Writing Our Way In: Tips for Balancing Literature Study and Writing Workshop

My beat this fall is all about exploring how students can write their way INto texts and use their writing (or others’) to learn more about literature. If you’re looking for new ways to use writing in a literature study or hoping to blend writing workshop into a course where it doesn’t seem like a workshop should fit, then this beat is for you!

When I introduced “Writing Our Way In” a few months ago, reader Mary Lou asked: How do you balance the literature and the writing in workshop?

The short answer to Mary Lou’s question is: I don’t know. Finding that balance between writing and literature in my IB English classroom has been really tough, and just as I was finding a rhythm with a junior and senior class, I changed schools, so now I feel like I’m back to square one.

BUT!

In this post, I’ll share some of the best strategies I’ve used to bring writing workshop into a course that’s usually designed for literary study. 

Tip #1: Turn mock exams into first drafts

If you teach IB, AP, or other classes that end in external state, national, or global assessments, then there is a good chance that your students have completed practice exams to prepare for those assessments. While it’s important to assess raw on-demand writing to determine how prepared students are for high-stakes on-demand writing, why not run multiple practices (formative assessment! Track students’ progress over time!) and then ask students to select one of their on-demand essays as a flash first draft for a longer, more thorough essay? 

To help students refine those on-demand drafts, you could…

Tip #2: Find real-world mentor texts that mirror external assessments

Those end-of-year tests can feel like giant boxes that just need to be checked, essays that matter in that moment and never again, BUT if you can find mentor texts that demonstrate the same thinking or argument patterns, you can tie those seemingly isolated analyses to the real world. I’ve written before about how Vulture’s “Close Read” mimics the IB literary commentary; in addition, most movie, book, or television reviews can be mined for artful analysis in service of an argumentative claim. Often The New York Times or Vulture or other sources will review two plays or books in the same column, so those can be models for comparative analyses. And then there are great essays like this piece from U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith (published yesterday!) that offer beautiful mentor sentences and powerful examples of literature’s essential role in society. (Why not use Smith’s essay as a model for a final paper? Students could write about what makes the literature of the course relevant (or maybe they’ll argue why it isn’t!)).

Tip #3: Creative writing and analysis aren’t mutually exclusive

When our students have to write traditional analyses for a final exam, it can feel like we don’t have time for “creative writing,” but sometimes the genre that might seem farthest from the one we want our students to practice is actually the best possible practice. Asking students to write LIKE our author rather than ABOUT the author makes them more attentive to craft and its effects. (It’s a bit like the “give someone a fish/ teach someone to fish” proverb. If students are made to analyze something they haven’t tried to make, the writing will feel distant. If they dig in and “do,” they’ll understand how the genre and the poem, story, novel, or play work.) Kudos to Rebekah for first inspiring the pastiches that my students write. For more on her work with write-alikes and my work with other creative writing assessments, check out the first item at this link.

Tip #4: Teach students to be writing tutors

In the post that’s linked above, I also wrote about teaching my seniors to be writing tutors. Conducting a brief writing tutor training allowed me to create mobile and flexible workshops. I teach many students who are both perfectionists and procrastinators; for many of them, revising means fixing glaring errors rather than looking again at how clearly and authentically their ideas are communicated. Why a paper works or doesn’t work still feels like a mysterious teacher secret rather than something they can anticipate or discern. I’m trying to change that. Even the briefest tutor training can shift writers’ mindsets and focus their attention on making the connections between writer, reader, and subject.

Tip #5: Whenever possible, make time for writing in class

When an exam date that is out of our control looms, it can feel so, so difficult to give up any class time for writing, but the workshop model depends on it. Writing days are when great conversations happen, when students gain confidence in their ideas and work out the problems that might otherwise keep them up all night, head on the keyboard. I’ll confess that this is the most difficult guideline for me to follow, but every time I make time for writing in class, the stress and tension that had me worried about losing time in the first place dissipates. Flip the literary lessons for those days and let students stretch their writing muscles instead.

Tip #6: Conference when you can; use Flipgrid when you can’t

One of the external assessments for the junior year of IB English incorporates student-teacher conferences (or, rather, some kind of preliminary planning and discussion) as part of its procedure. I looked at that requirement as my invitation to make IB I a workshop course. I used the first year of the two-year course to build the routines of a workshop so that our workspace really hummed by senior year. Now that I’m at my new school, teaching solely the senior year of IB, I’m realizing how much I took that first year of work for granted! Getting a workshop on its feet during a senior course on a rotational schedule has been tough, but one tool that helped this year was Flipgrid.

Inspired by some work my colleagues have been doing (and Mike Ziegler’s contribution to Moving Writers’ NCTE 2017 presentation), I asked seniors to record 3-minute videos about their plans for papers about Hamlet. In the videos–uncut and unedited so that students and I could assess their impromptu speaking skills–students had to talk through their brainstorming for the paper. I watched the videos while I was away at NCTE and responded with praise and points to ponder. The videos helped me to know which students understood the assignment and were ready to write and which would need some additional coaching during our workshop days. The videos also reminded me that, even when the final product was muddy or confusing, students’ initial ideas were clever. 

Consider Flipgrid when you’re trying to make room for writing time, too. Could a period-long discussion move to an online platform to make room for writing?

Tip #7: Remember that students don’t need to know this book/poem/play like we know it

When we’re teaching literature courses with external exams meant to evaluate students’ knowledge and understanding of that literature, we may want to turn our courses into one-way information pipelines, especially when time is limited (“Gather ‘round, children, let us tell you what we know, so you can tell the examiner what you heard!), but asking students to simply repeat what they hear is a map to short-lived success rather than long-term critical thinking and appreciation. Writing workshop encourages independent study and discovery. As I was reminded when reading a student’s recent revision, each time we return to our writing we dig deeper; we turn over new layers of soil. So let that attitude guide literary study, too! Let students struggle with a tough text; let them hit walls and find new ways through the maze. I have to get out of the way! 

Case in point: on Friday, I had laryngitis. I’ve had sore throats before, but I’ve never lost my voice to the degree that it was gone that afternoon. I had planned on walking through a Seamus Heaney poem with my seniors, but I wouldn’t be able to talk that much, so I wrote out the prompts I would have asked in class and passed them out to students. They worked in small groups to unpack two poems, and, guess what? They were fine. They figured them out and made connections I hadn’t! They struggled and they argued and they made their cases with evidence from the poem: in short, they did exactly what they’ll need to do in a few months. And they’ll own the knowledge they developed for far longer than they’ll remember anything I’ve told them about Heaney’s poetry.

 

What I’ve offered above is some of my best advice, but sometimes it’s hard for me to follow my own suggestions! Mary Lou, I’m really grateful for your question because it has re-centered me. I think I understand my efforts to balance reading and writing this semester, but I’m not sure my students do. I want to make writing a part of my seniors’ routine next semester, and I want students to be able to carry out those routines without me. Who knows when laryngitis might strike again!

I’ll keep you posted on how those routines develop. Until then, please share your best tips for blending writing workshop with a literature course in the comments below or on Twitter @MsJochman. Happy Holidays and Happy New Year–see you again in 2019! (And if you have a question about blending writing workshop and a literature course, please fill out the survey below!)

1 Comment

  1. I’m the Mary Lou who asked that question! Thanks so much for your helpful post. I love the flip grid idea for conferences, by the way.

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