Reading and Writing

Of course, Developmental Writing does not aim merely for students to write a passing ACT exam; it is also the preparation for English 101, an intensive reading and writing course. Specifically, it is a course that asks students not only to generate ideas and structure a timed essay, but to respond to writing of a very high order. At the Borough of Manhattan Community College, students have recently been asked in their 101 courses to write their final exams on essays such as “The Communist Manifesto” and Thoreau’s “Walking.” Our students have to leave Developmental Writing ready to tackle similarly challenging essays.

For all the good Diplomacy might do for students in terms of critical, strategic thinking, it can do very little for them in terms of reading comprehension and writing essays in response to others’ writings. Therefore, Joe and Carlos added a significant and substantive reading component to the course, themed around World War I (Diplomacy is set in Europe in the years just preceding WWI). Besides using numerous newspaper articles and short essays, the course employed two main texts: The Guns of August and All Quiet on the Western Front.

The Guns of August is, in Joe’s and Carlos’s opinion, a text that most college first-year students would find challenging. It assumes at the outset a fairly thorough knowledge of WWI and European history; its pace is dramatic and evocative, not descriptive and patient; it is beautifully, even lavishing written, using a vocabulary and syntax that, for those of our students who are not readers, can almost seem like a foreign language. In short, it is a difficult text, but one that would prepare students for the kind of challenging reading they can expect in English 101.

Joe and Carlos created numerous assignments to try and help students get the most out of their reading of The Guns of August. In some cases, we created “leading” study questions, like the ones you will find in the first link below. Those study questions are meant to help students not only understand the material better, but to become for active readers. For instance, question #9 of the first link asks students to speculate why a historian like Barbara Tuchman would make a superstitious allusion to the arrival of Halley’s Comet and the supposed “death of kings” it portends — a question that asks students to think beyond comprehension and more toward questions of an author’s style, motivations and assumptions.

In other cases, we tried to play to our students’ strengths. We created an oral presentation assignment to give those students who were still having trouble with writing but who verbally could express themselves well a chance to show how much they had gleaned from reading Guns.

Guns of August Study Questions, Chapter1

Guns of August: Study Questions: Germany

Guns of August: Study Questions

Oral Presentation Template for Guns of August

At times, we needed to create supplemental materials to round out some of our assignments. For instance, as terrific a read as Guns is, it says very little about some of the countries involved in WWI — particularly striking is the virtual absence of Austria-Hungary, precipitator of WWI through its invasion of Serbia. As Austria-Hungary in Diplomacy game is, for purposes of game-balance and fun, an “equal power,” the class required that it be given equal treatment in ours assignments. Therefore, Joe created the document below, summarizing Austria-Hungary’s role in WWI.

Austria-Hungary’s Role in the War

The other main text of the course we used was All Quiet on the Western Front. We chose this text for several reasons: it is sparse and readable, a wonderful contrast to the baroque beauty of Guns; it is a novel, which would help students learn about how to approach a work of fiction (a skill they would need in our English II, if not sooner); it is in its own right an important work, a literary classic. But one other consideration we had was the fact that it is unequivocally anti-war. Joe and Carlos felt that between the way that Diplomacy might present war as “fun” and the flamboyant energy of Guns, students might not see the human consequences of war. We brought in All Quiet, therefore, to complicate our heretofore depiction of war and open a dialogue about whether it is necessary.

The questions and assignments below were created with the ideas of helping students improve their reading comprehension and writing. All of these assignments were done as homework, so that students would get a chance to practice writing under less pressure — which of course is the modality under which they will produce most of their writing, in college and beyond.

All Quiet Essay 1, Chapters 1,2, and 3

All Quiet Quiz

All Quiet Essay 2, Chapter 7


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