Thursday, October 11, 2012

About Riddles

Across several semesters and levels of instruction (remedial, developmental, and mainstream freshman composition; sophomore-level genre writing), I have used riddles as a teaching device.  What I have tended to do is take riddles, either pre-existing as from the Exeter book or generated by me, and embed proofreading errors of the sorts I see in student papers into them.  The riddles, thus adjusted, are given to the students, who are directed to do three things with them:
  1. Proofread the text of the riddle, either via proofreader's marks or a corrected re-writing, so as to make it conform to the standards of edited academic American English as defined in the grammar handbooks included in the standard course textbooks.  Students are encouraged to make use of the reference guides to aid them in making the corrections.
  2. Offer a solution to the riddle.  Students are told that the "correctness" of the answer is not so important as what happens with whatever answer is given in the next part of the assignment.
  3. Explain how the solution to the riddle they provide fits all of the clues given in the text.  Even if the answer is not the "right" one, a sound explanation of how the evidence in the text supports the answer provided is appreciated.
I tend to take the work the students do on the riddles as quiz grades, and I tell the students truthfully that I only actually grade parts 1 and 3 of the assignment.  That is, I am interested in how well they proofread and how well they deploy evidence to support their ideas.  In doing so, I offer the students practice with the surface-level concerns that need addressing (partly for mutual intelligibility, partly because of institutional concerns in several of the classes) as well as the kind of argumentation that their writing in the classroom and critical engagement with the rest of their lives will require.  In brief, the riddles give the students the opportunity to practice many of the things that a writing class is supposed to teach, particularly as the curriculum at my current institution figures writing classes.

In past terms, students have tended to struggle with the work early in the semester, but improve throughout the term, until by the end of the course, they are doing fairly decently--and they appear to be deploying the skills so practiced in their more formal assignments.  I have therefore viewed my use of riddles as a successful teaching practice, and have continued to do it.

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