Meaningful Writing in a Certificate-Program Practicum

Kelly Blewett

Prompt 6.2. Submitted May 27, 2020; accepted January 17, 2022; published July 15, 2022. For the PDF version of this essay and any supplementary material accompanying it, visit .

Abstract: This assignment, designed for a graduate certificate program in rhetoric and composition, asks students to create a writing prompt for an audience of their choice and to accompany it with a reflective letter written to a stakeholder of their choice. To prepare, students first read scholarship on college writing assignments: what kinds students perceive as meaningful, what kinds are most typical, and what kinds are encouraged in a writing-across-the-curriculum approach. They then consider what elements of this research they can bring into their own context, both in terms of teaching (via the prompt) and in terms of sharing their learning with a relevant stakeholder (via the reflective letter, usually written to an administrator, a colleague, or a student). By allowing students to expressly connect course content to their own contexts in two genres, this assignment enacts features of the scholarship students read. While personalizing learning is valuable in any context, it is especially so in a graduate certificate program, because this increasingly common site of instruction serves students with diverse educational and professional histories and future goals.

Certificate programs have been on the rise in higher education for the last decade. In the field of English, they are often used to certify high-school teachers to teach college-credit-bearing courses (Malek and Micciche 2017). The practicum class described in this essay, like other courses in the graduate certificate program at the midwestern university where I teach, has been comprised of high-school teachers, newly graduated BAs, university employees, and part-time faculty with advanced degrees in adjacent fields (e.g., education). The prompt invites the kind of learning Joyce Malek and Laura Micciche ((2017)) argue is valuable in these kinds of programs: it encourages students to envision classrooms as “sites for research and meaning-making” and to connect their teaching praxis to rhetoric/composition scholarship (p. 92). The prompt asks students to develop a writing assignment and then to write a reflection in the genre of a letter that draws connections between their assignment and our course readings. The reflective letter is written to an audience of the student’s choice: an administrator or sponsor, a colleague, or a student. In all, this prompt is valuable because it enacts features of the scholarship students studied in the course (Bean 2011; Eodice, Geller, and Lerner 2016) and enables diverse students to personalize the practicum curriculum.


Indiana University’s Online Graduate Certificate in Composition Studies program serves a range of students, all of whom are interested in (or coerced by the state to pursue) additional graduate hours in English, but who are not ready to seek a PhD or may be uninterested in doing so. An analysis of students in two of the practicum classes described in this article (n=26) reveals that 57% of students (n=15) were currently teaching high school and needed graduate hours to teach dual enrollment (DE) or advanced placement (AP) English courses. (Some of these are not exclusively English teachers; see Burdick & Greer [(2017)], who report that DE teachers often have multiple curricular investments and a broad range of teaching experiences [p. 88-89].) A number of these teachers work as adjunct lecturers in Indiana University’s Advance College Project program, which is sponsored by the university and enables high-school students to earn Indiana University credit (see “About Us, Advance College Project, Indiana University” n.d.). The program is designed to coordinate an efficient transition of high school students to public colleges in the state, which Malek and Micciche ((2017)) emphasize is part of a national trend. Another 19% (n=5) were employees of a university (sometimes Indiana University, sometimes another institution) who were interested in teaching writing part-time or making an intra-institutional career move. Fifteen percent (n=4) were adjuncts teaching in the college setting or were grant-supported employees seeking to professionally develop, while the smallest group, 11% (n=3), were newly minted BAs considering pursuing an MA in English.1 As these numbers demonstrate, the IU Online program serves a diverse group of students who have unique professional aims and whose application of the course content to their contexts is somewhat unpredictable.

