Writing as Design Part IV: ‘I’ Say/’They’ Say

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Finally! Welcome to part iv of an on-going conversation I’ve been conducting with two students I had the honor of teaching this year–S and J. I’ve really enjoyed developing this series, and it has inspired in me a desire to write more often with students in the coming year. I’m not sure how valuable others have found the series to be, so I welcome feedback from teachers, professors, admins, and the like. If you’re interested or missed any of them, you can see Part I, Part II, and Part III by clicking the hyperlinked text.

Part IV concerns final reflections by both myself and my two students. This post (as far as I can tell today) will be the last in the series, and will provide unedited, unabashed reflections by my students on the totallity of the process, it’s outcomes, and what implications they believe the experience may have on their future writing as designers rather than reactors.

I’ve divided the reflections into four parts, each with a question helping drive the reflection. At some point, I’ll have an update that will include a fifth question that I asked both S and J later than I meant to. As soon as I get those responses, I’ll add them as an update in it’s own post. If you’ve enjoyed these posts, you’ll want to check out their final response when I post it; I feel as though it’ll be the best nugget from these posts. In the meantime, check out our conversation about writing in school.

Part 1: Why do we complete timed writings?

I say…

When I started my teaching career, I genuinely believed that the sole purpose of a timed writing was to support student test-taking that requires students to write in a specific window of time. I knew I hated them. I didn’t like developing the prompts; I didn’t like watching my students sweat out writing for an hour; and I loathed grading them. Years later I realized my internal disdain for the timed writings centered on the writing’s lack of authenticity. My epiphany arose out of years of discussions and readings during graduate studies. Admittedly, I focused on timed writing with students for no other reason than I was told to when I became a teacher, and a belief that students had to be able to write quickly for a district graduation requirement and the SAT. The younger me would probably just be mad that I’m still asking students to do something that I don’t really believe in anymore. The current me revised my thinking and my approach. Now I use timed writing as a brainstorming and writing conceptualization task. As part of the design approach to writing, I asked my students this year to take on a timed writing (that they didn’t know they’d be revising), but then used that timed writing as the roughest of drafts to begin revision and a redesign process. I’m not sure this approach is all that revolutionary or ‘right,’ but I enjoyed seeing students take up a timed writing in a more meaningful capacity.

They say…

S: We complete timed writings to see what we are capable of accomplishing in a specific time frame. It also reveals the strengths of the writer and where he/she has improved in their writing over time.

J: I think the reason why we have to complete timed writings in basically every language arts class is very much alike to the reason why we have similar time restrictions when taking tests and other summative assessments in any class: to prepare students for tests administered by the state, where they most definitely have a time limit in place. Tests like the SATs and AP exams all have a certain amount of time allotted for completion, and if a student can’t make that deadline then they shouldn’t expect very high marks on that test. So, in preparation for the future, students are timed throughout their academic career so it won’t be a surprise when taking standardized tests because they have already been conditioned to think and pull ideas together quickly and efficiently.

Part 2: Should timed writings only be used for brainstorming or drafting?

I say…

Yes! I really believe this now. I do not want my students going through school and the training in writing believing real writing looks like an hour quick write full of pressure, fear, and underdeveloped ideas. Instead, lets use timed writings as a way to jump start design, ideas, and development.

They say…

S: I do think that they should only be used for brainstorming (drafting). This way the strengths of the writer are still revealed, but they are also able to see where they should improve in their paper and major mistakes can be corrected. This way the writer can get the grade they deserved because they were given the chance to improve, whether they take up the opportunity or not.

J: I definitely think timed writings done in class should be used for brainstorming because I think that the brainstorming phase is the one step in the writing process that a student will frequently skip over. I am probably the worst when it comes to skipping the brainstorming phase, but I realize now that if I have an actual plan written down for my writing then there won’t be any of those awkward “what-do-I-write-now?” pauses after I complete each paragraph. Granted, if we had been told the first day of the timed writing that our essays were going to serve as drafts only, I would’ve taken it a lot less seriously but not necessarily in a bad way; what I mean is that I would’ve felt more relaxed and not as pressured to churn out a perfect essay in forty-five minutes.

