraph essay, but that is not the best format for this assignment. There are too many concepts, arguments, quotations, and examples to fit into three body paragraphs.

Using the Words of Others (and Avoiding Plagiarism)

Cheat sheet: “How can you help students learn to quote, paraphrase, and summarize their sources appropriately and document them accurately?”

Here we might ask the following:

  • What ideas need support?
  • What should I quote from Kinsley? (When are his exact words interesting or important?)
  • What ideas should I paraphrase from Kinsley? (When are the ideas more important to my argument than his words?)
  • What should I quote or paraphrase from other sources?

We could ask students to highlight these passages in the article and put a “Q” in the margins for “Quote” and a “P” in the margins for “Paraphrase,” or use different colored highlighters.

Negotiating Voices

Cheat sheet: “How can you help students represent the dialog between their own views and their various sources?”

We might ask the students to think about the following

  • What do I think?
  • Who agrees with me?
  • What do they think?
  • Who agrees with them?
  • How can I make these opinions clear to the reader?

It is good to return to these questions in the revising process, but they are also good questions to think about before beginning to compose.

Now the student is ready to sit down with his or her notes, outlines, and highlights to begin to write a draft.

Writing An ERWC Module: TOC

In a series of posts, I am working through the ERWC Assignment Template step-by-step as if I were writing a module around a short article by Michael Kinsley about Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s proposed ban of Big Gulp sodas.  These posts appear below in typical reverse-chronological blog format.  If you want to read them in the right order, click on the “Module Projects” tab to find a Table of Contents page with clickable links.

Connecting Reading to Writing: Discovering What You Think

Considering the Writing Task

The cheat sheet questions here are “How do you want students to use the material from the text? What writing skills and rhetorical strategies do you want them to work on? What writing task will best help students do these things?”

In the previous version of the Assignment Template, the writing topic was introduced later in the “Writing Rhetorically” section. However, we realized that students needed to re-read their notes and parts of the text with the writing topic in mind. They have read to understand, read to question and critique, and now they begin transitioning to reading as writers. We have already decided on one writing topic:

Considering the issues raised by Michael Kinsley in “Mayor Bloomberg’s war on soda: Why does New York’s mayor want you to stop guzzling sugary drinks?” write an essay answering the following question:

“When, if ever, should government limit or prevent people from doing things that are bad for them?”

In answering this question, discuss the factors that should be considered, both about the nature of the dangerous or unhealthful actions and the people who potentially do them. Where should we draw the line between safety and health on the one hand and individual choice on the other? Support your position with logical arguments, examples, and relevant facts. You may need to do additional research to support some of your arguments.

However, one of my colleagues asked a couple of interesting questions in response to the “Designing Postreading Activities” post:

When Kinsley set out to write this article, what sort of rhetorical problem was he facing? What were his options in handling a delicate rhetorical context, in which the subject of his argument is his boss?

Given the author’s possibly deceptive approach and heavy use of irony, how do we decide what to make of this piece? Is it possible for us to decide what Kinsley really believes about this issue? What evidence or information could we use to decide?

Up to this point in thinking about this module, we have acknowledged the irony, but danced around the issue at the heart of it, which might be framed as “Can a reporter report objectively on his own boss?” The first question gets at this rhetorical problem. The second question is simpler, but perhaps even more interesting. What does Michael Kinsley really think?

In a way, Kinsley’s problem here is akin to what every teacher faces in trying to get students to think critically about a controversial issue: Should he reveal his own position? When I was starting out as a writing teacher I used to try to present issues as objectively as possible and hide my own opinions. Over the years I found that students were very good at figuring out what my views were, and that it was better to simply be honest about them. (One of my freshman writing students at USC once wrote on my evaluations, “Mr. Edlund should take his liberal views to UCLA where they will be appreciated.”) However, this requires developing an atmosphere of trust in the classroom in which views do not determine grades.

