Nancy Is Now On Bits!

Nancy Sommers is now blogging on Bits: Ideas for Teaching Composition (Bedford/St. Martin’s). Visit Bits to read her most recent Between The Drafts post. Share a comment, and join the conversation!


Designing Thoughtful Writing Assignments

What makes a good writing assignment?  We know that thoughtful papers come from thoughtful assignments, but why do some students run with our assignments, surprising us with interesting insights and careful research, while others, like Bartleby the Scrivener, simply “prefer not to?”

Assignments work on multiple levels, especially in a first-year writing course, when students, as apprentices, are asked to think about big, complex ideas, and asked to do so as if they were experts on these topics.  We’ve learned that assignments work best when we work backwards, asking, What must a student know how to do in order to successfully write this assignment? And when we sequence each assignment to give students time to practice skills, one lesson at a time, and provide opportunities for students to try out ideas and receive feedback in low-stakes writing exercises.

But how do our best pedagogies square with students’ learning? When speaking with college students about writing assignments, I often hear their uncertainty about what their teachers are asking them to do:  What counts as a good thesis? What kind of evidence should I use? How can I say something different from what my source already says? And what criteria will be used to grade my paper? Viewing assignments through students’ eyes shows us both the complexity of what we are asking them to accomplish in a single assignment and the challenges they face as apprentices trying to simultaneously develop expertise in new subjects and new methods.

During my travels this semester, I came across engaging assignments at the University of Mississippi and Tacoma Community College. These assignments provide opportunities for students to enter public conversations as fellow participants, with something to gain and much to give.

In the University of Mississippi’s Foundations for Academic Success Track (FASTrack) program, students take a research-writing course focused on the theme of community. Each of their assignments asks them to solve community problems and enter debates that demand real, immediate solutions.  The course culminates in the $100 Difference Project, which asks students to research a community problem, investigate organizations which attempt to address that problem, and propose how the organization might use $100 to make a difference.  In completing this assignment, students not only develop their authority as rhetoricians, but also use their research skills to make something happen in their community.

The second assignment, from Tacoma Community College, asks students to assume the role of mediator for a current social or ethical issue that the class has studied. To do so, they need to research the background and context for the debate, listen closely to various arguments in the debate, acknowledge the legitimacy of each side’s claim, synthesize the commonalities and differences between sides, and present a workable compromise.  To understand what it would take to achieve compromise, students must move beyond either/or thinking and engage with competing sides in the debate, find common ground by being sympathetic and respectful to opposing views, and  use their synthesis to work in the territory of compromise and reconciliation.

Dear Readers: What makes an engaging assignment for your students? Do you give students opportunities to enter real civic or academic debates? Please share your thoughts and assignments with fellow readers.

With every good wish,


Building Reflection into The Writing Course

Greetings, Dear Readers:

Here we are—at the start of a new academic year—and, like our students, ready to see what the year will bring.  For faculty in the University of Mississippi’s Center for Writing and Rhetoric, the year began with these welcoming words from Center Director, Professor Robert Cummings:  “First-year composition is the beginning of something new: the college experience.”

That something new—the college experience—and, even more specifically, college writing—can be hugely overwhelming if students aren’t given opportunities to reflect, to question and evaluate what it means to become a college writer.  We know reflection helps students understand both what they are learning and how they are learning; we also know that such reflection is a writerly habit that takes plenty of practice and is not something students naturally know how to do.

From day one, the Mississippi writing program asks their students to practice being reflective writers as part of their college experience, to stop and think about their expectations for themselves, their teachers, and their courses.  Ole Miss students are asked to compose reflections (print, audio, or video) throughout the writing course and about every aspect of their learning—how their papers evolved through the drafting process, how the peer review process influenced particular decisions, how they focused their arguments for a particular audience or genre, or how specific research practices shaped their ideas and arguments.  Showing students how to evaluate what they are learning helps them transfer their learning from one writing assignment to the next.

One of the most effective ways to build reflection into the writing process is to ask students to compose a Dear Reader letter or a writer’s memo to accompany their drafts. Students might be asked to reflect about specific questions they are asking about their ideas, about the challenges of writing in a particular genre, or about where they might focus their attention if they had two more days to write their draft. For instance, if students have been asked to write an argument, they might be asked to reflect on the specific expectations of the genre—a debatable thesis, evidence, counterargument, etc.—or about the challenges of establishing their ethos or analyzing their sources. These reflective exercises help students evaluate their learning and provide us with a glimpse into their writing processes.