As I considered what these students knew and needed to know about the teaching of writing, I deemed my own experiences in practicum courses irrelevant. Both a student and an assistant-instructor, I focused on the nuts-and-bolts of teaching in my practicum classes, which aligned with the scenario Jessica Restaino ((2012)) explores in First Semester. These practicums were on-the-ground spaces for preparing new teachers for a specific institutional context. At Indiana University Online, however, I was not facing an audience of novice teachers. My typical student was, more often, an experienced secondary teacher with long-established approaches to teaching writing. The voices of experienced teachers dominated the class discussion board, and their expertise was impressive. (See Burdick & Greer [(2017)] who describe a similar subset of high-school teachers who teach DE courses [p. 89]). How to acknowledge the expertise of these students while also offering something new and strong, something that is, as Micciche and Malek put it, more than “a quick how-to” (2017, p. 92)? And how to make the assignments useful for all the students in the class, rather than only for students who were teaching high school?

Rethinking Practicum

As I pondered the above questions, I decided to use scholarship from writing across the curriculum to draw students into a conversation about college-level writing instruction as a shared enterprise that extends across the university, starting with first-year composition.2 I could imagine my various students (e.g., high school English teacher, academic advisor, adjunct) finding this approach practical and engaging, as it addressed often-posed questions such as “What does writing look like in college?”

The assignment detailed in this essay comes at nearly the mid-point in the term and acts as a culminating activity for our first two modules. During these modules, the class reads selections from The Meaningful Writing Project, by Michele Eodice, Anne Ellen Geller, and Neal Lerner ((2016)); Assignments Across the Curriculum: A National Study of College Writing, by Dan Melzer ((2014)); Writing Across Contexts: Transfer, Composition and Sites of Writing, by Kathleen Blake Yancey, Liane Robertson, and Kara Taczak ((2014)); and Engaging Ideas, by John Bean ((2011)). Across these texts, readers learn what kind of writing undergraduate students report enjoying, what kind of writing promotes transferring ideas from one context to another, and what kind of writing gives undergraduate students room to direct their own learning. These themes—engagement, transfer, and agency—are communicated so clearly in these texts, as are some essential features of assignment design, such as clear writing expectations, a drafting timeline, transparency regarding evaluation, and well-stated connections between course learning outcomes and the writing task. All of these were very much on my mind as I developed the prompt below. I wanted the students to know what I was looking for, to feel an invigorating combination of freedom and constraint, to make connections across disparate contexts, and to engage their full professional lives in the work we were pursuing together. In other words, I was pursuing what Eodice et al. ((2016)) call “meaningful writing” (p. 57).

Seeking Meaningful Writing

Meaningful writing requires student investment. How to show students the connections between our course content and their diverse contexts? The genres of the assignment prompt and the scenario-based reflection solved this problem by inviting students to make the connections themselves.

The assignment prompt allowed students to develop or revise teaching material specific to their own classrooms, or the classrooms they imagined they would inhabit in the future. I made the prompt flexible in terms of intended audience and the number of assignments. (Some students have preferred to create a sequence of two assignments, while others have preferred to focus on one.) I encouraged students to design the prompt for specific classes; in case there was not an easily available curricular context, I offered resources to support a generic FYC context (such as the WPA Outcomes statement). To date I have seen students design excellent prompts for FYC classes, tenth-grade English classes, AP literature classes, adult community writing groups, and others.

Regardless of the curricular context, the conventions of the prompt forced students into some difficult thinking that seems productive considering the course readings: Why are their students being asked to do this work? Is the writing process supported through transparent scaffolding? Are the assessment criteria linked to the purposes of the assignment? By emphasizing purpose, process, and alignment, the assignment prompt genre reminded me of a yoga move. It combined freedom and constraint, the qualities that Eodice, Geller, and Lerner emphasize as key to balance in meaningful writing assignments ((2016), p. 112).

The reflections, even more than the prompt itself, invited outside actors into the classroom. Students wrote to department colleagues, principals, students, and prospective employers. The tone students used when writing to an imagined audience of their choice is quite different than one they would likely use if they writing to me, demonstrating, as John Bean ((2011)) puts it, “how variations in the rhetorical context—purpose, audience, genre—can create significant differences in students’ writing and thinking processes” (p. 93). For example, consider this except from a recent student’s reflective letter; he serves as the chair of his English department. He is writing this to his colleagues in the department:

Over the past 15 years, we have fought the battle of “writing across the curriculum” with other departments. Our last principal was relentless in his expectation that all departments and courses should include some writing. As some of you remember, this was met with great reluctance, but as we modeled what could be learned from having students write in class, more and more teachers saw the benefits of the program and the process . . . . As Melzer suggested and we experienced, the more we encouraged teachers to allow writing to be a tool for deeper learning and examination, the more it was used.

