Writing as Design Part I: Revising Writing Instruction


As a disclaimer, much of this series of posts is inspired through my doctoral studies; specifically, the design approach I’ll be espousing is directly inspired by Dr. Ryan Rish–who I’ve cited many times on this blog–of Kennesaw State University.

Over the course of this school year, I have internally questioned my approach to writing instruciton continuously. The catalyst for my uncertainty presented itself unwittingly to me during last year’s summer courses.

Dr. Rish had introduced a concept he had been mapping out for a while that helps demonstrate how, in the course of writing or producing literacy in our classrooms, we rarely reflect on not only the process, but the impact as well. I gravitated towards this concept almost immediately and even integrated it into my fairly recent GCTE presenation back in February. Reflection has become a big part of my practice in the last year. For now, though, I want to concentrate on the design aspect of Dr. Rish’s model.

I had never considered writing as a form of design; I had always looked at writing through the lens of composition. The word ‘design’ today carries real gravity and in a way that simply didn’t exist when I was an undergrad just eight years ago. Today design is everywhere. Video games, websites, landscaping, interiors, apps are all common day products of design that is more accessible today than ever before. One of Merriam-Webster’s definitions reads, “to plan and make (something) for a specific use or purpose.” To reimage writing for a student as a way of making something specific and with purpose, while so seemingly simple, is almost a complete paradigm shift for many of my kids. Like many, I grew up thinking of design as a schematic, a drawing of sorts, that led to physical structure–I guess I assumed design had more to do with art and archetecture than communication.

Going into this fall semester, I constantly found myself asking my students to go beyond the words they might write on a piece of paper. I wanted them to remix arguments and find new mediums to communicate their point of view and research. (Come to think of it, my concern with design might have actually started all the way back with my Banksy Project two years ago!) As I moved into this spring semester, I realized that I was constantly have my students design or redesign their work. I wasn’t asking for classic composition anymore; I was asking for students to take the driving wheel and take ownership of what they were trying to communicate and reflect on why the design succeeded or failed. This new metaphor (to me) of design eventually really rooted itself in my philosophy of teaching writing, so by mid-semester, I had started asking my students to think of their writing as a form of design.

Below is a modfied graphic I show to my students that excludes the reflection component:


There is a missing set of arrows that have to do with intent and impact also supporting each other; still, the image above is a farily simplistic way of getting my students to see a potential feedback loop in their own writing process.

Ultimately this lends itself (hopefully) to greater awareness in revision work where many students begin a writing task simply reacting to a prompt instead of designing (owning) a response.

When we’re reacting to a prompt, we may be mindlessly scribbling content that is merely meant to meet a requirement of the prompt’s designer (a.ka. me, the teacher), which in turn gives me lack luster results from my students’ writing. And why should I expect anything more much of the time? I’m the original designer; I’m whom sets the students’ intent. What good writing ever comes out of someone else designing our writing for us?

Still, we cannot fully expunge ourselves of a teacher-designed prompt, so what is an English teacher to do?

I decided to focus on teaching process, revision, and putting an emphsis on design rather than product. Sure, I want ‘good’ writing from my students, but I can get better writing out of them if they have ownership of the writing, and I’ve come to believe this can be done through a design heuristic. Here are some images that show some of the process I started to take my students through:

writingdesign2 writingdesign3 writingdesign4It begins by me giving them a student paper that is rife with design issues. I lovingly refer to the paper as the “Oregon Paper” since it is composed by a student taking an Oregon state writing exam. Students start the process by revising a stranger’s work first. This impersonal approach brings some of the fear and anxiety of their own writing down a notch. We explore diction (specifically verb choice) and the tone of the essay, and we try redesign it. It caps off by fully redesigning one of the essay’s paragraphs while trying to be concious of the moves we’re making concerning intent, design, and impact of the writing.

The results vary student to student, but consistently, students all engage in the process of revision and design. This new conciousness by my students has allowed us to delve deeper into conversations with their own writing and how they go about its design.

In my next post, I’ll introduce you to my teacher-designed prompt that I had students make their own. My goal is to show the process from not only my perspective, but the perspective of some of my students as well who will co-author some of the upcoming posts.

I’m really looking forward to seeing how this plays out. My hope is to have the next post up by the end of the week.

4 thoughts on “Writing as Design Part I: Revising Writing Instruction

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