The Perennial Question: How Do I Teach Writing?
"How do I teach writing?"
This is the question new college instructors always ask during their crash course on teaching in the humanities. I've led the introductory workshop for new teachers nearly every semester for the past five years at UC Berkeley, and this concern never fails to surface. In the scant four hours we have to discuss issues ranging from how to lead discussion sections to time management, it's a challenge to train every graduate student in the nuances of teaching and responding to undergraduate writing. This is especially true since even veteran teachers don't necessarily have it all figured out either. With what little time we have, I always share some tried-and-true strategies for helping students improve their writing, like prompting students to reflect on the writing process and sandwiching critical comments between positive ones. This fall, I have a new tool to share: WriteLab.
When I tried WriteLab for the first time, I gasped, "This is going to change everything!" I could hardly believe what I saw: suggestions at the level of the line that provided more than a grammar check and actually prompted thinking about writing. WriteLab picks up on many of the same issues I note while reading a student paper (and then some!), and the magic is that the algorithms do the heavy lifting. Not only does WriteLab identify areas for improvement, but it also encourages revision. The program generates comments more efficiently and phrases them more constructively than I could after responding to 35 essays in three days and consuming what feels like as many cups of coffee. What's more, the program helps students take control of their own writing. Students choose whether or not they want to make changes based on WriteLab's comments, and they determine when a draft is ready to be read. WriteLab is nothing short of a revelation, an answer to the prayers of every new college instructor.
After I started using WriteLab in my classroom, I was so impressed by the program that I've since joined the team as a consultant to help design instructional tools and materials. Yes, that's right – the program doesn't just support student writing; it also helps you teach more effectively. The Instructor's Dashboard helps you integrate WriteLab into your classroom, organize your students' work, and use analytics to make data-driven instructional choices. WriteLab's note-taking system gives students opportunities to communicate concerns about their writing and prepare for more productive office hours appointments. Exciting new features are in the works too, like an Essay Builder that prompts students to specify connections between ideas as they brainstorm. Add the Guide into the mix, and you might think of WriteLab as a one-stop-shop for your writing instruction needs.
If you're anything like me – that is, skeptical about what's touted as the "latest and greatest" educational tool – then you'll appreciate the fact that WriteLab is made by teachers. Many of the folks on our team have teaching experience, so we understand the importance of strong pedagogy and embed it in every aspect of the program. We know that machine learning is only as effective as the instructors and students who adopt it. We also know that the craft of teaching calls for reflection and change, and we listen closely to student and instructor feedback to make WriteLab an even better tool. While there are no easy answers to the question of how to teach writing, I can say with confidence that WriteLab has earned an enduring place in my teaching playbook.