Using YouTube comments, tweets and IMs to teach English composition

College English teacher Andy Selsberg describes how he has been working vernacular, Internet-era composition assignments into his syllabus, assigning good tweets and YouTube comments alongside the traditional five-paragraph essay. I love the idea of asking students to think carefully and critically about their everyday writing: bringing critical faculties to bear on the writing you do all the time gets you thinking all the time about the quality of your communications, whereas reserving critical thought for the rare school assignment suggests that good writing is something best reserved for special occasions.

Contemporary society is firmly literate and literary: much of the casual communications that were once spoken are now committed to text. Equipping students to be clear and expressive in these modes is every bit as important as teaching them to write inverted pyramid essays.


So a few years ago, I started slipping my classes short writing assignments alongside the required papers. Once, I asked them, "Come up with two lines of copy to sell something you're wearing now on eBay." The mix of commerce and fashion stirred interest, and despite having 30 students in each class, I could give everyone serious individual attention. For another project, I asked them to describe the essence of the chalkboard in one or two sentences. One student wrote, "A chalkboard is a lot like memory: often jumbled, unorganized and sloppy. Even after it's erased, there are traces of everything that's been written on it."

This was great, but I want to go shorter. Like many who teach, I keep thinking the perfect syllabus is a semester away -- with just a few tweaks, and maybe a total pedagogical overhaul. My ideal composition class would include assignments like "Write coherent and original comments for five YouTube videos, quickly telling us why surprised kittens or unconventional wedding dances resonate with millions," and "Write Amazon reviews, including a bit of summary, insight and analysis, for three canonical works we read this semester (points off for gratuitous modern argot and emoticons)."

Teaching to the Text Message

(via Beth Pratt)

(Image: XKCD: YouTube)