Category Archives: Low Stakes Assignments

Discourse Community Activity

HI all. Following on Kim’s comment (I think it was Kim) about never teaching Swales again, I thought I’d share this lecture/activity I got this from Portland State University some years ago. II did tweak the original, but’s a nice explanatIon of Discourse Communities  and a set of activities. It’s probably better for 1101 than 1121 but I wanted to share it anyway — along with a three-part activity. It makes Swales a lot more student-friendly.

I’ve used this in previous classes where it’s worked really well, but I’m changing the activities a bit this year. For Phase One, after the students brainstorm their own communities, they’ll create a Discourse Community web, using the one in Anne Beaufort’s course outline as a model. For Phase Two, I’ll see if I can get them to talk about taboos or at least write about it on their Web. And for Phase Three, I’m turning it into a blogging assignment.

After that, they’re going to read Perri Klass’ New York Times column from many years ago (the pdf is below) about being a medical student, and have them tease out the features of that discourse community. (Complete honesty, I got this from Jeff Sommers’ article about doing a virtual workplace ethnography for my ENG 2570 class where it worked well.)

Hope somebody finds this useful. At least it’s something to talk about this week.



Literacy Narrative Reflective Manifesto From My 1121 Class

So lovely to see everyone today! As promised, here’s the in-class “Reflective Manifesto” of my 1121 class’s literacy narrative reflections and standards for our classroom’s discourse community. It was a fun (and hopefully helpful) cap on the Literacy Narrative assignment and transition into the genre awareness/discourse community assignment. The below are responses from students in my class (after group discussions), in primarily their own words.

I’m also attaching (at the end of this post) my handouts on Rhetorical Analysis and Mentor Texts (which were tremendously inspired by/stolen from/adapted from Carrie’s explanations and handouts/info for students). Sorry to conflate the two topics, but this is everything swirling around my head this week, and god only knows what will be happening there tomorrow or next week.

Literacy Narrative Reflections From ENG 1121, Writing Across Situations:

1.  What best practices do we have to offer other writers coming into college?

    1. Making sure you don’t repeat a claim – in an argument-based essay
    2. Make an outline! (before writing)
    3. Proofreading – read it over to make sure you have no mistakes
    4. Brainstorm by just writing whatever comes into your mind, if you think too hard you might stop yourself, just let them flow!
    5. To make sure that you don’t have any run-on sentences and fragments, add commas or break it up into two sentences
    6. Ask for suggestions from your partners – fellow readers – get feedback on what others think

2.  What understanding of literacy and our own writing process can we offer to this discourse community of our classroom?

    1. Use of technology as a form of literacy – necessary in the 21st century for communicating and work
    2. Our pieces of writing come together better when we are interested in the topic, we write more freely – power of choice – when you choose your topic, you pick something that you’re interested in. It should come out more easily more freely
    3. Being able to explain what you’re writing about is important – not just writing it, but understanding the concept of what you’re trying to say. Can get a different perspective

3.  What literacy goals do we have for the rest of the semester and the rest of college?

    1. Challenging myself to write more, personal writing, and writing in general – to work on making my writing more engaging
    2. Refining my writing skills with group review – helpful to have others point out mistakes or things you don’t think of
    3. Completing the essay by explaining the idea of the essay to answer the question, communicate clearly, and really address the issue at hand
    4. Manage your time to spend the right amount of time/emphasis on each paragraph, make sure the ideas flow
    5. Improve our diction – choice of words, appropriateness of words
    6. Improve to our voice and personas as writers

4.  What are our standards for our discourse community and the genre conventions in our classroom?

    1. Writing essays for this audience
    2. Communicating – posting in the blog, talking in groups in class, being respectful
    3. Peer Review! A whole genre in this class
    4. Giving each other critiques – analyzing writing and our own writing with the same process
    5. Showing up to Pearl 504B between 11:30-12:45 on Tuesdays and Thursdays
    6. Adhering to the Assignment Guidelines – page count, appropriateness of subject
    7. Typed printed out double-spaced work
    8. Turning in assignments on time!
    9. Shared classroom language: literacy, rhetoric, metacognition, ethos, pathos, and logos – way of thinking – rhetorical appeals, discourse community – people way to have a language in common, code switching, multiple literacies
Rhetorical Analysis Handout
mentor text handout

Transitioning between Units 1 and 2 and 3…my “shelf” idea

A quick thought here about flow. A number of us commented about the fact that the UNITS lend themselves nicely to transition assignments. Or vice-versa? Anyway, as you know, I think rather physically / kinaesthetically / or just-plain weirdly. For the last week and a half, I have been having the students build a virtual “shelf” of their influences. This shelf/list/whathaveyou is a resource to which they can add, over time. It is visual, or physical, or just written down for now. I hope to use it as a kind of font from which we might draw  topics or arguments to which each student personally relates, and then use them in papers and projects in UNITS 2 and 3.

