Commonplace Books in First-Year Writing

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Since 2010, writing courses at the University of Mississippi have used ePortfolios as a tool to teach reflection, revision, and transfer of knowledge. In 2015, the ePortfolio Task Force was tasked with studying the curriculum and the platform used for ePortfolios in the DWR and make recommendations about how they both could be improved.

The result of that self-study was the development of the concept of the Commonplace Book, which replaces the ePortfolio assignment beginning in Fall 2016. Commonplace Book pedagogy asks students to engage in frequent, diverse, and sustained reflection over the course of the first-year writing experience. Students use their Commonplace Books as a space to collect and unpack ideas (instead of artifacts). Through the different types of composition in the Commonplace Book, students will develop a more sophisticated understanding of what it means to be an academic writer and they will cultivate an “academic identity” as they move beyond their general education experience.

The Commonplace Book assignment is based on three core principles:

  1. The definition of a Commonplace Book: “a book into which notable extracts from other works are copied for personal use” (An important element in this definition is that not everything is collected, just what the writer of the commonplace book deems most notable.)
  2. The DWR program objective of reflection: “Reflection is a major component of the first-year writing sequence . . . . Reflection, or the ability to independently assess one’s status in relationship to a learning experience, is bound up with the act of writing. Furthermore, the ability to self-reflect is an increasingly essential skill as the process of higher education becomes more and more heterogeneous and fragmented . . . .” (The important element here is that the emphasis is on reflecting on learning not practicing composition, although, of course, the act of creating the commonplace book is practicing composition.)
  3. The big-picture objective “to give students raw material from which to generate their vision of the academy.” (The important element here is that students begin to create a structure or system for their vision of learning.)

Using those principles as context, faculty working on this project defined the objectives for the commonplace book project as offering students:

  1. the space to collect the ideas and artifacts they consider to be most valuable to their learning
  2. the opportunity to reflect on what they have collected in order to make sense of their own learning
  3. the opportunity to devise a structure for articulating that learning as they begin to generate their vision of the academy

Thus, the commonplace book is framed by a series of four practices:

  1. daily reflection through which the student identifies and collects the most important one or two concepts/strategies/practices from each class session (1-2 minutes per class)
  2. weekly reflection through which the student collects the most important artifacts (i.e., a passage from an NYT article, a peer review, a progymnasmata exercise, a comment from a writing conference, a rhetorical situation from another class, etc.) from each week with just a brief notation or comment as to why it was saved (5-10 minutes from one class each week)
  3. unit reflection, developed from the DWR eportfolio unit reflection assignments (one class period extending into homework if necessary)
  4. end of semester tagging and explanation of tagging through which the student develops categories to articulate and systematize major concepts and strategies that are the building blocks of his/her vision of the academy (two weeks)
In Spring 2016, we sat down with students and an instructor who participated in the Commonplace Book pilot program. This video includes their insights and reflections on the project.

Pedagogy and Rationale

The Commonplace Book is situated with the CCCC Position Statement on the Principles and Practices in Electronic Portfolios:
Principle #6: Integration and Curriculum Connections Students link artifacts in a flexible structure that (1) synthesizes diverse evidence and ideas, (2) invites linear or non-linear ways to read and evaluate e-portfolios, and (3) makes connections to portfolio-related evidence and relationships distributed across the Internet. Students may therefore use linking to represent how e-portfolio artifacts inter-relate with other courses in the larger context of whole-curriculum learning.

Why a commonplace book?

The commonplace book integrates the role of ePortfolio into the daily and weekly coursework of WRIT 100/101 as well as providing an opportunity for students to identify and articulate connections among ePortfolio artifacts. Like the standard WRIT 100/101 ePortfolio, this project incorporates unit reflections on major projects, but the commonplace book expands the scope of the ePortfolio to include daily quickwrites and weekly classical rhetorical exercises. In this way, the project becomes an ongoing “writer’s gym” or “writer’s workbook” that students access every class period. In daily quickwrites, students respond for 1-2 minutes to a creative or reflective prompt. In weekly progymnasmata, students complete sequenced exercises focusing on specific rhetorical strategies. In the final two weeks of the semester, students create categories that articulate their learning and tag each entry in the commonplace book with one or more of those categories, using the tags to identify connections among the diverse artifacts.

