By: Donald R. Gallehr
Donald R. Gallehr is an Associate Professor in the English Department at George Mason University. His research focuses on learning beyond the cognitive and its application to the classroom, as well as how meditation enables the writer. He teaches courses in advanced nonfiction writing, the teaching of writing, and theories of composition. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
As we all know, the process we use as writers is central to the writing we do. It can prevent such things as writer’s block and it can lead to high quality revision. In a previous blog post called “The Sticky Note Exercise,” the video shows us how one poses several questions to her students about writing, then gives them sticky notes for them to answer her questions and places these notes on the wall next to the questions she posed. She then forms students into small groups for them to share their ideas, and later the whole class discusses their comments. This gives everyone in the class knowledge of what they’re thinking about writing and writing processes.
No matter what discipline we teach in, we’re all assigning papers and giving our students advice on how to make their papers the best they can be. One problem that students in all our courses at times face is postponing their writing until the last minute. If we talk to them about the impact that their processes have on the final product, they are more likely to start their papers earlier in order to have time to think things through and to make the revisions that are necessary. This article will show you how to focus on the writing processes of your students so that they produce really good papers.
Background for Placing Writing Processes on the Wall
Three things led to my having my students place their writing processes on the wall. First of all, many of the students in my classes were visual. If I gave an assignment verbally, a number of students in each class would miss it, or get it wrong. If I wrote it on the board, and especially if I added a drawing to it, they remembered it and got it right.
The second thing was my growing awareness that the writing processes of a number of my students were hindering their writing, and I pointed out to them both as a whole class and individually such things as procrastination, sloppy editing, lack of research, lack of thought given to the topic, and lack of sharing their writings with others between drafts. I was looking for a more effective way to help them improve their processes, and for many of them this lesson really worked, and it worked not only in my class, but as they told me later in the semester, in all the classes they were taking all across the disciplines.
The third thing that led to this exercise was a chart of the human digestion system placed on the wall outside the Human Anatomy and Physiology classroom, which, by coincidence, was also the hallway between my office and the main office of the English Department. The digestion chart started at the mouth and ended at the anus, and along the way included clever signs and descriptions of the various activities that constituted digestion. The chart was created by one of the biology professors and appeared on the wall for approximately three weeks each semester. Students studied the chart and then took quizzes based on what they learned. I have always loved learning via visual aids, and in particular I admired the artistry and cleverness of this digestion chart.
Exercise 1: Individual Writing Process Charts
I gave my students two weeks to complete this assignment, and I introduced it by showing them the digestion chart in Robinson Hall and then, back in our classroom, drawing my own individual writing process on the board. My process began when I got an idea or was given an assignment, went through research, drafting, and sharing drafts with friends and colleagues to get feedback, then revision, editing, and finally submitting the piece to the intended audience. At each stage, I added a brief sketch. For instance, when I wrote, “Share with Heidi, one of my colleagues”, I drew Heidi’s face as best I could, with glasses and curly hair.
I then asked my students to map out their own individual writing process. The room became quiet as they worked at their seats; when they encountered problems, they asked for help, but mostly they worked in silence. Then I unrolled and gave each student a five-foot sheet of white paper on which they were to draw their own individual process. This took about 20 minutes and then we taped as many up on the wall as we had space. Of course, many of the students asked if they could take their drawings home because they wanted to add things to it.
Two weeks later, when my students arrived in class with their processes, I passed around Scotch tape and they hung them on the walls of our classroom. I was amazed. They were clever, insightful, honest, colorful, and endearing. Some included graphics they had retrieved from the Internet and printed out with color printers. Others included photos including one student who posted a photo of his girlfriend who regularly gave him feedback on his drafts. I gave them around fifteen minutes to read their classmates’ charts, and then gave them Post-It notes to write comments to each other and place them on the charts. I did not collect these notes, but by chance one student left four of his classmates’ notes on the back of his chart. They read: “I like the use of pictures within the text.” “Procrastinating pictures are so true! I think it’s always hard to start something, so sleeping on an idea is good!” “It is good to do research.” “Sleeping on ideas. I do it too.” These notes made it clear that students were internalizing the writing process, making them able to learn from and teach one another how to use the writing processes that made their writing the best it could be. This information was not just something they were learning, they were internalizing the things in their own individual writing process that they then actually did when writing papers for all their classes. In effect, they were becoming better writers all across the disciplines.
At the end of this class, I collected their charts, carried them back to my office, and taped them to the wall in the same hallway as the digestive chart.
Exercise 2: Class Writing Process Chart
The following class I brought in a 15 foot sheet of tan construction paper, taped it to the wall, and asked my students to draw THE writing process as they saw it. As soon as the students left their seats to create the chart, they decided to draw a road. I think they considered the process a journey. Most of the students drew the early sections of the process—getting ideas, conducting research, procrastinating, sleeping on ideas, but eventually, when it became clear that the later stages of the process such as final revision, editing, and drawing conclusions were being neglected, students drifted to the right side of the chart and added such things as a visit to the Writing Center, sharing with friends, and editing. At the end of class, they helped me carry the chart to the same hallway where I had taped their individual processes, and helped me tape the chart to the wall. Both they, and I, were proud of their work.
I would be remiss if I did not mention the reception I received from my colleagues in the English Department for decorating the hall with my students’ individual and class writing process charts. One said, “I love your charts.” Another said, “They’re so honest!” Several of my colleagues said, “Look what this student did! Look at this!”
My goal in having my students place their writing processes on the wall was to make them aware of their individual writing processes so that when possible, it would improve their writing. I also had them revise their individual writing process sheets after looking at THE writing process sheet, and even though some of their revisions were minor, my students considered them very helpful. The purpose of having them develop their own writing processes first was to have them become aware of what they were doing when they were writing. The collective writing process was helpful to many of them but it was not intended to be a model that they were supposed to follow. Some students found it helpful to share the initial ideas they were having with a friend while other students said it was best for them to write a first draft before talking with anyone because that gave them ownership of the ideas. We had a whole class discussion which showed that some of the things we were doing were all the same such as final editing, while other thing were very individualistic (drafting a handwritten copy with a pencil versus typing on an iPad). This discussion was important because it showed them the importance of each of us owning the process that worked the best for us. At the end of the semester, each student submitted a portfolio of their writings, and all the students were proud of having improved as writers. To my delight, many of them also referred to how improvements in their individual writing processes helped them become better writers.
Instructors who are considering using this exercise in their classes will find it very easy to do by following the steps listed above, and I’m sure their students will not only enjoy it as much as mine did, but will also become better writers because of it. For students who are visual learners, both the individual writing process sheets and the collective process sheet are very helpful. Their awareness of their own writing processes and the writing process of the whole class enabled them to make productive changes in how they wrote. It also enabled them to write in a way that produced the best writing they could do. And finally, my students told me that this exercise enabled them to give advice to other students who were asking them how to improve their writing. By becoming aware of their own writing process and studying THE writing process, my students became “teachers” of writing themselves, and when they taught others, it also strengthened their knowledge and awareness of writing across the disciplines