For instance, here is one of my (personal, I like to model) recent shelves, which I posted to our site:

My shelf of favorite influences, soon to be in bibliographic form.

Here’s an old one, to give you an idea of how I re-jigger them:

What will I do with that first one — with the numbers scrawled on it? Well, I’ve asked Monica and Nora in the Library to use our Library Instruction Session to give us information on how to create citations in MLA format using Zotero or Easybib…how easy it is…how helpful it is to have a clear and clean document. Anyway, soon my photograph/physical shelf  will transform into MLA format. Viola! Magic! It’s a start for de-fanging the dreaded Research Paper, anyway.

If you want to look, on our OpenLab site some of the students have their shelf/lists, but they’re really nascent, in progress.

During UNIT 1, I made a low-stakes small-group discussion activity to watch/read/listen to something from another person’s influences list.

Low-Stakes, High Gain — Student Work in Unit 1

Before Orientation, I posted my first low-stakes assignment for UNIT 1. This week I made a few revisions to it, based on the needs of my sections, and will update it soon once this hectic week is over! Meantime, here is an early result — a first paper that is quite amazing by one student. He was asked to write without using the letters “p” “q” “y” “g” and “j” — in short, to use no letter that would allow him to “escape” below the line of text. I adapted this from the “Prisoner’s Constraint” used by the OULIPO group. For more background on using lipograms/OULIPO as prompt reading, see my previous post.

The topic/prompt I gave the class was: Write about something you fear.

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Bardolph’s Built-In Reflection Rings True

Megan J. Bardolph’s essay, “Modifying Classroom Routines to Provide Reflective Space” gives me some much-appreciated pedagogical go-ahead. Thank you, Jackie, for giving it to us. Bardolph’s suggestion that we begin this reflective process early on fuses well with what I’ve already attempted in this short time, and as it’s my first week with this new pedagogy, and the feeling of being overwhelmed is very real, I want to take a moment and say why.

Learning Unit 1. Literacy. Metacognition. The students in at least one of my sections are already flying (boldly!) into uncharted brain space. As I am talking to them, I sense that my desire to NOT reign them in, and yet, my need to give our FY folks some real deliverables, will start to clash soon. So: what I  told them (after giving them a quick overview of Wittgenstein and linguistic game theory) is: “Tell me, in ongoing notation, your:

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Writing without __* __ and Looking within *__*

A short excerpt provided, to the right, from A VOID. Students will receive a longer version.

“Noon rings out. A wasp, making an ominous sound, a sound akin to a klaxon or a tocsin, flits about. Augustus, who has had a bad night, sits up blinking and purblind. Oh what was that word (is his thought) that ran through my brain all night, that idiotic word that, hard as I’d try to pun it down, was always just an inch or two out of my grasp – fowl or foul or Vow or Voyal? – a word which, by association, brought into play an incongruous mass and magma of nouns, idioms, slogans and sayings, a confusing, amorphous outpouring which I sought in vain to control or turn off but which wound around my mind a whirlwind of a cord,…”


Exercise: Constraint Writing

Title: “There’s No There, There”

Materials Needed: Photocopies, pen, paper, timer

Background to this lesson: Students have just finished reading a handout which included three excerpts from two novels–Gadsby, by Ernest Vincent Wright, and A Void, by George Perec. The Instructor continues, as scripted, below.



Instructor asks: “What did you notice that was unusual – if anything – about the readings you were just given?”

Students answer. We discuss.

Before the discussion gets underway in earnest, don’t forget to check for spoilers. Quickly ask the class: “Has anyone here read the novels from which these readings were excerpted?”

If the answer is “yes,” ask those persons not to give away the answers to the class. Say: “We don’t want any spoilers. Thanks, in advance, for helping.”

After a few minutes, add: “Okay, I will give you a hint: there is one thing that all these excerpts have in common.”

After five minutes or more, you will want to discuss what the students have found. This is at your discretion. FYI, most of the time students will comment on:

the unusual vocabulary, on the punctuation, on the length of the sentences, on the unusual grammar, and on a general “weirdness” to the text. These discussions, alone, can be fruitful as they bring up important issues.

