Sunday, May 16, 2010

Examining Writing, pt. 2

I left off here.

Assume, for the moment, that we're not going to stop teaching classes that focus on a region, a type of literature, or a theme. How do we revolutionize our teaching of writing without completely reinventing the wheel?

What are some practices that might help students become better writers and better thinkers? How can we get good essays without having to grade every draft and revision? How can we get students to see their own work critically?

Practices I've used with some success include regular journaling and freewriting a là Bard College. But that has usually been in the context of my Advanced Composition class, which I use as a laboratory for teaching writing; in the context of most other classes, so much time devoted to writing and sharing our writing would be impossible, since we'd also have to look at the text we're reading. I've also spent time using student work to discuss various aspects of analytical essay—the formal stuff like opening and closing paragraphs, integrating textual support, and making clean transitions between ideas. And I'm a huge fan of getting students to write about the text to each other in informal spaces.

But is it possible to assign papers that are less formal, yet that still approach the text and manipulate it in some way? In other words, if it's a given that students must learn how to write something resembling an analytical essay (and that's a big "if"), is it possible to go about it sneakily, by having them write something else, something they enjoy writing more? (Of course, there's another question that arises here: is school supposed to be about enjoyment?)

Should the writing reflect the reading? Or should it intersect with the world in a broader sense? I'm thinking right now of an essay I read in Urban's literary magazine, which is clearly influenced by a piece of literature, but isn't an analytical essay in the way that we teach it. But it is a great essay, and a fine piece of writing.

I know this post is long on questions and short on answers. But the reason I'm blogging isn't necessarily about stating all my beliefs and coming up with a list of the best possible practices for teaching English. I'm blogging to figure out what I think the big questions are and to reflect on what works and what doesn't work, and what I still need to figure out for myself as I continue teaching.

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