INTRODUCTION: I have taught English and Speech for the past thirty years, and recently, I had a remedial English Composition class that met for two hours twice a week beginning at 8 a.m.  Most of the students in the class had waited until the last minute to register and, because other sections were full, ended up in my 8:00 class.  They resented getting up that early to attend a class they “had to take.”  My challenge was to break through the students’ negative attitude.  A second challenge was to find a way to jump-start the writing/composing process.  In previous classes I had relied on exercises in the text as writing prompts.  They were more like writing prods and were unsatisfactory. They seemed too limiting and mechanical. They smacked of high school busy work.  I knew I needed to do something different, so I introduced “The Quote Journal.”

PURPOSE:  The purpose of this activity is to help students…

  • Have a positive experience with writing and learn to enjoy it.
  • Be Creators rather than Victims when it comes to writing.

SUPPLIES/SET UP:

*3-ring binders  (I ask students to purchase a binder, put their name it, and decorate it any way they want).

DIRECTIONS:

1. You will each create a “Quote Journal” consisting of twenty-five entries. The quotations can be from any source you choose: from the Internet, books, conversations, song lyrics, advertisements, bumper stickers, posters, etc. Quotations must come from a variety of sources and be on a variety of topics (not twenty-five quotes from one location or on only one subject).  [As a variation, instructors could have their students choose quotations from the course text or from articles related to your course topics.]

2. Each journal entry must contain the following:

  • A quotation.
  • Who said it (the attribution)
  • The source of the quote (where, specifically, did you find the quote).
  • Your personal commentary, evaluation, or opinion regarding the quote.
    • For entries 1-10, your commentary must be 25 words or more.
    • For entries 11-20, your commentary must be 50 words or more.
    • For entries 21-25, your commentary must be 100 words or more.

3. At the beginning of each class, we will discuss one or more quotes from your Quote Journal.  During the semester, everyone will have to volunteer at least twice to read an entry from his/her journal.

4. The criteria for acceptability of each entry are simple: Complete the four- part format for each journal entry, and turn it in on time.

5. In my class, I handed out a Due Date List so that everyone knew when journals were to be handed in. This also served to discourage procrastination.  Basically, the Due Date List was one journal entry per class meeting.

OUTCOMES/EXPERIENCES:

I was mildly surprised and quite pleased with the results.  After the first two weeks, students decided this assignment was something they could do.  So they did.  I think that by my making the journal a series of 25 bite-sized assignments (“3-foot tosses,” for those of you who have taken the On Course Workshop), the intimidation factor was eliminated.

In my grade book I kept track of who read and when.  After two instances of no volunteers, I began selecting a volunteer to start the class.  A couple of days of “selected volunteers” led to real volunteers from then on.  Everyone read at least twice, which was good, because I wasn’t sure what I was going to do if they didn’t.  Several students even volunteered more than twice. (A good quote or a good response was something to show off.)  As more and more quotes came in, students discovered that if they had a quote that had already been read in class, it didn’t look so good. (I never said that, but they seemed to think that originality had value.)

I found that after the first couple of complaints about the length of the writing assignments, there was very little attention paid to length.  The students found that they were writing more than the minimum anyway, and that they had no difficulty doing so. In addition, they discovered that they actually had something to say when they were in charge of their journal topics.

Quote selection and resulting comments ranged from the serious to the silly, although some times it was hard to tell which was which at first.  For example, one student chose “Made in China” for one of his quotes.  He first wrote a sort of rant about how nothing was made in the USA any more.  Lots of anger, but not much else at that point.  Later he wrote one of his final essays about the problems of international trade costing jobs.  Another student, an ex-marine chose “Semper Fi” for one of his quotes.  His essay about how joining the Corps changed his life was a very good Cause/Effect paper.  On the other hand, I also received more song lyrics than I really wanted, often with commentaries the equivalent of “Like, I mean, this really says how it is.”  Still, I had good overall results, and I had the added benefit of many quote researchers out gathering material for me.

Those students who stayed the course and completed their Quote Journals generally did well when it came to the final writings.  The students wrote more frequently (25 journal entries does that) and they wrote more words and more paragraphs per entry without apparent strain.  Some actually said they liked doing the writing.

I still get occasional e-mails from students in the original group.  They forward a quote or let me know how they are doing.  I think the best comment came from the student who said that I was pretty sneaky getting them to write by letting them have fun.  Hmm.  I’ll take her comment as evidence of a positive step in Life Long Learning.  I didn’t realize until later how important it was to break the old attitude patterns, but once we got past the idea of “having to” do assignments because some outside enforcer “made them do it,” a good number of students found that education wasn’t an antagonistic relationship.  When it became clear to them that we were all on the same side, they bought into the program.

The students, for the most part, took charge of their own learning.  That was an immense change for many of these remedial, at-risk students.  They discovered they could accomplish tasks that they previously didn’t know they could.  Self-esteem seemed to improve.  I base this observation on the changes that students made during the semester.  They stood taller.  They showed up on time.  They smiled.  Their interactions with others were more friendly.  They participated willingly in class.  They were willing to take academic risks: embracing a new idea or behavior pattern.  Now, not everyone leaped tall buildings at a single bound by the end of the course, but most had made changes in attitudes and actions.  They were much more prepared for the college culture than when they began. 

PERSONAL LESSONS:

I learned that by giving students a challenge and some suggestions about what to do, and then getting out of the way, we all are frequently surprised at what is accomplished.  I also learned that I really can do more by doing less.  I think that before this project, I was trying to do too much of the work, and the students were letting me.  This situation was not good for any of us.  (It wasn’t until after taking the On Course I Workshop that all this came clear.  Thank heavens for On Course.)

I will continue to use the Quote Journal, making adjustments in the Directions to Students as I get more data.  Overall, this assignment is a positive experience for me and for the students, too. I would recommend it to anyone who wants to sneak some writing into a class and reap the benefits.  Economists have quotes. Historians have quotes.  Even mathematicians have uttered a quote or two.  Having students do some research could be part of the class requirements or could be a logistically easy extra credit project.  The “Quote-Source-Attribution-Personal Comment” format is easy.  And from personal experience, I know that it works. 

I have rediscovered that people can do more and better than they initially think they can when they are given the opportunity to do so.  Most important for me, I learned that letting go of old behaviors and attitude patterns is difficult.  Even when the old ways don’t work, there is comfort in the familiarity.  Old scripts die hard.

–Chuck Swannell, Faculty, English & Speech, Burlington County College, NJ

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