Informal Writing

Informal writing assignments can be an effective means of focusing the content of your class and conveying critical class concepts. In a jazz history class I taught recently, the students discussed a passage in Ted Gioia’s The History of Jazz and images from the Ken Burns documentary that dealt with Congo Square in New Orleans. The class read descriptions of eighteenth-century dances that took place there, and looked at contemporary sketches of the musicians who played and the instruments they used. My students read speculations made by observers about the origins of the dances that they witnessed and looked at pictures of African instruments that resembled ones in the sketches. At the end of class, I asked them to free write on the meaning of “African cultural survivals,” telling them that they would not be graded, but that they needed to turn in a paragraph or two by the end of class. Without having been fed the definition of this key term in class—with out the term ever having been mentioned, in fact—all of my students were able to give me a detailed definition of it, and speculate on the reasons and means for African and other cultural survivals to exist and proliferate in the Americas. This was a much more effective means of conveying the core concept than asking them to memorize a definition.

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