Part 3: How many times should a student revise his or her writing?

I say…

As many times as it takes to make the writing meaningful. What an arbitrary answer, right?! I, as a writing teacher, want my students to see writing as an authentic practice with authentic results that contains their authentic voice. There is certainly an opprotunity to write to the level of overkill or even exhaustion for highly motivated students; however, each revision is another opportunity to redesign the intent of the writing and develop the student’s voice. From a pragmatic stand point, I typically ask students to revise no more than four times–each revision having a specific purpose and desired outcome. These outcomes always start with my intentions and my design, but my hope in this upcoming year is to start allowing students to speak to the outcomes they would like to see in these revisions (redesigns).

They say…

S: I think that a student should revise his/her writing at least three times. From my experience, my papers have always gotten better grades when I have focused and gone over my paper repeatedly. However, I think that it is also wise to have it revised five times. Three on your own and the other two by people you know will tell you the truth about your paper. Otherwise, stupid mistakes are often made and points are taken off where it can be prevented.

J: I don’t think there should be a specific number of times you have to revise before your essay is “award-worthy”, just revise it as many times as you need to make sure that everything you wanted to communicate to your audience is thorough but still on topic and articulated well. For me, revising my writing at least twice works best but it may be different for others.

Part 4: Why do we write what we do in high school?

I say…

To make meaning of what we learn, how we learn, and explore who we are. That’s my idealyic answer. The perceived truth probably isn’t as shiny, but writing is the second most important discourse we all engage in, only dialogue (whether verbal or using signs) may trump it’s importance if for no other reason than it is how we all communicate everyday whether or not we pick up a pencil or make a keystroke. We make meaning of our world and our experiences everyday–writing is a way to empower students to make that meaning relevant to their lives and pervasive in their culture. But only if students feel they have agency and the efficacy–a belief and knowledge that they are the designer and playmaker of their writing life.

They say…

S: As students in high school, we usually write because we are expected to. Oftentimes this means that we aren’t caring about what we write unless we are given a reason to care about the subject of interest for the essay assigned. But as individuals, I find that we write to get a point across. A point that we are unable to express in words because we are either unable to get it out in everyday conversations or because we feel we will be judged for what we think and how we feel. Although, I have found that what we write as individuals can seep into what we write as students, giving a little more life and vibrancy to our assigned papers.

J: To be perfectly honest, I have no clue why we write what we do. This question actually troubled me quite a bit so I can’t guarantee my response will make any sense logically, but I’ll try to explain my reasoning as best as I can. So far, in my high school career, nearly all of the writings assigned had a kind of cause and effect vibe going on; first you learn a new concept, then you practice using that concept in your writing. When it boils down to it, I guess the only real reason you can have for doing any school assignment is that you learn from it and use that knowledge to better equip yourself for the future. I’m glad for this type of writing though because I feel like I never learned anything when I wrote essays in middle school; it always felt impromptu and overall useless to my education then. But I still completed the essays, mainly for the grade, but also for the sense of authority it gave me. I like to think that when someone reads my writing they’re subject to my opinions and thought process. They get to toss my words around and get a proper feel for them in their heads and really get peek into my brain. When I write, I hope that it’s like beef jerky for the mind: something you kind of gnaw on for a while and turn over in your head a couple times, even if it is just an essay for school.

Conclusions

First, I have the greatest job in the world; these students, S and J, show me that. I enjoyed writing alongside them through this reflective process. They have inspired me to do it more often with my students. Second, this exercise in reflection and commentary does not empirically prove anything, but it does demonstrate to me that rethinking teaching writing with a design approach is valuable in my classroom. S and J are a limited sample of my students, but they show writing as design’s potential. Both S and J are motivated ELA students who have demonstrated in theri commentary and reflection that they write when they are told, but both were also willing to take on some sense of authority over their writing when given the opportunity. Their preceptions changed ever so slightly as we went through the design process. Those perceptions are worth noting. When a intrinsically motivated student sees a higher sense of value in the writing they would do anyway, then authenticity has a chance to flurish and in turn student voice and hopefully a greater sense of agency as a writer.

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