Give your students a book to write

Joe Marren | Buffalo State College

Hereís my teaching idea. First, though, the disclaimer: Iím doing a paper right now on applying Thomas Mertonís religious philosophy to ethics so Iím in an ethical state of mind, which means Iím compelled to say I stole this idea from Christine Rowley, who teaches Spanish grammar at SUNY College at Geneseo. Then again, stole is such a harsh word. I prefer to say I honor her by utilizing her idea.

OK, now, on to the idea. Rowley calls it The Book Project. This semester, Iím not using a textbook that students will sell back to the Barnes and Noble-campus store. Thatís because theyíre writing their own books. To ensure at least an initial modicum of quality control, I bought 20 (class enrollment is capped at 17) loose-leaf, three-ring binder notebooks (the cheap kind for $2.69 at an office supply store, so my total investment was less than $60) for them to use.

Iíll distribute these to the students and tell them part of their grade (@20% or 25%) will depend on them keeping copious notes that I will check weekly, along with their editing journal in lieu of current events quizzes. (All entries in the book project must be typed, notes as well as their editing journal.) The editing journal is an idea I honor Bill Reader of Ohio University by utilizing. Anyway, Bill presented the idea at a Breakfast of Editing Champions gathering in Toronto a few years back, and it should be on so I wonít go into it in detail. (Note to Breakfasters: Billís idea is here .)

There are all sorts of tutorials on the Web, probably being the best, and others from the newspaper design folks, so I think this is better than having students read a textbook. Itís active learning, and the finished product may well be a notebook they will keep and refer back to Ė or add to as their careers get going. Itís also active teaching since Iíll be looking at their notebooks weekly. Sure, at first this will be hard, but as I learned with the editing journals the process gets faster and easier as we get into the semester.

The notebooks will be divided into topics: AP style vis-ŗ-vis other styles (New York Times, Wall Street Journal, online, various in-house, etc.) design, libel, editing journal, exercises (raw and corrected), grammar notes (divided into subtopics: nouns, verbs, sentence structure, etc.)

Weíll start out with controlled grammar and AP exercises before I turn them loose on Wikipedia entries on the movers and shakers of journalism. Then, about a third or quarter of the way into the semester, Iíll have them partner up with a community group publishing a newsletter in print or online. Iíve already contacted my Service-Learning Office on campus, and the folks there seem eager to participate.

I attended a summer institute on college teaching back in June at The College of William and Mary and was really excited about a concept called stimulus generalization, which advocates getting students to apply what they learn in class to real-world situations. Thatís why Iím changing my whole way of teaching editing and trying new ideas, some of which I may keep or discard. Weíll see.

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