Composition Theory and Practice

— English 481 / University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign / spring 2017
— 11-11:50 a.m. / Monday, Wednesday, Friday / Room 123 English Building
— instructor: Spencer Schaffner, Associate Professor of English
— email:
— office hours: 10-11:00 a.m. MWF and by appointment, 310 English Building
— online version of this syllabus: click "teach" @

Teaching writing is always labor intensive, often challenging, and occasionally terrifying. In this course, we will explore a core set of questions that inform the teaching of writing in grades K-12: Why teach writing? What is academic writing good for? Is there such a thing as good writing? Do effective writers have power in contemporary society? Do writing pedagogies privilege certain people? This course is designed with future language arts teachers in mind, so you'll complete the class ready to do such things as: design compelling assignments that challenge your students, respond effectively to student writing, create thoughtful writing assignments, support various forms of multimodal writing, and work with writers who challenge what you know and how you think. Students who take this class should be prepared to question how you were taught to write in school. Students should also be prepared to write in new ways.

Readings for this course are available online and linked via the course calendar.

Students are responsible for bringing printed versions of readings all readings to class on the day each reading is discussed.

projects and grades

— class participation (20% of your final grade)
— reading response papers and other short assignments (20% of your final grade)
— five-paragraph essay on the five-paragraph essay (20% of your final grade; proposal due February 24th; project due March 3rd)
— mid-term exam, cheat sheets, and reflective response (20% of your final grade; exam and cheat sheets due March 15th; reflective response due March 17th)
— final project: portfolio of lessons/activities with connecting rationale (20% of your final grade; due May 3rd)

A+ = 97-100 points
A = 93-96 points
A- = 90-92 points
B+ = 87-99 points
B = 83-86 points
B- = 80-82 points
C+ = 77-79 points
C = 73-76 points
C- = 70-72 points
D+ = 67-69 points
D = 63-66 points
D- = 60-62 points
F = 0-59 points

Contact LAS Student Academic Affairs if you feel you need an I (incomplete) grade.


To obtain disability-related academic adjustments and/or auxiliary aids, students with disabilities must contact the course instructor and the Disability Resources and Educational Services (DRES) as soon as possible. To contact DRES you may visit 1207 S. Oak St., Champaign, call 333-4603 (V/TTY), or e-mail a message to

class participation

Students are responsible for active and respectful participation. In-class participation includes such things as attending, arriving on time, making thoughtful comments in class that demonstrate your knowledge of the course readings, engaging in active and productive participation in group work, and completing all informal assignments. If you come to class and are otherwise engaged (doing other work, texting, IMing, or otherwise online), you are not participating. As the student code makes clear, excused absences only include documented events relating to illness, religion, or volunteering as an emergency worker. Attendance has a strong impact on your participation grade: You can miss 2 classes and still possibly earn an A- grade for participation. You can miss 4 classes and still possibly earn a B- grade for participation. You can miss 6 classes and still possibly earn a C- grade for participation. You can miss 8 classes and still possibly earn a D- grade for participation. If you miss more than 8 classes, you'll likely earn an F grade for participation. For information on excused absences, see the student code:

late and missed work

Un-arranged and un-excused late work will drop one grade very 24-hours it is late. If you turn something in right after class, it drops one grade. If you turn something in 23 hours after class, it drops one grade. This means you have 4 days (96 hours) after a class meets to turn in late work for possible credit.

technology in the classroom

Using a smart phone, tablet, or laptop in class for non-class business is discouraged and will affect your participation grade.

academic integrity

For a clear description of what constitutes plagiarism at the University of Illinois, see UIUC's student code:

Students found to have committed blatant academic infractions (such as plagiarism) will fail the course and have a written notice of warning with documenting evidence sent to the college in which the student is enrolled and to the Senate Committee on Student Discipline.


Course Calendar (subject to change)

Week 1: Introductions and the Halo Effect

Wednesday, January 18
— introductions
— discussion: Who were our high-school writing teachers? How and why will we teach writing in schools?
— overview of the class

Friday, January 20
— read for today: three online articles of your choice about "the halo effect" (bookmark the articles so we can talk about them in class)
— come to class prepared to think and discuss how there might be a halo effect in place for teachers of writing (in relation to students)
— discuss handwritten student test samples (provided in class)

Week 2: Literacy in Crisis?

Monday, January 23
— read for today and bring to class: Newsweek article "Why Johnny Can't Write" @
— watch for today: "Kids Can't Write" video @
— peruse various undergraduate writing requirements @
— read for today and bring to class: "Seven Myths about Literacy in the United States" @

Wednesday, January 25
— in-class activity: major theories of composition
— in class, we'll look at samples of 7th-grade student writing @
— What do we know about these students from their writing?
— What do these students need to learn?
— How are we going to teach these students?