I wrote about the Dear Reader letter and about the interplay between students’ reflections and teachers’ comments in Responding to Student Writers, a new book published by Bedford/St.Martin’sThe book is a free resource for you and your colleagues, written from one fellow teacher to another. This book offers my thoughts about the vital role response plays in students’ learning and my reflections culled from responding to many thousands of drafts—probably more drafts than anyone is supposed to read in a lifetime.

I would love to hear from you, dear readers: How do you help your students become reflective writers?  How do you build reflection into your writing course?  Please share your ideas and teaching stories.

With every good wish for the new academic year,


Becoming a College Writer: Learning to Revise

BTD Feb 2012_NancyDecemberPhotoHow do first-year college students revise?  This is just one of several questions my colleagues at Bedford/St.Martin’s and I wanted to explore in our survey of over 1000 students from thirty-six colleges and universities.  Seeing revision through the eyes of students reveals the gaps between teachers’ expectations and students’ practices and explains why students’ revised drafts, no matter what we’ve said in the classroom or written in the margins of their papers, too often remain rough drafts.

What did we learn from students’ survey responses?  Well, not surprisingly, many of the  responses confirm our assumptions that first-years don’t see the global possibilities of revision, but instead conceive of revision merely as moving words around, fixing errors, “going over” and “cleaning up”—a separate stage at the end of the process, requiring “perfecting” and “polishing” what has already been written. And the responses confirm students’ anxieties about making changes. As one student put it, “Revising is hard because you don’t know if the changes that you make are going to be better than the original choices.”

But consider the implications of these three representative responses:

“When I’m asked to revise, I feel as if I’m being asked to revise myself.”

“When you revise, you are forced to think in ways you did not before.”

“Sometimes the first draft blocks a way of seeing something new.”

These responses remind us of the vast leap our students need to make to become confident college writers—to see revision as a normal part of writing, not as a punishment or as an indictment of their character—and, then, the even huger leap to see revision as a way to reconsider or re-think the subject matter of the draft.  As teachers, we can correct and edit, suggest and implore, put students in small or large peer groups, but if students see revision as a threat to themselves and to their own identities, they will continue to see change as a loss, as if something is being taken away from them, rather than as opportunities to re-see and re-imagine something new.

The truth about revision, as the survey respondents recognize, is that it takes patience and practice to gain the necessary detachment and critical distance to see beyond words already written. A first draft often blocks “a way of seeing something new,” which is why student writers, like all writers, benefit from revising in the company of readers. And revising, as students understand, requires that one be open to change, which isn’t easy for first-years who are being asked to move away from either/or ways of thinking and to consider new ideas and practices.

Becoming a college writer is an apprenticeship, a slow one that doesn’t come about in one paper or one semester. And the survey responses remind us why students need considerable practice and repetition before revising becomes a comfortable habit of mind.

To help your students see the possibilities of revision, especially those provided through peer readers, you might want to show them a wonderful new video created by Suzanne Lane at MIT, No One Writes Alone: Peer Review in the Classroom, A Guide for Students.

What one piece of advice do you offer your students about revision? Or what advice helped you learn how to revise?  Please share your advice and ideas.



Thinking about The Research Paper

Feb.pngLet’s start with a virtual show of hands:

How many of you assign a traditional research paper?

Now—how many of you are questioning its role in first-year composition?

Last month I had the opportunity to speak at the Maryland Statewide Standards for College English conference about the research paper. As I began thinking about its history and role in first-year writing, I decided to do what most of our first-year students do when assigned a research paper—go straight to Google.  Google delivered 464 million results in .25 seconds, with abundant entries and links to companies that promised “non-plagiarized” “customized” research papers—24/7—“satisfaction guaranteed.”

