Susan Elmslie

A Lake in Muskoka


I have assembled here some ideas and assignments that developed from my work as a Writing in the Disciplines (WID) Fellow in the Fall 2011 term at Dawson College.  In my dual roles as teacher in the Department of English and professional writer (poet and sometime critic), I came to the WID working group already convinced of the powerful link between writing and critical thinking.  I believe in the writing-to-learn process.  The stumbling block for me has been my evaluation methods coupled with the sheer volume of work I am expected to evaluate.  These two things together made me a bit cautious about assigning yet more writing.  Working with the other WID Fellows and WID Coordinator Ian MacKenzie, I have expanded my tool kit.  I am glad to share some of these tools in this online portfolio.


Section 1:  Wherein the Author Reflects on Her Own Writing-to-Learn Experience and Thinks about the Link between Writing and Critical Thinking

I know now that writing is a thinking tool, but as a student in high school and later in undergraduate studies in English and French, I didn’t know it.  I don’t think I cottoned on to that notion and practice at all until I was struggling with writer’s block as I was writing my dissertation and, out of desperation, I tried writing what I heard someone call a “zero draft” of a chapter.  It was essentially exploratory writing that helped me utter something that might not have a direction but was at least something to counter the void of silence.  Before graduate school I had never had to grapple with revisions after submitting work for critique and evaluation.  My process had always been to write down what I thought were well-formulated thoughts and ideas.  I thought that, for expository prose, the ideas preceded their formulation in writing.

As a student, then, I didn’t conceive of writing as generative.  I would puzzle over a topic for at least two weeks before writing anything other than marginal notes in my books or amassing quotations from primary and secondary sources.  I had a pretty tortuous process of composition.  I also submitted all my papers late.  I composed in pencil and had to have a “clean draft,” which meant that I would erase anything not “perfect” and reformulate it until I felt it was fully cooked.  Until everything on the page was solid in terms of idea and articulation, there was no going forward.  I spent time just recopying out what I thought of as the fully-cooked portion before being able to plod on.  Peter Elbow writes about the extra burden that writing can impose on the writer, and this definitely describes my early experience: “Most of the time in speaking, we settle for the catch-as-catch-can way in which the words tumble out.  In writing, however, there’s a chance to try to get them right. But the opportunity to get them right is a terrible burden: you can work for two hours trying to get a paragraph “right” and discover it’s not right at all.”  As a beginning academic writer, I was pretty afraid of anything that suggested “mess.”

And yet now I know that to bake a cake you’ve got to be willing to make a mess.  There’s also that old saying, attributed to E.M. Forster, “How can I tell what I think till I see what I say?” that seems so much less flaky now than it did when I was a teenager.

I’ve spent considerable energy in the classroom trying to model for students how one arrives at an idea, how one formulates a thesis, how one makes and supports an argument.  Mostly, to date, I have focused on verbal articulations of thought—ways of saying.  As I see it, a large part of the process (the really rigorous part) is in testing what one says against what one sees, what is really there, and not just what one wants to see or expects to see.  So one has to slow down the process of looking at the evidence before jumping to a half-baked formulation.  If students can do this with their writing, as a process, their responses to a literary text become more sophisticated.  Their critical thinking skills go up in caliber.

In her essay titled “Using Focused Freewriting to Promote Critical Thinking,” Lynn Hammond suggests that the key benefit of using focused freewriting as a writing-to-learn tool is that it prevents students from jumping to a thesis before all the evidence is considered:

My experience with college freshman and first-year law students is that both of them tend to be so worried about getting to a ‘right’ answer that they abbreviate the process of invention: their need to arrive at a persuasive product makes them shortchange the analytical process. […] An advantage of focused freewriting over first-draft writing is that it prolongs and structures the exploratory stage, whereas draft writing tends to push for closure.  Foreshortening the analytical process is one of the most fundamental problems of … students…, and this procedure above all helps avert this premature closure” (qtd. in Bean 113).

What Hammond observes makes sense to me.  Below I have provided a link to my own (recently revised) version of a Writing-to-learn or “active learning activity.”

