I always liked writing. It is a nice way for me to express my creativity and gain clarity about my ideas. These benefits are some of the reasons that journaling is such a powerful tool for therapy and why in-class writing is such a valuable teaching tool.
How I did it
This year in my classical literature in translation classes, I used writing to develop and try to understand my students’ thoughts. Each week, I had my students do one in-class writing assignment. I gave them a prompt to write about for several minutes. Ideally, the students continued to write until I told them to stop writing so that they could share their ideas with the class. Sometimes, the students only wrote until they felt like they had answered the question. The amount of actual writing depended on the quality of the question itself: whether it was more complex or whether it was something that encouraged more thought. After each writing session, I collected their short writing assignments and gave them individual feedback on their ideas. Some of this feedback was similar for multiple students because they expressed similar ideas or I thought they needed to consider a similar perspective. For example, some students may have been encouraged consider Antigone’s justification for the burial of her brother and others may have been encouraged to understand Creon’s reasons for not burying him, so that everyone was encouraged to understand all perspectives expressed in Sophocles’ Antigone.
- Students received individual feedback each week. I could assess where my students were and they could hear my thoughts about how they, individually, could improve or what else they could consider. This helped me determine how much further to push my students, or how much to review ideas or skills.
- Writing works very well with Bloom’s taxonomy of learning to help develop students’ skills and thought processes. At the beginning of the course, the prompts focused on recall of information. At the end of the course, the prompts asked students to share their own ideas more, to analyze a passage, to analyze the entire reading.
- Prompts can be specific and broad. I asked them to explain or react to a few specific lines of poetry or a paragraph of prose. I also asked them to pick out themes from the entire reading or applying themes that we had already discussed to individual passages.
- Students were practicing writing throughout the semester in order to develop the skills for a term paper. This was very useful. When I more carefully thought about the short writing assignments and Bloom’s taxonomy, the term papers were much better than when I was less deliberate about the prompts.
- It allowed the students to express themselves. There was one student who really liked to draw. As I would walk around the room during class, I noticed that he was often doodling in the margins or his notebook was actually a drawing notebook, or he would take notes next to his skeches. So one day, when we were reading the Aeneid, the short writing assignment was “What would be on the shield of a modern president (as a parallel to the images on the Shield of Aeneas)?” I let the students draw or describe the images. I let them express themselves how they wanted. Some I knew would draw, some I know would write it out; but I let them choose and was pleasantly surprised at how many chose to draw something as the best way to express themselves.
- I could ensure my students were working on their term papers throughout the semester. Not only was I encouraging them to develop the skills for the paper, but it allowed me to make sure they were thinking about their term papers. One day, I asked them to give me ideas for their paper topic. This was early on because I wanted them to meet with me and discuss possible topics for their term paper. Later on in the semester, I had them write one short writing assignment about what their main ideas or outline their paper so that they would have some ideas and I knew they were working with their evidence… or to guilt them about not writing on their paper.
Some things to consider
- In-class writing requires an investment of time both inside the classroom and outside the classroom. It took about 5 minutes for me to share the prompt, let them think, and let them write out some sort of clear idea. Some days, it would have been better to have more time than allowed, but at least 5 minutes was ideal. Out of the classroom, it took about another 1.5 hours for me to read through all the comments and providing individual feedback. This was faster some days when I wrote similar comments on multiple students’ papers. To control how much time you spend on a certain class, you could limit the in-class writing assignments to once per week. Other days could have other activities, such as short reading quizzes to test if they did the reading or to make them recall information from the reading better.
- This requires a good amount of planning. It requires familiarity with Bloom’s taxonomy and your goals of where you want students to be throughout the course. For the term paper, I knew I wanted them to synthesize information in the term paper so I made sure they had practice with these skills at least a week before the term paper’s due date. It also required me to think more deliberately about the prompts to ask in order to ask students to do a fair task.
Over all, there are no real drawbacks other than the investments of time outside of class.
In-class writing really helps students drive the class and get the class moving in the direction they need in order to learn skills they will need to learn and take something away from the course. The in-class writing and working with Bloom’s taxonomy helped me plan, get to know my students, and adjust to their skills levels.
- John Bean’s Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom (Amazon or local library)
- My earlier post about another method to help students drive the class: group discussions