In this passage, the writer vividly recounts a writing across the curriculum initiative that was met with resistance and connects the English department’s response (emphasizing writing to learn) with reading Melzer’s book. Later in the piece, he brings up Melzer again, but this time to push his colleagues to develop assignments that move beyond informational writing, observing that Melzer’s definition of informational writing “unfortunately, sounds like a great deal of the writing we assign.” Changes are necessary, he says, because otherwise “we truly stunt the growth of our students.” Without an assignment that invites an audience-specific reflection, such connections between the writer’s professional context and the readings might remain unnoticed or be quickly observed and then forgotten.

For a student in a different situation—she had never taught writing before—the reflective letter provided space to present her newly formed ideas about teaching first-year writing to a prospective employer, the WPA at her local university. She wrote in her introduction: “As I continue through my educational journey to become a composition instructor, I wanted to share this first-year writing assignment I have developed with you. Once I complete this program, my goal is to apply for a position at our university and hope to be considered a good fit for the first-year writing team. Through this letter and assignment, I aim to help you learn more about me and my teaching style.” Like the previous example, this student is pressed to make explicit connections between her professional context and course content. Both students have the chance to see their writing as “applicable, relevant, real world” (Eodice, Geller, and Lerner 2016, 110).

In all, the reflective letter became part of an ongoing conversation about the students’ professional development within their unique context, underlining the reality that for our students, like the broader population of DE instructors, that the IU Online certificate program is often one of multiple sources utilized to professionalize (see Burdick and Greer 2017, 91). This alternative reflection invites students, like the undergraduate students in the texts we read, to do more than “gather and report information” (Bean 2011, 93). Instead, by thinking about “purpose, audience, and genre” (p. 93), they engage in higher levels of critical thinking. As students apply the course readings to a specific context, they experience the ideas about assignment design that are communicated in the WAC scholarship we read.

When I originally designed the assignment, I anticipated that students would write the reflection to an imagined audience as a learning exercise. Instead, as I have described here, many students took the opportunity to write to real people and situations in their professional lives, writing, for example, not to a generic “reluctant student,” but to a specific student who was currently in their class. In one case, a student who taught high school English delivered her letter to her principal as evidence that her praxis was improving. In another, a student who taught writing part-time at a community college gave her letter, which recommended a shift toward a more transfer-focused curriculum, to her writing program administrator, and reported feeling a new sense of agency and investment. These stories filled me with respect for the work my students were doing beyond our classroom, as well as renewed enthusiasm for our course content. I gained what Burdick and Greer ((2017)) call “insights into the material realities” (p. 83) of my students.


These are four takeaways from this assignment for me as a teacher:

  1. Both experienced and novice writing teachers are eager for professional community and fresh ideas.

  2. For experienced teachers whose background is in literature, putting writing instruction at the center of the classroom feels novel. (Wilkinson [(2019)] also reported this finding in her study of DE teachers [p. 92].)

  3. Like the students featured in The Meaningful Writing Project, students in certificate programs have goals for their educations that relate to audiences beyond our classrooms. Tapping into their goals and audiences helps a class feel relevant and increases students’ engagement and motivation.

  4. Creating open-ended teaching-related assignments in the practicum context allows the expertise of experienced teachers to shine, something that scholarship on DE educators has emphasized is important (Wilkinson 2019; Burdick and Greer 2017).

Just as I have learned from the writing students have submitted in response to this prompt, so students are also learning. They appreciate, for example, the transparent application of the principles of the course readings in the assignment design. In an analysis of all open-ended final reflections from the spring 2020 course (n=16), 56% of students (n=9) commented on the alignment of the assignment design to the course readings. That over half of the students observed these connections convinces me that the general design of this assignment is sound. Other typical comments indicated appreciation for the variety of genres the assignments invited, as well as the real-world applicability of the course materials. Experienced teachers felt they had been exposed to new ideas that were engaging, while novice teachers reported feeling more prepared to work in a classroom.

