Friday, January 14, 2011

Four Things I Learned About Teaching Writing


1. Building confidence is half the battle. What a student believes about her or his self works like a self-fulfilling prophecy. If students believe they can write or at least they will be able to write better someday, they will improve. If they believe that they cannot write and never will be able to, well, then, most likely that will be true. 

For tutors and teachers, I think criticism comes naturally, but sometimes, especially when writing comments on a paper, they forget to encourage. Critiquing is just as much about pointing out the good as a the bad. Small things like pointing out something a student does well in a paper can really make a difference in a student's view of his or her writing abilities.

2. Furthermore, writing is tied to identity, so when a teacher carelessly red pens 32 errors on a single page or gives students comments like "poorly written" with no constructive feedback, students internalize it to mean that there is something wrong with them. They take it to mean that they are dumb, and that they can't write. This may lead to apathy, the kind that is often interpreted as laziness or disrespect. Even as a graduate student, I've had professors make me feel that way, and I am fairly confident that I can write an academic paper. Can you imagine what that does to a freshman who is completely uncertain about their skills and their place in college?

3. Focused freewriting is a magical tool. Students can really thrive from low pressure situations to jump start the invention phase of writing. Many of my students had only learned to write for tests in high school, so their only notion of prewriting was making a five-paragraph essay outline. I find that asking them to just write about a question or a few questions to get the brainstorming going is a really effective way to get them thinking about their topic. For my students, much of the stress about writing came from testing. They believed they had to write perfect sentences the first time around, and it would send them into a deer-in-the-headlights type of mental block. They just couldn't say anything, let alone what they wanted to say. Tricking them into just writing, without worrying about grammar or content, helped many of them begin to shape their ideas. 

But, don't just say that freewriting is a prewriting tool! Focused freewriting can be useful in any stage of the writing process. Added bonus: it also teaches students to edit and revise.

4. RAFT OR RAFT is not my creation (though I added in the OR). I've seen it used in many ways in K-12 writing, often as a prewriting tool or to create assignments (I saw one where students were asked to write as if they were a pretzel that was going through the digestive system). I thought that with a little molding it could be very useful in a college writing classroom. Rather than using it as a prewriting/assignment building tool, I use it post-first draft.

RAFT OR stands for role, audience, form, topic, organization, and research. These are the six things that I ask students to consider when they write. I was told by a student that s/he had never learned to consider writing in those terms. In fact, many of them said that they never considered role or audience when they wrote. When I introduced this idea after they wrote first drafts, it opened up the way they thought about that particular assignment. Rather than looking for typos, they started looking at word choice and how they were using evidence and research, not just that they were using some. Also, my students told me that they didn't know how to organize papers, so this was a great opportunity to talk about some easy organization strategies (other than the lame five paragraph essay).

One other great way to use RAFT OR: Ask students to break down a class reading through these terms in groups to show them how these principles were being applied in real writing.

1 comment:

Tara said...

Loved this post! When I start teaching, I am definitely going to reference this. Can't wait to see you next week!