Let the discussion unfurl only so as long as there is intense interest.

When the moment seems right: Drop the “bomb.”

“Okay, I will tell you. The thing that all of these excerpts have in common is that they were all written without the letter “e.”

Ask students to go back, re-read, and confirm this fact.

For a sense of context, briefly give students some background info the novels. For instance, Gadsby is 50,000 words long; A Void – was originally written in French without the letter “e” and then translated into English without the letter “e,” that the writer literally taped down the letter “e” on his typewriter so that he would not be tempted to hit it, and so on.

Common student reactions:

Oh my god.

Why would someone do that?

That’s not possible!!

Why didn’t I notice that before?”

Time elapsed: app. 10 to 25 minutes for Phase I


FOR THE INSTRUCTOR: Learning Paths/Protocols

There are a number of paths the Instructor can take in the discussion at this point – now that the students have experienced an initial shock. Choose wisely. Your students are ripe to receive. Here are some suggestions:

  • How often do we not see things that are in plain view? Our perception is biased. By what? Why? [Environment, Society, Bias]
  • How often do you think you may have gone through life reading something, and not getting what it really means? [Hermeneutics, Comprehension]
  • Sometimes the answers to our biggest problems in life are staring us right in the face – and we don’t see. [Problem Solving, Lifelong Learning]
  • “Reading” takes many forms. It is a deeply rewarding activity – something we need to learn how to do, beyond just parroting back words on a page. [English Comprehension, “How to Read a Book”]
  • Humans are incredibly adaptable. People with disabilities – who can not walk, who can not hear or see – learn to live productive lives. What sorts of “work arounds” can you imagine doing in your own life? [Disability Rights, Neural Pathways]

 Time elapsed: app. 10 minutes for Phase II


FOR THE INSTRUCTOR: Writing Assignment

Now ask the students to take out their notebooks and pens and prepare themselves to write, in class, for 7 minutes.

Announce Prompt: “Your topic is: ‘How I got to school this morning.’”

Give them a second or two to process this. Then add, “You must write this without using the word ‘the’.”

The students will groan, express surprise, exasperation.

At this point, should you choose, you can:

  • Explain that the word “the” is the definite article.
  • Explain the indefinite article. (Name, and otherwise explain, these parts of speech.)

And once again, phrase the assignment for them:

“Tell me about how you got to school this morning – without using the definite article.”

They get to work. After 7 minutes ask if they would like a minute or two more. They usually say yes.

Time elapsed: app. 12 minutes for Phase III


FOR THE INSTRUCTOR: Ask students to read what they wrote, aloud.

Options for reading:

Take a short break and circle the chairs.

Read aloud from their seats.

If students make “mistakes” and use the word “the,” don’t scold, but instead, use this as a re-writing opportunity. Use discretion so as not to shame or discourage. However, you can open up a general discussion:

  • Ask students, “How might we help [Student Name] to work around this?
  • If the student simply drops the word “the” and it sounds awkward, ask students, “What are some possible fixes – what other ways can we rephrase this so that it flows more smoothly?

The above can be quite nurturing if done in the right tone. Try to offer insights, tips, tricks, if you feel they are warranted.

Follow Up Discussion Questions (very important!)

Did you think, when you began this exercise, that it was going to be impossible? What did you find, instead? How do you feel now vs. how you felt a few minutes ago?

  • Do you think your writing actually improved, from having this constraint placed upon it?
  • Did your use of vocabulary improve?
  • What other benefits did you find? And, what overall sense did you get about your abilities as a writer?

Allow the students a little time to process the meta lessons of this activity.

Time Elapsed: app. 35 minutes, Phase IV


Suggested Homework Assignment, based on this lesson:

“Tell me about your family – without using the definite article.”

or, “Night or Day: Which is Best?” Make your argument without using the letter “o.”

Time Needed: variable

Future Homework Assignment, Scaffolded on Homework Assignment One: Once the students have gotten comfortable with constraint writing, this — or any other constraint-writing exercise on a topic — can be expanded upon.

Goals in assessing this future scaffolded “constraint” assignment: to make the lack of the definite article (or any other constraint chosen) as unobtrusive as possible in the writing; to have a sense of transparency within constraint (Ask: “Do you miss the word “the” at all? If you didn’t know it was forbidden, could you even tell?”); to be unafraid to use new phrasings; to exploit the vocabulary we already have to its greater potential; to gain a greater appreciation for grammar and structure; to lay the groundwork for discussion in future classes of grammar and punctuation and their importance in conveying power in our writing. To talk about how we must surprise ourselves in order to tap our own potential. To think about our own supposed shortcomings in new ways.