Although this assignment has been beneficial, it has not been without difficulties. For example, differing conventions for assignment prompts across contexts caused some confusion. Some students who work as high school teachers struggled to put information that usually existed in other documents—such as lesson plans or unit plans—into the assignment prompt and felt that the inclusion of this information made the prompt unnecessarily bulky for a high school student audience. While my understanding of the genre of prompts is informed by postsecondary literature (e.g. Bean 2011; Melzer 2014; “Transparency in Learning and Teaching in Higher Education, TILT Higher Ed” n.d.), I am not as well-informed about the conventions of high school assignment prompts. One way to address this problem may be to add a scaffolding step, such as asking students to bring in a past prompt and briefly analyze how well it fits (or does not) with the scholarship we are reading about assignment design. Another option is to spend more time with instructional readings on assignment design (possibly pulling in additional resources from the Transparency in Learning and Teaching Project) to help clarify and/or negotiate some of the genre expectations.

For other students, the expertise of the high school teachers was intimidating. One student, for example, wrote in an anonymous mid-term feedback survey: “Not actually being a teacher of writing, I feel pretty inferior to everyone who is.” This student is not alone. Although I have tried to position the range of experience-levels as a strength of the course, writing individually to less-experienced students to share how their point of view could enrich the class as a whole, I recognize that not all students feel equally comfortable, particularly when it comes to designing instructional materials. I believe this will be an ongoing issue and is a byproduct of the diverse student population in the certificate program. In an ideal world, students would leave the course feeling like Cameron (who at the time was a recent BA with no teaching experience). She wrote in her final reflection:

Initially, I was nervous about being the least-prepared person in class. My classmates were educators with years of experience in different roles and environments, and I was worried that I would have nothing to contribute to our conversations. However, I received some wonderful advice from my peers this semester, and I believe that I helped shed some light on some of their questions because I was so recently a student in undergraduate writing classes.

My hope is that all students can similarly find a collegial network in the class, as well as a purposeful role, and the course content can be applied uniquely to each student’s future goals.


Traditional graduate education is about creating specialists who then fill professional roles and produce the research that ensures the field’s continued relevance. But the field of composition continues to change. The number of teaching positions (e.g., lecturer, teaching-professor, and adjunct) is rising while the number of tenure-track positions continues to decline. Additionally, the development of coordinated paths from high school to public universities creates an ongoing exigence for dual-credit courses to proliferate, which then leads to a rise in certificate programs like the one in which I teach.

The student audience for these certificate programs is complex and merits additional investigation. In the meantime, professors within certificate programs must consider how to best teach this population of composition graduate students, drawing on the resources that experienced DE educators often bring to the classroom (Burdick and Greer 2017; Wilkinson 2019). We need to find ways of making graduate instruction meaningful for students who are not going to pursue a PhD in the field, who will not be moving into research positions and teaching graduate classes, who are entangled in different locations in composition’s vast web. Inviting students and others who do not intend to pursue doctoral work in composition to name their own contexts, to synthesize information in their own ways, and to pursue their own goals is one way to serve both these students and the field.

ASSIGNMENT Meaningful Assignments in Our Contexts

Assignment at a Glance:

  1. Overview: Develop a formal writing assignment for students of your choice. Write a reflection in the genre of a letter that draws connections between the assignments and our readings.

  2. Due Date: At the end of week 7 (in a 15-week course)

  3. Length: Assignment should be no more than 3 pages single-spaced; reflection should be no more than 6 pages double-spaced.

  4. Format: Please format according to the rules of MLA 8 (the most recent MLA edition). Information on this format can be found on the Purdue Owl.

  5. Submission: Please submit the paper as a Word document or PDF to Canvas (Module Two, Week Seven)

  6. Time: I expect this writing and revising this essay will take 12-15 hours, spread over two weeks.

Course Learning Objectives / Why do this assignment?