Commonplace Books and Blogging

The electronic space that most closely mirrors the classical commonplace book is a blog. Blogs are ultimately organized chronologically, the same way that a bound commonplace notebook would be, but the added classification features of categories and tags allow for dynamic organization of compositions. Commonplace as Blog also encourages student agency and ownership of design, organization, and purpose in physical terms as well as in conceptual terms. Another useful comparison is Commonplace as Pinterest for text. Though the visual design metaphor for Pinterest is less applicable, the notion that users construct meaning, set goals, and work through problems on the Pinterest platform is similar to what we are asking them to do in the Commonplace.

Teacher Testimonials

Below we share words of advice, reflection, and encouragement from the teachers who piloted the commonplace book curriculum in 2016.  

Daily Writes: The Road is Long with Many a Winding Turn (Karen Forgette)

The Bowling Green State University Center for Teaching and Learning has a great handout on teaching students to reflect. That handout provides a list of bullet points delineating the hallmarks of good reflection, including:
  • Evidence of serious thinking and questioning
  • Self-awareness and honesty
  • Concrete and specific examples
  • The ability to show relationships between prior and new knowledge
When I see evidence of these hallmarks in my students’ commonplace books, I know they are moving into reflection territory. However, they journey through a lot of barren, flat landscape before reaching the Promised Land. Reflection, like all ways of knowing or habits of mind, takes practice and time.

Exhibit A

One of the reasons the DWR shifted from the ePortfolio model to the Commonplace Book model was to give students more opportunities to practice reflection. The daily writes are an integral part of that practice. Early daily writes tend to be summaries of class, like this one:
Today in our group discussions on The New York Times, I learned how other people maneuver the page and find articles that interested them. The other students that were in my group said that they decided on their topic mainly by what was appearing more frequently on the home page. My group also liked to write about things that dealt with them, including their religious beliefs or their home town.
This student is giving reflection a shot. He is describing what we did in class that day and trying to frame it within the larger context of his learning, but mostly, he’s just recapping what he did. But that was September. By November, here’s what that same student’s daily writes looked like:
Today in class we had to listen to several other multimodal projects. I can honestly say that after listening to about fifteen seconds of other pieces, I could tell how awful mine truly was. Once again I was witness to the writing rule that your first draft is pretty much absolute crap and so are the next five or six tries. I also learned that I wrote my script filled with evidence, which would be great if my audience were forty five year old high school teachers that desperately want to see evidence. Sadly, that's not my audience. I learned that I have to make this script more interesting, and can possibly do so by taking away some facts and evidence and putting them into the project visually instead of audibly. I can guarantee that two days from now my script will be nothing like it is now.
Here the student moves beyond summarizing what happened in class to analyzing what he learned in class and considering how that learning fits into the larger scheme of his writing knowledge. He links his prior learning (writing is a process, audience awareness) with his current practice and devises a plan for improving his project. In terms of the hallmarks of good reflection, he takes his learning seriously, demonstrates self-awareness, provides concrete examples, and establishes connections.

The Takeaway

So how did he get there? He practiced (daily writes, weekly writes, and unit reflections). He paid attention to feedback (mine, his classmates’, models of good reflection, and his own consideration of his commonplace book). He took ownership. By recording and thinking about what he was learning, he started to build his own intellectual framework for how he operates as a writer. Reflection is a long and winding road, as this student’s work illustrates, but, as John Dewey said, “We do not learn from experience, we learn from reflecting on experience.” The more practice our students have in reflection, the more they will learn.

Taking Advantage of Ritualistic Reflection – A Comment on Daily Writes (Amber Nichols-Buckley)

