Talking topics online
I typically ask students to submit topics to a message board with a prompt that looks something like this (the project topic below asked for a rhetorical analysis of the message of a person who influenced them):
Conversation about Project 1 topics
I am a big, big believer in using writing to discover ideas and learn.
I want each of you to post here at least one potential idea for Project 1 by Wednesday (see the Weekly Plan). This counts as a primary post. Some of you will want to build on your strong question posts from last week. Your post should fill out your idea as much as you can, including by asking some provocative questions. You might also describe the sources or evidence you might use.
Obviously, we can all help you a lot more if you give us something to work with.
That's right, "we."
After you post your idea(s), I want you to review at LEAST one of your colleagues' topics and give that person some feedback. You might address some of the following questions:
1) Is the rhetorical situation clear? Are the purpose, audience, and theme of the project clear?
2) Does the writer seem clear about focusing enough on the analysis of their interactions, or does the project seem mainly about the person who influenced them?
3) Can you think of ways to organize the project to increase its potential impact?
4) Would you like to write this (or a piece like it)? If not, why? (Answer this in a way that is helpful to the writer.)
5) Can you suggest any source material from our texts? What primary evidence might the writer use? How about any other sources?
Your suggestions can be succinct, but, basically, try to help each other out. Your response counts as a secondary post, and that should be posted by Friday.
Let's see what you've got in mind,
Now, I have to tell you that during topic week I really earn my keep as a writing teacher, as I comment extensively on each topic proposed, incorporating the responses from other students in my comments. I then write up a summary post of commonalities I see in their projects.
It's worth it, though, as they do amazing work on these topic threads. The students get a great deal out of what are basically peer review conversations about their writing topics. They have time to think through the topic in earnest and bolster each other, sometimes by making personal connections about a topic. They can ask questions. They often suggest specific sources or even organizational strategies. They can have their collective game raised by seeing what their peers are doing (my students regularly re-think simplistic topics after seeing their peers' topics). Because students are proposing topics not just to me but to the whole class, they may be more inclined to think through carefully for this broader audience what they have to say. And when they are way off-base on a topic, other students often point that out, so I'm not seen as the squasher of their ideas.
Overall, they work together, and they learn in the process that they have some smart, helpful colleagues.
I should run an experiment one term in which I don't handle topics on the forums in one class but do in another; I believe there would be a noticeable difference in the quality of the final projects. But, alas, in my "do no harm" approach to teaching, I feel that in such an experiment I would be doing the "control" group a tremendous disservice.
Pedagogically, I hope to send a clear message with this approach: At the crucial stage of invention, you should get some input about where you are. Your project will be better, and your learning experience richer, because of that conversation.