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Teaching Guide: Helping Students Narrow a Topic

Suggested Sequence

You may wish to integrate the following suggestions and exercises into your course. We suggest the following sequence.

Exercises

A Literacy Narrative Essay assignment asks the student to focus on a single incident or event relating to Literacy, it's important that we help students learn how to narrow their topics' focus. The exercises included here are designed to help students learn how to look for experiences that specifically relate to Literacy and how to narrow those topics.

The exercises listed below are designed to help your students narrow their topics for a Literacy Essay:

Outsider Exercise

One activity for teaching students how to narrow their topics for a Literacy Narrative Essay is to help them define what a Literacy experience is. The Outsider Exercise is designed to help them narrow their general personal experience into specific experiences that may be related to Literacy.

During this activity you will ask students to think and write about an experience they have had when they felt like an outsider. Then you will ask the students to think about why they were an outsider in that particular community. Generally, what will come out of this exercise is the idea that frequently when we feel like outsiders it's because we don't understand the culture or customs of the community we are trying to join. As one part of culture/customs is the way we communicate, this idea can then naturally lead to how their lack of literacy caused them to feel like outsiders. The narrowing process takes them from a personal experience, to a personal experience that relates to feeling like an outsider, to what caused them to feel like an outsider, to the idea of literacy.

Outsider Exercise Teacher Instructions

Begin the exercise by modelling different types of personal experiences you have had. For instance, I had an experience travelling to a foreign country, learning to ride a bike, going to school, etc. Then talk about a particular type of experience you've had -- one time when you felt like an outsider. After you describe this experience, brainstorm with your class about why you might have felt like an outsider in this situation. Generally what will come up will be the idea of needing to know the people. This should then lead to a discussion of what you need to know about the people. Students will reply with things like names, where they are from, what they like to do, etc. Lead the conversation in this fashion until it's narrowed to the idea of needing to know the customs/culture of the people in order to connect with them. Then ask what different parts make up culture. Language should be mentioned, if not, be sure to bring it up. Then briefly discuss how the lack of knowledge about the language of the community you felt outside of contributed to your inability to connect with the community.

After you have modelled one type of outsider experience with them, have the students freewrite for several minutes about their own outsider experience. Where did it occur? What did they feel during the experience? Why do they think they felt like outsiders? Did they ever become insiders? What changed? Students should be sure to describe their experience using detail.

The results of this exercise should be that the students identify at least one experience that might be useful for their Literacy Essay.

Outsider Exercise Student Instructions

For this freewriting exercise, think about a time when you felt like an outsider. Where were you at the time? When did this occur? What group was it that you felt outside of? Describe the experience in detail.

Now think again about this experience. How might it relate to the idea of literacy? Would you have felt more like an insider if you had understood the language of the community you wanted to join? What other types of language (i.e. body language) might you have needed to learn to join the community?

Learning a New Skill Exercise

One activity for teaching students how to narrow their topics for a Literacy Narrative Essay is to help them define what a literacy experience is. The "Learning a New Skill Exercise" is designed to help students narrow their general personal experience into specific experiences that may be related to Literacy.

For this activity you will ask students to think and write about an experience they have had when they felt they became proficient in a new skill. The exercise should lead to the idea that literacy is like gaining a new skill. It should also lead to the idea that in order to feel proficient at anything, we need to know the language associated with that skill.

Learning a New Skill Exercise Teacher Instructions

This exercise is made up of two components. The teacher first models their own experience with learning a new skill, then the students freewrite about their own experiences.

You begin the exercise by describing a personal experience with learning a new skill. Explain where you were, what you were doing, and the scene around you in order to model the kind of detailed description you want your students to give. You will then discuss how that experience made you feel, and what you felt you gained. Also, to lead into a connection to literacy, you should think out loud about what enabled you to become proficient in the skill. Practice will be key. This should then lead to the question of practice at what, which should lead to a need to understand the "customs" or language of the skill.

After you have modelled this kind of description and analysis of an experience learning a new skill, you should ask the students to freewrite for several minutes on their own experience learning a new skill. Have them describe the experience and reflect on what enabled them to gain proficiency.

After the freewrite, you will discuss how this exercise is like the Literacy Narrative Essay that asks them to think about a time when they became proficient at a language. The freewrite should have generated at least one time when this was probably true. In order to become proficient at a skill, for example, we generally need to learn the language associated with the skill.

Learning a New Skill Exercise Student Instructions

Think of a time when you first became proficient at a new skill, like riding a bike, playing a piano, or driving a car.

Now write approximately two paragraphs describing that experience. Be sure to set the scene for us describing where you were, how old you were, what you were doing, what you could see around you, and other vivid details.

Then think and write about what enabled you to learn that new skill. What did you need to learn in order to become adept at the skill?

Evolving a Topic Exercise

One activity for teaching students how to narrow their topics for a Literacy Narrative Essay is to walk them through the process of evolving a topic. This exercise is designed to model a student's process for narrowing a topic and also to give students practice evolving their own topics. In addition, it provides them with sample questions they can ask themselves to narrow a topic.

Evolving a Topic Exercise Teacher Instructions

First, put up the Evolution of a Topic Overhead.. This overhead shows the process one student went through to narrow the focus of his topic for the Literacy Narrative Essay.

Walk the students through the process shown on the overhead. Discuss why the student in the example decided the topic needed narrowing at each point in the process, and how he went about finding subtopics. Discuss the kinds of questions the student most likely asked himself. Block out the later "evolutionary stages" with a piece of paper until you arrive at them, in order to help the students focus, but also so they feel literally as if they are moving, step-by-step, through the process.