Developing a Thesis for a Critical Analysis of a Poem (freewrite)


Section 2: Containing Sundry Matters Related to Informal Exploratory Writing, Including the Example of My Students’ “Riffs” on the Blues

None of my high school teachers or university professors had espoused exploratory writing or asked to see drafts of any writing.  Everything was pretty product-oriented.  In hindsight, I think that pursuing an advanced degree in English at a research university can itself erode one’s tolerance for process.

Then I wonder, too, is it significant that I grew up in the age of Liquid Paper and erasable pens?

A colleague of mine at Dawson, Barbara Moser, introduced me to the practice of having students “freewrite” in the method described by Peter Elbow (“Freewriting”).  It was exciting.  But at first, I admit, it seemed a bit like “flying by the seat of your pants.”  That’s because, by that time, I had been conditioned to favor to the top-down pedagogical model, typified by the polished lecture.  It also takes real effort to counter “closure-oriented” students’ impression of exploratory writing as “busywork,” as John C. Bean puts it (99).  To use this method of exploratory writing in the classroom seemed risky, but the potential payoff in terms of seeing fresh, lively, and thoughtful student writing made it worth the risk.

Key to the practice, it seems to me, is to value process and to reward risk-taking on the part of students in speaking and writing in the classroom.  I am committed to practicing what Daniel J. Shea calls “connected teaching,” an alternative to the “separated,” detached method of teaching that assumes a top-down model of knowledge transmission (“The Grammar of Connected Teaching”).  Empowering students to claim what they know, while also promoting and providing the tools for rigorous intellectual inquiry and critical thinking, is fairly challenging.  It involves a lot of “thinking on your feet.”  In her poem, “Food,” Canadian poet Bronwen Wallace recalls the challenging and enabling learning forum she took part in while seated at the dinner table of her political-activist friends.  She recalls Jessie Glaberman’s encouragement “to say what isn’t finished, what seems / crazy.  Just say what you can; / we’ll look at it together.”  That is something that I try to convey to students during classroom discussions and when they consult with me in my office hours.  And then I initiate and encourage that process of “looking at,” of interrogating, and nuancing ideas and formulations together.

Getting students to claim what they know is only a first step; inspiring them to stay hard on the trail of what they don’t know is another challenge.  As Nobel laureate Wislawa Szymborska put it, “any knowledge that doesn’t lead to new questions quickly dies out: it fails to maintain the temperature required for sustaining life.”  Helping students to formulate and discover answers to their own burning questions motivates and energizes me in the classroom, in office consultations, and while I am developing my own teaching strategies and course materials.  I am finding that getting students to engage in low-stakes exploratory writing is one of the best ways to help them claim what they know and to formulate the sorts of questions that will sustain thoughtful inquiry on their part.

I have used exploratory writing in my Creative Writing classes, and it has worked well.  Certainly, in my own work as a poet, I depend on, and get a great deal from, exploratory writing, so I think I am able to convey its benefits and power to students in that context.  Most creative writers keep journals that serve as a workbook for rough drafts, for jotting down dreams or images—a sort of catch-all for observations, overheard conversations, etc.—which may or may not find their way into a finished draft of the writer’s work.  Letting students see the raw, fragmentary, “messy” journals of writers frees them up to muddle around in their own ideas and express them in their “speaking voice prose.”

In all my classes, a positive measure I have adopted is discouraging the use of correction tape and erasers for in-class exploratory writing.

Bean has some particularly good suggestions in Chapter 6 for incorporating exploratory writing.

While teaching Blues poetry in my English 102 class, I used exploratory writing at the beginning of class to stimulate interest in what was to come, a technique that Bean includes in his list of suggestions (Bean 105).   I started by having students do an 8-minute focused “freewrite” on what they know (or don’t know) about the blues[1].  I wrote on the board, “What I know about the blues is …,” and asked students to finish the sentence and just keep going, writing non-stop for eight minutes, without any concern for spelling or notions of correctness.  They were invited to free associate.  If the Blues was one of Dawson’s athletic teams, they could explore that.  If, for them, blues brought to mind more personal associations, that was fine, too.  Anything was relevant: a memory, a sort of riff on the colour itself.  I wanted to convey to students that that I value their prior knowledge and to provide them with an opportunity to bring it into play and build upon it.  After the eight minutes of writing was over, I collected their pages and informally skimmed them aloud on the spot, looking for pertinent threads, interesting connections, and idiosyncratic takes on the concept.  Usually, students will say at first that they know nothing about a subject.  But, as it did with this exercise, their writing reveals they know more than they supposed.  This might be tru especially when the stakes are low (the work is not for evaluation).