My colleague’s questions open up the possibility of a rhetorical analysis paper focused on determining what Michael Kinsley really thinks about this issue. The previous topic we formulated is a good exercise in thinking about the issue with a little bit broader focus. The rhetorical analysis paper will be an exercise in thinking about the rhetoric and language of the piece. Much of the stylistic analysis we have done so far will apply to this analysis. Students could learn a lot from both assignments, but they have different purposes. It is also not unusual for a module to have alternative writing assignments. Let’s call these Assignment #1 and Assignment #2.

Taking a Stance

Cheat sheet question: “How can you help students consider possible positions on the issues raised by the text and decide what stance they will take and how they will support it?”
For Assignment #1, students will need to map out where they are on the ideological spectrum. We might give them the following positions:

  • Libertarian—Leave the people alone, no exceptions. (Explain why you take this extreme position.)
  • Libertarian—Leave the people alone, with some exceptions. (What are the exceptions and why should they be made?)
  • Liberal—Protect the people from their own bad decisions, no exceptions. (Explain why you take this extreme position.)
  • Liberal—Protect the people from their own bad decisions under certain circumstances. (What are these circumstances and why should we make these exceptions?)

For Assignment #2, students need to decide what they think Michael Kinsey really thinks and why.

Gathering Evidence to Support Your Claims

Cheat sheet: “How can you help students select evidence to support their position and deal with contrary evidence?”

Here, for both assignments, students need to review their annotations and notes. Students doing Assignment #1 will need to list factors that might be considered in deciding whether a “nanny” law is appropriate. If they are taking a Libertarian viewpoint, they need to argue against considering these factors. If they are taking a Liberal view, they will need to argue why at least some of these should be considered. Kinsley deals with some of these, but they may come up with more. Students doing Assignment #2 might want to research more about Kinsley and read additional articles.

Getting Ready to Write

Cheat sheet: What sort of pre-writing strategies will help students begin to compose their texts?

Students are now about to compose their first draft. They should be very well prepared to do this at this point. Traditionally, invention strategies such as brainstorming, freewriting, clustering, and outlining are used at this point in the writing process. ERWC students may not need these strategies because they have already done so much reading, writing, and thinking. However, a scratch outline might help them organize their materials in preparation for writing. A focused freewrite might help them consolidate their ideas, something like “How have your views on the Big Gulp soda ban changed as you read and worked with this article? Write for five minutes.”

Another tool that might be helpful for students at this point is the “Rhetorical Essay Planner.”  This handout asks questions about audience, purpose, ethos, arguments, and possible emotional appeals that help the writer construct the rhetorical situation.

Designing Postreading Activities

As noted in the previous post about designing the writing assignment, the “Postreading” section is where we stop playing the believing game and begin the disbelieving game. In previous sections, our stance was “What if this is all true?” Now, our question is “What is wrong with this?” We also decided that we want to design critical thinking activities that will help students respond to the question “When, if ever, should government limit or prevent people from doing things that are bad for them?”

Summarizing and Responding

The cheat sheet question for this section is “How can you help students express the ideas and arguments of the text in their own words?” One cannot summarize an argument unless one understands it and has command of the main points.

One technique that is often used in ERWC is to ask the students to make a PAPA Square, a technique adapted from Maxine Hairston’s Contemporary Composition (short edition). Through a PAPA Square, students analyze the purpose, argument, persona, and audience of a text—either their own or a published writer’s. The PAPA square looks like this:

papasquare1

However, for this this particular article, some of the questions may be difficult to answer. What is Kinsley’s purpose? His final conclusion is that Bloomberg, “deserves a pass on this one,” but this is connected to the ironic theme maintained throughout the article that Bloomberg is his boss. Kinsley does not seem to want to win an argument. The piece is more of a commentary on the issue of government “nannying” than an opinion piece on the Big Gulp soda ban. Kinsley, a professional journalist of long standing, may actually be more interested in entertaining his readers than anything else, though part of the “entertainment” is thinking critically about the issue.

