Avoiding Heads-on-Desk: How to Enliven the Writing Class

Avoiding Heads-on-Desk
How to Enliven the Writing Class

Stacia Levy
by Stacia Levy 3,491 views |

A perennial problem of writing—and writers—is its solitariness.

It is an interaction of a writer’s thoughts and the paper. Many people don’t enjoy it—indeed even professional writers sometimes despise it. The solitary interplay of words within one’s mind and churning them out on paper can be monotonous—and lectures year after year on the paragraph or the sentence or the essay can be deadly boring to students.

How then can the teacher liven up the writing class? There are a number of ways to enliven what might be for the student another dull foray into academic writing.

7 Tips for Enlivening the Writing Class

  1. 1

    Allow Student Input and Control

    • Choice of topics and readings

      College students by nature tend to be interested in the world around them and have strong interests in a number of fields. Why not use those interests then as a way to develop the curriculum? Not everyone will respond to E.B. White’s “Once More to the Lake,” or George Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant,” although the teacher might find them compelling. However, all students have outside interests—organic foods, rap music, Disney films, for example. And each one of those topics, and almost any topic students are interested in, are also topics of scholarly inquiry that students can research and use to develop their own ideas and writing. I ask that students check in with me about their topics, so that I can verify they are something they can write about and research, and offer suggestions about modifying as necessary. I also provide a list of possible topics on a wide range of subjects if students really can’t think of anything they are interested in writing about—but that rarely happens.

    • Choice to work with others or alone

      In recent years in most classroom teaching, group work has been encouraged, even required, as the optimum learning method. The research does in fact show the value of group work—students get more input and more ideas from each other; they learn how to work with others, and so forth. This is not to dismiss the value of independent, individual work, however. Many students prefer to work alone, especially in a subject area such as writing. Giving students a choice on whether to work alone, or to work with others, and who to work with, is one way to motivate students and give them control over their work.

    • Choice of where to work

      Give students the opportunity to also choose where to work, as much as possible: in the classroom, student union, computer lab, outside, etc. This allows students to choose their optimal learning environment. Just ask that they show what they worked on outside of the class at the end of the session.

  2. 2

    Focus on the Broader Purpose of Writing as an Act of Communication

    Create opportunity for students to express something they want to. This is an outgrowth of allowing students to choose their own topics. Students are articulate, inevitably, on the topics of interest for them. For example, in my writing class last semester, a student was discussing the new “Batman” film, comparing it to films in the past of the same genre, and using the language of a film critic, with discussion of backstory, plot tension, and character arc. Students can be articulate and write well on something of interest.

  3. 3

    Make Broad Use of Class Discussion

    As stated, students are articulate and often passionate about the topics they choose. Therefore, use those topics as a foundation of class discussion. Have the entire class read an article on videogames, for example—it is such a big part of the culture that there are scholarly articles analyzing the phenomenon---and the real gaming enthusiasts can lead the discussion, describing the games and analyzing their mass appeal.

  4. 4

    Give Opportunities to Read Aloud

    Many students like to read aloud, in the way some students like to otherwise perform in theater and music. Indeed, some genres, such as poetry and theater, really are meant to be read aloud. Encourage students to volunteer to read aloud their own work or class material. The act of reading aloud engages not only the readers but listeners more in the language and entire literacy event.

  5. 5

    Make Use of Journaling

    Once students have read about and discussed a topic thoroughly, they are now ready to write. They can use the ideas developed in discussion and reading in their writing. The instructor might want to start with the more informal journal writing first because it is less structured, allowing students to focus on ideas on a topic. The journals may be more or less structured—some making specific demands in terms of length, use of vocabulary from the reading, and so forth; others are less structured and are more free writes on the topic.

  6. 6

    Incorporate Interactive Discussion Threads

    Interactive discussion threads are another option for the writing class—many classes now have an adjacent online component, or learning management system, where discussion threads can be set up on a course topic. The topics can relate to what was discussed in class, carrying the discussion further, with requirements that the students must respond both to the topic and their classmates’ posts.

  7. 7

    Make Use of the Internet

    Look up images, film clips, music videos related to the topic to peak student interest: the WWII poster “Rosie the Riveter” and the 1980s music video of Dixie’s Midnight Runners “Come on Eileen” are two examples of media use in my class last semester. The topic of the poster came up when discussing how an image can make an argument. While some students had a vague notion of the famous picture of the woman in the bandana flexing her muscle, bringing up the image of “Rosie the Riveter” on the computer screen snapped into focus the message or argument of the picture, the power of women in serving their country without the aid of men. Similarly, with “Come On, Eileen,” I had been talking to students about the wide variety of English accents and dialects, and this 1980’s song in a distinct Irish accent nearly incomprehensible to many Americans without the aid of written lyrics, came to mind. I pulled up the video, and students were enthralled by this variety of English they had never heard before. In addition, they saw a powerful message of social justice in the song’s narrative of a young man pledging his commitment to a woman from his impoverished neighborhood, promising her a better life—an interpretation I had not really seen in what I thought was a simple love song.

Writing class can be seen as deadly boring, but it doesn’t have to be. By giving students more control over the writing situation and their topic, as well as varying activities, writing class can become a place students look forward to coming to.

What are your ideas for enlivening writing classes?

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