Friday, January 27
— in-class lesson development workshop: In class, we'll work to develop lessons that 1) utilize writing in video, to 2) get students thinking about technology and writing in relation to 3) some real or imagined literacy crisis (lessons due at the end of class)
— reading response paper on Ro.wling chapter assigned (non-dominant hand)

Week 3: Writing, Shame, and Punishment

Monday, January 30
— read and bring a copy to class for today: R.owling chapter "Detention with Dolores" from Ha.rry and the Or.der of the Pho.enix @
— activity: how to teach this chapter and have students learn about writing
— discussion: a brief history of various forms of writing as punishment in schools
— read for today: NCTE Resolution on the Use of Writing as Punishment @
— DUE: reading response paper

Wednesday, February 1
— read and bring a copy to class for today: Franz Kafka's "In the Penal Colony" @
— activity: how to teach this short story and have students learn about writing
— discussion: uses of reflective writing as punishment in schools (restorative justice)

Friday, February 3
— discussion about writing-based punishments outside of the classroom
— in-class lesson development workshop: In class, we'll work to develop lessons that get students thinking about what writing is thought to be capable of since it's used for punishment and shame

Week 4: Writing Process(es)

Monday, February 6
— watch two videos before today's class:
1. illustrated writing process:
2. Seinfeld on writing a joke:
— workshop: our illustrated writing process(es)

Wednesday, February 8
— activity: relationships between process and responding to student writing
— overview: principles of distributed activity, minimal response, response at the point of need
— practice responding to student texts

Friday, February 10
— in-class lesson development workshop: In class, we'll develop activities and assignments that get students thinking critically about writing processes vs. "the writing process"
— response assigned

Week 5: Error and Correctness

Monday, February 13
— READ FOR TODAY: Joseph Williams "The Phenomenology of Error," online at
— DUE TODAY: response on Williams
— discussion of Williams
— Activity: responding to error, ignoring error, working with error, reimagining error

Wednesday, February 15
— Read for today: two or three online articles (your choice) about "standard language ideology"
— Discussion: our linguistic pet peeves
— Discussion: errors and imperfections in your own writing (as a student, as a teacher)

Friday, February 17
— In-class lesson development workshop: In class, we'll work to develop lessons that 1) get students thinking about standard language ideology, 2) encourage innovative, new kinds of composition, 3) focus on one common "error" productively, getting students thinking critically about language
— Homework assigned: find a rigid, formulaic genre and bring a sample to class (Monday)

Week 6: The Five-Paragraph Essay and Formulaic Writing

Monday, February 20
— DUE: discussion of the rigid, formulaic genres you selected
— activity: defining "the" five-paragraph essay; our experiences with the form
— the Jane Schaffer paragraph (TS, CD, CM, CM, CS) => see Wikipedia for details
— discussion: other formulas for writing in everyday life

Wednesday, February 22
— read and bring to class for today: Mark Wiley "The Popularity of Formulaic Writing (And Why We Need to Resist)," online at
— read for today: Kimberly Wesley "The Ill Effects of the Five Paragraph Theme," online at
— project assigned today in class: five-paragraph essay about the five-paragraph essay
— note: proposals due Friday

Friday, February 24
— in-class lesson development workshop: In class, we'll work to develop lessons that utilize strict, templated writing to get students thinking about forms, limitations, and creativity in their writing
— 1-page proposal due today: your plan for the meta five-paragraph essay project
— proposal discussion
— for Monday: find examples of students filming their language arts teachers and posting videos to YouTube

Week 7: Cell Phone Literacies

Monday, February 27
— discussion of videos of Language Arts teachers
— read three different high-school cell phone policies (your choice; find them online)
— read for today: Ben Johnson, "How to Manage Cell Phones in the Classroom," online at
— discussion topics: How do students really use their phones? (massive group chats, Snapchat communication, everything Instagram, etc.) ... Is this valuable?

Wednesday, March 1
— peruse for today: cell-phone videos tagged "angry teacher" on YouTube; online articles tagged "expelled," "student," and "cell phone"
— peruse before class for discussion: examples of autocorrected chat via cell phones
— in-class debate: the virtues vs. the perils of cell-phone composition

Friday, March 3
— project due today: five-paragraph essay on the five-paragraph essay
— peer feedback session
— in-class lesson development workshop: In class, we'll work to develop lessons and activities that use student's cell phones and push them to think critically about phones as complex, powerful tools with particular affordances

Week 8: Deviant Literacies

Monday, March 6
— for today: Examine examples of phishing at
— discussion of phishing examples: Is good phishing good writing? Should we teach students to phish? How do you judge "good" phishing? Is all good writing a scam?
— cheating midterm exam described today (preview next Monday)
— for Wednesday: Think about what makes a good cheat sheet?

Wednesday, March 8
— discussion of cheat sheets and cheating
— read and bring to class for today: Engeström article (focusing on pp. 18-22), online at
— discussion: Have you ever been cheated? What are the ethics of cheating? Who's cheating who on an exam requiring rote memorization? Who's cheating who on standardized tests?

