Thursday, May 17, 2007

Sometimes Learning Hurts: Using Revision Activities

As promised, here is the reverse outline and some other activities to help students approach revisions of drafts. Feel free to modify them as you see fit, and contact me with questions and ideas for using these and other revision tools.

One of the greatest challenges students face in making meaningful revisions is letting go of the integrity of their drafts. They are loath to make changes – as if their drafts were houses of cards, and any movement might cause them to implode. These activities encourage students to see their drafts as malleable. They force students to make real changes, to blow things up and see where the pieces fall; they help students separate themselves from what they’ve produced, to see their papers as works in progress.

Reverse Outline*: This activity allows students to analyze their drafts in terms of structure and organization by looking at each paragraph of their draft, by
1. Paraphrasing (what it says)
2. Describing purpose (what it does).

In this way students can step back from the draft as a linear whole and see how the pieces fit together (or don’t). They may be better able to see where transitions are missing. Here are a couple of URLs for electronic copies of this activity:

Some uses and modifications:
A. I like to have students actually cut up their drafts paragraph by paragraph.* I bring scissors, glue, and extra paper to class. I warn them that it will pain them to do this, but that their original draft will still exist wherever they’ve saved it – if they still decide its worth holding onto after they’re done. Students number their paragraphs, then cut them up. First they determine what the “core” paragraph is (this activity often shows them that there is no core or thesis in their draft). Then they go through and make a note on the back of each paragraph of how each relates to the core idea. They make two piles – the “keepers” and the “doesn’t fits.” Then, they reassemble the paragraphs in an order that makes sense, noting where information and transitions need to be added.
B. Many instructors require students to complete a reverse outline and turn it in with their rough drafts.
C. Or they have students do reverse outlines on one another’s drafts in lieu of a traditional peer response.

Questions as Knives*: I stumbled upon this one last year in a Bruce Ballenger textbook, The Curious Writer. The idea is that students apply the journalist questions (who, what, when, why, how) as “knives,” to refine thesis statements by making specific claims rather than generalities. I used it in my research writing class with great success. I start with an example thesis statement, perhaps one I’ve made up or one plucked from a previous student’s paper. As a large group we apply the “knives” and rewrite the thesis with each cut in order to make it more precise.

After they get the hang of it, I have them trade thesis statements with one another. Each student writes a knife question and passes the thesis back for rewrite. I have them pass them back and forth at least three times.
Here’s an example...
Thesis: Society needs to do more to hold sexual predators accountable.
Possible knives: What do you mean by society? Why does society need to do this? Which kind of sexual predators? How would they be held accountable?

Crack Open Your Brain!: I made this one up last year for my research writing class in a desperate attempt to get them to “re-see” their topics. Their drafts and theses had become ossified, they were bored with their topics, and I was bored reading their drafts, but they were reluctant to change them because they’d invested so much time. This was an attempt to loosen them up a bit, to see their subjects from different angles, and to inject some creativity into those god-awful boring drafts.

I had students brainstorm ten analogies or metaphors for their topic/thesis/ or subtopic. For example one student writing about organic viticulture, growing grapes for wine-making (yawn) compared the use of chemicals in conventional farming to chemotherapy (hmmm).

After they brainstormed a list of metaphors/analogies, I had them pick the most promising one and freewrite about how that analogy worked, exploring in what ways the two things were alike, extending the metaphor. Then I had them share their writing with each other.

• One cool thing about the reverse outline is how practical it is: it allows students to practice three important skills of the writing classroom: analysis, paraphrasing, and description.
• The cut and paste revision activity is based on an activity originally designed by Peter Elbow.
• Although I think Ballenger’s “Questions as Knives” activity is brilliant, the metaphor is somewhat inaccurate. It makes more sense to imagine the application of questions as pruning cuts allowing a new, healthier shoot to grow from where a diseased or leggy branch was cut. But “Questions as Pruners”sounds sort of dumb.


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