Photo by Christie Zimmer
Why is discovery important to developing writers?
The first step to encourage writers is to give them the freedom to independently come up with ideas to write about.
As Suke Kim shows in her TedTalk, students who are continuously told what to think have a hard time creating an original thesis on their own. Her students, in North Korea, were fed information from a totalitarian regime and denied access to outside information, particularly the internet. When she tried to teach them to write, they could not generate an original idea because they had never done it before. American students, on the other hand, often have continuous access to a flood of ideas via their smartphones, but they still have a hard time coming up with an original argument.
Students, especially in urban schools, are constantly told how to act, what to wear and what to say. In order to maintain control of huge high schools, the list of rules is long and inflexible. If urban students are constantly told what to do and say and think in the classroom, where will their original ideas originate? Donna Miller, in “Cultivating Creativity” quotes many experts who realize that we can’t keep running schools modeled after factories and then expect the kind of creativity necessary to survive in the digital world. The most innovative companies give their employees a wide-range of freedom. Employees at Google can work flexible hours or from home, they can enjoy a massage or take a break in the game room. Successful twenty-first century companies know creativity doesn’t come on demand. Yet, our high school classrooms have almost no flexibility. Teachers need to find a way to get students creatively engaged in writing in spite of the external constraints. What are some concrete ways teachers can encourage students to generate ideas?
Group work –
The exchange of ideas among peers can be a great opportunity for students to generate ideas. Thanks to the digital world, we can reach out across time and space to share ideas with others. Yet, the face-to-face, personal exchange of ideas is still the most powerful way to get students to collaborate in preparation for writing.
Students have a wide range of interests and learning styles, so allowing them to choose from a variety of resources is one way for them to engage in a project. In addition, giving groups the opportunity to choose an area to focus on can increase student interest and enjoyment in group work.
Before beginning a literary work, I like to give students the opportunity to examine some of the broader related themes and issues. Students who might normally be uninterested in a work like Frankenstein or Macbeth can be drawn in when they see a real-life connection right away. Macbeth lesson plan for Macbeth group work and Frankenstein group work are similar lesson plans giving students time to work together to develop ideas associated with these works.
After teaching sonnet structure and reading Shakespearean sonnets, I like to use the children’s book A Wreath for Emmett Till to show the relevance of sonnets to today’s world. Not all of my students are familiar with Emmett Till, so this lesson plan for group work allows them to share information about the history and related issues of this monumental event.
Socratic Seminar –
Teachers today face a lot of pressure. From high-stakes testing and data-driven assessments to political mud-slinging and criticism from the public, teachers are under the gun every day. One way to literally take the pressure off the teacher is to conduct a socratic seminar. What is a socratic seminar and how do we implement it? Simply said, the socratic seminar allows teachers to introduce a question and let the students carry the conversation. This is no simple fill-in-the-blank type question. The question needs to be deep and powerful so the participants can delve into the text in order to evaluate, define and clarify the ideas they are discussing.
The lesson plan can be used in a wide variety of situations, but the key to a successful socratic seminar is that the discussion is carried by the participants through shared inquiry. The resulting dialogue is collaborative and allows for a more open-ended result than a debate or argument.
Classroom debate –
Another method for getting students to think independently is a classroom mini-debate. Students will learn to create their own arguments, anticipate the counter-argument and develop strong thinking and listening skills, all of which will help foster better writing skills. In this lesson plan, I try to encourage students to examine the text and then create convincing arguments as a group.
Graphic Novels –
Graphic novels can help combat students’ frustration in reading difficult texts and can help teachers scaffold lessons on argument and literature through visual methods. These novels can be adaptations of classics, like Kafka’s Metamorphosis, or original works like Maus. Interest is generally high because graphic novels look more appealing to students who are overwhelmed by a lot of text on a page. Students with reading disabilities or English language learners will especially benefit from graphic novels. Students will develop deeper ideas as they learn to analyze a text in a different genre. Graphic novel lesson ideas provide a place to start when using graphic novels. A more in-depth analysis is given at this graphic novel teaching website.
Dialectical journaling –
Moving beyond simple comprehension questions, students can be encouraged to make meaning from texts by writing about what they are reading. They can’t google the answers because they are creating the questions. They are basically having a conversation with the text. A dialectical journal explanation and a sample template can be found on-line, but there is no wrong way to do this. Students will engage with the text and learn to think by writing through the process.