I am a Writing Project teacher. So beginning class with a writing prompt has always been a natural part of my pedagogy. Since most of my teaching experience has been at the high school level, I’ve always had ample time for daily writing. But shifting to a college composition course with three 50-minute classes per week made it more and more difficult to get that daily writing done. Enter the 2014-15 academic year and my work on the commonplace book pilot. When I started using the commonplace book last year, I wasn’t sure what the end result should really be. I knew I wanted to be a part of the pilot because it emphasized the importance of frequent reflection, and my hope was that students would reflect more authentically than I had seen them do previously. I also felt that the daily write portion of the commonplace book would force me to make time for reflection, which is essential to our students’ growth as writers, sure, but more importantly, as academics. I realized quickly, though, that reflection is a difficult concept for our novice writers. And I realized that I struggled to teach it. Many daily writes seemed shallow, and a part of this was that students were rushed to finish them. In a 50-minute course, expect that most daily writes will be 3-5 minutes max. And expect that some days, you just won’t fit it in at all. To help combat some of these issues, I brought it to the table at one of our pilot meetings. Karen Forgette shared some reflection terms from Kathy Yancey that truly resonated with me. Those are: Reflection in Action, Constructive Reflection, and Reflection for Presentation (you can read more about this in her e-book). I realized pretty quickly that daily writes are very much “Reflection in Action,” which is loosely defined as composition that is written as an explanation to others for the purpose of understanding an event better ourselves. Daily writes are, at their core, “summaries” of the day. Often, I would prompt students to write about where they were in their process. Here is an example student response:
“I have no process at the moment. Right now I am just trying to get my life together. Something that I have been working on is preparing my mind mentally for this research paper. I am completely not even here today which is really unfortunate. But I think that I am going to do my paper on family dynamics. I was really into the essay about technology helping family relationships and not necessarily hurting them. I want to go somewhere in that direction.”
Sometimes, I would allow the daily write to be a venting sesh on what was going on in their worlds. We played with other prompts as well, such as “#hashtagtheclass” or “Today’s class got me like…” I would try to bring in common phrasing from social media because this helped students understand their audience for daily writes, which is ultimately themselves. Here are some favorite hashtags:
  • #todaywasreallyHELPFUL!
  • #thestruggleisreal
  • #needmorerhetoricalstrategies
  • #ethosgameonehunna
  • #shouldawrittenthat
  • #OhThatsDueToday?!?!
  • #PrayForAnA
  • #gottagetmyshitstraight
  • #workthatprocess
In fact, #workthatprocess became like a class motto for students last year, and “#hashtag the class” really became one of our favorite go-to prompts, especially when we were pressed for time. Not only do daily writes help students reflect as ritual, but they are so helpful for the teacher. I never realized how much I would come to depend on daily writes for my own formative assessment. I could tell when students “got it” or when they were utterly confused. I could tell when they felt overwhelmed. I understood when remediation was needed. In fact, on those days when I just couldn’t fit a daily write into the day, I missed them. I almost felt like, “How do I plan for the next class without a daily write?” Ultimately, the daily writes served as good mini-reflections that would end up feeding into stronger, more authentic reflections (weekly writes, sometimes…unit reflections…often, end of semester final reflections, definitely). And to be honest, students’ later daily writes were places where I feel like I saw the truest glimpses into their writing voices. I’m not sure if it was because the daily writes were so low-stakes (ungraded) or because they were so short. Whatever the reason, the daily writes proved integral to helping students enter a deeper layer of reflection, what Yancey calls “Constructive Reflection” (which is essentially reflecting on prior reflections…reflections that are cumulative in nature). Expect that, at first, students will be writing their daily writes for you more than anything. With time, as you get to know them better, and as they get to know each other better (and, God-willing, get to know themselves better), you will notice their daily writes becoming more personal and authentic. And you’ll see this feed into their larger reflections as well.

Commonplace Book: Expectations vs. Reality (Colleen Thorndike)

Daily Writes:

Be flexible with when you give the daily write prompt: you could start class with it by having them reflect on the previous class or on their homework; you could toss out the daily write prompt in the middle of class as they’re transitioning from one activity to another; and, of course, you can have them write it at the end. Changing up when they do the daily write keeps them on their toes and they are more likely to have quality posts. Don’t be afraid to get creative and have fun with the daily prompts. Some of my favorites have been silly ones. Here are three daily write prompts and examples from student blogs: PROMPT: What hashtag(s) would you use to describe today’s class and why?
#whenInDoubtWriteItOut I only had fragments of a working thesis and some scatterbrained paragraphs walking into today’s class and I decided to just “brain dump” my topic and it turned into a darn good working thesis. The power point helped a lot too, I will definitely be pulling up those slides when I’m working later.
PROMPT: 5 words to describe today’s class
  • Tiring
  • Helpful
  • Slightly irritating
  • Interesting
  • Insightful
PROMPT: Use pics/gifs to complete: This weather and the end of the semester got me like… 1 2 3 Each of these examples from different students’ blogs show different levels of reflection, but highlight student engagement with the Commonplace book space. The last example is not reflective of the class itself, but of the student’s mindset at the time (this was during a week of almost nonstop rain towards the end of the semester). This was a daily write I did because so many students were just tired and stressed and burnt out, so they needed a jolt of fun to snap out of the rain and end of the semester induced funk.