Here are some unedited excerpts from our in-class freewrite:

“The blues is raw, its lonely but its not alone, everybody gets the blues, even if they don’t sing it.” —K.W.

“I also know that the blues are a genre of music.  It has a lot of depth to it.  It has raw emotion in it.  Usually when the singer sings the blues, it means they’ve ben through heartbreak or troubled times.  You can really hear the emotion in the singers voice.  You can feel their pain and experience their story.  I also know what it means to have the blues.  When you have the blues it means that you’re feeling down, you’re feeling sad.  The blues is a way to let out all their pain.  They express it through song or poetry.  B.B. King comes to mind when I think of the blues.  I imagine all these jazz/blues singers in the 1930’s-1940’s.  A big blues club with people in nice suits, ties and hats.”  — S.N.

“What I know about the blues is almost nothing, that is why I tried to be prepared for this class by searching in internet to know what is it.  […]  Blues is mainly found in songs and the stanza is composed of 3 lines in which one or two of these lines will be repeated in each stanza.”  — M.T.

“What I know about the blues is it is a colour, a way to express sadness and it is a genre of music.  Popularized in the Southern states in the U.S. in the 20th c.”  — T.J.

“What I know about the blues is… Deep murky waters / gelid sea floors / Rainy days misery        cold, stagnant humid air / cigarette smoke    thick overcoat / inhale exhale more rain falls / torrential downpour  flooded streets violent / currents    sweeping up grime and city trash”  — A. D.

“Maybe it has to do with the color itself as blue depending on the shade is a darker color that can be associated with being dark, down and sad.  Or perhaps blue is associated with water which can be related to tears which might be why this sad form or expressing ourselves through song is called the blues.”  — T.H.

“What I know about the blues is…grounded in the lamentation-fueled songs and poems of slavery and post-slavery era African Americans. […]  There are many stories about famous blues players having secret dealings with the occult, forging Faustian bargains with malevolent entities, trading their souls for musical skill and success.”  S.Z.

“those who scarcely know much of the blues think that it always starts with ‘I woke up this morning,’ although it isn’t the case.  The Blues is mostly a dark and sullen type of art, representing a more somber side of life.”  — G.A.

“What I know about the blues is…Its the back bone of jazz / The original funk pazzazz.  / Blues can only come from the heart / Its more than just musical art.”  — C.R.

“What I know about the blues is blue.  What I know about the blues is slow. […]  What I know about the blues is my home games where I wear all blue.  What I know about the blues is scoring three goals in blue with the blues.”  — A.R.A.

“The blues is a dark place we go to in order to find the light.”  — K.M.


Section 3:  Containing Matter Accommodated to Formal Writing Assignments

In English courses at Dawson, professors typically have as part of the evaluation three essays “or the equivalent.”  Typically, I have assigned three separate essays on (at least) three different primary texts.  Talking with other professors in my department, I learned that it is common practice here to have one essay written in class, to minimize the chances of plagiarism (to have a baseline for each student’s writing style).  A ministerial objective is that one of the essays must be a 1000-word analytical essay.  So this 1000-word essay is for sure a “high-stakes” assignment.  Usually, in my courses, it is worth 30% of the final grade.

Typically, I have distributed the big essay assignment three weeks before it is due.  All of the class work that occurs between the time the essay question and primary text(s) are distributed and the time the finished essay is to be submitted for evaluation is related to the assignment.  Often we have a “workshop day” involving peer-review and teacher assistance with introductory paragraphs and integrating and documenting quotations.

Last term in my 102 Poetry course, I did something different for the “high stakes” essay.  I developed a “scaffolding assignment” that divided the 30% in half, allotting half for process work leading up to the paper and half for product (the finished paper).