The research paper has become a contentious issue in many first-year composition programs. On one level, critics of the assignment argue against it because of the ease of buying papers and the ease of accessing, cutting, and pasting sources from the Internet. And on other levels, critics argue that students are so overwhelmed by the process and often do such a lousy job that it is time to declare the death of an artificial genre that has outlived its usefulness. Even the New York Times, in its online opinion page, has taken up the question—Is the research paper outdated?—debating the role of the traditional research paper in the Age of the Internet. Yet before we write an obituary for the research paper because of students’ difficulties with the genre, we need to acknowledge the enormous challenges students face as novice researchers.

This fall, my colleagues at Bedford/St. Martin’s and I surveyed over 1000 students—some of them your students!—about becoming college writers, including the challenges of writing research papers.  The principal challenge identified by students is locating good sources; the second challenge is figuring out what to do with the sources they’ve found.

To my mind, these findings suggest that the research paper remains an important assignment in students’ progression as academic writers.  In a world dominated by the Internet, where information and misinformation are easily accessed with one click, the composition class offers an interlude of instruction, nurturing students’ abilities to read, question, and evaluate sources—in other words, to think critically and independently—as students and informed citizens.

The problem of the research paper is not the paper itself; the problem, too often, is its place at the end of a course and the breadth of skills we presume to teach in a single paper.  We call it—The Research Paper—giving it a prominence and starring role, but don’t always adequately prepare students with the necessary skills that such an assignment demands.  We ask students to converse with sources, but how will they strike up a conversation on a topic without the confidence or expertise that makes it possible to ask interesting questions and recognize authoritative sources.  And when students haven’t had a semester’s worth of practice reading sources, arguing with and against them, we shouldn’t be surprised if they cut and paste—plagiarize—and submit papers that do not guarantee satisfaction for either students or instructors.

One method for building students’ confidence and expertise is to organize first-year writing courses around a flexible, capacious theme—“Immigration in America,” “Food and Culture,” or “Contemporary Theatre”— and give students multiple assignments exploring this theme in depth, while they figure out what to do with the words and ideas of others—their sources. Students flounder less, as we all do, when we learn to ask questions, enter debates, and stake claims in topics we know something about.

No composition course, no single pedagogy will always produce “satisfaction guaranteed,” but theme-based composition courses give students advantages they lack if they are asked to invent topics and find sources on themes their course has not explored. When students develop their authority in both content and method, they enter public conversations as fellow participants, with something to gain and much to give.

What questions are you asking about the traditional research paper?  What challenges do your students face writing researched essays?  Please share your ideas and teaching stories.



Beyond the Red Ink: Students’ Talk about Teachers’ Comments

9781457612060Last March I wrote about my collaboration with the Bunker Hill Community College Writing Program to view teachers’ comments through students’ eyes.  We wanted to learn why students use some comments while ignoring others. From this research project, I produced a nine-minute film— Beyond the Red Ink: Students’ Talk about Teachers’ Comments. The film introduces seven engaging Bunker Hill Community College students who talk about the vital role teachers’ written comments play in their academic lives.  The students are inspiring and instructive; they show us how written responses begin important conversations between teachers and students. Copies of the film are available for use in the classroom or as a prompt for professional development workshops.

You can view the film online or order a free copy of the DVD from the Bedford/St.Martin’s site.

I have written a “user’s guide” to accompany the DVD version of the film, with strategies for its use in professional development workshops and as a classroom teaching tool. The film provides an easy way to prompt classroom discussion not only about the purpose of teachers’ comments, and the kind of comments that students find most helpful, but also the purpose of peer review. It offers an easy way to explain to students: “here’s why and how readers comment; welcome to the class.”

I look forward to hearing your thoughts about the film and your strategies for using it with your students.

With every good wish,



Becoming a College Writer

Nancy Sommers 2010It is September and I’m thinking about the millions of students in the United States who will start college this term. I’m also imagining the towering pile of drafts that these students will write and their teachers will read. How will our students figure out the expectations of academic writing and become college writers?  For most first-year students there is a sense that something has changed—those strategies that worked in high school might not work anymore—and that something more is being asked of them, even if they are unsure what is expected.

We know that college writing—or academic writing, as we call it— is never a student’s mother tongue; it takes plenty of experimentation and repetition—practice and rehearsal—before students become comfortable with its expectations. And we know that “becoming” is a long apprenticeship; it certainly doesn’t happen in the first semester. Yet I’m wondering if we might ease students’ transition to academic writing if we listen to their questions and assumptions as they enter composition courses. To my mind, what is missing from so many discussions about college writing is students’ experiences and perceptions.

