So we started off today by thinking.
See, this is something I learned at the writing conference yesterday. I realized that I keep on assigning writing that is simply the equivalent of barfing on a piece of paper and calling it writing. Well, puke-on-paper is not worthy of the name “writing.”
The writing process begins with some brain work. This brain work at the very least consists of getting some ideas and creating some sort of picture in your head of what the written piece should look like.
So the writing prompt today was about…writing. But we started by thinking. Students spent three minutes thinking about every major piece of writing they’ve done since middle school. “Major” means writing assignments they worked on for at least a day or two. I wanted them to think about all of them–the good, the bad, and the ugly. This kind of “thinking” is the first part of the writing process. Every piece of writing should begin with some thinking as part of the “planning” phase of the writing process. Although three minutes of random “thinking” is much preparation for writing, the brain is a pretty fast computer, able to quickly collect, organize, classify, and prioritize remembered experience. Many students aren’t used to the idea that you should have even the most bare-bones idea about what you’re going to write before you start writing. I’m definitely no advocate of the idea that you should be able to see the end of your writing from the beginning, but I do think you should at least scout some possible paths before setting down one or the other.
After the thinking was done (so to speak), they had 5 minutes to write about the good writing experience (describing what made it so good, why the topic interested them, the sort of process they went through) and then the same aspects of the bad experience.
I didn’t plan on this taking the whole class period, but from most of the classes the discussion of this writing prompt took up the rest of our time. The people who talked about the best experiences they had with writing had especially interesting comments on the state of writing today with the nation’s youth.
One student talked about spontaneously writing a story in the 6th grade about a stick he used to pretend was a sword. There was a little theme going with the idea of “extra-curricular” writing. Another student, fed up with the course of his life a few months ago, sat down and wrote a diatribe against himself, which he saved on his computer with the title “Goals,” and still refers to on a regular basis today. This is a powerful piece of emotionally honest writing done without the motivation of a teacher or class. Other students told about how the praise of classmates and the pleasure of self-discovery had made their writing experiences worthwhile.
In a couple of classes, there were students who talked about re-using an essay several times. In one student’s case, she was given the same writing topic three years in a row, and so each year she added to the writing she did the previous year. The first year, she simply described an event in her life. The second year, she added details about her own thoughts and emotions throughout the experience. The third year, she added context and places the event within the larger scope of her life before and after. Each year, she asked and answered a new question, from What happened?, to How did you feel?, to Why does it matter?
I made a lot of notes based on student comments about writing. The thing is, I know teenagers are writing a lot these days, but almost none of them are employing any kind of process or strategies, so they fail to capture most of their writing’s potential power. That’s a stupid sentence, but maybe you catch my drift. If we can harness the good writing that’s happening outside of class, and get some of these strategies going, we could have some really powerful writers here.
Anyway, I’m all about QUESTIONS now. Here are my current questions about this class:
What motivates people to write?
How do people become generally curious?
Where do ideas come from?
When does working with another person stimulate creativity?
When does working with someone else stifle creativity?
How long does writing have to be to be good?
Who are the audiences students care most about?
Why do so many of the happy or useful experiences we have with writing happen outside of school?
Why are so few in-school writing experiences effective or memorable?
Anyway, thanks you guys for letting me pick your brains today. I was happy to hear you talk about your experiences. Enjoy your weekend!
Quote of the day: “The best experience writing was either when I wrote a song called “Suffer!!!” or when I wrote a poem called “her.”