For their first in-class essay, students had written an essay-equivalent test on the villanelle “Lonely Hearts,” by British poet Wendy Cope.  They had not seen the poem before the test.  The test’s format is short-answer and full paragraph.  The questions require that students explore and analyze such aspects as poetic form, voice (speaker), rhyme, diction, repetition, and theme.  What they do not have to do is structure an entire essay; my pointed questions direct their analysis.  And the longer question on theme is presented at the end, so that students tackle it once they have carefully considered the details, devices, and form of the poem.  Overall, I was pleased with students’ performance on this essay-equivalent test.  However, the performance of many students indicated that they need more training in critical observation, the application of literary terms, and the discourse of literary analysis.

Owing to the nature of the essay-equivalent test, a student essentially could rearrange his/her answers in the test to assemble/construct a basic 500-600-word analytical essay on Cope’s poem.  So I decided to use the first essay-equivalent test as a scaffolding for the high-stakes essay.  This sort of scaffolding assignment seemed a promising way to incorporate the work of revision into the course.  I had students revise their weakest answers from the short-answer test and afterwards construct an essay that could be developed into their 1000-word analytical essay in MLA format.

One of my concerns in developing this scaffolding assignment was that students would get bored with this one poem, and that could effect their commitment to the assignment, but that did not prove to be a problem.  I also wondered whether I would get 34 nearly identical essays, as those who missed the mark a bit in their original analysis would travel remora-style on those who were stronger performers, and simply repeat what they have heard presented as examples of strong answers.  I was pleasantly surprised to see that did not happen.  In fact, many students wrote better term papers than they likely would have were they given a “fresh” poem to write on.

How things panned out in terms of the students’ grades on this scaffolding assignment is interesting to me.  Some students did not engage fully in the process work leading up to the final draft and, because that work was worth 15% of the final grade, these students’ overall mark was lower than they might have anticipated, were that mark based solely on the quality of the final paper they submitted.  Some students wrote mediocre papers, but did all the process work and got full marks there, so they did much better than they might have expected.  I was surprised by this too.  It was a very leveling experience, which tended to reward those who were sturdy workers rather than those who happened to write well coming in to the class.


Reconditioning Students’ Approach to the Term Paper

Part of the value of a scaffolding approach to the term paper, I feel, is in its potential to recondition students’ approach to the term paper:  to see it as a document that one develops and revises over a stretch of time, incorporating feedback along the way, rather than as a document  that one writes at one sitting and submits for evaluation, hoping for the best.

As WID Fellows we considered the impact of boredom and alienation in the classroom, and devised ways to counter these numbing forces.  We considered in particular how these affective states are even more activated by the animal we call the “term paper.”

Bean says that we “need to change the way some students perceive” term papers (197).  I’m on board here because I learned first-hand, at home, that calling Brussels sprouts “Hero Buttons” made all the kids around the table want to try them!  When you expect less pain and undo the conditioning that primes you to expect pain, there IS less pain.  There might even be bliss.  So can students get blissed out while performing the steps that add up to term paper?

Bean says that the big question is how to get students to be motivated enough to produce a paper that is no mere “info dump” but that instead shows evidence of critical thinking.  The question, as he puts it, “is how to transform students from uninspired pseudo-plagiarists into engaged undergraduate researchers” (198).   One thing that helps in that endeavour is to actively work on demystifying the conventions of my discipline.

As part of that demystification process, I try to demonstrate that students already have a framework for what the literary critic does, in advancing an interpretation of a story or poem.  Everybody has seen detective shows and courtroom dramas such as Law and Order or is familiar with high-profile cases in the news.  Well, I talk about making arguments and presenting evidence in an English lit. essay as being analogous to those crucial elements of court cases.