Writing Assignments –
Writing assignments, as much as possible, should be something the student cares about. Research papers should be student-generated. In Barbara Fister’s blog post “Why the ‘Research Paper’ Isn’t Working”, Fister points out that students are often forced to do research and write about a topic they don’t know anything about and don’t care about. Furthermore, the instructor’s emphasis is often on the format of citations rather than the quality of ideas. The result is a failure for students to understand the sources or to write originally. If so, what is the point? While students will be asked to write about unfamiliar and perhaps uninteresting topics on their standardized tests, classroom assignments should encourage students to find or adapt the topic to make them interesting.
What kind of assignments will work best?
Peter Elbow’s “Teaching Thinking by Teaching Writing” suggests intuitive, creative writing to get students thinking about a topic before working on the structured, controlled logical writing. Some examples of this kind of writing are list generating. For example, before writing a college application essay, I ask student to complete lists of their favorite things. Hopefully they will include some of these descriptive personal items in their essay, and brainstorming personal favorites may help them become more introspective as they begin the writing process.
A wealth of information for writing teachers can be found on the book Writing at the Threshold: Featuring 56 Ways to Prepare High School and College Students to Think and Write at the College Level. This thin volume opens with a six idea to teach ideas. The author opens by stating that “the vast majority of students are capable of more extensive and valuable thought than they display in the papers they write” (Weinstein 1). Most writing teachers know it is all too true that student writing doesn’t show the depth of thought that we hear in or out of the classroom. Weinstein’s ideas range from sizing you up, eavesdropping, difficult riddles, maker of the rules, the reflective journal, a flow-chart of inquiry, and in-class think tanks. The final example, in-class think tanks, requires the teacher to model academic inquiry — what do scholars do and think when pondering a difficult question. Modeling and mentor texts are valuable tools for writing teachers.
Can writing teachers use formulaic approaches and still encourage freedom of thought?
Mark Wiley says that argues against simplistic formulaic writing instruction, and at the same time he condemns teachers of students placed in remedial classes for failing to encourage creativity. Struggling writers “are precisely the ones who most need to be challenged and who are continually sold short by their teachers because either someone else (usually the teacher) does their thinking for them, or, as is often the case with formulaic writing, the outer structure becomes the only important element of the text because some teachers believe that these low-achieving students cannot be taught to think or have insights.” Wiley tells us that formulaic writing is bad, but he never provides the answer to encourage turned-off, apathetic students think for themselves.
An article in The Atlantic called The Writing Revolution described the turn-around of a low-achieving Staten Island, NY high school. The school faced closure because it seemed nothing could increase student achievement. However, the principal finally decided to adopt a formulaic analytical essay writing program in all subjects. Students were explicitly taught to put their ideas into simple sentences and then create more complex sentences using formulas. There was a flurry of opposition to the article, with most critics claiming that teaching students writing formulas denies them the opportunity to be creative and find their own method of self-expression. However, careful inspection of the method shows that students were forced to come up with independent ideas (rather than simply inserting teacher-supplied words into a pre-packaged formula) and then use more sophisticated sentence structure to present them to the reader. The author states that all students should have the opportunity to read and write poetry as well as to express themselves creatively. But disadvantaged students should explicitly be taught the way authors form arguments so that they can join the larger academic conversation.
In They Say, I Say, Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein admit that students might see the template format as stifling creativity and free expression. The authors say that students fear that “using templates will take away their originality and creativity and make them all sound the same.” Yet mastery of several templates in order to effectively make the moves necessary for academic writing is necessary for students to join the bigger conversation. Students–particularly those from underserved neighborhoods–need to be explicitly taught how to develop an argument, how to introduce and explain a quotation and how to revise to clarify their position and templates are one way to do that.
I don’t think there is an either-or decision between writing formulas, strategies or templates and creative expression of ideas. Students need the opportunity to do both. If we don’t teach at-risk students how to enter the academic conversation through strong analytic writing, we are denying them their voice. More privileged students may come to school with a toolbox of rhetorical devices they have gained from their environment, but once urban students learn these skills they will have greater access to academic opportunities.
Dickson, Randi. “Developing ‘Real-World Intelligence’: Teaching Argumentative Writing through Debate.” English Journal 94:1. (2004): 34-40. ProQuest. Web. 29 June 2015.
Kim, Suke. “This is What It’s Like to Teach in North Korea.” TED. Mar. 2015. Lecture.
Miller, Donna L. “Cultivating Creativity.” English Journal 104.6 (2015) 25-30. Print.
Weinstein, Larry. Writing at the Threshold: Featuring 56 Ways to Prepare High School and College Students to Think and Write at the College Level. Urbana, IL: NCTE. 2001.