Feedback and conversational writing

I just read the “Don’t be Cruel” and “The Case for Conversational Writing” articles.

They both resonated. My comments on work often include the comment “you are a good writer.” I write this often because I often believe it’s true, and it’s important to point this out. Many students respond in a way that leads me to believe they’ve never been told this before by anyone. It reminds me of that old SNL skit where Eddie Murphy goes undercover as a white guy to see what life is like for white people. He goes to a newsstand to buy a newspaper, and when he puts the money on the counter, the shopkeeper looks at him like he’s crazy. “We’re both white,” he says. “Just take it.” That’s the face I tend to get when I tell students that they’re good writers. Like, “what is the meaning of this? Is this some kind of trick?” Or, if the student enjoys writing, they are obviously proud, like “I knew it. I knew I was a good writer. Confirmed.” Yeah, somewhere between incredulous and beaming.

I also always tell my students to write like they speak. In every course I teach. I realized a while ago that the best writing advice I could give them (the only writing advice, really) was what worked for me. When I tell them to write like they speak, I also get the “what is the meaning of this?” reaction. Because they seem to have been told the opposite forever. “Why not?” I tell them. “Why not write like you speak? You speak very well. And you sound like a human being, which, when you try to write in some artificial way, you don’t.” I also tell them that there’s a caveat to this: they can’t write how they would speak to they’re closest friends out at a bar on a Saturday night. I tell them to think of how they would speak at work, or in a classroom, or with someone they don’t know well. I guess I wasn’t totally conscious of the fact that the idea “write like you speak” entails an implicit consideration of audience. They have more experience speaking to different people in different situations than writing to different people in different situations, probably.

I also tell them the beauty of writing is you can express yourself even more precisely than when you’re speaking, because you can go back and edit what you said. How many times do we think of the perfect comeback or witty comment lying in bed later that night? You have that second (and third, and fourth, and so on) chance in writing.

And of course, positivity is something else that comes up in the “Don’t Be Cruel” article. The power of positive thinking. In class today, I told my students I was attempting to teach them the pleasure of creation, without the stress of a final product.

What we can accomplish is 100% determined by our thinking about it. This is coming up more and more for me in terms of how to foster creative thinking in the classroom. This is even bigger than genre or alternative assignments. It’s the joy of residing in the realm of the unknown.

Ah. Exciting stuff.

A Few Thoughts…

Hey folks,

Just thought I’d share some of my thoughts this week.

A benefit of being able to do this project, one that I didn’t really think about before, is that I have more time to devote to the one class I am teaching this semester: Nonfiction Writing. When embarking on this project, I thought about the time I’d have to research and think about alternative genres, but didn’t necessarily consider the impact of being able to focus on preparing for one class more intensively.

My Nonfiction Writing course, as I’ve expressed before, is really the thing that got me interested in WID in the first place. It is essentially a creative writing course. It’s my favourite class to teach. It’s also the one I’ve taught the most times, so I’m really settling into a state of grace with it where I can really fine tune the thing.

One thing I’ve been really focusing on a lot this time around is getting students excited about the process of working on one feature article throughout the semester. I’m heavily front-loading the course on ideas of how we feel about writing plays perhaps the biggest role in how our writing turns out. I’m trying to reinforce the idea that the most important thing about writing is to be excited about the process of creation. Yes, there will be a final draft that will count for grades, but that’s really just a part of it. I’m trying to show them ways to tap into the joy of creation, and to reinforce positive thinking about the work itself, rather than the result of the work.

I think it’s working. I think it’s working because there is an energy in the class. People are sitting up and paying attention and engaging. The work I’ve read so far has been great. The classroom just feels alive.

And it occurs to me that I’m attempting to do what Sullivan and others I’ve read so far have stressed: I’m teaching creativity. And creativity, by definition, is exciting. I think the extra energy that I have to pour into the preparation and delivery of this class is allowing me to experiment with leaning even more heavily on the creative aspect of students’ writing than I have in the past.

Another key thing is the blog. We’ve been looking at student writing more in this class that I’ve done in the past. They’ve done some lab exercises, and the following class we read some of their work in class. This allows me to teach them specific lessons by showing them exactly what they’re doing, and as a group, we can offer thoughts on how it can be improved. I’m also trying to instill a sense that writing is not something to be tucked away and hidden. It’s a living thing, to be shared. So far, they’ve all been willing participants.

Again to return to a common theme in my WID musings, teaching creativity in Nonfiction Writing has always been easier for me because it’s not a literature class. It’s more creative by nature. But, the elements that are really working–making students excited about writing as a process, teaching them how to have fun with writing and how to keep moving when they feel stuck–can be applicable to any type of writing. I guess what it all comes down to is that in Nonfiction Writing I teach writing as a human activity. Often in other classes, I teach essay writing as a school activity. One key could be to put the genuine human qualities of writing at the forefront of my classes. Allowing the students to make deeper connections to their own lives and own interests, as well, seems important. Again, in 101, 102, and 103, I tend to have the write insular essays where they’re meant to find patterns and connections within a work of literature. In the way I’ve designed things in these classes, when they stray from talking about the literature, they usually divert to platitudes, generalities, and things that don’t really demonstrate any creativity or critical thinking. But, this raises the possibility of designing assignments that inspire students to make connections between the literature we’re reading and the rest of the world in interesting, profound, and creative ways that simultaneously demonstrate an engagement with the material. It mostly requires a shift what skills I want the students to take away from the class, as we’ve been saying.

Of course, the blog is something that can be done in any class. Making their writing public, sharing it with each other more, etc.

Anyway, this post is a bit all over the place. And I feel like some stuff here repeats ideas I’ve already expressed. But, at the same time, my experience of reading what I’ve read so far about creativity is in some way influencing the emphasis I’m putting on creativity in my classes this semester. And the results are very promising so far, and I feel inspired to start thinking of more precise ways this approach can be applied to my more literature-based classes.