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Show Students that Their (Informed) Opinions Matter

No five-paragraph essay here! This class reads up on tough topics, feels all the feels, then uses context and research to write insightful response essays.

Educator

Charlotte Morgan, MA

Instructor in English, Cleveland State University

MA in English, Creative Writing, and Nonfiction; BA in English

“If you know the root of the thing, you know the fruit of the thing.”

These words from writing instructor Charlotte Morgan, MA, evoke a beautiful image of a flourishing plant, its root system richly entwined belowground, its fruit-laden limbs stretching skyward.

However, as with works of literature, the quote is not to be taken at face value. It is a metaphor, which is a concept that may be out of reach for many of Morgan’s first-year writing students at Cleveland State University, many of whom were not exposed to much literary analysis during their high school careers.

Learning, explains Morgan, is a continuum. At the one end, there is knowledge (knowing an idea well enough to repeat it), in the middle there is understanding (knowing on a deeper level why this idea is so), and at the opposite end there is wisdom (knowing how to develop new knowledge and apply it to another circumstance or setting).

Her students, she says, often have knowledge: They can look at that burgeoning plant and call it by name. What they may not know is how to dig deeper—to understand why it is flourishing—or, further, to interpret how the life experience of this bit of flora can teach them how to flourish as students.

Morgan wants her students to do more than write compositions. She wants them to have deep conversations and deep thoughts, to talk about the big picture, and to begin to understand things on a deeper level—to “know the root of the thing.”

To address these challenges, Morgan created what she calls the Response Essay Assignment.

Challenge: Limited experience with rhetoric and life

Morgan’s students usually enter their first class meeting with a limited experience with rhetoric. They are accustomed to listening to lectures and writing essays that repeat what their instructor has told them. They have not, by and large, engaged in literary analysis or other critical thinking skills to arrive at their own opinions.

In fact, when Morgan first asks her students to share their opinions, they are bewildered by the request. “They come in thinking, ‘No one has ever been interested in what I think,’” she says.

What Morgan does not want is for her students to read something, form an opinion, and write an essay based on their knee-jerk reaction. They need to understand that their initial reaction is informed only by their own personal lived experience, she explains. “There is so much more that these students don’t know—they can’t know!—without doing some research. But how do you talk about what you don’t know?”

In the Response Essay Assignment, Morgan teaches students to move from forming opinions to developing informed opinions through research. Then, they are able to generate new ideas and, ideally, apply their newfound contextualized knowledge to other situations.

Innovation: Thinking beyond one’s own lived experience

Morgan’s process begins with a lecture in which she talks to students about what critical reading is. She tells them that they will be using their lived experiences to filter and sift through everything they read, based on their own values and culture. She stresses that everyone has a different lived experience, and no one’s is to be cast aside. However, she also reminds them to be skeptical about what they read. In order to do all of this, though, students must first consider what their own values and culture are. “I plant the idea that they each have a specific creative cultural voice that can be developed if they choose,” Morgan says.

In order to become critical thinkers, however, Morgan believes that students must frame what they read within the context of the world around them, the world of today—as well as their own personal lived experiences.

To begin the Response Essay Assignment, Morgan asks students to read a controversial essay on a timely topic. Then students complete an annotation exercise to ensure that they have understood the author’s meaning. Next, they do research on the essay’s topic, its writer, and the time period in which it was written (to provide context). Finally, her students use critical thinking to develop their own informed opinions and put them into essay form.

“In order to form ideas about the human world and natural world, we have to read, research, and write about what we discover,” says Morgan. “The aha! that I’m trying to get students to connect to is the fact that today is not like yesterday. So, we must always contextualize everything we read.”

Context

“In my course, students learn that everyone is in search for meaning, purpose, and truth. We also learn in this course that the examination of rhetoric helps us to realize that all writing is persuasive writing.”

— Charlotte Morgan, MA

Course: ENG 100 Intensive College Writing 1

Frequency: Three 50-minute classes per week for 16 weeks

Class size: 20–25

Course description: This course provides students with intensive writing instruction in the basic skills of expository and argumentative writing. Supplemental instruction is provided in the form of a tutorial component.

ENG 100 Intensive College Writing 1

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Morgan’s Roots in Music

Before becoming an English instructor, Morgan was a music journalist. “My family never got what I did until I started taking them [backstage at] the concerts,” she says with a laugh. As the only local African-American journalist covering the Jackson Family’s 1985 Victory Tour, Morgan adds, “Taking my niece to see Michael Jackson was a highlight of my career.”

Morgan feels that her journalistic work set the stage for her success as an English professor today. “I had the gift of being able to meet people, ask them about themselves, and make them feel special by being genuinely interested,” she says. “Being genuinely interested in students is a gift that a teacher can give.”

The Response Essay Assignment, says Morgan, was a natural outgrowth of her 40-year career as a journalist and a lifetime as an avid reader. Because of these lived experiences, Morgan feels she has been able to choose articles that really involve the students. Specifically, she selects pieces on controversial issues, some of which the students have never before considered.

Lesson: The Response Essay Assignment

By the semester’s end, students in Morgan’s Intensive College Writing 1 course will have learned everything they need to write four well-informed essays in response to articles on controversial topics. These assignments, says Morgan, effectively prepare students to complete the writing requirements in other college courses and, later, in their careers. “I don’t just teach; I train,” she says.