This assignment is designed as the culminating activity of the first two modules of the course, during which we’ve discussed what kind of writing undergraduate students find most meaningful, what kind of assignments are typically found across the curriculum, and what role first-year writing plays in a student’s academic trajectory. Specifically, this assignment was designed to address course learning goals 2 and 3, copied below:

By engaging with this assignment, you will be actively synthesizing and applying the material we’ve read so far, which will also be helpful for the work that we will do the second half of the course. 

Introduction to the Assignment

Designing compelling and clear assignments prompts can be a true challenge, especially ones that will lead to the kind of meaningful writing we have been exploring in this class. This assignment invites you to address that challenge. To complete this task, you will write (or revise) one or two formal and wholly original assignment prompt(s). I borrow the term “formal” from John Bean, who explains that formal assignments that “call for finished prose” and usually “require multiple drafts” (89).

You are encouraged to tailor your assignment prompt(s) to your context. You might revise prompts that already exist. Alternatively, you can design new prompts for classes you hope to teach, such as first-year writing. Whatever approach you take, your response to this assignment will have two components: the assignment sheet(s) and the reflection.

The Assignment Sheet Scenario

Write the assignment sheet to an imagined audience of students. You are free to format the prompt in any manner that you wish. You may use this assignment sheet as a model. There are also sample assignment sheets in the Bean excerpt (page 97-101), as well as our other readings from this term. You can also find many examples online, especially on the journal Prompt (supplemental reading for week four). The work you submit for this task should be original. Your assignment should be tailored to the students you are addressing in as much detail as seems realistic to you.

If you are not teaching, it may seem difficult to design assignments for an imagined group of students. In this case, consider designing an assignment for a generic first-year writing class that aligns with the WPA Outcomes for First-Year Composition (reviewed during week one) If you want to incorporate readings into your assignment, you may imagine that you are using the freely available Writing Spaces as your textbook, or you may incorporate any readings/media of your choice.

Your assignment sheet should, as Bean indicates, explain the process by which papers will be developed, as well as a definition of the task. Finally, there should be clear explanations of writing expectations (see Bean 97). Although it is not required, consider developing a rubric to make your assessment criteria clear for students.

The Reflection Scenario

Choose a recipient of a letter that draws connections between your assignment prompt and the scholarship we’ve read this term.

Option #1: A sponsor or administrator

Imagine an administrator or financial sponsor you think would be interested in the writing you’ve produced. Your sponsor is a sympathetic and invested audience, however she doesn’t know much about research in writing studies. Ideally you can imagine an actual administrator you know and use those details to shape your response.

Use this letter as a space to explain to the sponsor why you structured the assignment as you did. How did research in the field of writing studies (represented by readings we’ve done so far) inform your curricular decisions? Why do you expect that this assignment prompt will be effective for the students you are teaching? Be specific and incorporate short quotations and paraphrases from our texts.

Further, as this sponsor knew you before you designed the assignment sheet, you might comment on how the assignment sheet is similar or different from assignments that you’ve produced in the past. Panning back, would you say that the opportunity to engage with colleagues and read relevant research in the field is impacting your teaching beyond the creation of the attached assignment? If so, how?

Option #2: A colleague

Imagine a colleague that you think would be interested in the writing assignments you’ve produced. You should also imagine a particular reason for addressing the colleague. I encourage you to imagine a colleague you actually know and use those details to shape your response. Otherwise, here are a few options:

In each case (or one you imagine), you have slightly different purposes in presenting your work to the colleague, and your presentation of the content would be shaped by your purpose. But, as in the case with the sponsor in option #1, your ultimate goal is to unpack the decisions that you made in designing the assignment prompts, to draw connections between those decisions and the wider research we’ve engaged so far, and to make a “big picture” argument about the impact of this course for on your praxis—and, by extension, the potential it has to positively impact those with whom you work.

Option #3: A reluctant student

You have a student who is bright but unmotivated to complete the assignment(s) that you’ve designed. Write him a letter, explaining what your hopes are for this assignment, and how you designed it with student engagement and practical applications in mind. Why should he care about this work? How will it benefit him as he continues through his educational career?  What’s so significant about writing, anyway?

