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Why weave writing into your teaching?

This is the fourth and final article in a series on finding hidden and unexpected pockets of time to write within your tried-and-true teaching practices. By paying more attention to what we do when we teach, we can spend less time teaching and more time writing without sacrificing quality feedback. I’ve previously written about streamlining your student feedback and grading practices, without sacrificing pedagogical value, to create more time for your writing. In this final article, I will explore several ways to enlist student help in meeting your own writing goals while providing a role model as a scholar. Find links to the full series at the end of the article.

Impossible you say! “My academic writing has nothing to do with my teaching.” However, when you weave aspects of academic writing into classroom activities, both you and your students benefit.

Let’s look at some powerful classroom activities that will advance thinking and writing for teachers and students alike.

Assign students to read, reflect on, and summarize three journal articles on a topic that you are writing about. When my co-author, Joanne Cooper, and I were writing a book on journal keeping, we were teaching a masters level education class on how to use journals in the classroom. While reading the student assignments on the three journal articles, we were delighted to find several valuable articles we had not known about before. In addition, student insights on the articles helped us think about some aspects of teaching journal keeping we had not considered. Thus, this assignment helped us write a better book.

Select key writing elements for students to write about in very short time frames. Use class time to have students write on different elements of writing related to an assignment. Time the activity. Five to ten minutes is fine. This can be applicable to a project, essay, commentary, narrative, lab report, presentation or other assignment, so students will feel they are using class time effectively to get a guided head start on the homework.
The classroom exercise does not have to be long. Tell students that it is a “sloppy copy”. No one will read it except them. Timing forces the student to write right away and not daydream. Students learn that, when they focus, they get more done! Here are examples of key writing elements and how you might frame such a classroom exercise:

  • Purpose statement. “What is the purpose of your essay or poster or presentation? You have five minutes to write at least three purpose statements for your essay due in two weeks. Use this sentence starter, ‘The purpose of the presentation is to…’ Discuss with a partner afterwards. Then, discuss with the whole class.”  The whole activity should take only 15-20 minutes, and will launch their thinking about the assignment.
  • Title. “What is the title of your work? Write two or three titles in five minutes. When done, underline key words.” This develops summarizing skills.
  • Key definitions. “What is your definition of a key idea in your essay or presentation? Select a key idea in your paper. You have six minutes to write your own definition of it.” This promotes student voice and ownership of key ideas they are writing about like ‘environmental justice,’ or ‘entrepreneurial skills,’ or another powerful construct they are investigating and studying.

Choose topics related to writing that undergird motivation and perspective-taking. Again, set time limits from two to ten minutes.

  • Make a personal connection. “Write about why you care about this topic. Then, why others should care about the topic.” This fosters motivation. When students see a personal connection, they are more motivated to do the work.
  • Identify what you want to know about the topic.  “Write out a series of questions you have about this topic. When done, identify key words you will use to get references to address these questions.” This exercise will help students identify and prioritize questions they need to research further before they can effectively write about their topic.

Tap student (and your own) engagement through creative, reflective writing activities. Set time limits from 10-15 minutes.

  • Do a focused freewrite. “Put a topic or question on the top of your paper for this assignment (for you, for your manuscript). Write whatever comes to mind about this topic. There is no right or wrong way to do it. Just keep your pen to the page. If you don’t know what to write, write ‘I don’t know what to write.’“Here are a few questions you can address if you get stuck: What is the topic? Why do I care about it? What should others know about it? What do I know about it? What troubles me about doing this assignment? You have 10 minutes.”Typically, when students and faculty do ‘focused freewrites’, they are freed up from a linear way of thinking. The writing stimulates their thinking and they end up with a fresh perspective (or two)! This fosters motivation and momentum.
  • Write a dialogue. “Select a person, a topic, a feeling, or an idea. Start with the question: ‘How are you coping with writing anxiety (for example)?’  Go to the next line and write the response that comes into your head. Then, on the next line try crafting a response from your anxiety – how would it advise you to cope? You have 10 minutes.” We are wired for conversations. This sounds a bit silly but set your worries aside for 10 minutes and try it. Be sure to tell students to do the same, set their worries aside.
    When faculty and students write a dialogue, they often learn something about themselves they have not thought of before.

And here is the crucial element that makes these writing exercises valuable not only for your students, but for your own writing projects: YOU ALWAYS WRITE WHEN STUDENTS WRITE.

There are several benefits to weaving writing activities into your classroom teaching.

You are underscoring an important message to students about the nature of writing: Writing is thinking. Writing is not what happens after you think. Just the process of writing itself clarifies thinking.

By writing with your students, you not only get some of your work done and role model that these activities are invaluable—after all, they see you write when they write—but you also teach them strategies to make writing less daunting and more engaging.

You are modeling that your own writing is better, clearer, more creative, and more publishable when you practice strategies like these.

You are modeling that writing is a tool to clarify your own thinking and to tap your creativity!

Finally, you are modeling that writing is a practice, and, just like any other practice from soccer to the symphony, it gets better over time with conscientious and thoughtful practice.

Other articles in the series:

Finding hidden pockets of time in your grading: when more is less and less is more
Feedback on student work: a sinkhole or an opportunity: Finding time to write
Finding time to write: Important, yes! Impossible, no! Reviewing your student assignment practices

Dannelle D. Stevens is a professor emerita, faculty in residence for academic writing and facilitates the Jumpstart Academic Writing Program at Portland State University Portland, Oregon. Her degree is in educational psychology from Michigan State. Through working with national and international faculty on the complex tasks associated with balancing teaching, writing and publishing, she developed the key ideas in her fifth book, published this year, Write more, publish more, stress less! Five key principles for a creative and sustainable scholarly practice. She conducts workshops and coaches faculty on writing and career-related choices that lead to a successful career in academe.