Teaching Writing and Discovering Who You Are

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. Why not 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 to write at all?”

 

Even more, you can ask yourself: “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. When writing is viewed as revelation or discovery, a means not only for expressing but thinking critically about 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, as if it would rob them of their creativity. Brainstorming, they think, only gets in their way. It feels reassuring to “just write” or just get something down on a page.

 

It’s helpful to ask students directly how they approach writing, what works for them and what is most difficult, 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, offer a form to guide them step by step through structuring their essay. Or, show students an old, pre-computer scriptwriting process, that 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 plot line. You could adapt this to 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.

 

Underneath their resistance to writing might be a lack of trust in their intellect or they might not be able to focus attention enough to hold onto and clearly hear their own ideas. In that case, I explain that writing can be part of thinking. The purpose of brainstorming is to allow you to work with your 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 simply getting down a first draft. But even more, I talk about uncovering your own truth. 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. Start by assigning meaningful topics or questions to write about or get students involved in creating the topics. Then use prompts to help students understand the question or assignment: “How are you hearing the question? What is it asking you to do? What are the different parts of the question?”

 

Then brainstorm how to approach the question: “What is it that you really feel, think and want to say? What intrigues you about this subject? What do you love or hate about it? What are your assumptions?” 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 your confusion, it unravels.

 

When you brainstorm, 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. 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.” Much of this instruction I learned from a wonderful writing practice called proprioceptive writing, developed by Linda Trichter Metcalf and Tobin Simon. It also 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 and questioning. Then you allow an incubation period. You step back. You meditate. 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?” You can imagine each side of an argument has a different tone of voice and have them speak to each other. Or you can have students draw the central questions they are dealing with. Then insight and understanding comes more easily to them. Then you test what you think is correct.

 

When writing is explained in this way, it’s creative, not just work. 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.

 

*For more information on teaching writing and on a process of thinking creatively, critically, and with compassion, see my newly released book, Compassionate Critical Thinking.

Sometimes, The Best Thing To Do Is Sit With It

Some people think critical thinking is very difficult and that it’s all about hard work and great, even unnatural effort. This is obvious in many schools, where learning is considered work prescribed by teachers, administrators, even politicians who know “what is best for students.” They want students to learn on schedule as if they were products on a factory assembly line. They try to cement this attitude in place by testing and judging students in ways that are convenient for policy makers and administrators, not students; that yield easy numbers, even though the meaning of those numbers is highly unclear and the evidence predominantly shows such assessments do more to interfere with learning than assist it. When the mind is overfull and frightened, focused on appeasing others with test scores instead of meeting and uncovering one’s own drive for understanding, then learning and thinking is difficult. ‘Education’ comes from ‘educere,’ meaning ‘to draw/lead out,’ but too many forget this.

 

If we want clear thinking, that is critical, independent and creative, we need to work with our students, not against them. We need to bring their lives, their questions into the curriculum. This can be done in ways as simple as asking, at the beginning of the year, what they already know about the topic of study and what questions they want answered, to giving choices on assessments and projects or even creating a class based on their questions. This can be done by thinking of the classroom as a supportive learning community, not a factory or competitive raceway. We need to teach in ways that utilize natural mental processes. We need to teach how to hit “refresh,” clear away mental and emotional obstacles and lethargy.

 

Ask yourself, when is your mind most fresh and clear, most ready for thinking? For me, this has changed. When I was in college, my mind was clearest late at night, when everyone else was asleep, the city was quiet, and I let go of what I felt I “needed to accomplish.” I could just sit with whatever.  Nowadays, it’s in the morning. I wake up with my mind refreshed. Any concern or question I had before sleep was now unconsciously processed. Creativity theory calls this aspect of mental processing, of finding ways to let the mind go quiet, “incubation.” Incubation is not only about sleeping on a question. It is “letting something sit.” It is a time to take three deep breaths, relax, do something different, exercise, sit under an apple tree, smell a rose, and have fun. For teachers, it’s time to give your class a sunshine break. So, why not apply this knowing of how and when you think most clearly to critical thinking? To learning? Let your mind-body marinate whatever questions, problems, concepts it faces. Incubation, or “sitting with it” refreshes mind.

 

Another way to refresh mind is mindfulness practice. It helps you monitor your thinking moment-by-moment so you know better when you are losing focus or getting diverted by other interests or emotions. It uncovers whether an answer “feels right” and not just intellectually looks right. It clears and focuses mind so it is attentive, ready, present. It is like waking up in the morning with a clear, attentive mind.

 

You need a break because when you have to examine complex materials in-depth, the brain has a great deal to handle. It can’t organize and digest too much material at once. So, once you’ve immersed yourself in the material that you need to understand and analyze, once you’ve engaged in thorough research and explored different theories or explanations, then stop the direct mental push and the effortful striving. Stop the urge to jump to hasty conclusions and easy or habitual answers. You need to allow the mind to switch out of conceptual understanding and analysis. Allow the brain to work at its own pace to integrate all the material and work with the natural processes of your mind. The result of this process is an inner quiet, decreased anxiety and increased insight. Later on, you need to test, question the insight. But first, you need to let it come.

 

Even when you think you have no time, or maybe especially then, remember to take a moment now and then and focus on one breath, then another. For example, at the end of the school year, when you have so many tasks to complete. By giving yourself time, you gain, not lose, time. Why is that? Your mental attitude changes. You focus on one thing each moment and so feel less rushed and think more clearly. You sit silently in the center of your life so you hear the universe, in one location, speaking to itself. And what a beautiful sound that can be.

 

 

*Photo: Maui, Hawaii.