After modelling the one students' narrowing process, ask for a student to volunteer a topic they were thinking of for the essay. Then, as a class, try to think of subtopics and ways to narrow the topic. Have the students ask the volunteer the same kind of questions the modelled student may have, i.e. "What are different kinds of this topic?" "What is my interest in this topic, how am I personally connected?"

After the class has collaboratively narrowed the volunteer student's topic, distribute an Evolution of a Topic Template to each of them to fill out.

Then, after the template is completed, have the students freewrite for a few minutes on the narrowed topic that has evolved.

Evolving a Topic Exercise Student Instructions

As a class, we just helped to evolve a general topic for the Literacy Essay into a more focused one that will be more managable for the writer, as well as being relevant to the purpose of the essay. Now, on the Evolving Topic Template I will be handing out, work on narrowing your own topic by trying to answer the questions shown and filling in the blanks.

Topic Template Handout

EVOLUTION OF A TOPIC

Task

My Idea

Questions to Ask Myself

My possible topic

 

(What experiences have I had with language?)

Too broad--list types

 

(How might I break this down into types of dialects? What dialects do I know?)

Still too broad-- Make selection.

 

(Which of these interests me most? Which one do I have the most personal connection with?)

Define/list types

 

(What are the different kinds of New England accents that I can think of?)

Still too broad/ Make selection

 

(Which one do I have the most personal connection to? Which one might be the most interesting?)

Define/List components

 

(What makes up Vermontese?)

What do these indicate?

 

(Make historical/social connections--source, cause/effect.)

OR: How do I feel about this? What is my connection?

 

(Make personal connections.)

Other connections I can bring in?

(Make comparison/contrasts.)

Where do I see a contradiction?

 

(How does this contradict some other idea I have?)

 

Possible thesis/themes:

 

 

 

  

OR

 

OR

  

Topic Sample

EVOLUTION OF A TOPIC

Task

My Idea

Questions to Ask Myself

My possible topic

Regional Dialects

(What experience have I had with language?)

Too broad -- list types

New Englander, New Yorker, Coloradoan

(How might I break this down into types of dialects? What dialects do I know?)

Still too broad -- Make selection

New Englander

(Which of these interests me most? Which one do I have the most personal connection with?)

Define/list types

Mainiac vs. Vermontese, Bostonians

(What are the different kinds of New England accents that I can think of?)

Still too broad/Make selection

Vermontese

(Which one do I have the most personal connection to? Which one might be the most interesting?)

Define/List

Ayuh, dropping the "R" and "ing"

(What makes up Vermontese?)

What do these indicate?

The English Influence on Vermontese

(Make historical/social connections -- source, cause/effect)

OR: How do I feel about this? What is my connection?

Proud to be a Vermonter

(Make personal connections.)

Other connections I can bring in?

The Vermonter in Me vs. The Coloradoan

(Make comparison/contrasts.)

Where do I see a contradiction?

Why don't I feel I have an accent but others say I do?

(How does this contradict some other idea I have?)

Possible thesis/themes:

Vermontese has been influenced by the English dialect brought over by many of the early settlers.

 

OR I am proud to be a Vermonter and you can tell by my Ayuh. How language reveals our culture.

 

OR When in Vermont I find myself using Vermontese and in Colorado I use Coloradoan -- how we adapt our language to different communities.

Suggested Readings

Below is a list of texts that would be appropriate to hand out to your students, plus texts available for teachers.

Readings from The Prentice Hall Guide for College Writers

Chapter Four, "Remembering," should be assigned background reading for your students.

Remembering Techniques

Student Readings from Other Sources

  • Donald, Robert B. et al. Writing Clear Essays, Third Edition. Prentice Hall: Upper Saddle River, NJ, 1996. 4-5.
    A brief overview of brainstorming, freewriting, and journal keeping the collecting techniques. Basic level of writing.
  • Reinking, James A., Andrew W. Hart, and Robert Von Der Osten. Strategies for Successful Writing: A Rhetoric, Research Guide, and Reader, Fourth Edition. Prentice Hall: Upper Saddle River, NJ, 1996. 12-20.
    Discusses strategies for finding a topic. Gives exercises and examples of brainstorming, freewriting, journaling, and sorting. Discusses link between audience and purpose and selecting a topic.

    Teacher Readings from Other Sources

  • Connors, Robert, and Cheryl Glenn. The St. Martin's Guide to Teaching Writing, 2nd Edition. New York: St. Martin's, 1992.
    Provides an overview of teaching composition. Highlights the process of composition, including topic generation and focus.
  • Elbow, Peter. Writing With Power. New York: Oxford UP, 1981.
    Discusses freewriting as a means of generating topics.
  • Elbow, Peter. Writing Without Teachers. New York: Oxford UP, 1973.
    Discusses freewriting and other prewriting techniques that can help students to find their own topics.
  • Gebhardt, Richard C. "Initial Plans and Spontaneous Composition: Toward a Comprehensive Theory of the Writing Process." CE 44 (1982): 620-27.

  • Lunsford, Andrea. "An Update of the Bibliography on Basic Writing." Teaching Composition: Twelve Bibliographical Essays. Gary Tate, Ed. Texas Christian University: Fort Worth, 1987. 207-226.
    Provides an updated bibliography to texts on basic writing including helping students get started. Briefly discusses recent issues of teaching basic writing.
  • Shaughnessy, Mina P. "Basic Writing." Teaching Composition: Twelve Bibliographical Essays. Gary Tate, Ed. Texas Christian University: Fort Worth, 1987. 177-206.
    A bibliography to texts on basic writing including helping students get started. Briefly discusses recent issues of teaching basic writing.