For instance, I remind students that, in a murder trial, there are (at least) two competing stories and, if you are a lawyer working on that case, you have to make a case for your view of the evidence.  In the courtroom, you definitely don’t want to forward a “statement of fact” thesis, something along the lines of saying to judge and jury, “Your honor, ladies and gentlemen of the jury:  the victim is dead.”  Instead you want to make a case about how and why, which translates into arguments.  I remind students that, in the murder trial, prosecutors typically argue something like the following:  “The defendant committed the crime, and we know this because she had motive, she had opportunity, and the physical evidence connects her to the crime scene.”  The prosecutor, in due course, also needs to offer the supporting evidence for her arguments and punch holes in the contrary evidence.  In the murder trial, the prosecution might introduce as evidence incriminating email messages, construct time lines and knock down alibis, and present fingerprints, blood-splatter patterns, D.N.A. or other physical evidence.  Following the courtroom analogy, I say that when you do secondary research and cite it in your paper, it is like calling an expert witness to the stand to back up your view of the evidence.

In the critical essay, the student draws his evidence from the details of the literary work before him.  He looks at any relevant formal patterns, at imagery, metaphor, etc., to build a case about how the poem or story should be read.   I remind students to do the bulk of their secondary research (i.e. locate the “expert witnesses”) AFTER they know what they want to say (prosecutors don’t build a court case around which expert witnesses showed up when they did a Google search).  Students seem to like thinking of the work they are doing to “build a case” as something dramatic, with some sort of stakes involved.

I agree wholeheartedly with Bean that teaching students how to read and write academic titles is a worthwhile endeavor.  Formulating a working title helps students to keep the focus of their essay in view as they draft it.  Thinking of the title as a piece of information that has to communicate something to other researchers (once indexed in a database) also encourages students to see their own essays as something they could ultimately share via publication.  I spend part of a class leading up to the term paper talking about titles.  We look at a list of actual paper titles of past student essays and we try to ascertain what the subject and focus of each paper is.  Some titles on the list (“How to Become a Healer,” “Dealing with Death”) sound more like instruction manuals or pamphlets than the titles of critical essays.  Some titles sound more like reference book titles (“Literary Devices”).  Some are just right:  “Racism and Guilt in T.R. Hummer’s ‘The Rural Stops to Kill a Nine-Foot Cottonmouth,” and “The Significance of Structure and Imagery in Anne Caston’s ‘Anatomy’.”  I show students the various conventional ways of structuring titles for critical essays in our discipline (including numbers 2 and 3 on page 209 in Bean).  Then together we revise some of the weaker titles on the list until they do the work that they are supposed to do.

As one level of the scaffolding assignment I used last semester in my 102 Poetry course, I had students formulate the titles of their essays in class for 1 mark.  I went around the classroom and gave feedback on their efforts.  Their essays analyze a villanelle (poem) by contemporary British poet Wendy Cope.  I’m happy to report that some of the titles I got for essays this term fulfill the requirements of academic titles in my discipline.  Here are a few examples:  “Desperation in Wendy Cope’s ‘Lonely Hearts’,” “The Trap of Loneliness in Wendy Cope’s ‘Lonely Hearts’,”  “‘Lonely Hearts’ by Wendy Cope: ‘Can someone make my simple wish come true?” and “Wendy Cope’s ‘Lonely Hearts’: Echoes of “Eleanor Rigby.”

Formal assignments that integrate scaffolding, conferencing or peer review

Revision-Based Term Paper Assignment

Some Tips on Titling Your Essay

Peer-Review Assignment


Section 4:  Wherein the Author Admits to Much Hand-Wringing Over Her Use of Grading Rubrics and Muses on Evaluation Techniques and Criteria in Her Two Disciplines

In my application to be a WID Fellow, I had admitted: “I know I spend more time grading individual assignments than I should.  I experience the peculiar angst of diminishing returns when it comes to marking.  Over the years I have tried a variety of ways of approaching the evaluation of writing assignments, including using rubrics of my own and others’ design.  Even so, I have become frustrated with correcting the minutiae of writing, to little effect.  I would like to maximize the return I get on the energy I expend, and see my feedback reflected in improved writing and improved critical thinking on the part of my students.”  That is the crux of the matter for me.

I face different dilemmas regarding grading in the various courses that I teach.  But the dilemma of how to be fair to the students and fair to myself at the same time is a recurrent one.