Overall blog

During the first meeting of the pilot group for this project, I had a few concerns about the commonplace book. It seemed really great and exciting, but I was worried about how students would react to it and my first thought was “How am I going to read and grade ALL of these things for FOUR classes?” It was an overwhelming task that I thought I would have to do every week. However, once the semester started and we met and discussed expectations of students and of instructors, we all began to realize that it would be nearly impossible to grade these daily and weekly writes and this reflective space isn’t about grades at all. It’s about letting students take ownership of their learning and work out how to write meaningful reflection. While I don’t grade each and every daily write and weekly write, I read through them fairly quickly each day---I think of the daily writes as a barometer for student understanding and progress. It’s a really wonderful way to assess what students are struggling with in a certain unit and when they really understand it, their posts show this. It’s best not to mention grades or points or anything when it comes to the Commonplace book until the end of the semester when they are doing the final reflection and reading back through to tag and organize their posts. By de-emphasizing grades/points when you talk about the Commonplace, students should stop obsessing about them. In the fall semester I had more students obsess and ask about points/grades with the Commonplace (in 100/101) than in the spring—by 102 they just accepted it as a weird thing they had to do everyday in class and that was it. My best advice for dealing with students who obsessively ask about how it will be graded or what their grade is on it, is to tell them that the grade is on the final product, but in order to have a final product they need to work on it all semester. Making them accountable for doing the daily and weekly writes is part of the process of the Commonplace. I was worried about students buying into this idea and doing all of these posts. Some students won’t do every post, a few will not do most posts, but the majority of students will post their daily writes without much grief. I’ve had more problems with students doing the weekly writes—they would forget about them since it was an out of class assignment. To combat this, I started doing Connect 10s once a week in class; I’d start class with a prompt asking students to make connections with something we had been working on in class and things outside of class—this could be how they write differently in different classes or coming up with a list of “writing rules”. I give students 10 minutes or so to write and then we spend some time talking about their responses before moving on to another class activity. Students have the option of adding to their posts later that day if they want or they can just post what they wrote in 10 minutes. These Connect 10s, which are based on James Lang’s Small Teaching ideas, changed weekly writes—students actually did them and they added great conversation and reflection to those class days. Most students find the Campuspress platform really easy to use—they just have to log in with their UM id and password and they immediately have a blog with a pre-set template. Then they just have to join your class (if you choose to run yours as a class blog—I highly recommend this). They can post easily—just clicking the + icon on their homepage. I add a link to the Campuspress log-in page to my class’s Blackboard page, just so that my students don’t have to remember the website or constantly ask me. It helps to walk them through the posting process a couple times, but they quickly get the hang of it. At the beginning of the semester, students may be confused about what goes on their blogs and what goes on Blackboard. I always tell my students that the blog is their space for their informal writing and Blackboard is for formal writing. I emphasize that informal writing is not graded and formal writing is graded. So the blog is reflections and informal posts and Blackboard is formal papers.

One Woman’s Perspective on the CPB (Jenny Jackson)

