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Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Advice for Young Teachers: Abandon Preconceptions

As a writing student, I always felt skeptical about pre-writing strategies.  Of course, "pre-writing" in some form or another is a necessary part of the writing process--thinking about what you want to write, maybe doing a little research, drinking heavily, whatever works for you.  But I never much went in for more "formal" types of pre-writing--those strategies that writing teachers have advocated since time immemorial, or at least since I started taking writing classes (which is as far back as I can remember anyway): things like free-writing and brainstorming and the ever-popular "clustering" (or "mind-mapping"--a phrase for which I've always reserved an irrational loathing).  Nevertheless, I've always dutifully taught these strategies because. . . well, honestly because what else am I going to do?  Say, "Just sit around and think for a while and something will come to you"?  Not particularly useful to a class of inexperienced writers.  So I grudgingly planned my lessons on pre-writing strategies, walking my classes through the rules of free-writing, brainstorming, and clustering, feeling satisfied that I had done my pedagogical duty, if dubious about these lessons' ultimate worth.

Imagine my surprise, then, to discover that my students actually seemed to get something from these lessons--to find value in that which I had always considered to be, at best, harmless busywork.

The lesson goes like this: I start with a general description of what pre-writing is: the work that a writer needs to do before actually beginning the drafting process.  I talk about how this can include informal activities like just thinking about a topic or talking about it, or more formal steps like reading and research.  But it can also include activities to help a writer get the creative juices flowing.  This leads to a discussion of freewriting--something which several students have already heard of.

In case you're not familiar, free-writing involves simply writing without stopping and without, as much as possible, self-consciousness: Spelling doesn't count, and neither does punctuation or grammar.  One can simply free-write about whatever pops into one's mind, or one can try free-writing on a topic ("focused" free-writing); even when doing a focused free-write, though, it doesn't matter if one drifts off-topic.  In my class, I ask students to do a focused free-write for five minutes on a topic of my choice.  I usually tell them to write about "the octopus."

Predictably, students groan and express utter ignorance of all things octopus.  I remind them, though, that there are no "wrong" free-writes, and, however dubiously, they give it a try.  After five minutes elapse, I stop them, and, while they shake out their hands--which, if they've done free-writing "right" are aching--I explain the next step.  In groups of four or five, students share their free-writing.  While each person reads, the other members of the group jot down whatever ideas interest them, whatever they think a writer could expand on, whatever facts might be useful for a later piece of writing.  After everyone has read, the group compiles its members' ideas into a master list.  I then go around the room, soliciting three or four ideas from each group, which I write on the blackboard.  Essentially, I explain, what we are now doing is brainstorming: gathering ideas about a topic, again without any particular judgements about right or wrong, better or worse.

Once I've heard from each group, we consider the "master list" on the board.  Now, it's time to start organizing and categorizing ideas.  If, for example, the first thing on the list is "eight legs," I put a number one next to this.  Let's say the next item is "calamari": I ask the students whether they think calamari "goes with" eight legs, or if this would belong in a different category.  Most agree that calamari belongs in a different category, so this gets a number two.  If the third item is "Squidward," this gets a number three.  But then let's say we come to "shoots ink": Some people would place this into a new category, others would place it in the same group as "eight legs."  Who's right?  Well, both.  At any rate, students are now told to move through the rest of the list, assigning numbers (sometimes more than one) to each item.

I next move on to the more "visual" pre-writing technique of clustering.  I draw a circle in which I write the word "octopus."  Around this circle, I place numbers--the numbers which we assign to each item in the master list.  Under number one, I write "eight legs," "shoots ink," and any other things the students decide to place in that group.  We then talk about a potential title for this group, "physical characteristics," perhaps.  Group two might be "octopus as food"; three might be "TV or movie octopi."  And so on.  (Appropriately enough, the finished cluster, with its various branches, kind of looks a little octopoid.)  Once we finish this cluster, I ask students if this big picture, with its various lists of ideas, is starting to look like anything.  Invariably, someone says "an essay" and/or paragraphs.

And there's the point.

"Imagine," I say, "if you had come in here today, and I had told you that, for homework, you had to write me a well-organized paragraph about an octopus.  Most of you would probably have felt at least a mild sense of panic.  'I don't know anything about octopuseses!'  But now, looking at what you've got here, if I asked you to write me that paragraph--and don't worry, I'm not going to--but if I DID ask you to write it, would it really be that difficult? In fact, you could probably write me a rough draft of this paragraph--which I PROMISE I'm not going to ask you to write--in about five minutes, right?  Sure, you'd probably want to go on Google and check your information for accuracy, but you could certainly generate eight to ten sentences on one of these aspects of octopusness, right?"  The students nod and say that, yes, in fact, it wouldn't be that hard to write that paragraph.  And then I tell them to write me a paragraph about an octopus.

Yeah, I suck.

The point, though, is that, even though I never saw a huge value in these strategies for myself, my students do see the value.  It's an important reminder that I need to abandon my preconceptions--which after all are the biases of someone who has been doing the thing that I teach at a relatively "expert" level for a relatively long time--in order to help my students advance along their own paths toward expertise.  Anything that helps teachers develop this all-important level of empathy is a valuable experience indeed.

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