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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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Working Text: Teaching Deaf and Second-Language Students to Be Better Writers
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Using Discussion-Board Software, Social Networking Tools, and Blogs

Today, writing to see our deeper thinking about texts is not limited to the classroom. Students can participate in discussions online via discussion-board software or social networking platforms such as Ning, or blogs. Asynchronous or synchronous, electronic discussions engage students and can play an important role in improving their writing, especially at the stage where ideas are being gathered. What holds true for the formulation of good writing topics holds true for the formulation of good online discussion prompts: They should be based on readings that offer students chances to take a stand one way or another, to jump off from and develop an idea in a different direction, to forward a concept from one reading to another, to personalize in some way, or to begin to formulate answers to questions they may have been puzzling over. While some teachers are very structured in their requirements (“at least three substantial responses for each online session; have your books open and be ready to support your ideas with quotes”) and grade students on a highly specified rubric based on quality of response, others ask students to select an idea or quote that interests them and leave it at that. Some teachers participate in the discussion; others are spectators to it.

Having dabbled with blogs, discussion boards, and Ning over the years, I have found that these tools are most helpful when students are in groups and a selected group “summarizer” collects the thoughts of the group members to present in paragraph form. The quality of response in these summaries raises the discussion to a new level, as the summarizer has had the benefit of working with several ideas from several students and thinking becomes more complex. It is also productive to instruct students that their responses will be viewed in class the next day. Knowing that their work will be showcased, students step up and try harder to have a better product to show. I like to peruse posts the night before class and cut and paste those that will make for good continued discussion when the class comes together. Here is the opportunity for students to stretch their thinking about a particular point or points: As students view the selected posts (through the use of a document camera or computer and projector), I stand right next to the post and write alongside it on the whiteboard any additional thoughts that arise from class discussion.

Now the discussion points have been broached three times: once by the students individually, once in groups, and once as a class with me. This is sure to help students elaborate and enhance their thinking, something we ask of them all the time. Online discussions are particularly effective as students can revisit them at any time. One of my colleagues requires her students to go back into their electronic discussions to find quotes of interest from other classmates and incorporate these quotes into their more formal essays, crediting classmates through in-text citation—this is a brilliant way to begin to teach documentation.

As with face-to-face discussions, electronic discussions engender more productive thinking when students have already come to terms with what they have been reading through writing-into-reading activities, which should be considered first-step activities that remain primary regardless of the modality of instruction.

Thinking in Chunks

Before I started writing this book, I filled four or five 8 ½ × 11–inch yellow pads with reading notes. I headed each page with the name of the book the notes were from and then, gradually, on additional pages of additional notepads, I created my own headings based on what I had been reading; typically, these were the big ideas I wanted to think more about and probably write about. Here I was being creative, putting my own spin on what others had done before me. I would then scribble each new smaller, related thought under the appropriate heading, in no particular order. Once I felt I had enough to say, I smoothed out the order, again being creative but now trying to figure out the most logical way to present my ideas so that my readers would see the logic as well. I kept at this, creating the big ideas (chunks) from the little ideas of my reading and then smoothing out the ideas—for eight years! This is what composing is all about: thinking in chunks and then smoothing out the ideas within the chunks.

Our students are neither writing books nor keeping at their writing projects for eight years. Nevertheless, their writing processes should not be much different from mine. We have already seen the need for reading notes and discussion notes. Discussion notes are the equivalent of my own headings on the yellow notepads—they are the new thinking that evolved from the details of reading notes. The students now need to fill in their discussion notes with the details of their reading notes, in no particular order at this point.

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