I adore the Commonplace Book, and if you were to mention the CPB to me in passing, you would be stuck listening to me sing its praises (seriously, feel free to ask me about it). The Wordpress platform is easy to navigate and use and the possibility for students to make their CPBs their own (through theme and design) within Wordpress is more than there. While there is so much to say about how useful and effective the Commonplace book has been for my classes the past two semesters as a space for collecting writing and reflecting upon their work and experiences both inside and outside of the writing classroom (and how useful I believe it will continue to be), what I want to emphasize here to instructors who are about to complete the CPB for the first time is that it can also be fun. Yes, actual fun in the writing classroom. Teacher fun and student fun! One of the best memories I have from class last semester was brought on by a CPB activity thought up collaboratively with my lovely teaching circle. The activity prompted students to make a list of “the top five ways to survive the end of the semester” using only GIFs and to post these lists to the class blog instead of their personal blogs. My students and I were cracking up at GIFs of dogs running in circles or babies making faces at their parents, whatever they found to represent their stress and stress-relief tactics. It was the perfect activity to break up the tension of the end of the semester and to remind students to breathe, laugh, and relate to each other. Yes, the CPB has proven to be to be a great space for students and classes to collect writing and reflection in an organized and manageable way. However, the CPB is also just fun to use and offers opportunities to shake the typical classroom goings-on up a little. That’s what I really love.
Curriculum committees are working to develop Commonplace Book assignments, activities, and materials for each of the first year courses. This content is distributed in the assignment libraries by major course unit. Below are links to major CPB assignment materials for each course.





DWR Commonplace Books make use of the Edblogs@UM platform. Edblogs is based on WordPress, so if you’ve kept a blog before, you’ll be very familiar with the interface. This page of the guide should address any technical concerns you have with using Commonplace Books in the classroom.

There are two ways to connect to your students' blogs. You may have students add you as a user to their sites and use WordPress Reader to access their posts or you may use the "My Class" plugin to centrally manage your students' sites. Instructions for both methods are below.

The Classes plugin connects you to student blogs in a teacher/students configuration. Even if you don't plan to maintain a class blog, you'll need to have one in order to use "My Class." Your default blog is located at "edblogs.olemiss.edu/MY-WEB-ID." Many teachers use their default blog as a class blog. (If your default blog is not set up for some reason, go to the EdBlogs Signup Page to create a new one). My Class > Create ClassTo activate your class blog, go to the dashboard of the site you want to use as your class blog (probably your default site) and click My Class and Create a Class.  On the Settings page, check the box next to This is a class blog. This will enable the rest of the settings and options for the Classes plugin. Here is an explanation of each one:
  • Allow students to post on the class blog: Only change this setting if you want to require students to post to your blog in addition to their own. Most teachers do not do this. If you decide to use the class blog in this way, you can decide whether you want to moderate student posts.
  • Moderation on student blogs: Most teachers leave these boxes unchecked. This function is primarily for K-12 teachers who use the Campus Press platform.
  • Privacy: Set student site privacy to Only registered users of this site can view it by default unless you have a specific justification for requiring public student blogs. The nature of the Commonplace Book assignment lends itself to private blogs.
  • Reader: Leave this option unchecked unless you want students in your class to have access to each other's posts. If you want to create peer review groups or reading pairs, adding individual users is a better option.
  • Teachers: If you are team teaching a course or want to invite another teacher to observe your class blog, you can add other users as Teachers.
  • Student Permissions: Check all the boxes to grant students full control over their sites. The Commonplace Book assignment is predicated on student ownership of the digital space, so there's no good reason to restrict access to WordPress core functions.
  • Default Blog Template: You can automatically assign the Commonplace Book template to new student blogs only if you use the Invite function or request a batch job to enable your class blog at the beginning of the semester.

Adding Student Blogs to the Class

Students can request to be added to your class blog by going to My Class > Join a Class from their WordPress dashboard (after they've created a site).

They should search for your class blog by entering just the last part of your class blog’s URL. For example, for edblogs.olemiss.edu/mysite, students will instead search for the last part of the URL. Using this example, they would search for mysite.

You can approve student join requests by clicking on My Class and selecting which students you want to approve.

You can have your class blog set up automatically through the Teaching Hub. We recommend waiting until week 2 before requesting an automatic setup to give your class roll a chance to stabilize.

You do not need a separate class blog to use Reader lists to read student Commonplace Books. This option does not use the Classes plugin and instead relies on WordPress's native subscription/user system.

 

Creating Reader Lists

Instead of pulling your class rolls from MyOleMiss, this time you'll pull them from Blackboard.

Go to the Full Grade Center in your Blackboard course. From the toolbar at the top of your gradebook, click "Work Offline" and select "Download."

On the "Download Grades" page under "Data," select "User Information Only." Leave the rest of the options the same, and click "Submit."

