The single greatest strategy that I know to stimulate classroom learning is to write with students at the beginning of class.
Consider your own pre-class ritual to see if writing with your students might profit you and them. In my classes, students funnel in to reach their seats. At the start of some classes, students yell, tease one another, and laugh about subjects unconnected to the class. One complains to another about a different class, “Well, I
said to her
it sounds like you’re telling me to rewrite the paper!” They both laugh.
In another class, students shuffle in quietly. Some place their heads on their desks. Some just stare out the window. Still others fidget. Another is worried about her sick cat back home.
Of course, I’m overgeneralizing. Often our classes exist in the spaces between these two extremes. But what’s common to all—I don’t think this constitutes overgeneralizing either—is that students don’t consider pre-class as the time to prepare for class. Instead, they tend to use it exclusively for out-of-the-classroom experiences, sending a few texts, checking the score to last night’s game, maybe studying for an examination. They don’t see the need for transitioning
I remember for a long time feeling powerless to get students “in the mood” to think about the subjects of the class when they arrive: to take out their ear buds, open their books, have their pens at the ready. Even worse, I empathized! I could understand why they see this opening time as theirs; only the final tock of the clock signals class starts and the inevitable, “I’m yours for just one hour” or however long the class lasts.
As teaching professors, I think we can forfeit those settling moments before class officially begins by providing something greater: showing students how we, as professors, need to think when class starts. But thinking is very hard to do. The brain may need retraining to begin thinking in different contexts (Oakley, 2014, p. 25).
Therefore, the best way to engineer “opening thinking” is to bring it in unawares: to show it by example so the intellectual gears start moving in the right direction as class begins, all without undue introductions, syllabus corrections, and directions. That trio deadens classroom enthusiasm quickly and leads us away from prolific writing.
What to Write About—and How
Okay, so if writing with students brings content thinking to the forefront of the class, what do you write about?
Here’s the way I design the time, which you can modify to fit your purposes. When students enter in my advanced rhetoric class, for example, I have a blank slide on view or perhaps a quote or opening thought I think captures what I want to teach that day.
When official class time arrives, I cue the class that we’re ready to write.
For instance, I’m seated in front of them or behind my desk when I say, “Did you bring your daybooks today?” or show an icon of a daybook on screen, which is shorthand for retrieving their notebooks designed exclusively for writing.
I carry mine in a “manpurse” with a Baron Fig notebook that fits neatly with my wallet and keys.
I only allow the opening writing with students by handwriting in daybooks, a practice I follow too (Kellogg, 2013; Mangena, 2015). Clamshells on laptops are closed, phones off, tablets put away; I’ll project a slide with icons of each electronic device and slashes overlaying them if I must remind them, which I also show when I freewrite with colleagues at conferences.
Next, I’ll give student writers a prompt that is structured in three sections. The first, a brief sentence or two or an image, summarizes a point from last class or one introduced in the homework for that day. The next is the “turn” that asks how students and I now
think about that point.
The third provides all the reasons for writing.
In my topics-based, first-year seminar, on the very first day, I first show a slide depicting a middle school sign that states, “Summer ends, but learning never ends.” So with the first slide, I establish the context I want them to inhabit. In other words, I want to richly describe all the elements of a writing situation: their role as writer (“participant observer“ in this case), the subject, their audience (primarily me and the class), and so forth.
After a very short period, I transition into my second section: “In considering that statement, what does your experience tell you? In what ways does ‘learning never end’?”
In my third section, new text on the slide slowly appears onscreen to give them tasks: “Reflect on your past experiences with school. What do you feel your schooling taught you about learning itself? Do you feel what your past teachers said about learning is something they actually practiced in the classroom and in their own learning? How so?”
No matter what class I teach, I use those three sections to initiate writing. Similarly, I ask students to date their entries before saying, “Let’s write now about those things . . . together.” My words appear on the screen after
I say them, like an afterthought, a second chance. The first time we follow this process, I explain, “Because it’s freewriting, I’m asking you to forget the ‘rules of writing.’ ‘It’s writing you cannot do wrong’ (Ponsot & Deen, 1989). Don’t go back. Don’t erase. Just keep writing with pen in the hand/brain . . .”