More importantly, perhaps, Morgan sees a change in her students that might render their high school teachers speechless: By the last week of class, these students are confident, they have something to say, and they know how to say it so they will be heard.

Here is a look at the process Morgan follows to help students move from tongue-tied to talkative—in person and on paper:

Begin with basic annotation

Early in the semester, Morgan uses the text Writing in Response by Matthew Parfitt to teach students how to annotate and find the author’s main idea. The class examines a sample reading, which Morgan has highlighted and underlined. They review the concepts again and then work together to annotate a new text. This lays the groundwork for the future exercises by providing a foundation of basic knowledge.

Help them question the context

To begin each Response Essay Assignment, Morgan gives students an article to read. She also provides questions to help them consider purpose, main idea, and bias. “They don’t realize they are developing the habits of a scholar,” Morgan says.

In the library or writing lab, they look up the author to find out everything they can about him or her: What is his lived experience? Is he young or old? What schools did he attend? How did that education affect him? Is he biased, is he a stakeholder, or does he have an ax to grind?

She teaches them to filter the essay through those lenses.

Insist on their real opinion

Morgan provides students a detailed handout that teaches them how to write a response essay. These instructions stress that, in addition to demonstrating that they are informed, students must think deeply about the values and attitudes at the core of the article, and they must be honest about their own opinions. For example, the directions explicitly state, “If you found a work boring, for example, do not claim that you found it intriguing simply because you think that is the way you are supposed to respond.”

Morgan says she can tell when students try to give answers that they think Morgan wants to hear. “It’s obvious in their demeanor, their body language,” she says. “Maybe they’ll turn in their paper but slide it to the middle of the stack instead of putting it on top.” When she sees this, she calls them on it, and she reminds them, “We don’t do that here!” Then she begins a discussion to uncover the reason they are not proud of their work, and they work together to address that. It takes a few weeks, but soon the students come to trust that she is genuinely interested in their opinions.

Help them identify emotions—and evidence

To help students examine their reactions to the writing, then find the roots of those reactions, Morgan poses a series of questions. She begins with the big picture, asking, “Does the text make you angry? Excited? Bored?”

Later, she has them question why, with queries like, “What has the author done to make you respond this way? Examine the choices the writer made concerning content, organization, and style.”

Last, she asks them to seek evidence in the text by having them answer this: “What aspects of the text contribute to your response? As you try to capture your responses in writing, carefully examine your reactions and, when possible, tie them to specific words, passages, or graphics in the text.”

A former student of Morgan’s notes that, “During explanation, you have to support your idea with facts, quotes, or perhaps something you have read from another paper.” Luckily, finding these examples is easier, thanks to the earlier annotation exercise.

Encourage a creative framework

Students may have learned to write a five-paragraph essay in high school, but Morgan believes in eliciting creativity and deep thinking. To do so, she adds, requires the instructor to do a little of the same, which means rethinking what you require.

For example, one of Morgan’s response essay assignments focused on an article by Ta-Nehisi Coates from The Atlantic about accusations against Bill Cosby. Morgan told students to consider this response essay a “love letter” to Coates, using the article to help them form a personal statement about their own beliefs.

She explained that, rather than simply recounting the facts, students should engage in a relaxed, uncensored discussion or dialog with Coates. While the format differs from the traditional essay format, students are still required to consider what they already knew about the topic, how the article affected them personally, and how the author’s background and possible bias may have impacted their writing.

Never penalize students for an opinion

It is of vital importance, says Morgan, that students become comfortable sharing their opinions. For this reason, she assures them that, even though she may not always agree with them, she will not give them a lower grade because they have a different point of view.

By providing support and guidance throughout the process, Morgan helps students become engaged learners who are developing their own voices.

“Students begin to realize, ‘I get it! I can have my own opinion,’” says Morgan. “After a few weeks, we have a functioning scholar.”

Morgan’s Selected Readings

Some of the essays Morgan has used recently in her course:

Outcomes

Recently, after reading articles on the building of the proposed border wall, students took those readings and used them for a class debate. One of Morgan’s colleagues came to observe, and that professor was amazed at how academic and civil the debate was. The students’ statements showed that they had done the research, understood the author’s context, and had thought deeply about the topic. Morgan says, “It was so high level it made me cry.”

“They now have something to say about an issue that they wouldn’t have had five days ago,” adds Morgan. “And [as homework] they have completed a reading from The Atlantic, which they would have never had read on their own. Now they’ve read one of the important authors of our time.”

Student feedback

After initial uncertainty, students end up appreciating the Response Essay Assignment because it encourages them to develop their own voices. Some of them have told Morgan that nobody had ever before asked their opinion, and no one had ever encouraged them to say what they think.

One former student told Morgan this about the assignment:

“I learned a lot about people and the world around us because I was encouraged to do further research and learn more. I’d never written so much prior to this class; however, I enjoyed every minute of it because it taught me to keep my mind open in regards to what is happening in the world.”

As Morgan opens up the world to her students, she gives them the tools they need to be successful in their college careers. And she gives them a gift by being genuinely interested in what they have to say.

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