To this end, my colleagues at Bedford/St. Martin’s and I have developed a brief survey to help us see the transition to college writing through students’ eyes. We’re eager to learn whether and how first-year students think college reading and writing will be different from high school reading and writing, how they interpret their college writing assignments and read their teachers’ comments, how they define revision and research, and how they plan to become good academic writers.  I hope you’ll invite your students to participate in this national survey, open until October 1, by sending them the following link:

I’m looking forward to learning from your students and discussing  this national survey in a future blog post.  And I’m looking forward to using this survey with my own students as a way to introduce reflection into the composition course. One of the most important gifts we give students, as they seek toeholds as academic writers, is the opportunity to reflect—to step back and examine their decisions and choices, challenges and successes—to build an awareness of themselves as writers, between and across drafts.

What have you learned from talking with your students about their assumptions and questions about college writing? And how do you help your students make the transition to college writing? Please share your thoughts and teaching stories.



Looking Back, Looking Forward

UntitledIt is May—a wonderful month to look backward and forward, with the promise of spring and summer ever present. The tulip bulbs planted last September are now abloom with their delicate colors.  And after our long New England winter, and equally reluctant spring, I’m wild about being outdoors, always surprised, as Verlyn Klinkenborg has written, by “the abruptness of spring, its riotous biological opportunism.”

Besides planting tulip bulbs last September, I began this online teaching journal, sending words into the wider world, not quite knowing where they would land. The journal is intended to be exploratory and informal, an opportunity to open up conversations among people who teach writing. Many thanks to the hundreds of you who have subscribed to the journal and offered your thoughts, especially when asked What one piece of advice would you offer new writing teachers? Thanks also to all who participated in the podcasts—writing teachers from Oklahoma State, University of Alabama, University of Illinois, and University of California/Santa Barbara as well as students from Bunker Hill Community College and Dickinson College—for giving us an opportunity to learn from their vibrant and passionate voices.

I have a long “to do” list this summer, including a month-long project to write about a different object each day, and a long list of books waiting to be read or reread, including Howard Tinberg and Jean-Paul Nadeau’s wonderful book The Community College Writer: Exceeding Expectations and Roger Rosenblatt’s teaching memoir Unless It Moves the Human Heart: The Craft and Art of Writing. And, as always, I’ll be doing yoga, attempting to relax in downward facing dog, and lots of cooking, especially vegetables—kale and root vegetables—from the Community Supported Agricultural network my family joined.

Already I’m thinking about next year’s journal and excited to explore new topics and formats.  One of the questions that comes up in almost all of my conversations with teachers is how to help students use evidence more effectively. We all recognize that teaching academic writing is considerably more complicated than it may first appear: Conversing with sources and knowing what roles sources might play require much practice and repetition, especially when students aren’t sure how to question or engage with a source.  I am also eager to try some journal entries, inspired by the New York Times’ Armchair Ethicist, that pose ethical and pedagogical scenarios and ask you to debate possible perspectives.

In the meantime, I would love to hear from you: What are your questions about students’ use (and misuse) of sources?  What topics would you like this online teaching journal to explore? Is there an ethical or pedagogical scenario you would like to discuss with colleagues? And, if you have time, Please send some of your favorite kale recipes.

Have a wonderfully delicious and peaceful summer.  See you in September.

Until then,



Writing in the Margins: Teachers’ Comments through Students’ Eyes

Here’s a question for you: What if we learned that our students neither read nor understand our written comments?

This question was posed to me last year by a faculty member at Bunker Hill Community College who, having read hundreds of student drafts that semester, felt like a “wrung-out washcloth.” Quite naturally, he wondered if all those hours spent responding to his students’ words helped his students become more effective writers. He wanted to understand what students do with comments and what teachers might learn if we saw comments through students’ eyes.

In response to these questions, I designed a small study to interview twenty-five Bunker Hill students, listen to their stories, and learn from their experiences. And what a deep pleasure it has been to talk with such thoughtful and engaging students who have so many insights to offer us. The Bunker Hill students appreciate the time it takes their teachers to comment and are grateful for the ways in which comments demonstrate, as one student remarked, a “personal relationship” that “encourages students to stay in college and improve as writers.” To get a flavor of these interviews, listen in to a podcast of Bunker Hill students talking about their teachers’ comments.

