Writing As A Process of Discovering Your Truths And Power

Sometimes teachers ask themselves, “How do I get students to use the full writing process, to start with brainstorming and proceed to outlining, first draft, etc.,?” I think that question assumes that the writing process, as usually taught, is the most appropriate way for each student to approach writing. I prefer to start with: “How do I help each student to think clearly and express that clarity?” Or: “How do I help this student to write well?” Or: “How do I motivate this student to write?” And: “How do you write what is your own truth?” Discovering what works best for you, and why, can help you relate to your student’s struggles. And when writing is viewed as revelation or discovery, a means not only for expressing but thinking critically about yourself and your life, then writing becomes intrinsically motivating. It is not just something imposed by a teacher. And then the most important part of writing instruction is already taught.


I noticed that whenever I first try to discuss the process of writing with a group of secondary school students, they rarely like or fully understand how to outline or brainstorm. Or maybe they don’t like it because they don’t understand it. They think the “full writing process” is a waste of time. Outlining feels artificial, inauthentic. Brainstorming, they think, only gets in their way. They want to “just write” or just get something down on a page.


It’s helpful to ask students how they approach writing and what is most difficult for them, but you have to listen and watch closely for answers. They might not be able or willing to say it all in words. And you need ways to individualize instruction in response to what they say.


Sometimes, the problem is that they don’t know how to organize their ideas or they are easily overwhelmed by material. In that case, I offer a form guiding them step by step through structuring their essay. Or, in the past, I showed students an old process used by scriptwriters. It involves writing, on 3 x 5 cards, each scene you envision for the movie. Then you place the cards on a table and move them around to find the most appropriate plotline. You could do the same thing with a research or persuasive essay by recording facts, theories, and lines of reasoning on the cards and move them around to build the strongest argument for your position. Or you could use a concept map or computer graphics to serve a similar purpose.


Other times, students feel an outline or brainstorm takes away the creativity. Or, underneath that, they don’t trust their intellect or feel that if the process were too organized it would chase away their ideas. In that case, I explain that brainstorming allows them to work with their own brain and not against it. The brain processes that foster insight and creativity are different from those that edit, or check spelling and grammar. So doing a brainstorm frees the mind from anything that is irrelevant to writing a first draft.


But even more, I talk about uncovering your own truth. “What is it that you really feel, think and want to say?” Brainstorming is a way to free your mind from assumptions and get at what isn’t initially clear. It is a way to integrate material and synthesize information.


Actually, it’s helpful to talk about writing as part of thinking from the very beginning of an assignment or project. Start by giving students meaningful choices to write about. Then use prompts to help brainstorm how to approach the subject: “What intrigues you about this subject? What do you love or hate about it? What are your assumptions?” To help students understand the question or assignment, ask: “How are you hearing the question? What is it asking you to do? What are the different parts of the question?”


When you brainstorm, what do you do? Just put your pen to the paper and write whatever comes to you in response to the prompt. “What do you hear in your head? What thoughts and ideas come to you? If you get lost or confused, write down your confusion.  Write what you hear, hear what you write. Don’t edit. Just let your self go free. Edit later. Write until what you hear feels real, honest, exciting, and large enough to do justice to the topic. Write until the topic feels new or fresh to you.” Sometimes, when you don’t know where to begin an essay or can’t figure out how to answer a question, make the essay the unraveling of your confusion. Start your brainstorm or the essay itself by voicing what troubles or confuses you. By going directly into it, it unravels. Much of this instruction I learned from a wonderful form of meditative writing called proprioceptive writing. This practice can be adapted to a classroom setting. It asks students to use a pen or pencil instead of a computer or phone because when you write with the hand, you actually shape the words and thus have a greater ability to see and hear what you write.


Emphasize that any writing, not just short stories or poetry or film scripts, is creative, and can follow the creative process. You begin with preparation and immersion in the material. You go through a time of frustration, even confusion, questioning. Then, before insight, you allow an incubation period. You step back. You meditate. You do exercises. You play games. Especially for younger students, but its great with anyone, have some fun. Loosen up. For example, if the assignment is to write a persuasive essay, ask the students, ”If the different sides or aspects of this question were animals, which ones would they be?” Or, you can imagine each side of an argument has a different tone of voice. Or you can have students draw the central questions they are dealing with.


