Writer’s Telephone – an Information-Gathering, Idea-Nuturing Strategy

I feel like I’ve been engaged in a pedagogical ancestry project recently — mapping my teaching forebears through generations.

In floods of professional books, blogs, Tweets, and chats, these ideals into which I have become so deeply entrenched sometimes lose their original source. Like a game of

educational Telephone, the message gets translated and retranslated, filtered through multiple voices and perspectives. I need the original message. I need to get back to the roots of this family tree.

I like to imagine Henry Louis Gates passing me books across my desk. “You got mentor texts from Katie Wood Ray,” he’d say, passing me Study Driven. “You got flash drafting from Lucy Calkins.”  And then he’d pass me Learning by Teaching and A Writer Teaches Writing: “But your teaching bloodline begins here — Donald Murray.”

As I dive deep into Murray, as I get back to the roots, I am learning so much that I didn’t know I was missing.

Among the many, many aha moments I have had in my Murray-centered travels is the necessity of dedicating time for students to nurture ideas and gather information before any writing takes place. He writes, “Few teachers have ever allowed adequate time for prewriting, that essential stage in the writing process which precedes a completed first draft…Writing teachers, however, should give careful attention to what happens between the moment the writer receives an idea or an assignment and the moment the first completed draft is begun” (“Write Before Writing”, Learning by Teaching, 32).

So, with my students, I’ve been trying to linger here — to linger in the prewriting, the idea gathering, the information finding. I’ve been working to help students find the stuff of your writing to the point that, as Virginia Woolf said, the writing is “impending in me: grown heavy in my mind like a ripe pear; pendant, gravid, asking to be cut or it will fall” (“One Writer’s Canon – 1982”, Learning by Teaching, 50).

Today, I share just one foray into writing-before-writing. Information-gathering is a process, not a single activity. But this is one my students love and ask for again and again. While I call it a “silent seminar”, my seniors call it “writer’s telephone”.

Using Writer’s Telephone

My seniors recently spent five class periods studying and discussing Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy”. That sounds painful — it was actually awesome!  And yet, even after all of this discussion, students didn’t seem ready to leap — to each commit to a reading of the poem, to write with confidence and authority about Plath’s work.

Their conversations had been cerebral. Their notes (when they took them) were scattered and scrawled across notebooks and scraps of paper. Students needed to tangibly, concretely gather information from the poem in one place to gain the confidence (and material!) to write.

FullSizeRender (14)Enter Writer’s Telephone.

Each student received a clean copy of the poem. At the top of their poem, students wrote their best guess theory about the big universal idea of the poem. We sat in a circle, and, as we passed the papers, each student pointed to one piece of evidence that supported the big idea suggested on the paper before them. We worked for 30 minutes in absolute silence, and when I rounded them up at the end, they didn’t want to stop.

Not only did each student have his or her own idea nurtured by the rest of the class, but each student also reported that the process helped them see details in the poem they hadn’t seen before that they could add on to their original claim . They had some stuff from which to write.

FullSizeRender (16)

An example of the information collaboratively gathered on one student’s poem.

Logistics of Writer’s Telephone

  • The class circles up.
  • Each student has a text in front of them.
  • Have students pass their paper to the right.
  • Students will now make ONE contribution to the new paper on their desk.
  • Students continue to pass — whenever they are ready — to the right. (Sometimes a little build up will develop on a student’s desk — don’t panic!)
  • You can conclude the “game” when papers have made it all the way around the circle (which can be impossible in large classes) or at a prescribed time (say, after 25-30 minutes).

I have used Writer’s Telephone in a few different ways. Here are a few possibilities:

Screen Shot 2016-04-08 at 8.08.46 AM

Why Does This Work?

I was honestly surprised when this was a success the first time I tried it. I thought students would resist the quiet and resent the writing-and-passing. But they love it. And ask for it again and again.

It works for a few reasons —

  • It’s collaborative.

Let’s be honest, this is just fun. In the midst of serious thinking, Writer’s Telephone has the feeling of an elementary school game with friends. Students get to work with their peers, and the collaborative, social nature of this strategy helps break up the loneliness of writing and builds the writing community in the classroom.

  • Students see the tangible results. They literally get something out of this.

FullSizeRender (17)Students like this because they always take home a prize — information that will help them in their writing! Even more than what is written on each sheet of paper, students’ ideas have been probed and provoked, and each student leaves class with increased confidence to write.

  • Students get quiet moments to think, process, and rehearse their writing.

My classroom is often noisy — in a good way! Students are talking about writing, conferring with me and one another, studying mentor texts together.  But I don’t often leave space for quiet, for silence, and for the thinking that can be generated by simply dwelling with one’s idea. As we hustle from class to class, and strive to cover all of the necessary class content to meet the standards, schools don’t often promote stillness either.  Our students don’t know how to do this for themselves, so we need to make this space for them. After a round of Writer’s Telephone, students will often share that they were surprised by the new spark in their thinking provoked by the quiet time to breath, think and jot.

I often feel panicked by a self-imposed drive to move, move, move in my classroom — do more ,read more, write more. But as I leave space for tending to our ideas, nurturing them as they grow, gathering and regathering information in preparation for writing, I see the wisdom in Murray’s advice.

Let me give you one more piece of wisdom from straight from the source:  Murray writes that, “We are educated for busyness, not educated for listening to our own minds at work” (“The Process of Writing”, Learning By Teaching 54).  How are you making the time to allow your writers to listen to their minds work? 

You can connect with me on Twitter @rebekahodell1 or on Facebook

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