Writing as Design Part II: The Prompt and an Evolution an Assignment


Part II is a look at the prompt I designed for my students and a look at its evolution in various stages of design as well as how a few of my students took up the assignment. You can visit part I here. Take a look inside to get some really interesting and profound reactions from two of my students, ‘S’ and ‘J’. 

“I used to think revision was a waste of time in middle school, but I actually really appreciated it this time around. It was shocking to see all of the mistakes I had in my essay and it made me think, ‘Wow… and I thought I was done?'”

This assignment began by me flying by the seat of my pants–to coin a phrase–and originally had very little objective to it other than to have my students produce writing that centered on our reading of To Kill a Mockingbird. I wish I could say I knew from the very first point of attack that I knew what I was doing–what I was designing–however, the truth is I was frazzled and simply needed a writing assignment from my kids.

What this assignment evolved into, however, is what makes writing these posts entirely worth the time. Originally, when I was walking my students through taking up writing as a form of design, I had not envisioned using a timed writing to start that process. Initially, I just wanted to have conversations and use the ‘Oregon’ paper (see figure 1) I alluded to in the last post as way to re-design existing writing. (Go to the first post to read up on its purpose.) I did know at the time that I would want them to do that to their own work. But what work? What writing would fit the process? Surely not a timed writing? If I assigned the focus of the writing, don’t I defeat any goal of authentic writing design and revision? I was at a loss.

Figure 1

Figure 1

Figure 2

Figure 2

At some point, I moved on from those questions and buckled to the need to have them write.You cannot revise what you do not write, right? (Gotta love homophones!) So the TKAM in-class writing prompt was born (see figure 2). The prompt speaks to themes that are seen in chapters 21 and 22 in the text–reality vs perception and the end of innocence. As you can see from the prompt, I as students to wrestle with the ideas more practically by focusing their opinions on injustice and unity. This may be the first big design flaw I made. While I never expect students to blurt out the themes mentioned a moment ago, I was hoping they could see the connections between the children’s realization that their neighbors are not who they always believed them to be and even reasonable men and women succumb to ‘group think’. As I mentioned in the previous post, how can I expect higher order connections when I design the writing idea myself? Plus, it’s like friendly-user testing (my wife works in IT for T-Mobile and is always doing this for their new phones) just because the design makes sense to me doesn’t mean it makes sense to anyone else. Would you be able to write a paper clearly off what I seem to be asking?

Here is what my students have to say about teacher-designed timed writing prompts:

S: When it comes to teacher-given writing prompts I often feel as if I’m stuck. The prompts put me into a sort of “box” where creativity is often minimal. Teacher-given prompts also cause me to feel the need to do whatever I expect the teacher wants from me, instead of going along with my own artistic vision.

J: I don’t mind prompts to be perfectly honest, but it always irritates me when the prompt is over something the makers think would be important to people my age, but it’s really just cliché and idiotic. I remember having a writing prompt in middle school that was something along the lines of, “Mall security guards oppose to having teenagers roam around the mall without parental supervision; describe whether or not teenagers should be allowed to hang out at the mall without a chaperoning parent,” and I seriously wanted to scream. I can’t write seriously when the subsect is so shallow! When I write, even if it’s for a stupid little assignment, I want it to mean something, either to me or the people who will read it. I think it’s the dishonesty that annoys me most though; I don’t want the people who read it to think, “This is what she’s passionate in,” because I’m really not. I just did it because I had to, and I hate having a half-hearted attitude towards it.

Do their responses surprise you? They don’t surprise me. You can read their desire to write for themselves, and they both seem to try and make that happen with a teacher-designed prompt. (I’ll preface that these two students are stellar English students to begin with.) I really knew the moment I designed the prompt that my students couldn’t stop with just an in class timed writing.

On timed writing they say:

S: Honestly, I despise timed writings. They cause my anxiety and stress to steadily rise, which distracts me from the prompt. So by the end of the time I’m shaking so much from all of the anxiety from running out of time that I either barely finish or my writing is barely comprehensible.

 J: I really despise timed writings because I can never really say what I want to say. I would say that I can be a pretty deep thinker when I try to be so sifting through the cacophony of my thoughts and ideas can take a while; certainly longer than the time allotted from most timed writings. So, instead of writing what I really think about the matter, I always end up spouting whatever mindless junk that teachers want to hear and will get me a good enough grade.  Having a time limit also makes me nervous in a strange way. Not the sweaty palms and shifty eyes kind of nervous, but a kind of self-criticizing nervousness; one that completely inhabits my brain and second guesses every idea I have and every word I write. I literally cringe while I write and curse my brain for coming up with such stupid ideas. More often than not, my writing isn’t nearly as bad as I thought it was, but I still have an irrational disdain for it.