A timer appears on the screen and we write for just three minutes, nonstop, prolifically and without imposed structure.
When finished, I invite students to share with a neighbor. I’ll either join in one partnership or join someone without a partner. After a few minutes, I cold call with the most generic of questions, “So Tom, what did you write about today?” Since students have already rehearsed this writing with a partner and there are no wrong answers, I feel free to call on anyone.
The experience is like no other opening strategy: it opens the class to discussion and gets them—and me—centered on the work for that day.
Writing That Works for You
Yet there’s added benefit. Everything this initial writing does for students it also does for teachers. I know I struggle collecting the right thoughts for class when I’ve been doing other intensive things just before class, even though I try to transition beforehand. How many times have I been preoccupied with department work or home concerns when I started class? Too many to count. But what I can count on is that this opening time for writing helps me center, quiet the voices from other domains that vie for my attention, and be truly present for what I am to teach that day. I write; therefore, I think—and now I think specifically about the course content for that day. When I write with students, I invite them: “Come join me.”
For this process to work, you must bring your own daybook just for writing and designed to match your students’ activity. When you write with students, right from the beginning, you harness the force to energize dead classes and pull new attention to active ones. It also redirects students’ attention by subtly farming out distractions—their upcoming exams, their worries about a paper that’s coming due, or their general anxiety. When you write with your students, you coax them into thinking about course material through writing, a preparation for that particular class.
Of course, professors who write with their students risk much, especially if they’re inviting students to think through a difficult piece assigned for homework. But you and your students can learn as much about failure as about success, because so much of writing is about failing. Our first efforts fall short. However, that failure is instructive. It shows students it’s okay to think deeply, even when, most of the time, you’re not sure that any conclusions you draw are clear, articulate, and even right.
That invitation to fail means that both you and your students can focus your thinking on course content without worrying about structure. For example, beginning writers try to start with structure—the outline, the model that defies imitation, the boilerplate of perfection—along with plenty of warnings (“Watch your grammar!”). As a student, I know that was how I understood writing. The obvious problem is, none of these structures are reachable—or better, worthy of being reached—until writers begin with content. When you write for content with students in the classroom—content before
structure—you’re valorizing a process that remains otherwise mysterious to students.
Writing with Students as a Student
It’s not enough to just solicit writing; you must solicit unstructured writing that flows unleashed from anyone’s expectations.
I first began to think about writing before others when I was an undergraduate working in the college writing lab. One day, a professor asked me if I would join him in freewriting
on the board based on a random student question from his literature class. “Sure,” I said, just gratified about being asked, but knowing I had no idea what freewriting even was. So when a student asked a question about a short story that the class had been studying, the professor and I, on separate blackboards, began writing in chalk an “answer” while the class watched us. I was so focused on getting the words right, not looking foolish before my peers—after all, I worked at in the writing lab!—that I spent more time thinking about the structure of my sentences than actually looking for insight.
After we finished in five minutes, the professor looked at both our pieces: his was messy, unreadable, and fragmentary. Mine was printed and in long, flowing sentences. “So you always freewrite in full sentences?” was his only comment.
I was crestfallen when I left, but mainly confused. I still didn’t understand what he expected. I determined to discover what freewriting was all about and why it didn’t “work” according to my expectations. In the subsequent years, I increasingly began to see freewriting as practice in thinking, not as a classroom activity that others should imitate, but as one others should join
. In fact, it did not need illustrating on a blackboard or projector, which carried with it the idea that freewriting must be taught. Rather, freewriting fosters community in helping to first get started, a spirit of working together, and assurance from the teacher that students are not wasting their time. That can be done best by joining the activity. As one said, “There’s Hafer, writing with
us.” And I could finally emphasize content and the search for quality insight first by writing as long and as carefree until that insight came.
