Metawriting posts from the new blog location

Friday, September 23, 2011

You can lead a student to her journal but you can’t make her reflect – or can you

I believe strongly in the power of reflection to help writers learn and grow, but there is one problem with reflection as a tool for change – humans are lazy and thinking is hard. We don’t always choose the path of least resistance, but most of the time we want to see clear rewards linked to that greater challenge. That means it is up to me – the writing teacher – to make my students understand that the time and energy they spend seriously reflecting on their writing will be rewarded. Reflection in my writing classroom incorporates four tools or sets of tasks: journals, tweets, class discussion, and literacy narratives.

At various points over the past decade I have used journals in my writing classes, but it was not until I threw myself into the “Writing About Writing” movement that I found journals really worked for me in terms of seeing students learn and grow from their use. In the past, journals tended to be cluttered with minutia about students and frequently referred to writing in only the most superficial ways. However, more recently I have taken to requiring fewer journal entries (perhaps 10 for an entire semester) but giving fairly specific prompts that ask students to think about their past, present and future writing habits and experiences.

Journals are only the first step of the process. I then ask them to distill this longer journal entry into a Tweet which is sent to our class Twitter feed. I have two reasons for this. First, I want them to delve deep beneath the surface for the journal entry, but I also want them to pull out the one important message that can be found in that reflection. Perhaps more important, I want them to see how that important message fits into the larger world and the experiences of other writers. Using the class Twitter feed connects their thoughts with their classmates but using Twitter hashtags connect their thoughts with writers from around the globe. I am so proud of some of their observations that I retweet them in my personal stream.

We then take those ideas and conversational threads to our class discussion board where we can expand and comment more cohesively on what we started in Twitter. I have found staging the discussion after the journal entries and Tweets are posted provides more fodder for a good discussion. However, what I find most rewarding is that this conversation becomes about the students and their questions and observations. I am very excited that there are days when I can simply be a participant and not a leader because the students play an active role and have something to say so they do not need prodding and steering.

Finally, I use literacy narrative to channel this conversation back to the individual writer. I assign a literacy narrative in two parts – one part at the beginning of the semester and one at the end. Part one is focused more on the writer’s past and what has formed them as the literate person they are today as well as exploring their views on the definition of writer and whether or not they consider themselves one as well as the issue of the overall importance of communication skills in the modern world. Part two draws together the lessons learned and challenges faced over the course of the semester. Each major assignment includes a cycle of journal, Tweet, and discussion which in turn feeds the literacy narrative. I also ask students to look back at their early thoughts and opinions about writing to see what has changed for them.

I have found this recursive reflection has inspired my students to think more deeply about their writing and reach more thoughtful conclusions than before. Or perhaps I should say – more of my students are doing so. There have always been a number of students every semester who have responded to my call for reflection, but there are usually a large number of students who resist thinking deeply (at least on record). However, adding in the public reflection on Twitter has meant that students realize they are not alone with their struggles and challenges which frequently tends to open discussion about these challenges and thinking about these struggles in ways students refused to do before. Also, the class discussions mix in enough thoughtful discussion to inspire some students to delve deeper than they originally intended. Like Yancey, O’Neill, Leaker and Ostman, and others I believe that these types of metacognitive activities make students better writers and are part of the writing process of successful writers. My dissertation results further confirmed this belief for me. In my study of adult writers I found that the writers who set goals and were involved in purposeful introspection about their writing became more confident writers.

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