One of my biggest challenges in teaching students to write has been figuring out how best to teach “the basics”: grammar, punctuation, citation, and other sentence-level editing skills. Before this year, I always devoted several class periods to just those topics. Because students tend to enter law school with very different ability levels, however, those classes did not seem as effective as I would have liked. The students who needed little or no instruction about grammar and punctuation were invariably bored, and other students (many of whom have candidly admitted that they have not studied grammar in years, if ever) needed more than those few classes devoted to those topics. So how does the instructor effectively teach to the entire class? It is difficult, to say the least.
To remedy the problem, I decided to move all of my instruction about grammar, punctuation, precision, conciseness, and citation out of the classroom and onto the web. I find it difficult to teach writing without a visual, so I created PowerPoint presentations (or Word documents) with rules and examples, and I recorded short lectures over the top of the presentations or documents. When I was finished, I had a series of audio-visual presentations that students could watch at times convenient for them. If a student already understood how to identify and correct dangling modifiers, there was no need to watch the webcast about modifiers. If, however, the student had never heard of a dangling modifier and needed to go over the examples more than once, the webcast was there for repeated viewings.
I was concerned, however, that if I put the material on the web, students would simply ignore it, so I wanted some way to hold them responsible for learning the material. Out of that concern came my second teaching innovation: the Writing Bee.
The idea actually came from a presentation that Professor Ed Telfeyan delivered at a conference last summer. Prof. Telfeyan uses a Grammar Bee to teach grammar, punctuation, and other writing skills in his writing courses every fall. He reported that once he instituted the Bee, students not only learned the rules, but they enjoyed themselves in the process.
I liked the idea, and I expanded it a bit to cover not only grammar and other editing topics, but also citation. Every class period began with a round of “the Bee,” and each round was based on the webcasts that had been posted previously. Students answered one to three questions, depending on the day, and after they had finished, we went through the answers. Those students who answered correctly were “in,” and everyone else was “out.” We also had random days during which students who had been eliminated could challenge their way back into the Bee. (Those days were necessitated by the fact that I often had trouble gauging the appropriate level of difficulty for the questions; I found it difficult to write questions that would result in some students being “out” – there does, after all, eventually have to be a winner – without ousting the entire class.)
In the end, one victor emerged from each of my sections; Naomi Stieber was the champion in my morning section, and Kevin Fetherston took the title in my afternoon section. The best news for me, however, was that based on what I saw in my students’ papers, they learned a lot about writing and citation, and we did enjoy it (or I did, anyway) along the way.