When writing is explained in this way, it’s creative, not just work, not only logic. When the student’s actual thoughts, obstacles and ways of thinking are made part of the process, the assignment becomes less an imposition and more of a revelation. The student feels like you’re helping them discover their truth and power, not taking it away. And that’s exactly what you want and what writing is about.




*Over the next few months, I will be devoting more time to completing my book on teaching, less to these blogs, so don’t be surprised if I miss a week now and then. Wish me well.

Big Sky Mind and Perception

How often do you look up at the sky? I mean, just look at it? I am more likely to do it at night. I walk out of the house, onto the deck, and the stars are just there. Of course, it’s easier for me than for most people because I live in a rural area where the night sky is not hidden by the lights of a city. But usually, especially during the day, I look at the sky only as the distant background, like when watching a hawk fly off from the road into the sky. My mind is usually taken up by human affairs, plans, news, and the remnants of a conversation, not the empty sky.


But when I do look at the sky, I can get lost in it. The vastness overwhelms me and, interestingly, I then see more clearly. This can be a great lesson. When my mind quiets, my perception improves. Why does that happen?


There are so many questions about perception and the best ones are not only scientific but philosophical. We look at the world and think the world is as we perceive it. When we see a tree, we think it is just there, entirely separate from us. We see the blue sky and don’t feel the blue is our own artwork. We think it is out there, on its own. But is that true? And, if so, to what degree? To what degree, if at all, does what is perceived depend on the perceiver? I won’t even go into the toughest question of them all, and that is how is it that I can perceive, or be conscious, at all? Teachers need to ask these questions of themselves and their students.


Remember the game of peek-a-boo? It’s a common and wonderful game to play with children, who are not sure that the world, you, their parents, will not disappear when they close their eyes.  The question is, if you close your eyes, what is it that remains of what was seen?


To better understand the role of the perceiver in what is perceived, maybe start by thinking of a person who is colorblind. If you’re color blind, can you imagine the world full of color? Or if you’re not color blind, can you imagine how your sense of the world might change if the world was less rich with color, closer to grey and white? Or can you imagine seeing the world with four primary colors, like some fish, instead of three? Or, better yet, try to imagine you’re a dog or a cat. A cat has less visual acuity than a human, but their ability to perceive movement or see at night is far superior to your own. A dog’s sense of smell is at least 10,000 times stronger than yours and a cat’s is almost as strong as the dog’s. This sense of smell is further enhanced as the nose has the quickest route to the brain of any sense. Smell, even in a human, is also the first sense to fully develop. The messages received by the nose go directly to the older emotional centers of the brain.  The cat or dog thus moves through a world of emotions arising as scents. They move through a world defined largely by scents just like you move through a world of sights.


What our eyes sense is light waves, not color. Color is the way we perceive a certain wavelength of light to which our senses (and brain) are sensitive. There is so much light out there that we just aren’t equipped to see. So, the world without beings who can sense is full of different wavelengths of light, but not colors. Wavelengths of sound, but not symphonies. Floating molecules that can stimulate smells, but not the delicious aroma of liquid chocolate.


What we see and who sees are thus inextricably tied together. They are one.


So, when you look at the sky, I recommend that you just look, without any inner commenting. Or, if you’re in a room, use your imagination. Let your body settle down. Focus on breathing in and then breathing out. And let come to mind the blue sky in all its vastness. No wind, no disturbances, just an open, bright, blue sky. How do you feel when the sun is shining and the sky is clear? A wonderful feeling, isn’t it?  Just sit with this sense of openness, this clarity and spaciousness.


When the mind is open and spacious, then self-concern, self-description, self-commentary are all dissolved. There is not a you, here, and the sky over there, separate, off in the distance. The sky is no longer a baby blue color off in the distance on a cloudless and quiet day. The sky is right in front of your face. It is so close, you don’t see it or think of it as sky. You don’t label it, separate from it, but you do breathe it. Or, better yet, it is simply breathed.  You do nothing. Openness of sky just meets openness of mind.