I’ve tried almost everything.  I’ve never tried the (joke) “throw the papers down the stairs to rank them” method.  But I have read all the papers once without grading to rank them into As, Bs, Cs, Ds and possible Fs, and then ordered them by question within those grade ranges, and then reread them to grade them.  Bean refers to this tactic in his discussion of holistic grading (263).  I’ve resorted too often to line editing.  And I’ve gotten “locked in” to unproductive patterns, for instance feeling obliged to give all papers 50 minutes of my time because I gave two or three that much.  At that point, I probably need an intervention.  Or a glass of scotch.

Evaluating critical writing is really different than evaluating creative writing.  For creative writing, I really prefer to withhold (or forego assigning) the grade altogether and just give revision-based feedback.  Intuitively, to me, it seems a bit counter-productive to receive a grade-based evaluation on creative writing.  Withholding the grade until a student brings a revised draft of the work to show me seems to work well.

Because students in creative writing have considerable difficulty producing work that meets the expectations I put forward in the assignment instructions—that is, work that demonstrates an awareness of, and an attempt to explore, the various techniques and strategies that we learn about and practice in our in-class exercises—I have developed a sort of rubric for the evaluation of an image-based poem that I share with them when I assign the poem.    For the techniques and strategies that we privilege in this assignment, such as “use of figurative language (metaphor, simile)” I circle one of the following: “needs work,” “OK,” “good,” or “strong.”  Here “OK” would indicate technique or effect that is satisfactory but not good.  The difference been “OK” and “good” here is like the difference between vending-machine coffee and fresh-brewed.  Even then, I sometimes circle two side-by-side terms and draw an arrow, to indicate something like, “this is good on its way to strong,” or “mostly good, but one instance of strong.”  I guess one of my dilemmas is that I always find it hard to slice the cake neatly.   My training in English literature has ingrained in me the tendency to qualify, qualify, qualify.  This tendency to modulate my evaluative statements has ruined me for surveys of any sort (I liberated myself from responding to surveys when I turned 40) and, for me, it makes using rubrics devised in what Bean calls the analytic method very tortuous.

In my BXE English class, I have used analytic-method rubrics devised by other professors, which involved counting grammatical and spelling errors, deducting points for various organizational lapses, and formatting/presentation glitches.  Then I used my calculator to add up the various half and quarter points, only to find, invariably, that the resulting grade is what I would have assigned in a holistic evaluation, which would have taken me half the time.

One problem with this sort of analytic-method rubric is that it assumes a student starts with 100% and deducts for each error or pre-established weakness.  I feel that this method, a sort of elaborate accounting, puts the teacher in a position to justify the grade, to show how discrete elements haven’t “added up” to the sort of grade the student might expect.

Another problem with the sort of analytic-method rubric that I adopted is that it punishes, in a disproportionate way, the “beautiful beast” essay.  That’s what I call the sort of paper that falls quite short on many of the pre-established criteria, but demonstrates an extraordinary sophistication of thought or sensibility.  Usually the author of such a paper has the preferred gaze but not the preferred voice of the apprentice academic.  Often the author of such a paper shows me something about a literary text that I hadn’t considered before and that is worthy of consideration.

Currently I alternate between or combine the methods and scales that Bean details in Chapter 15: analytic and holistic criteria, general and primary trait scales—I’ve sampled the whole buffet.  My natural bent is to see writing as an organic whole, difficult to slice into component parts.  Bean’s formulation of the question really resonates with me: “Can ideas really be separated from organization or clarity of expression from clarity of thought? (257).”

One thing that might turn out to be a game changer for me is Bean’s distinction between grammar errors and stylistic concerns (in Chapter 14, page 248).  To reflect my new awareness of  these so-called lower-order concerns, I have recently reworked the essay-evaluation sheet that I developed many years ago, which was itself adapted from an old Rutgers University Composition Teaching Checklist (the original is no longer available online, as far as I can tell).  As a W.I.D. Fellow, I gained awareness that the evaluation tool itself needs to be subject to revision.  See “Essay Checklist and Response—Take 1,” below, for one of my older versions that focuses on problems in writing and thinking (the glass half empty approach), and see “Essay Checklist and Response—Take 2” for the newer version that highlights the positive (the glass half full approach).  This latter version can be used as an evaluation sheet by the professor or as a peer-evaluation sheet for students working in pairs.

