Strategies From 20 Years’ Teaching Writing

Being a subscriber to the oxygen mask school of life, I learned very early on that I could burn out very easily if I were the only arbiter of truth, the standard-bearer for ‘good’ writing in each classroom. Gradually and increasingly over time, I learned how to give more and more power of the pen over to students.

I started with pairing students as peer editors using Peter Elbow’s movies of the mind as the feedback of choice, and added team editing in which students choose a ‘lens’ from a basket of editing and revising concerns (active voice, subject-verb agreement, zap vs. sap, sensory detail, facts, citations etc) written on index cards, and then line up and pass an essay from station to station in two-minute intervals looking through their lens for ways to refine the essay so it better serves its thesis and the broadest audience possible.

Soon I moved the final project – team-teaching of course objectives – from the end of the semester to midterm and cut the 16-week course in half through required daily writing practice coupled with weekly free-writing analysis. The result has been revolutionary. Not only do students document transformed lives in their Legacies and Morning Pages Process Papers but they learn in less than half the time the attitudes and habits of careful revising and spend the rest of the semester putting what they learned into practice. The benefit for the instructor is that students produce clearer, more engaging writing that is a delight to savor at term’s end. For this and other reasons, I have included reflection on novice and advanced students’ engagement with writing practice as part of my sabbatical project.

One student summarized her take-away from the Morning Pages this way:

I can transfer the discipline I’ve gotten through this assignment to future classes, because I know not to procrastinate with seemingly “easy” assignments. I also have learned that if I get stuck with something, writing about it can solve the problem; it is a great tool for finding one’s train of thought. SB

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