When I first started writing with my students, I began feeling the anxiety they felt when they were forced to produce prose on command and in front of an expert. I was inhabiting their realm, sharing the same expectation placed on them. I was beginning to appreciate again how hard it is to think, but also how freewriting made that task easier and far more accessible, especially in community. Now I feel that glimmers of insight can be found in all corners of the classroom. Writing with my students had an unexpected benefit too: it made thinking on my feet easier, allowing me to do a lot more spontaneous teaching based on student responses than rehearsing preprogrammed material.
But does writing with students work well for students? Yes, and for a number of significant reasons.
First, because the professor is showing what preparation looks like, she is doing what she preaches. Preparation makes itself visible!
Second, as Marie Ponsot and Rosemary Deen showed many years ago, writing to learn proceeds inductively, not deductively. You can’t expect students to “think deeply” just by telling them so, just as you can’t tell them to “compose sentences well” and “proofread carefully” without copious examples of how to do it and what it looks like. Students need safe places within the classroom to pursue unvetted thoughts and generate content alone, without a critical reader looking over their shoulders at the outset. Nowhere can students learn that practice better than when you are doing writing right before them and right with them.
Third, you can teach inductively the way out of procrastination with writing. As Ackerman’s (2005) research has shown, students are less likely to procrastinate when they have an activity they find interesting. Students just find freewriting interesting, because writing with others and alone is doable when it’s daybook writing because it doesn’t need to perfect or complete, only executable. When writing with students, I rightfully delay students attempting polished products like the academic essay from scratch—structured writing—that students cannot produce at will. They must learn that better writing becomes more readily available after they have content (daybook writing) to populate a structure (academic essay).
Fourth, even multi-language writers can find fluency in the native language classroom.
If you permit them to mix their home language with the classroom language, they’ll be able to produce freewriting too. The goal is that they gain prolific writing so they aren’t thinking of the rules of grammar—structured writing—all the time.
For over 30 years, I’ve witnessed how students misperceive writing, mainly as a series of don’ts
Things we avoid rather than things we do. I've also tried correcting the inaccurate advice they’ve received from their school training, but I’ve made little impression on students who spent their formative years building these instructions into habits. For example, I could never dislodge that learned behavior which says writers should avoid the first person as the governing person, despite Helen Sword’s research that shows the first person dominates academic journals. Imitation is not flattery; it is the oldest way to learn how writing is made. Writing with students makes that imitation possible in small teaching episodes (Lang, 2016).
Teaching course content through writing is as simply performed as it is profound. So, write with your students. No cognitive study, ancient strategy, or new-age pedagogy can improve upon teaching professors who promote writing-as-thinking, accomplished best when we write in front of students as they write in front of us. That display invokes the writing process that powerfully validates the role of writing in our courses.
Ackerman, D. S. (2005). My instructor made me do it: Task characteristics of procrastination. Journal of Marketing Education
(1), 5-13. doi:10.1177/0273475304273842
Deen, R., & Ponsot, M. (1986). Beat not the poor desk
. 1st ed. Heinemann.
Kellogg, R. T., Whiteford, A. P., Turner, C. E., Cahill, M., & Mertens, A. (2013). Working memory in written composition: An evaluation of the 1996 model. Journal of Writing Research
Lang, J. M. (2016). Small teaching: Everyday lessons from the science of learning
Mangena, A. M., Andabb, L., Oxborough, G. H., & Brønnick, K. (2015). Handwriting versus keyboard writing: Effect on word recall. Journal of Writing Research
Oakley, B. (2014). A mind for numbers: How to excel at math and science.
Sword, H. (2012). Stylish academic writing
. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
Gary R. Hafer is the John P. Graham Teaching Professor at Lycoming College, where he teaches College Composition, Classical and Modern Rhetoric, and Learning Without Teachers. He is the author of
Embracing Writing: Ways to Teach Reluctant Writers in Any College Course (Jossey-Bass, 2014).