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Writing as Dialogue between Student and Teacher
Submitted by Taylor Stoehr (profile)

Strategy: Student writing can be of great importance in a CLTL class, but it must be handled with care. Almost all probationers have learned to hate and fear writing, because they have been told by all their teachers over the years that they are not good at it. When the CLTL teacher asks students to write about their reading assignments, most probationers will think they are back in high school being tested - or even punished!

The first few weeks are crucial in preventing writing assignments from seeming like a series of hoops to be jumped through. Students quite naturally suppose that their answers to questions will be seen as right or wrong. To counter this impression, a commonsense approach works best. The writing assignment should ask for student opinion rather than factual information, and should focus on universal human problems rather than how a particular author represents them. Details from the reading will come up naturally if the question is a good one. The aim is not to check up on whether students have done their homework, but to give them a chance to express themselves freely.

Some students won't do any homework, it is true - neither reading nor writing - and yet it's important for everyone to begin each class with a stake in the issues, some tentative commitment to an idea that can be discussed by the group. One solution that has worked for us is to spend the first ten or twenty minutes of each session writing an "opening exercise." The question we ask reconfigures the same issues addressed by the homework assignment, but does not depend on having actually read the assigned text. We ask general questions about the big ideas we want to talk about. Interestingly, this tactic of asking the same basic questions twice does not result in mere repetition in student writing. Although most students write both homework and opening exercise, they rarely repeat themselves, but develop their ideas further.

Most of our students write less than a page, and some of them only a sentence or two - though there is sometimes one passionate writer in the class who fills a blue-book every week. Long or short, whatever they write must be taken seriously. Our method of demonstrating our respect for their ideas is to type all their writings and to add comments from the instructor - graphic evidence that we are listening to what each man says.

Of course students are always curious about what an instructor will say to them, but in our CLTL classes I think they are just as interested in comparing their original pencil scribbles to the printed texts they have become. The great majority of them have never seen anything they have written typed or printed. It is a shock to many, and the first night we hand back their writing someone always exclaims, "I wrote that?" They are surprised by their own thoughts as well as the unfamiliar mirror in which they are reflected. Reading their own thoughts and the teacher's response in this way can seem like seeing a video of themselves, reconsidering their ideas and attitudes without feeling cornered or having to defend themselves.

We must keep in mind that our students are men and women whose past experience with writing has been almost entirely negative, and associated with the disapproval of both school and parental authorities. They have quite naturally sought the solidarity of peer-based defiance of such authorities as a defense. But now it is possible for them to reconsider these identifications, and to reclaim their own voices - not as anxious performances in front of judges, but as a practical pursuit of mutual understanding and socially sanctioned support. It's important to never correct or complain of anything they write, and probably best to avoid all judgment, assessment, and praise. Instead, the instructor simply joins in the dialogue as in conversation, focusing on what is interesting, offering opinions and asking questions to highlight areas of deepest concern - in short, giving student attitudes and opinions the respect of serious attention. The overall effect is to foster a new kind of openness and earnestness in the entire class.

The teacher's side of this dialogue begins when something in the student's words strikes him or her as vital or heartfelt and to which a response arises spontaneously. It is essential not to pretend interest in a student's ideas - almost sure to result in merely conventional, empty conversation on both sides. If students are shy or distrustful, it may be difficult to find a spark to blow on, but puffing all the harder raises only dust. It's better to fall back on the homework and exercise questions themselves, which invite a response from the teacher as well as the student.

The main thing is to take the interchange seriously, where a great deal may be communicated in a few sentences each week, with increasing clarity about what really matters. Even though it occurs only nine times during a semester, this dialogue in writing sets the tone for the conversations that take place in the classroom, where a still more significant social dynamic is evolving. The ongoing reading determines our basic subject matter, while the writing locates the true center of gravity on which group feeling must be built. Because the writing has both a public and a private face, it can mediate the probationer's gradual approach to the social circle - writing first of all for probationers' own eyes, then for the instructor with whom they enter into dialogue, and finally for their classmates, who are interested in thoughts on questions that each has written about.

For most CLTL students, writing may seem at first to be going way out on a limb, but from that risky vantage point, our probationers often realize that they are not as dumb or inarticulate as they thought. They too have something important to say to the world - and they may be listened to after all.



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