Strategies and tools for Evaluation

Essay Checklist and Response-Take 1

Essay Checklist and Response-Take 2

Image-Driven Poem Evaluation Sheet-1


Conclusion: Thoughts on Stickers

I hope that, in my jumbled “tool bag” of teaching and evaluation practices, offered here, others will find something to try out or adapt for their own purposes.

How can I synthesize what I have learned as a W.I.D. Fellow, except to say that the experience—the reading, the meeting with the other fellows, the blogging—all of it has spurred on in me a kind of paradigm shift, a way of seeing college teaching as a process of discovery steeped in reflection about pedagogy, the self, and other learners.

I feel freer as a teacher, less locked in to habit, less likely to perpetuate systems that exist mostly because they have been handed down and not mostly because they are particularly effective.  I feel open to trying things that challenge my preconceived notions.  I can talk about teaching practices that I have felt a bit uncertain about.

For instance, I use stickers on students’ work.  Sometimes my colleagues see me putting a sticker on an essay, and I feel as though they’ve caught me toting a box of Timbits to class, ingratiating myself with sugar and sparkles.   Sometimes I’ve wondered whether a serious student will sneer at a sticker and feel that I’m not a serious teacher, more of a softie than a stickler for quality work.  “She taught at McGill and UBC?”

But I have seen students smile warmly when they see the sticker and mirthfully compare the sticker they received with other classmates’.  One student said, a little wistfully, “I haven’t received a sticker since elementary school.”   So I think they can be motivating.  I like them because they are quick, easy, colourful, even kitschy, and have—for so many students—positive associations.  The surprise they give is the promise that it is still possible to be pleasantly surprised.

I buy the stickers in little booklets of multiple sheets in the dollar store: Teacher’s stickers.  There are usually more “Excellent!” and “A+” than I need, and not quite enough “Good” and “Very Good.”  I’m not quite sure what to do with “You rock!” and “Groovy!”  I really want more of the ones that say “Good idea” and “Good thinking.”  I also appreciate the simple icon stickers—a pencil or a stack of books—and I use these on papers that are in the failing or D range, next to my comments about how to improve this draft or how to succeed in upcoming assignments.  I’d love to see a sticker that reads “One more draft would really help.”  There also aren’t stickers for uneven or middle-range work, for “Good work, with room for improvement,” or “Satisfactory work,” or stickers that praise a single facet of the work: “Thoughtful analysis here” or “Promising research” or “Fabulous MLA-style formatting!”  I once considered making my own stickers, refining the messages, perhaps to say things like, “Good idea, awkwardly expressed,” or “Be precise and specific here” or “Bring your point home,” so I could affix a brightly-coloured message in the margin instead of carefully transcribing the same in green ink at 2 a.m. or while standing in the metro on the way to teach.  So this is an open invitation to the sticker manufacturers of the world: Go ahead, make my day!  And me, I’ll keep on truckin’.


 Works Cited

Bean, John C.  Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical

Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom.  San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2001. Print.

Elbow, Peter.  “Freewriting.”  Encyclopedia of English Studies and Language Arts. Ed. Alan Purves. National Council of Teachers of English, 1994.  Print.  A PDF of the article:

——.  “Ranking, Evaluating, and Liking: Sorting Out Three Forms of Judgment.” College English 55.2 (1993): 187-206.  Print.  See the link to the article on JSTOR on the Resources for Faculty Writing Fellows page.

Shea, Daniel. J.  “The Grammar of Connected Teaching.”  Untying the Tongue:  Gender,

Power, and the Word.  Eds. Linda Longmire and Lisa Merrill.  Prepared under the auspices of Hofstra U.  Westport, CT: Greenwood P —Praeger, 1998.  143-50.  Print.

Symborska, Wislawa.  “Nobel Lecture: The Poet and the World.”  Web. 20 Feb 2012.


[1] Because I collected, read from, and shared parts of what they wrote, Elbow might call this exercise a “quickwrite” rather than a “freewrite,” which he considers a wholly private form of writing (“Ranking” 197-98).

Last Modified: April 4, 2012