Another common and useful technique is the “Rhetorical Précis.” In a rhetorical précis, students use the questions below (from Reading Rhetorically by John C. Bean, Virginia A. Chappell, and Alice M. Gillam) to write a brief four-sentence analysis of the content, purpose, and persuasive strategies of a text:

  • Sentence 1: Note the name of the author, the genre and title of the work, and the publication date in parentheses; a rhetorically accurate verb; and a “that” clause containing the major assertion or thesis statement in the work.
  • Sentence 2: An explanation of how the author develops and supports the thesis, usually in chronological order.
  • Sentence 3: A statement of the author’s apparent purpose, followed by an “in order to” phrase.
  • Sentence 4: A description of the intended audience, the relationship the author establishes with the audience, or both.

This pattern will work very well for most op-ed pieces, but not this one. Kinsley’s thesis and purpose are unclear. We might address this problem by directing attention to it. We could say, “An explicit thesis is stated directly and clearly. An implicit thesis is implied by the text, but not stated. What kind of thesis does Kinsley have in this piece?” They might come up with something like the passage late in the text quoted in the previous post: “What people think about this issue depends on how they weigh various factors.”

For students who may have trouble even recognizing a glaringly obvious thesis, however, finding an implicit thesis might be too much.

In “Considering the Structure of the Text” we asked the students to identify the topic of the article and make a “T” chart of pro and con arguments. Here we could ask students to revisit that chart, considering one additional rhetorical question: “What does this piece do for the reader?” Our summary format might look like this:

  1. Who is the author of this piece?
  2. What is the issue the piece discusses?
  3. According to the author, what factors should we consider in making a decision about this issue?
  4. What does this piece do for the reader?

The answer to the last question might be, “The author analyzes various factors and arguments related to Mayor Bloomberg’s proposed ban on Big Gulp sodas so that the reader can make an informed decision.”

Thinking Critically

The cheat sheet question for this section is “How can you help students notice and respond to the rhetorical decisions made by the author, especially regarding ethos, logos, and pathos?”

The Assignment Template uses questions based on Aristotle’s three appeals as the basis for thinking critically about a text. This approach means that students are thinking about claims, arguments, and evidence in the context of the writer’s credibility and their own emotional reactions.

Questions about Logic (Logos)

In a sense, the purpose of Kinsley’s article is to lay out possible avenues of critical thinking on this issue. To the extent that he is successful in doing that, much of the work of this section has already been done.

For much of this article, Kinsley is laying out arguments made by people in opposing camps, the Libertarian “Leave the people alone” camp and the Liberal “Protect the people from their own bad decisions” camp. Thus the Assignment Template’s questions about claims and evidence are a little off:

  • What are the major claims and assertions made in this reading? Do you agree with the author’s claim that . . . ?
  • What evidence has the author supplied to support the claims? How relevant and valid do you think the evidence is? How sound is the reasoning?
  • Is there any claim that appears to be weak or unsupported? Which one, and why do you think so?
  • What counterarguments has the author addressed?
  • Do you think the author has left something out on purpose? Why?
  • How have the author’s ideas developed over the course of the text?

However, Kinsley does make a couple of claims himself. In paragraph six, he claims that the law as proposed “would be comically easy to evade.” Then he argues that Libertarians have nothing to fear from an ineffective law, though he does note that arguing in favor of a law because it will be ineffective is a pretty weak argument.

In paragraph nine, Kinsley argues that drinking sugary soda does harm people other than the drinker because it will make health insurance costs go up. However, the most important claim he makes is in paragraph 12, where he argues that “nannying does work” because another of Bloomberg’s laws requiring restaurants to post nutritional information about the meals they serve caused him to give up beef. He provides further support for this claim with some statistics about smoking.

We might deal with Kinsley’s claims by framing the question in the following way: “Although much of the article lays out possible claims and arguments made by other parties, Kinsley himself does make some claims. What are they and how does he support them?” Students might work in pairs or small groups to find the claims and discuss the support.