Can this be done? Can you perceive the world and other people with such openness, with no distance, and with everything beginning with a breath?

Teaching For Meaning

One of the great drives in life is for meaning, for living fully and deeply.  This is certainly true for teenagers, but it is also true for adults. As a teenager, I remember feeling a great fear that my life wouldn’t be meaningful. That as I got older my job and my society would deaden my dreams and my full humanity. I think Langston Hughes’ poem, A Dream Deferred, gets at this fear. I feared my life would “dry up” or “fester.” This fear was, on the one hand, a great distorting influence. So many times, I would hear of a potential job or opportunity and I would reject it as not good enough or I’d feel the daily requirements of the job, getting up early, sitting at a desk, etc. were walls that would imprison me. On the other hand, the need for meaning drove me to take chances. It drove me to hitch-hike across the country a few times and across Europe and to join the Peace Corps. It drove me to study philosophy, to protest against wars and to get to know people who knew what meaning tasted like.


As teachers, when we enter into the classroom, we have to remember that our students have this same drive for meaning. They might feel themselves pushed to the edge, to take chances, just like we did, but not be aware of why. We have to teach students how to look underneath their interests and fears for the meaning waiting there. We have to understand what it is that we seek in order to better understand and help uncover what anyone else seeks. By better understanding our own drives and needs we are more capable of understanding and feeling those of others. Other people become more alive to us. We have to remember the times when our lives felt full of meaning so we know what makes a moment or a life meaningful and we can make our teaching be the discovery of that drive. And we don’t do this by telling students what to think. We do it by mentoring students and ourselves in self-discovery and questioning.


In order to better understand what works for you so you can better help your students, try the following practice. It involves inquiry and visualization. Inquiry does not always have to be hard work. It can sometimes be relatively easy and fun. It will take just a few minutes and can be adapted to the classroom. You could record this and then play it back so it’s easier to practice.  If you have a lazyboy or a couch, feel free to use it for this exercise. Or if you’re in your classroom and the chairs are not so comfortable, just find the most relaxing way to sit in the chair.


Take a moment to sit back and relax. Just settle into the chair. Close your eyes now if you can, or in a moment or two, as you feel comfortable. Its good to feel comfortable, isn’t it? Especially in doing school work. Focus just on breathing in and out. Just follow the breath in. Do you feel how your body expands a little as you breathe in? Then what happens as you breathe out? Does your body relax, settle down, let go?


Pause between each sentence of the directions. Read in an easygoing, comforting yet focused voice.


Now think of a time that you had an illuminating, educational, engaging experience, where you felt truly alive, in or out of a classroom. Just let come to mind any experience where you felt involved, that had a sense of meaning and depth to it. It could be a walk you took, a trip, a conversation. Just see it in your mind. Let whatever comes to you be there for you. Where was it? Who was involved? When did it occur? What was around you?


What made the experience so engaging, illuminating? What did you learn from it? What did the experience feel like?


Now, just sit for a moment with the feeling of being engaged, of finding meaning. Sit with the feeling that your life is meaningful and full.


Afterwards, ask yourself: What lessons can I take from this experience and apply to my classes? To myself?


Another practice is to make the classroom a place where the deep questions in student’s lives can be uncovered, respected and made part of the curriculum. When I taught a high school course called The Historical Development of Human Ideas, one of the overarching understandings I wanted to teach was that history is the story of human interdependence. Change occurs through the interaction of multiple, maybe innumerable, forces. Out of this came essential questions like: How are the various forms of interpersonal human suffering created in and by a culture? So, on the first day of class, I asked them to write down: What are the biggest problems you see in the world today? We analyzed these, looked for the central problems, and then I told the students that their final assessment would be answering the question of how and why their problem developed. They would have to follow a strand through history and the different cultures we studied of the specific and defined “problem” in human history that they perceived and picked out.  They would have to describe and analyze the nature and extent of the problem and any forces, beliefs, conditions  (technological, historical, environmental, political, artistic, psychological, scientific, religious or other factors) which greatly increased or decreased the problem. In this way, their own questions became the class.


*Photo is of the library of Celsus in Ephesus, Turkey.