Wednesday, April 25, 2012

What Do You Do?

Not long ago, a student came into my office and asked for help getting started on a paper for my class.  This is a fairly advanced student, and a really solid student.

I started by suggesting free-writing, and then asked what zie'd learned in hir first year writing class, the one I struggle mightily to teach.   Nope, zie hadn't done free-writing in the first year writing class, but zie was familiar with free-writing from other classes.  So I suggested free-writing about each of the sources or passages zie thought would be important, labelling each, and then using them to create a bubble map.  Nope, zie hadn't done bubble maps in hir first year writing class, but was familiar with them.

I didn't ask who'd taught this person's first year writing class, but zie said that a number of other instructors here have asked basically the same question of the student and been surprised to learn zie hadn't learned these writing strategies. 

My question is, what the heck do you do with a writing class if you aren't teaching them to use brainstorming and other writing strategies?

I don't think I have all the strategies, nor do I use them all well, but I do tend to have my writing students do freewriting in class (because it's the only way I believe I can convince them to actually do it until they learn that it actually works for them, and I know it doesn't work equally well for everyone).  We also do listing, peer responding (to lists and other pre-writing as well as to drafts), bubble mapping, thesis brainstorming, and topic sentence writing.

I know one of my colleagues spends time diagramming sentences, and would probably be shocked to learn that I not only don't diagram sentences, but that I've never even learned to diagram sentences.  (Is that shocking?)

What do you do in writing classes to help your students write?

What are you shocked to learn that I don't do?

And finally, when you're writing, do you use pre-writing strategies at all?


  1. Could some of it be a problem of terminology? I probably do bubble mapping, and maybe even teach it sometimes, but to be honest this is the only place that I've ever heard the term. Given, of course, that I myself never took a first-year composition course, and never had any formal training in teaching first-year comp (and aren't a lot of us in this position?), it wouldn't surprise me if I weren't up on all the lingo.

    In our first-year comp courses, we now work a LOT on summarizing and synthesizing sources, because that helps with reading comprehension, and these are areas in which many of our students are pretty weak. My impression is that they get a lot of training in high school on taking (uninformed) stances on issues, and that where they're weakest--and what will help them in their other courses--is in engaging appropriately with what they read. and summarize, and eventually write research papers about topics about which they do NOT have pre-formed "opinions."

    Since we only have one semester of first-year comp (the second semester comes in their junior years--a new, and so far very promising, system for us), the areas that get neglected are, unfortunately, argumentation and thesis development. We do some of this, of course, but in one semester we're mainly focusing on learning how to synthesize and respond to others' work. But how can you have an argument and a thesis if you don't know how to read? (Or so our reasoning goes.)

  2. I wrote, with a colleague, an article about how pre-writing positively affects test scores. You can see it here on page four of this pdf:

    I do loads of pre-writing in my WRIT 101 class.


  3. I never teach pre-writing or bubble-mapping either, probably because I never do it (having never learned it, having never taken first year comp or studied any sort of comp theory). I suppose I do something *like* that in my head when I'm thinking about how to compse arguments; I just don't do it concretely.

    I don't usually do much with grammar either -- a little, if students are having a lot of the same problems in their drafts.

    I mainly work on how to research, how to find and evaluate sources (lots of time on that one, since none of them seem to know *anything* about what a good source is or how to tell a good source from a bad one), and then how to integrate sources into a paper.

    I also begin work in the first semester on how to structure the argument paper.

    We write, basically, three types of papers: summary of source, evaluation of source, and a synthesis which argues for a position.

  4. Great and interesting post.

  5. I don't do bubble-mapping or outlining, since I had secondary school teachers who forced those techniques on me and I absolutely hated it. (I figure most of the pre-writing / organizing stuff is too idiosyncratic to be really teachable; what works for one writer will not work for another, and it's really none of my business what does or doesn't work for them.) To the extent that I do any pre-writing, it's strictly audience-focused -- e.g., brainstorming how you would convince someone who knows nothing about your topic that it's interesting and important.

    On the other hand, I do model things like how to break down a big research topic into smaller questions, and I guess that's a sort of pre-writing as well. Maybe it's just the visual stuff, and the really rigid organizational forms, that I have such a negative reaction to?

  6. I do a day on prewriting in my 101 and them expect them to do it on their own -- whatever technique they like. I do have them bring in a rough draft and their "notes" for a conference midsemester. Frequently they have lists, free writing, an outline, a cluster map (your bubble map), or something.

    In both 101 and my intro to lit class (which has a heavy writing component), I emphasize having an explicit thesis and good supporting examples. Those two things are my absolute mantra. Of course, their grammar/mechanics also make me crazy, but I am aware that I can only do so much to correct that in a semester or a year.

    Like most of us, I have no training in comp, and I don't know, really, the best way to teach it. But I know what I needed to know as a writer, and I know how I learned how to write. I guess I just follow that pattern as much as I can. But as you know, the writing chair thinks I'm totally wrong in my methods. So there's that.

    I tell you, though -- I'd put any of my students up against hers any time to see who can come up with a freaking thesis. Blerg.

  7. Thanks, all! Really fascinating comments, for sure. New post to follow up, shortly.

    Roaringgrl gave me more info on the T-Diagram, which I also looked up. It's basically a list of pro-con, or positive/negative binary stuff with a fancy name.