Questions about the Writer (Ethos)

When Aristotle talks about ethos, he is thinking about a persona constructed by the speaker to help persuade the audience that he or she is a credible speaker with the good of the polis in mind. In ERWC, we tend to use the concept critically in a double-sided way. We look at the persona and how it is constructed by the text, but we also encourage research into who the writer actually is and what qualifications he or she brings to the issue. The Assignment Template questions are

  • What can you infer about the author from the text?
  • Does this author have the appropriate background to speak with authority on this subject?
    Is the author knowledgeable?
  • What does the author’s style and language tell the reader about him or her?
  • Does the author seem trustworthy? Why or why not?
  • Does the author seem deceptive? Why or why not?
  • Does the author appear to be serious?

Note the words “seem” and “appear to be” in some of those questions. These are hedge words that are normally avoided in academic arguments, but here they signal that there might be a gap worth investigating between the persona and the person. We might ask the students to do some searches on Michael Kinsley.

The questions above will work for this text. The last question, “Does the author appear to be serious?” raises the issue of the irony again. If we really wanted to work on this, we could ask the students to write an imaginary conversation between Michael Bloomberg and Michael Kinsley about this article. Perhaps we could give them this starting point:

MB: I heard you wrote an article about my Big Gulp ban.
MK: Yes, I did.
MB: Did you give it strong support?
MK: Well . . .
MB:
MK:
And so on . . .

Questions about Emotions (Pathos)

Many teachers are under the impression that emotional appeals are a logical fallacy. Aristotle compares using emotional appeals to “warping the ruler” by which you are trying to measure something, but he also recognizes that they are very effective and often necessary. The Assignment Template questions are as follows:

  • Does this piece affect you emotionally? Which parts?
  • Do you think the author is trying to manipulate the readers’ emotions? In what ways? At what point?
  • Do your emotions conflict with your logical interpretation of the arguments?
  • Does the author use humor or irony? How does that affect your acceptance of his or her ideas?

In this case, we might try to focus the questions a little more specifically. We might ask

  • Do you resist arguments that soda is bad for you because you enjoy drinking soda? Does this resistance influence your logical interpretation of the arguments?
  • Do Kinsley’s repeated statements that Bloomberg must be right because he is his boss give you a favorable or unfavorable impression of the Kinsley? How do you feel about Kinsley?
  • Do you think that Kinsley’s use of irony was an effective strategy?

The irony in this piece, once invoked, is never really overcome. Again, these questions might be discussed in pairs or small groups.

Reflecting on Your Reading Process

The cheat sheet question for this section is: “How can you help students reflect both on the problems they had reading this text, and the discoveries they made about reading strategies?”

This section was added to the Assignment Template in the last revision. It is designed to facilitate the internalization of reading strategies so that gradual release of responsibility is possible.

  • What was the most difficult part of reading this article?
  • What strategies did you use to overcome the difficulty? Will these strategies work for other articles that you might read in the future?
  • Did reading this article change your views in any way? Did it push you toward the “leave the people alone” position or the “protect the people from their own bad decisions” position?
  • What parts of the article influenced you the most?

The last two questions are based on a recognition that we do not read merely to comprehend, but to respond. Arguments engage not only our reason, but also our belief system. When we engage fully, we are changed.

An interesting assignment at this point might be a “Note to Self Regarding Reading Strategies.” It might start out, “Next time I read a difficult text I should try . . . because it worked for this one.”

Considering the Writing Prompt (An Interlude)

We are about to get into the “Postreading” section, the critical reading/critical thinking part of the module. This is where we stop playing the believing game and begin the disbelieving game. In previous sections, our stance was “What if this is all true?” Now, our question is “What is wrong with this?” We turn to skepticism.

We will introduce the writing assignment to the students in the section following “Postreading,” which is called “Connecting Reading to Writing.” This is where the students will see the writing prompt for the first time. However, it is very important, as a module designer, to be thinking about the writing prompt while designing the Postreading section. Whatever we do in Postreading will set up the writing assignment, so we need to know specifically what we will ask the students to do.

The most obvious writing task is to ask “Should government agencies limit people’s consumption of sugary soft drinks?” However, that is essentially the question that Kinsley tries to answer. Kinsley lays out all the obvious arguments, though he waffles on the conclusions to be drawn. Students will simply pick a side, trot out the appropriate arguments, perhaps add a couple of personal examples. The best writers might try to defeat some of the arguments on the other side. The resulting essays will depend on Kinsley for much of their thinking. This is the easiest and quickest assignment, at least on the surface.

