Prompt(ing) Writing

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Advice / Teaching

Frustrated Writer

I recently attended the first part of the English Department’s Pedagogy Workshops with speakers Dashielle Horn, Jimmy Hamill and Joanna Grim, and facilitation by Kyle Brett. This workshop was all about prompt writing.

Coming into the workshop I knew giving out “good” prompts was foundational for receiving “good” papers. I had just covered the subject and Harvard’s disastrous, written entrance exams of 1874 in my ENGL 485: Intro to Writing Theory. And that’s the thing: I’m starting my first year in the MA program and I can tell you that giving out objectively bad prompts like Harvard did will elicit some objectively bad papers. Yet, I can’t necessarily tell you what the mythical “good” prompt is.

But thanks to Dashielle, Jimmy and Jo I might be coming close. Or at least coming closer to realizing and accepting that like everything else about teaching, prompt writing is a skill I will never stop developing.

And this development has a trajectory in mind. All three panelists discussed the importance of goal setting within the process of prompt writing. Jo wrote prompts by working backwards from the goal of the paper to figure out what directions a student would need to reach that goal. Both Dashielle and Jimmy reiterated this process and the way in which writing the prompt with an idea of what a successful paper might look like provides the scaffolding students need and desire in their quest to write that “good” paper. These goals might include:

  • Explicit expectations communicated to the students (and ourselves)
  • Specific writing skills/rhetoric students would ideally utilize
  • Conceptual topics students could address

How to write these skills into the prompt itself, however, can become quite idiosyncratic. Generally, whatever method we use should be contained within one sheet of paper and include 2-4 prompts per assignment to keep student anxieties low and minds focused. But what comprises that page can vary drastically by educator. Jo utilizes brevity and bullet points along with detailed length, formatting and assessment sections. Dashielle utilizes a traditional prompt only format, a format Jimmy supplements with quotation requirements and an explicitly stated goal for each prompt. The prompts I’ve received in Practicum from Ed Lotto and Kyle Brett provide students with narrative explanations of how classroom discussions and structures have set up the goals of the paper.

Meme for Blog

I was ready to take these newly learned skills (and some specific prompts) into my own classroom when this caveat was tossed my way: I know my class best. All the general information I can learn from our peers is great, but as Jimmy and Kyle keep reminding me, I’m the one whose there for classroom discussion, who reads my student’s forum posts. As the educators and facilitators of our own classrooms, we are ultimately the ones who are most capable of transcribing these best practices into the discourses of our classrooms and the conversations they are invested in.

So (hopefully) having listened to my students well enough, I’ve sent them off with prompts and we’ll see how conferencing and papers go.

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