On the next screen, click "Download." You can save the file to your computer or open it directly in Excel. You will see the following warning message. Click Yes:

The spreadsheet will show the first and last names of the students in the section and their usernames. Click and drag to select all the usernames in your class, and copy them to your clipboard (Ctrl/Cmd + C).

Now, log in to Edblogs at edblogs.olemiss.edu. Go to your WordPress dashboard. You should see the Reader. Notice "My Lists" in the right sidebar.

Click "Create New List." You can name the list by section if you want to divide your reader by section. Or, if you want all your students combined, just name the list with the semester. Paste the usernames that you copied from the Excel spreadsheet into the box and click "Create."

You can now click on the list from your Reader to view only the student blogs from the named section or semester. You can manage the list by clicking the small sprocket next to its name. From the manage screen, you can add or remove student blogs or delete the list completely.

You can repeat this process for multiple sections if you keep your classes separated.

You may request that your class blog and student blogs be generated in batch or you may have students create blogs and join your class on their own. If you are not using My Class, Student instructions are available as a handout and on the student startup page of edblogs.olemiss.edu. If you are using My Class, follow the instructions under the "Classes" tab of this guide.
Use the links below to request various maintenance jobs on the UM EdBlogs network. Please allowed at least 24 hours for completion (more at the beginning and end of the semester). You will receive email confirmation when the requested job is complete.
If you want us to batch create your student blogs and activate your Class Blog in advance, please submit their Web IDs.

If you need to access a single (or small number of) student blogs, please submit their site names.

If you want to be added as a subscriber to your student sites without using the Classes plugin, please submit their Web IDs.

Readings on Reflection for Instructors

Start Here!

Yancey, Kathy. Reflection in the Writing Classroom. Utah: Utah State University Press, 1998
  • In this concise, readable book, Yancey explores the role of reflection in enhancing student learning in the writing classroom. Chapters on reflection-in-action, constructive reflection, and reflection-in-presentation detail the many ways reflection can be woven into writing courses and enhance student learning.
  • Full-text available at J.D. Williams and online through Utah State University Digital Commons.

Available in J.D WIlliams

Brockbank, Anne ,and Ian McGill. Facilitating Reflective Learning in Higher Education. Buckingham: Open University Press, 1998.

Brockbank and McGill provide an overview of the theory and practice of reflection in higher education. Chapters 5, 7, and 8 detail reflection and developing reflective practices.

Brookfield, Stephen. Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1995.

Brookfield guides teachers through the process of reflecting on their own classroom practices and includes several useful instruments to facilitate student reflection.

King, Patricia M., and Karen Strohm Kitchener. Developing Reflective Judgment. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1994.

King and Kitchener explain the intellectual stages of developing reflective judgment. The book details their own longitudinal study as well as other research and offers ideas for encouraging reflective judgment in the classroom.

Schon, Donald. Educating the Reflective Practioner. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1986.

This classic work, one of the inspirations for Yancey’s Reflection in the Writing Classroom, argues for the redesign of professional education as a combination of applied science and coaching in the process of reflection-in-action.

Available online

Lang, James M. “Small Changes in Teaching: Making Connections.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. 8 February 2016. http://chronicle.com/article/Small-Changes-in-Teaching-/235230

Lang explains how a commonplace book can help students make connections between what they are learning in the classroom and the outside world.

O’Neill, Peggy. “Reflection and Self-Assessment: Resisting Ritualistic Discourse.” The Writing Instructor. 2002:04. http://www.writinginstructor.org/oneill-2002-04

O’Neill offers cautionary advice about the potential pitfalls and difficulties of assigning and assessing reflective writing.

Student Samples

We have curated several example commonplace books from students who participated in the 2015-2016 pilot courses. These exemplars were chosen by pilot instructors because they model best practices for commonplace book, and demonstrate authentic reflection. Students consented to the release of their work to be shared with faculty and other students.

Spring WRIT 100 (single semester) Examples

FASTrack WRIT 101 and 102 (full year) Examples

Be sure to ask your students if they would like to share their commonplace books as exemplars, or if they would like to submit them to be Featured Edblogs on the sign-in page.

Example Class Blogs

Teachers have used class blogs in various ways. Learn more about how class blogs work on the Technical Support page. Below are some class blogs from pilot year 2015-2016 teachers. If you would like to feature your class blog here, please contact Andrew Davis.