An alternative would be to do what the Supreme Court would do and ask a more general question, one which Kinsley asks in the first paragraph: “In a free country, people should people have the right to do what they want, even if it’s bad for them?” Again Kinsley provides some arguments and examples on both sides, but this is a much bigger and more complex question. Students could take it in different directions and the essays are less likely to look the same. However, this question has the potential of getting too big because we might end up having to define “freedom.”

Another alternative would be to ask “When, if ever, should government limit or prevent people from doing things that are bad for them?” This question assumes (except for the “if ever”) that government has a role in controlling people’s dangerous or unhealthy behavior. The question is, where does this role begin? This leads to a series of related questions: How much control is too much? At what point does individual responsibility kick in? Is age a factor? How informed does a person have to be to make a potentially risky choice? What if people are misinformed by misleading advertising? Does the government have a role then?

These questions are probably interesting to high school students, who are generally pushing against parental and governmental authority. However, this question can be taken in many different directions, depending how we set it up. For example, we could take it in a historical direction and have students research Prohibition and the 18th amendment to the Constitution. Alcoholic beverages were prohibited in the U.S. from 1920 to 1933. We could also ask students to research different substances and their effects on health. Kinsley mentions regulations concerning tobacco and the nutritional content of foods. The legalization of marijuana is in some ways parallel to the repealing of prohibition in 1933, though some students will probably find it difficult to research this topic objectively. An investigation of popular nutritional supplements might be a better choice.

Kinsley sums up the issue in this way:

In the end, whether you support Bloomberg’s crusade or oppose it depends on how you weigh the various factors. Libertarian absolutists will have no problem rejecting all of the above considerations — most of which are pretty trivial — and concluding that freedom is freedom. At the other extreme, health policy types (many of them authoritarian in habits of thought) will have no problem saying that sugary drinks are bad for you and therefore you shouldn’t be allowed to guzzle them in excess, especially if you are a child or young person.

In other words, some people don’t like being told what they can and cannot do, while others like to tell people what to do, for their own good. Democracy tries to negotiate a balance between these two extremes. We might ask students to consider how this balance is negotiated and achieved. This brings us back to the third formulation of the prompt. We might say

Considering the issues raised by Michael Kinsley in “Mayor Bloomberg’s war on soda: Why does New York’s mayor want you to stop guzzling sugary drinks?” write an essay answering the following question:

“When, if ever, should government limit or prevent people from doing things that are bad for them?”

In answering this question, discuss the factors that should be considered, both about the nature of the dangerous or unhealthful actions and the people who potentially do them. Where should we draw the line between safety and health on the one hand and individual choice on the other? Support your position with logical arguments, examples, and relevant facts. You may need to do additional research to support some of your arguments.

This prompt has a number of advantages. It is a response to the Kinsley article, but it has the potential to go beyond Kinsley’s arguments and his narrow focus on soda. It does not set up a pro/con argument as Kinsley does, but a more nuanced continuum. It also offers opportunities for further research, if the student or the teacher wants to go there. Let’s go with this.

Designing Reading Activities

I find the “Reading” section of a module the most difficult section to write. Some students are fluent readers. The prereading activities may have been enough to engage them and prepare then to read. Further activities during the reading of the text may actually impede their reading, or frustrate them. This is especially true with novels. Some students are fully capable of reading the novel for entertainment, and extra activities, such as reading journals and directives to search for figurative language, get in the way of reading for enjoyment. We don’t want that to happen.

However, other students need a focus and some questions to answer. A well-written text causes readers to ask questions and seek answers as they continue to read. If students don’t understand the text well enough to generate their own questions, the module can supply some. For the weakest readers, these questions become a sort of treasure hunt in which the purpose is not to read the text, but to find the answers. This is not an ideal state, but it can lead to more fluent reading over time.

It is up to the teacher to determine what approach is best for the students in his or her classroom. I would ask more fluent readers to skim over the questions and activities in this section before reading, read the text, and come back to the questions. Less fluent readers might use the questions and activities more actively to propel them through the text.

