Writing as thinking; thinking as writing

writing based teaching

Book Review
Writing-Based Teaching: Essential practices and enduring questions.
Ed. By Teresa Vilardi and Mary Chang.
State University of New York Press, 2009. 186 pages.

College teachers lament their students’ limited writing skills.  Incoming students often cannot write solid 3-page or 5-page papers.

First, students need to learn how to turn off the internal editor and forget about “getting it wrong.” Then they need to learn that writing is an extended process of discovery, invention, shaping, drafting, and revision. If they weren’t trained to write this way in high school, it may be because their teachers weren’t, either. It also may reflect national standards that emphasize testing and assessment over creativity and composition.

Since 1982 the Institute for Writing & Thinking at Bard College http://www.bard.edu/iwt/ has worked with students and teachers to break down barriers between secondary and higher education and to empower students to create worlds, and themselves, through writing.

As a former teaching assistant I would have benefited from experiencing a program like that described in Writing-Based Teaching: Essential practices and enduring questions.  Educators who contributed to this volume describe how students and teachers learn to use freewriting, process writing, collaboration, dialectical notebooks, and radical revision.

Sharon Marshall emphasizes the value of private freewriting  “… not because it leads to better papers, which I think it does, but because it leads to better writers—by making students better thinkers, and perhaps even more aware and sensitive people.” Freewriting is an endangered practice, she says,  “whose value extends beyond a particular historical moment, pedagogical framework, assignment, classroom, or course because of its potential to stimulate self-knowledge, sharpen focus, enhance creativity, and promote fluency for individual writers while at the same time foster a unique sense of community in the classroom.”

Nicole Wallack compares learning to think in writing with developing what coaches and dance teachers call muscle memory:  “… incorporating focused freewriting into class plans is a particularly efficient method for helping students and teachers condition their muscle memory as readers, writers, and responders.”

In his chapter on process writing, Alfred Guy shows how students learn to re-see their own work through writing about revision. “The capacity for reflection that is nurtured by process writing is the fundamental quality of an educated person,” he says. “It is this capacity for reflection that Socrates describes when he urges us toward an examined life.”

Alice Lesnick writes about the value of collaborative writing. Students listen to each others’ writing in small groups and identify areas of agreement and disagreement.  Then they do metacognitive writing to help them reflect on the group process. Lesnick emphasizes that the goal of the discussion is not to achieve agreement but to clarify “ideas, interpretations, and questions that cannot be resolved but that illuminate one another and lead to new ideas.”

In her chapter on dialectical notebooks, Margaret Ranny Bledsoe describes how students record their personal responses to a text as a baseline for use in the making of meaning. They learn to separate their initial emotional reactions to the text from their reflections on the text. “They move from their first feelings of happiness or sadness, surprise or outrage, into active thinking about what their reactions to the text say about what the text has conveyed to them…”

Carley Moore offers strategies for what she calls radical revision. Rather than limiting revision to finding and correcting surface-level errors, revision offers an opportunity for writers to “GENERATE missing thinking on the page, REWRITE (from scratch) parts that are not yet doing the work the writer needs them to do, and SACRIFICE anything in the draft that is not contributing to the writer’s idea in an explicit way.”

In her postscript essay, coeditor Teresa Vilardi pays homage to educator Peter Elbow, who argued for freeing students “from the internal editor and critic” through the practices of freewriting, loop writing, and collage, and for putting greater emphasis on invention, less on product.” Elbow based his pedagogy on what most writers had always known: that writing was cumulative and circular rather than linear.

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