Student writer Molly Booth

Student writer Molly Booth

In almost all of these interviews, I heard two words—encouraging and discouraging—to describe the experience of receiving comments. Encouraging comments show students that it is “within them to become stronger writers” and, by extension, stronger students. Encouraging comments begin conversations, provoking students to question their ideas, showing them that their ideas are worth questioning, and offering them “something back” in return for their efforts in writing a paper. Discouraging comments close down conversations, leaving students feeling as if something has been taken away from them. When asked what advice they would offer teachers, almost all the students talked in terms of balance—“giving the sweet before the sour”—showing students what works, as well as how and why something works, before suggesting how to take it to the next level.


Student writer Francesco Vito Presta

What I’ve learned from seeing comments through students’ eyes is something quite simple and comforting: The comments students most understand are those that have, as one student called it, a “background,” either because they continue conversations from the classroom or because they resonate with something students already suspect about their own strengths and limitations as writers. Such comments have anchors, a history and a context, showing students what is “within them to become stronger writers” and moving them forward by building upon the relationship created through comments.

I’m excited about this research and will be talking about it at CCCC—on Friday, April 8—as well as showing a video of my interviews with Bunker Hill students. If you’re traveling to Atlanta, this session may be of interest to you.

What have you learned from talking to your students about how they read and understand comments? Please share your thoughts, insights, and questions.NS_signature


Coming to Teaching

Feb.pngRecently I was asked by a group of new writing teachers to give them one single piece of advice about teaching. As I tried to compose myself—just one?—and sifted through the various mantras that seemed possible, I offered up the following: Become a teacher who sees learning through the eyes of students.

I walked into my first classroom some decades ago with equal parts of enthusiasm and terror. I was just a few years older than my students and barely a step or two ahead. To prepare for class, I had spent hours with a mimeograph machine, staining my hands purple, obsessively duplicating a stack of handouts to fill a seventy-five-minute slot, lest my students found me wanting. What strikes me now about those early years of teaching is that all my new-teacher anxieties were focused on my own performance. I never considered adjusting classroom lessons to students’ rhythms and silences, as they practiced the unfamiliar moves of academic writing.

A few years ago, I started yoga classes, seeking to learn something new but also to see learning from the back of the room, from the perspective of a student who doesn’t know how to contort her body into a downward facing dog. I wanted to understand the experiences of students who don’t yet know how to write English sentences or paragraphs or who don’t understand the common language of academic writing. And I wanted to take a page or two of teaching methods from inspiring teachers who could help me reach my own students in the back of the room.

Along the way, I discovered a passion for yoga. At first I was a baffled and frustrated student who looked sideways to copy the postures of others and was clueless when teachers uttered words, especially in Sanskrit, that everyone but me seemed to understand. But I was also fortunate to find compassionate and generous teachers who didn’t bark commands—“Do downward facing dog”—but rather anticipated what was required for students to assume such a posture and devised a progression of small moves and sequences to help us learn the pose. These teachers appreciated the difficulties of being a novice and encouraged students to be patient—to learn by experimenting, approximating, and practicing.

These days I try not to bark commands to my students—“Cite your sources” or “Write clear sentences”—but to respect the challenges they face as novice academic writers. I ask: What do students need to know to cite sources or write clear sentences? And how can a writing assignment be broken down into a series of small steps and sequences to give students sufficient practice with individual skills, one lesson at a time, with opportunities to approximate the skills as they practice them? With so much newness in the classroom, we want students—those who sit in the front as well as those in the back—to learn from one another, especially to understand that learning takes practice, yes, but that it’s also a habit of mind, that each lesson is worth learning to become good college writers.

And teaching is so much more fun without purple-stained hands or a mimeographed stack of handouts. I’ve learned to love the silences in a classroom, even to listen for them, as they guide me—patiently and compassionately—to see learning through the eyes of students.

Whether you’ve been teaching one year, thirty-one years, or longer, please join the conversation. What one brief piece of advice would you offer new writing teachers? Or what advice was offered to you as a new teacher that you want to pass forward?

Share your suggestions, thoughts, or teaching stories.