Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Finding Time to Write: Low Stakes Writing for Practice, Preparation, and Play

One of the problems that inevitably surfaces when I talk to instructors about writing in Freshman Inquiry is that of time management. With so much content to cover in a course, much of it complex and meaty, requiring a great deal of class discussion, it is challenging to find time for writing and “teaching” writing. Some people feel they need to reserve class time for discussion and pass the writing activities on to the mentors for mentor session.

The problem with looking at writing instruction this way is that it assumes writing is a compartmentalized task separate from the real work of the class: reading and understanding concepts from the text. Implicit is the idea that writing is something we do after we’ve read, discussed, and mulled over course content. I’d argue that this way of thinking assumes that students should write only in order to prove comprehension or to show they can make certain scholarly moves in writing (developing thesis statements, building an argument, supporting assertions with details, incorporating and citing sources, etc.). In this way of thinking, writing for college courses boils down to a performance.

But what if you start with the premise that discussing, thinking, and writing, while related tasks, are different and will each produce different ideas and understanding of course material? I would argue that a student may develop a different understanding of a concept or a text if she has to write about it. If we use writing as a way for students to “discuss” ideas from the text, we allow students to “write to learn.” When writing without the pressure of an assignment that will be evaluated, students are allowed to use writing as a tool of discovery. They learn what many of us already know: sometimes you don’t know what you think or understand until you write about it first.

Informal or low-stakes writing is practice, preparation, and play -- writing that I, the teacher, may never see (and most importantly to me as I face the daunting pile of typed and stapled formal essays now before me at midterm, I won’t have to evaluate for a grade). It can be a way for students to begin the work of formal assignments, to create the raw material that they later shape into the “high stakes” papers they turn in for a grade. Or it may just be practice – an exercise that gets students used to writing and thinking like writers.

This low-stakes writing can be used in several ways in the classroom. I like to start each of my classes with a guided five minute freewrite in order to get students’ scholarly juices flowing and to turn their minds collectively to the subject we’ve been looking at it. It is a way to center and focus the class and create discussion sparks.

A common concern I’ve heard (and had) about assigning informal writing such as reading journals is that instead of having to read and evaluate a huge stack of essays, teachers are faced with the onerous task of reading and responding to a huge stack of journals. I’ve seen this problem handled in a few different ways, for instance, journals can be read randomly for comments and credit given for simply completing entries on those that weren’t read for content. Or students can respond to one another’s entries, posing questions and augmenting discussion.

But informal writing doesn’t always have to be turned in or evaluated. Teachers can have students turn in only a portion of informal writing exercises for pointed feedback in preparation for writing longer pieces. For instance, I might have students do some brainstorming that might lead to a one-sentence working thesis that I then glance at to make sure they are on the right track before they commit to the typed word.

This prepatory/exploratory writing can be as simple as a ten minute freewrite. I try to choose a prompt that I think will get at a particular challenge in the assignment. For instance if I’m having them write a persuasive letter, I’ll have them brainstorm for a few minutes about ways they might establish credibility and common ground with their audience. If they’ve already written their first draft, I might have them write about a possible revision strategy for the next draft.

One thing I’ve noticed about consistently using informal in-class writing is the first couple of class periods some students write a few words, set their pens down, crack their knuckles, look around the room, and fidget. After awhile, when I say, “ok we’re going to do some writing,” all heads bow to the page, the room quiets, students settle quickly into their task, and their pens move until (and sometimes after) I tell them to stop. They’ve learned the practice of writing, so it doesn’t feel tedious, or scary, or whatever, anymore. They’ve developed some “writing muscles” that will help them when they sit down to write their formal assignments.

I’ve also had great success using writing in place of discussion. I have students read from their writing or write responses to one another’s writing, passing papers back and forth or down a line. It is amazing to look up from my spot at the front of the room and see every head turned toward a paper, actively participating in a “discussion,” rather than hearing the same few extroverted voices, mine included, volleying back and forth.

Informal writing works well as a tool for providing feedback. I got this from the book, Handling the Paper Load. On days they turn in a paper, students write to these three prompts: The best thing about my paper is... . If I had more time to work on it, I’d.... If I were the teacher, one comment I’d write on this paper is.... Students have the opportunity to reflect on their own writing and process and to guide my comments to their specific concerns.

I have a personal teaching policy to never give a graded assignment without having students do some in-class (or homework) informal writing in preparation for it. Instead of handing out assignments with the ubiquitous page of “possible questions to consider when writing this paper,” I save those questions for freewriting prompts. I often have students share and respond to one another’s raw writing and “workshop” their ideas. That way students generate the raw materials for their papers and practice wrestling with the questions where and when I can help them, before they write the formal paper.

Another benefit of low-stakes writing is the opportunity to experiment. One FRINQ instructor told me that he has students write in dialogue, as if writing a play, as a way of helping them get beyond just writing from their own point of view.

Please share your own informal writing ideas. What have you used and how? What’s worked well? And if you’re really brave, what’s bombed? Send me your stories:


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