+++Full copy of Excerpts, below:+++


Please read through the following excerpts, taken from two novels. Do you notice anything unusual about them? If so, what?

Excerpt #1:

If youth, throughout all history, had had a champion to stand up for it; to show a doubting world that a child can think; and, possibly, do it practically; you wouldn’t constantly run across folks today who claim that “a child don’t know anything.” A child’s brain starts functioning at birth; and has, amongst its many infant convolutions, thousands of dormant atoms, into which God has put a mystic possibility for noticing an adult’s act, and figuring out its purport.

Up to about its primary school days a child thinks, naturally, only of play. But many a form of play contains disciplinary factors. “You can’t do this,” or “that puts you out,” shows a child that it must think, practically or fail. Now, if, throughout childhood, a brain has no opposition, it is plain that it will attain a position of “status quo,” as with our ordinary animals. Man knows not why a cow, dog or lion was not born with a brain on a par with ours; why such animals cannot add, subtract, or obtain from books and schooling, that paramount position which Man holds today.

But a human brain is not in that class. Constantly throbbing and pulsating, it rapidly forms opinions; attaining an ability of its own; a fact which is startlingly shown by an occasional child “prodigy” in music or school work. And as, with our dumb animals, a child’s inability convincingly to impart its thoughts to us, should not class it as ignorant. Upon this basis I am going to show you how a bunch of bright young folks did find a champion; a man with boys and girls of his own; a man of so dominating and happy individuality that Youth is drawn to him as is a fly to a sugar bowl.

It is a story about a small town. It is not a gossipy yarn; nor is it a dry, monotonous account, full of such customary “fill-ins” as “romantic moonlight casting murky shadows down a long, winding country road.” Nor will it say anything about tinklings lulling distant folds; robins carolling at twilight, nor any “warm glow of lamplight” from a cabin window. No.

It is an account of up-and-doing activity; a vivid portrayal of Youth as it is today; and a practical discarding of that worn-out notion that “a child don’t know anything.

Excerpt #2:

Noon rings out. A wasp, making an ominous sound, a sound akin to a klaxon or a tocsin, flits about. Augustus, who has had a bad night, sits up blinking and purblind. Oh what was that word (is his thought) that ran through my brain all night, that idiotic word that, hard as I’d try to pun it down, was always just an inch or two out of my grasp – fowl or foul or Vow or Voyal? – a word which, by association, brought into play an incongruous mass and magma of nouns, idioms, slogans and sayings, a confusing, amorphous outpouring which I sought in vain to control or turn off but which wound around my mind a whirlwind of a cord, a whiplash of a cord, a cord that would split again and again, would knit again and again, of words without communication or any possibility of combination, words without pronunciation, signification or transcription but out of which, notwithstanding, was brought forth a flux, a continuous, compact and lucid flow: an intuition, a vacillating frisson of illumination as if caught in a flash of lightning or in a mist abruptly rising to unshroud an obvious sign – but a sign, alas, that would last an instant only to vanish for good.

Excerpt #3:

Such a jolt to a young child’s mind, craving instruction, is apt so to dull its avidity, as to hold it back in its school work. Try to look upon a child as a small, soft young body and a rapidly growing, constantly inquiring brain. It must grow to maturity slowly. Forcing a child through school by constant night study during hours in which it should run and play, can bring on insomnia; handicapping both brain and body.

Now this small town in our story had grown in just that way:—slowly; in fact, much too slowly to stand on a par with many a thousand of its kind in this big, vigorous nation of ours. It was simply…



Excerpts #1 and 3 were taken from the novel Gadsby by Ernest Vincent Wright, 1939

Excerpt #2 was taken from the novel A Void by Georges Perec, 1969





Show and Tell

As you prepare for our Thursday meeting, I want to invite you to bring to our meeting an assignment for show and tell, one that you think would work well as part of scaffolding for one of the five units.

If you look over the Nelson Graff article, you’ll see that he did a lot of interesting low stakes reading and writing activities with his class to prepare them for the larger project. What kind of low stakes assignment do you think would work well that you are would be willing to share with the group that you think would fit into the

  1. Literacy Narrative
  2. Rhetoric/Genre/Discourse Community Project
  3. Research/position project
  4. Repurposed Multimodal project
  5. Portfolio project
If you get a chance, post these to the website. I’ve created a category called “low stakes assignments.”
See you soon!