Friday, March 10
— discussion of other deviant writing forms: forced tattooing, micro-prison writing, drunk shaming, and restroom graffiti
— in-class lesson development workshop: In class, we'll work to develop lessons that get students to explore "writing on the edge" in terms of 1) the tension between how this kind of writing is and isn't governed by rules (lessons due at the end of class), and 2) why people participate in it

Week 9: Cheating as Literate Activity

Monday, March 13
— in-class preview of mid-term cheating exam
— class time to brainstorm and study (in groups) for the exam
— discussion: What is a just response to plagiarism in writing classes?
— avoiding plagiarism with assignment design and process pedagogy

Wednesday, March 15
— in class, Cheating Midterm Examâ„¢ today in class
— short reflective essay (2 pages max) assigned at the end of class

Friday, March 17
class does not meet today; Spencer at a conference in Portland
— short reflective essays due via email to spencer by the beginning of the class period

*** S P R I N G B R E A K ***

Week 10: Writing, Salvation, and Big Ideas

Monday, March 27
— discussion: reflective essays and the cheating midterm

— read and bring to class for today: Peg Tyre's "The Writing Revolution" @
— read and bring to class for today: "Reading, Writing, and Farming" @
— discussion: writing, saving students, saving schools
— final project and connecting rationale described, discussed, and assigned

Wednesday, March 29
— watch for today: animated version of "Do Schools Kill Creativity?" @
— watch for today (while considering the question "Can I create environments for my students to create big ideas?") "Where Ideas Come From" @
— discussion question: Can a language arts classroom be designed to produce something other than disposable writing?

Friday, March 31
— in-class development workshop: Develop concrete plans and ideas that will help you rethink the Language Arts classroom, shifting from a place where things get written to be thrown away and making it into a creativity and idea-generation space
— if we have time: start work on the comic script for Monday (8-16 panels)

Week 11: Reading and Writing Comics

Monday, April 3
— overview of the varieties of comic forms currently in print
— in-class activity on reading comics: text, image, & panel (in Blankets, provided in class)
— read and bring to class for today: Gene Yang "Graphic Novels in the Classroom" @
— due today: short script (8-16 panels) on your thoughts about teaching comics
— peer-review workshop on comic scripts

Wednesday, April 5
— in-class activity: making mini-comics
— discussion: comics and writing in the language arts classroom

Friday, April 7
— in-class lesson development workshop: In class, we'll work to develop lessons that get students 1) writing about comics, 2) making comics, and 3) thinking critically about cultural assumptions ("high" vs. "low") about different forms of literature
— response paper assigned: your very personal reaction to Miller

Week 12: Personal Writing, Voice, and Confrontation

Monday, April 10
— read for today and bring to class: Miller "Fault Lines in the Contact Zone" @
— response paper due: a very personal reaction to Miller, preferably in your own voice
— worksheet on various forms of unsolicited oppositional discourse (in the classroom)
— discussion: cultural assumptions in the "What did you do on summer vacation?" essay
— discussion of voice, authenticity, personal writing, and writing personas

Wednesday, April 12
— peruse and consider today's discussion: examples of linguistic autobiographies (your choice; search the web)
— brainstorm in class today: having students create auto-ethnographic photo essays

Friday, April 14
— discussion on effective writing prompts (scaffolded, challenging, unique, fun, etc.)
— in-class prompt development workshop: develop a set of writing prompts that ask for personal writing / autoethnography of some kind, but do so critically and with consideration of the possible problems associated with this kind of composition

Week 13: Practical Strategies

Monday, April 17
— read and bring to class for today: NCTE "Professional Knowledge for the Teaching of Writing" @
— discussion of the first half of the NCTE statement
— time to work on final projects and rationales

Wednesday, April 19
— discussion of NCTE statement continued
— group work: defining and justifying core practices

Friday, April 21
— discussion: different models for group work
— in-class lesson development workshop: In groups, we'll work to design 1) group writing assignments, that 2) address the concerns highlighted in the NCTE statement

Week 14: Practical Strategies

Monday, April 24
— in class today, we will examine the Common Core (grades 9-10) writing guidelines at
— discussion: returning to writing samples from earlier in the semester and thinking about common core guidelines
— group work: develop practical strategies teaching students to "use technology, including the Internet, to produce, publish, and update individual or shared writing products" ... if you don't have computers

Wednesday, April 26
— peer development workshop: bring your portfolios of lessons and activities (for the final project)
— discussion of best lessons and activities

Friday, April 28
— come to class prepared to discuss and work on your final project

Week 15: Returning to the Halo Effect

Monday, May 1
— Halo effect activity, the sequel
— course evaluations

Wednesday, May 3: Last Day of Class
— DUE: final draft of final project due
— wrap-up discussion