My overriding question in this section is “What do I want the students to attend to?”

Reading for Understanding

The cheat sheet question for this section is “What aspects of the text might contradict student expectations or otherwise cause difficulty? What might students do to better understand the meaning?”

The most difficult problem for students reading this text is the ironic tone. In fact, the irony is almost enough to make this text unsuitable for a module. Irony is an in-group, insider strategy. The author is having a little joke at the expense of outsiders. He is saying, “Ha, ha, I am saying the opposite of what I mean, but you get the joke because we are all part of the same group.”

It might help to discuss a scenario like this:

Gerald and Jane stepped out onto the porch. Rain poured down in sheets and a torrent of water pushed an overturned trash can down the street. As a wet cat darted toward the open door, lightening flashed followed by a peal of thunder. Gerald turned to Jane and said, “Beautiful day, isn’t it?”

Does Gerald really like stormy weather? Or is he being ironic?

Then we might give the students a direction to look for examples of the author saying the opposite of what he means as they read the article.

Considering the Structure of the Text

The cheat sheet question for this section is “What should students notice about the structure of the text? How can you help them analyze it?”

This article has an unusual structure for an op-ed piece. It is essentially an argument analysis. It begins with the phrase, “the basic case against . . .” followed by two paragraphs of support for the “against” position. Then paragraph four begins, “the basic case in favor . . .” but states an ironic case. Paragraph five continues the irony, but then begins to present real arguments on the “pro” side. The rest of the article weighs arguments on both sides. The initial question remains, “In a free country, do people have the right to do what they want, even if it’s bad for them?” The author waffles on this question.

One way to help students think about this structure is to ask them to state the issue and then list pro and con arguments. This kind of “T” chart often oversimplifies an issue, but in this case it matches the structure of the piece. We might start this process in this section by asking them to look for the phrases noted above, “the basic case against” and “the basic case in favor,” and ask them what kind of structure is implied by these phrases. Then in the “Annotating and Questioning the Text” section we can ask them to note “pro” or “con” in the margins.

The ironic subtext, however, addresses another issue. The author writes, “Bloomberg is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News’ parent, Bloomberg LP, and therefore my boss. In all likelihood, therefore, he is right about soft drinks and sugar, just as he is right about almost everything.” Michael Bloomberg promotes the law banning Big Gulp sodas in his role as Mayor of New York City. However, he also owns a news agency, and Michael Kinsey, the author of this piece, works for Bloomberg’s news agency. Bloomberg’s dual role creates a potential conflict of interest, both for Bloomberg and for Kinsey. Can Kinsey report objectively on his boss’s proposed law? Will he be fired if he goes against his boss’s position? Does he have credibility with the reader if he writes in favor of his boss’s position?

The ordinary way to deal with this kind of situation is for the author to include a parenthetical note: (Full disclosure: the writer works for Michael Bloomberg). The author instead chose to reveal the conflict of interest through making ironic statements. We will deal with these issues below.

Noticing Language

The cheat sheet questions for this section is: “Are there words, grammatical patterns, or turns of phrase that are potentially confusing or difficult to interpret? How can you help students notice and interpret them?”

In this piece, the irony is the most difficult problem. We could ask students, “Does the author make any statements that seem to mean the opposite of what he really means?” We could also be more direct: “Does the author really believe that Michael Bloomberg must be right just because he is his boss?”

Annotating and Questioning the Text

The cheat sheet question for this section is: “What can you do to help students begin a dialog with the ideas, assumptions, and arguments of the text?”

As discussed above, the most useful annotations would probably be to note “pro” and “con” in the margins. We could also add “Ironic?” to the mix. They will find that some arguments cut both ways.

Analyzing Stylistic Choices

The cheat sheet question for this section is, “What did the author intend or imply by making specific choices of words, sentence structures, organizational strategies, or use of other linguistic features? How can you help students notice these effects?”

