Friday, February 5, 2016

Being Writers Together

Look at all these words I've written!

I don’t always write with my students, but when I do, so many good things happen that I resolve to try to do it more often. 

It’s a frequently broken resolution. But one place I’ve succeeded in keeping it this year is writing timed practice AP essays with my students in AP Language and Composition.

As usual, good things have happened.

I’ve learned some things about my own writing process:
  • It is possible for me to sit down and get quite a few words on paper in a limited time when I have to. I normally have a rather slow and painful writing process, where the first draft is like squeezing blood from my brain, down through my arm, out through my fingers, and onto the page or screen. But once it’s there, it’s pretty close to a final draft. I preach to myself along with my students about bad first drafts and just getting something on the page, but I can’t seem to make myself do it. It’s easier when I’m surrounded by other furiously scribbling people. In fact, in that environment, it’s downright awkward to just sit there chewing on my pencil, frowning furiously if unfocusedly at a blank page.
  • No matter how bad I think it is as I’m writing, it’s usually better than I expected when I go back and re-read it.
  • I can come up with some pretty killer closers under pressure, when I had no idea what I was going to say one sentence earlier.
I’ve gained some first-hand insight for teaching about the test:
  • Take the 5-10 minutes to brainstorm and plan, but sometimes the ideas don’t start really flowing until the lead does. In this situation, I can tweak arguments midstream only until the end of the first body paragraph. I can start the second body paragraph with an “on the other hand” instead of a “furthermore,” but once I’ve gotten that far, I need to hang with the idea I started with, even if I’ve started to doubt it. For the test, it isn’t your actual idea, but the way you develop and support it. Switching claims mid-argument won’t score you points there.
  • There are simply some prompts that are easier for some people to write to than others. When you’re the one having a hard time with this particular prompt, that stinks. Write your best, anyway.
And I’ve gained some street cred for talking about writing:
Ideas, arguments, specific support, as well as style—similes, metaphors, anaphora, zeugma, alliteration—among all of us writers, we come up with so many different approaches! Sometimes I have a couple I am really excited about, and then I read the students writing, and they have some I with I’d thought of!

If you have never tried writing with your students, just pick one thing and try. Just a draft. Or a brainstorm. Model your process, struggle, failures, and successes. 

P.S. Maximum student writing, minimum teacher grading is an additional benefit to the way I set up this series of timed writes. We wrote 1 timed essay per week for 4 weeks. Each time after finishing we processed how we thought we’d done, and I read all the papers, but without the pressure—for them or for me—of grading. I just jotted a few comments, both encouraging and constructive—though no more than might be helpful for producing a better timed write the next week. The only grade was completion. After 4 of these timed writes, I asked students to submit the best one to be marked as an AP essay. So they pulled out their 4 essays last Wednesday and spent a good deal of time doing relative analysis—“This one had good examples, but this one had a great introduction.” They also noticed—as I did—that their essays had improved over the course of time.

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