Writing with Students

There’s been a thread running on the Writing Program Administrators’ listserv lately about the virtues of writing with one’s students. The idea is that doing the assignments with students — writing what you assign them to write, when you assign them to write it — has considerable pedagogical benefit for both student and teacher. I’m familiar with the idea and endorse it, and have been ridiculed (here, if memory serves, in the comments) for doing so. I think the resistance to the idea of writing with one’s students that such ridicule suggests necessarily involves notions of mastery: perhaps the teacher is too smart, too well-educated, too familiar with the topics he or she teaches to do something as wasteful as writing with one’s students. Certainly, in my classroom — where we write for at least 20 minutes out of every 55-minute lesson day, for 40 lessons — I can see how a visitor might say, “But why aren’t you teaching?”

What does that question mean? Why am I not delivering knowledge? Well, yes, sure; compositionists mostly know enough to wave away the lecture model, to follow Freire in avoiding the banking model. Knowledge doesn’t simply transfer from the teacher’s mouth to the student’s ear via the medium of language. Why, then, are we not engaging in the social-epistemic model of knowledge-building via discussion or group problem-solving activities? Well, we are, in part: there’s that other entire portion of class when we’re not writing, and that’s a lot of what we do. I’m particularly fond of the group problem-solving (and problem-posing) activities as applied to specific rhetorical situations and strategies: students in groups of three talk over and write out strategies for engaging a particular rhetorical situation, and then (in my technologically privileged environment) we throw those strategies up from their laptops onto the six large-screen monitors around the perimeter of the room and talk about their relative advantages. Often, following Peter Elbow’s idea of the journey out (from the individual to the social) and then the journey back (from the social to the individual), we’ll go back to 750words.com and do some follow-up writing after the group activity that I then encourage them to incorporate in some form into their essay drafts. But yes: the primary focus and the pedagogical center of classroom work is on the activity of composing. That’s because I believe that students can learn more from a well-designed writing activity — from actually doing the work of writing — than they can from anything else that other people can tell them, including me. Practice matters. Habit matters. I know from experience that the best thing I can do as a writer and scholar is to write. (To paraphrase Charlie Moran: I believe this argument is sufficiently self-evident that the burden of proof lies on those who would argue otherwise.) Still, though, I see plenty of composition classrooms where teachers talk about ideas for 55 minutes and where teachers assign writing as homework. Where and when do they anticipate that writing will get done? Why do they anticipate that writing will get done? How do they anticipate that writing will get done? After all our empirical studies of what happens when we teach writing, isn’t the act of writing what we should be teaching in our classrooms?

Well, yes. I’m sure I’m being somewhat unfair: when teachers — myself included — talk about heuristics or strategies or approaches, we’re teaching writing. I’ve got a potted 20-minute talk that uses a mnemonic device (SEAR: situate, embed, analyze, relate) that I hope helps students remember the things they need to do in incorporating quotations from sources into their own writing. Later in the semester, I often come back to that topic of working with sources using Joseph Bizup’s BEAM (background, evidence, argument, method) taxonomy. So, yes, I “teach,” for vexed values of that term. But for me, the work of composition is almost always best done in class, where we can talk about it — and the work that supports that teaching can always be done outside of classes. If it’s discussion, discussions can be handled asynchronously on blogs. If it’s reading, well, most reading to my mind is best done outside of class, but there is still often considerable pedagogical benefit to working with reading during class, especially early on, so one can assess how best to help each student, including those who might not read as carefully or as slowly (yes, slowly: many of my students have a difficulty with reading too fast) as some of their classmates.

Teaching writing happens when students are writing and teachers can talk to them about that writing. If the writing doesn’t happen, there’s no point in worrying about the teaching, because teaching isn’t going to happen. That’s why I ask my students to write in class. And that’s why I write with them, both in class and out of class, and in 750words.com, where I require them to write. If I’m going to value the work of writing as the coin of the pedagogical realm, I’d better do it all the way.

Writing with Students

2 thoughts on “Writing with Students

  • February 8, 2012 at 12:09 am

    I know this may not be an exact fit with what you do, in a number of ways, but even traditional direct instruction models work with what you describe, or can work with what you describe. One can tell (I guess that could mean lecture) about what is to be done, accomplished, attempted, examined or whatever verb makes the most sense. That can then be demonstrated by the teacher to show how it can be done. Students can then get guided practice with the writing, and they can then do independent practice. What you describe above is more sophisticated than that, but I see a lot of parallels. The main one, writing with students and having students write in class, and beyond.

  • February 14, 2012 at 10:30 pm

    A nice, very elegant description of the semester and this technique. Nicely done.

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