Again, irony is our focus here. We could note for the students that the normal way to deal with a conflict of interest is for the author to include a parenthetical note: (Full disclosure: the writer works for Michael Bloomberg). Then we can ask, “Why did this writer choose to deal with this through ironic statements?”

Of course, different texts have different challenges and different learning opportunities. The module writer must make choices about what to focus on because it is not possible to cover everything. Questions such as “What will students find difficult?” “What do I want students to attend to?” and “What will students learn?” will help you make these decisions.

A Science-oriented Micro-module

I have been distracted from the main “Writing an ERWC Module” project by the “mini-mini modules,” which I am now calling “micro-modules.”  This new science-oriented module is written around a short blog post by Phil Plait who writes the “Bad Astronomy” blog on Slate.  The post, called The Last Days of MESSENGER, is about a NASA space probe on a mission to Mercury.  The probe has been a great success, but it is out of fuel and will soon crash into the planet.

In the short pre-reading, the students learn to convert kilometers to miles and think about the concept of “orbit.”  While reading, they are thinking about Messenger’s navigational capabilities and why it is difficult for it to maintain its orbit (Answer: Because of the immense gravitational pull and close proximity of the Sun).  They are also asked to think about the audience and purpose of the article, and whether it focuses on the scientists in charge of the mission or the probe itself.

The writing assignment was the tough part.  At first, I wanted to ask for something objective and scientific, and I considered a cost/benefit analysis.  The mission cost $280 million.  However, I saw this module as something for 9th graders or thereabouts, and I thought that both the sum, and the benefits of the science, would be hard for students to conceptualize or evaluate.

I decided that I wanted to put the students right into the situation.  At first, I thought of having them imagine that they were on board the probe.  However, this would involve dying.  I decided instead to have them imagine that the probe was a character with thoughts, feelings, and senses.

The prompt is set up like this:

Science is supposed to be objective, logical and rational.  Science writing is mostly facts and reasoning.  However, most people respond to stories and characters more than facts and arguments.  When writing for non-scientists, writers often “humanize” non-human objects to make the science more like a story.

Let’s take that humanizing tendency to its logical extreme. Let’s imagine that Messenger is a character who can think, see and feel.   Write a paragraph or two describing what Messenger sees and feels as it approaches its doom.  Does it remember its long voyage?  Does it respect its controllers, or is it angry?  Does it respond to what it sees, the enormous Sun, the stars, and the cratered planet? Is it afraid?  Is it sad?  Does it feel proud?

This defines two genres of writing–professional science writing and popular science writing–two styles for two different audiences.  However, the assignment pushes the students into a third genre, science fiction. The pre-writing consists of a series of questions:

  • What kind of personality does Messenger have? (This is completely up to your imagination.)
  • What does Messenger see? (This part should be based on the factual information in the text and the images from the NASA site.)
  • What does Messenger do? (This should be based on Messenger’s capabilities as described in the article.)
  • What does Messenger feel? (This is completely up to you.)
  • What does Messenger want? What is its purpose? (This is up to you, but should reflect the answers to the previous questions.)

Three of these questions involve the imagination, but two of them, “What does Messenger see?” and “What does Messenger do?” are based on facts from the article and the NASA website.  This combination of scientific fact and imaginative extrapolation is the essence of science fiction.

Still, I was a little worried about moving from scientific discourse to creative writing.  I shared this module with my graduate students. They actually liked the writing prompt.  The ones who had been with me in other seminars saw elements of Burke, Lacan, and Latour in it, but I think they were over interpreting a bit.  Several of them are teaching or tutoring in different schools and academies with students at varying levels.  One told me that she was provided with a series of science readings set up in a similar way (ERWC seems to be infecting everything), but without writing assignments.  She had to create her own.  She said she could use this with 9th graders right away.

They noted that some students like creative assignments, but hate expository assignments.  Others are afraid of creative assignments.  This prompt, with its combination of factual elements and imaginative ones, draws both groups in.

The next step might be to write a module about the New Horizons probe, which is about to arrive at Pluto.  The combined modules would then go from the closest planet to the Sun to the farthest, although Pluto has been degraded to the status of “dwarf planet.”