Hello, dear colleagues.
I send all good wishes to you and your students for the new academic year. I’m often asked these two questions at the start of the semester: What are the best ways to introduce a Hacker/Sommers handbook? and What activities might help students develop the habit of using a handbook?
Most students enter writing classes uncertain how and why a handbook will help meet the new expectations of college writing. If we don’t explain how we expect students to use it, both inside and outside of class, they might assume that the handbook is a recommended text, not required—and they may not understand that the book’s advice and resources are essential for their success as college writers.
Yet as teachers we know that the more students rely on their handbook, the more effective they will become as writers, not only in first-year writing, but throughout college. I articulate this principle on the first day of class—everything you need to become a successful college writer in any course is in this handbook; become friends with it. I’ve learned, though, that this principle is a well-intentioned abstraction unless I require students to bring their handbook to each class and give them specific reasons to open it—questions to answer or problems to solve—and show them how the book is designed for them. I want students to start asking questions about their writing and to learn how to find the answers in their handbook. One of my oft repeated queries in class is—Where in your handbook will you find the answer to that question?
What follows are several activities, all collaborative, that I use at the beginning of the semester to introduce the handbook:
- The revision memo. Students read and review a draft written by a former student. In peer groups, students discuss questions such as: What are the draft’s strengths and problems? What specific revision strategies will improve the draft’s readability, and why? Where in the handbook might the student go for advice? In a brief memo, collaboratively written, students recommend three or four revision goals and use the handbook’s language to explain, for instance, how to develop a stronger thesis statement, unify paragraphs, or punctuate run-on sentences.
- The scavenger hunt. Students are paired to complete a scavenger hunt to locate key coverage in the book—coverage that matches the course goals and assignments. The search actively encourages students to navigate the handbook’s index, menus, charts, and checklists—hubs of information—and find specific help before they need it.
- Decoding expectations. Students work together to annotate the first assignment—or the rubric for the assignment— to include cross-references of the pages and sections of the handbook they will need to successfully write their papers. Students are asked: What do you need to know how to do to complete this assignment? Where in the handbook will you receive guidance? For instance, assignment criteria might include defining purpose and audience, writing an introduction, summarizing a source, or proofreading for accuracy and correctness. This exercise also helps students learn to carefully read assignments and rubrics to understand expectations.
- Leading the class. To reinforce the idea that the handbook contains vocabulary that is useful for talking about about writing as writing, students are asked to teach a handbook lesson to their peer group. Students choose their lesson—how to analyze a Web source, or how to replace passive verbs with active ones—and use the handbook’s language and examples for their lessons.
The goal of these exercises is for students to start the work of the class while they become familiar with their handbook and, in turn, become more confident, independent writers. And becoming confident, independent writers is, after all, one of the best outcomes we can desire for our students.
I am eager to hear your ideas and activities for introducing your Hacker/Sommers handbook. Please leave a suggestion or two below with the rest of us!
All best wishes,