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    My daily writing--emails, journal entries, marginalia, more emails, blog posts, and tweets--shapes me as a writer, helping and hindering the big stuff I'm trying to accomplish. Every word counts.

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Get Inside

I’m wondering if students have trouble learning to take chances in their writing, or if a sense of adventure is worn out of them (by which I mean it may be taught out of them).

Today I covered a friend’s writing class. She told me what they’ve been doing and let me decide how I would work with the students. The final draft of an essay is due on Friday. They’ve received response from the instructor and peers, so I decided to lead an exercise that might help them with late-stage revision.

I gave them two options: 1) Select six to eight key points from the essay and write a six- to eight-line poem (an idea borrowed from friends who teach writing); 2) Or they could write an adventure story about the experience of writing the essay–how they overcame challenges, whether or not they achieved their goals, etc. Whether or not these were brilliant ideas (not my intention) or fun for them (I could hope, but probably not), I thought these prompts would help them learn something about what they’d written and how they’d written it.

Revision should help you get inside what you’ve written. It’s like when you’re trying to open a cereal box. You know where to open the package, but sometimes it’s difficult to get your finger underneath the tab and you need to use a butter knife. Or you may have trouble getting hold of the tab but you pull at an odd angle and mangle the tab, so you can’t get the box to close properly.

You want to get inside but without causing damage. It’s okay if you do; it’s not as if you’ve completely destroyed the box and contents, except in those rare situations when you pull apart the sides of the internal plastic bag with enough force to nearly dislocate your shoulder and send chunks of granola flying onto the counters, floor, and the top of the refrigerator. Sometimes you have to clear the mess, dump it, and start over because you can only pick up a few chunks before the five-second rule expires.

No one went quite that far, and to be fair, I didn’t expect it. That kind of destruction is difficult to achieve in twenty minutes unless you’re panic-stricken. A few of the students did manage to get inside their essays with little damage to the packaging. They had some fun digging around and pieced together poems and stories that were mildly entertaining and seemed to help them consider minor changes. I asked them to stand up and present their stories and poems to the group, and they played along. For these students, the exercise mostly confirmed the work they’d done, which was a result I intended. Sometimes you open the box and the contents are as fresh as you expected.

Most of these students didn’t do much more than draw on the outside of the box. It’s good that they didn’t risk a creative mess. They’re probably the kind who would leave their granola scattered on the kitchen floor well beyond five seconds and reach down for a nibble after stomping it to dust.

After all of the willing shared their poems and stories, I asked them to write a bit more about what they’d learned from the exercise. Did they realize something about the content in their essays or perhaps about their process that could help them with revision? I also invited them to say if they hadn’t learned anything from the exercise, and if so, what did they need to do as they revised on their own? A few of agreed that they’d learned something and that in some minor way the new information would be useful.

To my surprise, no one admitted that s/he’d learned nothing from the exercise, which disappointed me. It’s unlikely that one exercise would inspire all students in a group of 15, and even if it did, it’s even more unlikely they would admit it. In fact, they admitted nothing; they simply didn’t speak up. I’d anticipated some of them would push back, let me have it, but instead they simply refused to engage.

If this weren’t a common problem, I wouldn’t be going on about it. But I would argue that this is one of the greatest challenges in working with students. It reminds me of something my friend Sally told me years ago, that sometimes she knows something might be good for her to learn, but she can’t want it. Her example was temporary, and she could force herself to want to learn when necessary, or at least she could fake it. Through that effort she would learn something about the topic, at least the minimum, but usually more. She was intellectually curious.

I’m not sure how to help students learn intellectual curiosity. I believe that it can be learned, but what makes you want it? Grades probably don’t help. They’re external incentives. They’re empty calories that taste good, or maybe they’re drugs you’re fed to control your mind. Either way, you just end up shitting them out. What’s a substantive internal incentive, something that’s going to stay with you so you can want to learn? Or maybe a better question is how do you learn to take responsibility for wanting to learn?

In happier news, a student I meet with every week thanked me today for helping him. I ask him about his classes and his life. When he tells me about problems, I help him talk through to some solutions. When he tells me things are fine, I try to ask follow-up questions that will help me figure out if he’s bullshitting me.

Things have been going well for him, more or less, but today he seemed in a better mood. Among various reasons, he’s enjoying his writing class. A few weeks ago, he hated it, but something has changed for him. I know he put some effort into seeing things differently, but more than anything, I think he lucked out. After suffering through some of the early course readings, he read one that resonated with him, which gave him a way in. The real challenge will be for him to remain engaged even when he’s not loving the learning.

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5 Responses

  1. Jim,
    I am on board with you on this one. At the very least, you work with college students who have some goal to obtain in the next four years. I’m trying to get my 7th graders to at least become somewhat invested in reading/writing, but most of them can’t see past who said what in study hall and the Jonas Brothers. It is very frustrating.
    But trust me when I say, you do a good job.
    – Emily

  2. Wow, these exercises are very cool. May I borrow them? I wonder what my students would do. I teach at a business school, and not only are the students almost entirely void of curiosity, but they are even more driven by grades than most students. They don’t even bother to pretend they want to improve their writing when they come to me; instead, they ask me how they can get an A. It’s so depressing.

  3. Emily: True, college students usually have a long-term goal to graduate, but they’re often not sure how to get there (or why) in the first year or two. I think some of them are into the Jonas Brothers, though. 🙂

    Kristina: Please feel free to borrow the exercises; that’s what I’ve done with one of them. Let me know how they work for you and your students, and also any changes you make so they fit your needs. Yes, for many students, their teachers’ purpose is to serve as grade brokers, because grades have been emphasized over learning experiences.

  4. I’m not sure if you have ran across this idea that many students have or not. A lot of the students at SU, were honor students in high school. Honor students learn not to speak up unless their answer is the correct one. Thus, students learn to be afraid to speak in class, regardless if the question has a right answer or not. Once a student is conditioned like that, intellectual curiosity is lost, it becomes more work than most students are willing to put into anything.
    ~Kris

  5. Kris: Thanks. I understand that in public education, silence and regurgitation are rewarded, and this is probably even more common since schools and teachers have been having to answer to NCLB. Given that honors students feel the stakes are higher for them to earn high grades, they’re even more likely to do what is expected of them.

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