If you choose Option #3, you might shift your focus from how you’ve developed as a practitioner to the practical role that writing and critical thinking play in college and beyond, as demonstrated by some of the readings we’ve completed thus far into the term. You also might want to give the student a “pep talk” about how to engage writing assignments so that they can be as meaningful as possible (drawing, again, from our readings thus far).

You are also welcome to design a scenario of your own. Please run it by me in a conference, just so that I’m aware of what you are thinking. It would be especially neat if you were able to share these documents with an audience beyond this class, including principals, administrators, teachers, or students.

Drafting Plan

Introducing the assignment (beginning week 6)

Available on our Canvas site, please find this assignment prompt, accompanied by optional supplemental readings from Bean about developing formal assignment prompts. There are also four samples of excellent student work from past classes, as well as two introductory videos from me (one introducing the assignment; another walking through the student samples).

Drafting and Peer Review (week 6)

We will post partial drafts of our assignment prompts and reflective letters at the end of week 6. These drafts can be as detailed or as general as you would like. We will have an opportunity to ask for the kind of feedback we’d like at this stage. You will receive feedback from a peer and from me. You can also sign-up for an optional conference with me, which can take place by phone or video chat the following week.

Revising and Finishing (week 7)

Optional conferences will take place during this week. Final drafts of this assignment will be due on Sunday, at the very end of the week. There will be no other writing or responding for the week.

Evaluation Criteria: 

Assignment Sheet

(135 points)

The assignment sheet is clear and easy to follow. The writing tasks are well described and suited for the proposed student audience. The assignment goals or objectives are identified, the process of drafting is outlined, and evaluation criteria are clearly explained. The assignment sheet is wholly original to the writer.


(135 points)

The activity or assignment connects in clear ways to the readings we’ve done in class. The writer quotes directly from the readings and shows how they have informed the instructional design. The writer identifies and addresses an audience who has a stake in assignment design and teaching (sponsor, colleague, student) and shapes the content for that audience. In short, the writer considers how taking this course can/will ultimately improve their teaching and/or student learning.

Format and mechanics

(30 points)

The essay is readable, follows the conventions of standard written English, and all sources are cited using MLA 8.


Contact me using the inbox feature on Canvas. I’ll check there daily. I’m here to support your success in this course!


“About Us, Advance College Project, Indiana University.” n.d. Advance College Project, Indiana University. Accessed April 15, 2020.

Bean, John C. 2011. Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom. 2nd ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Burdick, M., and J. Greer. 2017. “Paths to Productive Partnerships: Surveying High School Teachers About Professional Development Opportunities and ‘College-Level’ Writing.” WPA: Writing Program Administration 41 (1): 82–101.

Eodice, M., A. Geller, and N. Lerner. 2016. The Meaningful Writing Project. Utah State University Press.

Malek, J., and L. R. Micciche. 2017. “A Model of Efficiency: Pre-college Credit and the State Apparatus.” WPA: Writing Program Administration 40 (2): 77–97.

Melzer, D. 2014. Assignments Across the Curriculum: A National Study of College Writing. Utah State University Press.

Restaino, J. 2012. First Semester: Graduate Students, Teaching Writing, and the Challenge of the Middle Ground. Southern Illinois University Press.

“Transparency in Learning and Teaching in Higher Education, TILT Higher Ed.” n.d. Accessed April 15, 2020.

Wilkinson, C. 2019. “From Dialogue to Collaboration in Dual-Credit Programs.” WPA: Writing Program Administration 42 (2): 80–99.

Yancey, K. B., L. Robertson, and K. Taczak. 2014. Writing Across Contexts: Transfer, Composition and Sites of Writing. Utah State University Press.


  1. Note that all numbers add up to 27, not 26. This is because one student fell into two categories (both a recent BA considering graduate school in English, and a university employee).↩︎

  2. I was especially disinclined to focus specifically on FYC because, unlike a typical practicum course, I was not orienting students to a particular writing program. In fact, ACP teachers working with Indiana University are unable to change their FYC curriculum, and the writing program at my regional campus does not use the same curriculum.↩︎