The Benefits of Writing 7: Processing Learning

Like many teachers, I have often been frustrated by my students’ lack of engagement with school. I often talk to my students about why they seem unengaged, and one day many years ago, a thought occurred to me. I asked students how many of them viewed their minds as buckets, empty buckets waiting passively to be filled up by teachers. Many of them raised their hands. I then asked them, “Once your mind-bucket is full of knowledge, what happens to that knowledge when you take a test?” Without fail, the all tilted their heads forward to indicate the the knowledge dumped out onto the test, never to be thought of again, leaving their buckets empty.

No wonder so many of them find school dull. No wonder they forget an awful lot of what schools want them to retain.

But there are ways to make learning stick better. I’ll begin with a personal example – one that began in 1983 (I think) in my 11th grade Earth-Space Science class. Our teacher showed us an episode of the original PBS series Cosmos, hosted by Carl Sagan. The episode we watched, “The Harmony of the Worlds,” was about Johannes Kepler. Kepler is less well-known than his contemporary Galileo, but his life is fantastically theatric. He wanted to prove a theory that the planets sing and went to work with an astronomer named Tycho Brahe who had accurate observations that might prove his theory. Brahe, who had a golden nose to replace the one he lost in a duel at university over who was better at Mathematics, was an eccentric character. He had a dwarf doorman named Jeppe who was like the original Egor, a household full of visitors who partied all night, and an enormous drinking problem. Brahe kept his observations from Kepler, playing mind games with him. Their rivalry led Kepler to leave and return multiple times. After Brahe’s death, Kepler finally got his hands on those observations, only to discover his theories were completely wrong. Later in life, Kepler’s mother was accused of witchcraft and he had to defend her using the scientific method.

My classmates may have been bored. I was fascinated, and almost immediately thought the story should be a play. Nearly 40 years later, I am still working on that play, titled The Music of the Spheres. I became a lifelong learner. I read new works about Kepler from time to time, including a novel about his mother titled Everyone Knows Your Mother is a Witch.

My point is this: using your knowledge to create something new in writing not only helps learning stick – it can inspire more learning.

Since 2016 I have been using a speech to college freshman by Scott Newstok titled “How to Think Like Shakespeare” with my high school freshman to add to our year-long discussion of the purpose of education. (There is a book version as well, which I am quoted in!) One of the concepts he talks about is “Inventio” – a Latin term from which we get the words “inventory” and “invention.” The idea is that you must develop and inventory of knowledge before you can invent or create things. Nothing comes from nothing. As Sir Ken Robinson said, “You can’t be creative if you don’t know anything.”

I used to teach the the AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) elective in middle school. Students were encouraged to take what they were learning in the academic classes and transform that knowledge creatively, writing poems, stories, or plays about what they’d learned in Math, Science, History, or English. I realized, reading Newstok’s piece, that this was Inventio at work.

I am currently reading Project Hail Mary, the second novel by Andy Weir, who wrote The Martian. Weir is a self-proclaimed “lifelong space nerd” who uses an insane amount of science to ground his science fiction in reality, giving things that air of verisimilitude that makes us buy what he’s selling. He has a huge inventory of knowledge that he uses to invent.

What if instead of giving quite so many tests, quite so many essays, we asked student to use their inventory of knowledge to invent, to create, to use that knowledge to create something new? I believe the results would speak for themselves.

I’d like to suggest that this is something we can do in our English classes fairly easily. Let them write some fan fiction about the literature we’re reading! Have them do prequels and sequels. Have them write side-stories – my name for stories about what happens off-stage during the main story. What’s Benvolio up to after Act 3, Scene 1 of Romeo and Juliet? What is Friar Lawrence really playing at when Romeo and Juliet aren’t around? What’s Rosaline doing during the play? (A recent streaming movie called Rosaline tries to answer this question.) Why are Rosaline and Paris not seen at the ball? One of my students once created a prequel to the tragedy, a one-act play that explains how the feud between the Montagues and the Capulets started over an argument about the best method for making pasta. It was written in rhyming iambic pentameter. It was awesome.

I try to create opportunities for my students to write about other subjects in my class, as least as bell-ringer exercises. I’ll ask them to choose something they are learning in other classes and transform it into a poem, a piece of fiction, a song lyric, a rap, a play, a newspaper article, a comic strip, a children’s book… Better yet, I ask them to see if they can combine concepts from two different classes creatively.

When students think they are filling their mental buckets only to pour things out on a test, there is little motivation to remember them. When students are building an inventory of knowledge so that they can invent things, they are more likely to be engaged, more likely to learn, and more likely to retain that knowledge. They are also more likely to be lifelong learners. Who knows? 40 years later, they might still be working on a play about something they learned in Earth-Space science!

Images via Created by David Lee Finkle

How do you use writing to help students engage in and retain their learning? You can connect with me on Twitter @DLFinkle or engage on Facebook at to continue the conversation.  

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