Writer's Block

The USA is the place I was born. Canada is the place I was raised. Taiwan is the place in my heart.

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Motivating the students in my introductory writing class is definitely a challenge.

For the students in my class it's the first writing class that they've taken since entering the college. Although they have learned about English grammar and sentence structure since high school or junior high, many of them still have difficulty writing correct, complete sentences!

Writing classes are often loathed by students, and teachers- as I have suspected, and now confirmed. *Some* teachers- especially those teaching English in Taiwan- feel as though they regularly endure self-flagellation each time they have to grade a simple writing assignment- times 45. One student's writing assignment gets magnified into a time consuming test of patience. It's quite a conundrum-there's only one of you and 45 of them. And with language it's all about practice, practice, practice. With writing, it's write, write, write- drafts, edits, rewrites and revisions.

Sometimes I wonder if my students have ever taken an English grammar class. Based on their writing compositions I wouldn't have guessed that many of them are currently taking separate grammar classes or have been learning English grammar since elementary school, go figure- somehow, it (the rules of grammar and spelling) all goes out the window, or in one ear and out the other- when it comes to writing class.

It's a wonder how I remain sane- with verbs out of tense, endless unpunctuated sentences with "words to no where", misappropriated words from a bygone era, incomprehensible strings of words that defy all grammatical rules of order, and ambiguity is elevated to new heights: going somewhere, anywhere, everywhere, doing something, everything, anything etc. with everyone, someone, anyone.

Sometimes you just have to find the humor in it all and laugh at the convoluted concoctions that result from sheer laziness or overzealous effort.

At my college's writing classes, direct teacher student interaction is inhibited by large class size- with over forty students per class on average. I really dread the weekly grading of assignments, but it is truly rewarding to finally see students’ progress and enthusiasm over time. The proof is there in black and white, in thoughtful responses and compositions that have grown in length.

In the beginning, I certainly found it frustrating. In general, I prefer teaching higher level students, especially when it comes to English conversation. They are generally much more motivated and that's when conversations become more stimulating and interesting- when we can discuss and debate opinions on anything from current events to celebrity gossip. At the most basic, beginner conversation level, I feel overwhelmed and exhausted; it takes a lot of energy to motivate and encourage them to speak and I often don’t know where to start in on correcting them.

Now, I’ve actually come to appreciate teaching introductory writing classes. Here the goal is simple, just make them write, write, write. There’s no need for analysis, research, arguments, or thesis statements- at least not just yet. I’ve come to appreciate working with students at this more basic level.

I think that teaching students how to write essays would be even more frustrating. I think that at this college, students are prematurely expected to write papers and essays. Graduating students are required to complete a group project/paper. A typical project group has 4-5 students. At that point in time, they've only had a few college level writing classes (including one focused on essay writing and thesis statements) so they are not fully equipped for this. It can take years to develop essay writing skills. I began that love/hate relationship -I mean *learning* process in high school and continued it in college. It's challenging enough to write an individual essay; working with 3 or 4 others to collectively write essay certainly doesn't make the process any easier, it just introduces a whole new set of complications into the equation.

So I can most definitelly appreciate the simplicity and necessity of working on the basics, building a foundation first, working sentence by sentence and then on paragraph structure.

Back on the topic of motivation... that is the key to getting my introductory writing students to write. So what better way to motivate them than by getting them to write about themselves or what interests them. I see no point in making them write about preassigned topics which have no relevance to them- that's a challenge that upper level writing or reading class teachers will have to worry about.

The writing theme for this semester as in past ones is "writing my autobiography." Every week there's a different writing assignment which contributes to their autobiography project. In the past I've asked them to write about "The day I was born", "My most memorable experience", "What I would do if I won the lottery." I've tried to expand into writing about their personal interests, such as writing about "Something new I'd like to learn how to do."

I have to remind myself just how young my students are. Some of them are a young as seventeen and seem much more like high school students than college students in their mentality and attitude. Many of my students ask me to be excused to go to the washroom during class. In Taiwan, young people tend to live at home longer (i.e while they are in college and even afterwards when they start working). Adulthood is considered to start at twenty or twenty-one, not eighteen. Sometimes I think that my students are still quite child-like, so it should come a no surprise that this semester's midterm writing assignment- to write about "A day in the life of your favorite fictional character"- was a huge hit.

The response was amazing. I've never seen such enthusiasm for a midterm writing assignment. It definitely shows in the effort and length of their compositions, some of which turned into works or art which included cute graphics of my students' favorite cartoon characters. Grading these assignments was actually quite a learning experience. I feel like the doors of anime pop culture have been opened to me.

Here's a snopsis of my findings:

Most popular cartoon character written about:

Chibi Maruko-Chan- a 9-year-old girl who gets into all sorts of mischief at school and at home, with her parents and older sister

Other popular picks:

Doraemon- a cat-like robot from the future (22nd century)

Badtz Maru- a mischievous little penguin

The cutest cartoon characters:

Hamtaro- a cute, adventurous, curious, cuddly hamster, owned by a fifth grade girl named Laura

Purin- a roly-poly golden retriever named "Purin" because he looks like pudding flan

The strangest cartoon characters:

Spongebob Squarepants- who lives in a pineapple with his pet snail Gary in the Pacific Ocean, in the city of Bikini Bottom

Anpanman- a living bread superhero, who saves and nourishes the weak by offering a piece of himself (i.e. jam bread) to eat

Anpanman is by far the strangest cartoon that I've learned about. He seems to have quite a cult following. To learn more about him, check out this link .


  • At 10/09/2006 2:21 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

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