“Despise” is a strong verb, especially considering they wrote these responses at separate times and at separate locations. Timed writings teach our students nothing about writing. They hate it; we hate it; we only do it because that’s the writing they must do for local, state, and some national exams. To go beyond such a despised mode of writing, I asked my students to begin a revision process all the while considering the design lessons we had reviewed previously. I asked S and J to explain to me what they believe revision to be:

S: To me revision is going over the essay and fixing everything that doesn’t fit well together. Which, often for me, means completely rewriting my paper because I find it unworthy of being turned in.

J: I used to define it as an extra ten minutes to either finish writing my rough draft or begin writing my final draft, but now it’s a time for my brain, now in a clearer and calmer state, to reflect on my writing and hopefully catch and fix some grammar mistakes and awkward sentences.

This probably doesn’t surprise you either, but the insight is valuable nonetheless. You can even see where J expresses explicitly how her definition has changed since going through the process. So what was the process?

I asked students to write their first draft in class for an hour, but never informed them they would revise the paper. The next day, their papers were handed back, and we began the process of revision just as we had with the ‘Oregon’ paper: word choice, syntax, peer editing, etc. The process lasted two days easily. Then students needed to take their marked up papers home and write a “final” draft. I write final in quotations because it really wouldn’t be the last form of the paper. The freshly typed drafts that came in were then marked with heavy feedback from me–specifically, I gave each student at least four major revisions to consider for their papers. I returned them with no grade, much to their chagrin, and handed them the rubric I would be using to grade them, and asked them to take it home yet again, score themselves before their final revision, and then finally turn in a true final copy that I put a grade on. It is important here to note that I told my students that they would be rewarded with an A for going through the process of revision. The level of A depended on their level of revision. I wanted to reward the process, not necessarily the final product. While not every student would come out of the assignment a brilliant writer, every student would improve, even just ever so slightly from going through the process.

Here is what S and J thought of the process:

S: To be blunt, it annoyed me. I like to just type up something quick in about an hour or so and then turn it in. It frustrated me as well, to be honest, especially when I got the comments back on the first essay I turned in. Mainly because it made me realize I wasn’t really trying before because I didn’t want to spend my time on something I knew I would just have to rewrite over and over again.

J: Honestly, I thought it wasn’t that bad. I used to think revision was a waste of time in middle school, but I actually really appreciated it this time around. It was shocking to see all of the mistakes I had in my essay and it made me think, “Wow… and I thought I was done?” I’m glad you decided make us go through it.

Nice contrast of attitudes here. S speaks to the experience in process, while J seems to speak to the process in hindsight. I appreciate both perspectives. While my students’ feelings matter to me. I’m even more interested in what actions they aactually took.

Here is what S and J said about the changes they made in their papers:

S: The most significant change between my first and last drafts was the level of detail I put into my papers. On the very first draft my thoughts weren’t very well explained and there wasn’t enough organization or explaining of my points. But on my last draft I added a lot more detail, pulled my thoughts together so that my paper was more organized, and explained my points more thoroughly.

J: My first draft and my final draft are limitless in differences but I think the most significant change is in my logic. In my first draft, the evidence from the text I used to support my half-baked claims were a little random and never fully proved my statements as the truth. In my final draft, however, I took special care in making sure that my claims were logical and my supporting details followed.

While I selfishly wanted to see them through around ‘design’ as a term here, their words clearly show a shifting thought process and how they decided to make decisions about their writing. Still, there is also some vague language used here too, which is fine, but as their teacher, I’d like to get them to the point where they confidently articulate their writing ‘moves’ and begin moving away from terms like ‘a lot’.

So where did this process leave my students? I let them tell you themselves:

S: I feel as if the process helped me to realize that taking short cuts and not trying will get me nowhere, especially if the teacher knows the level of writing I’m able to accomplish.

J: I guess [my takeaway] would be my new found appreciation and practice of the revision process and sharpened grammar skills.

What does it mean? I’m not sure yet. My hope is each response above is truthful, but even if some of them are not, the process is clearly valuable. This is already changing how I want to approach some of my writing next year where I will have students revise in this fashion regularly.

In Part III, we’ll walk through S and J’s papers from inception to final product, including their commentary. Look for this post next week!

2 thoughts on “Writing as Design Part II: The Prompt and an Evolution an Assignment

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