Reine Duell Bethany - Author and Illustrator
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How to Get Students Writing

Students in any college have to take writing classes. For many, writing is something they have to do, not something they enjoy, because it isn't a talent of theirs. They don't feel flooded by ideas when faced with a writing assignment; they feel wearied by a struggle for ideas.
Writing teachers tend to give students general topics and ask them to create an essay on that topic based on personal experience. What could be simpler, right? The specific information is already there in the students' memory banks.
Indeed, if a general topic is chosen, often students do write a decent piece in the genre of "Report of an Event in My Life that Mattered to Me." And there the ideas stop. Comparison-contrast essay? Description essay? Nothing much comes to mind.
What to do?
My experience, particularly of students in very basic writing classes, is that these general assignments hinder the student from writing because the assignements demand that students create an unnecessary body of specific details out of their own memories. Someone born to write does that naturally, but those born to do something else need a lot of training to accomplish it. They don't really care about it and they feel bored. 
I think it is much more helpful to give the students research to do right away -- not heavy-duty, just articles from reliable periodicals on topics that interest them. Once the students have specific information in their heads, they can be coached much more readily through the process of producing a structured paper that accomplishes a definable goal based on real facts and events.
Having students all research the same topic works very well. The class then has something in common to discuss, all together or in groups, and information to contribute that is specific. Generating a variety of thesis statements from this shared material gives the students experience in choosing what journalists call an angle. Sifting their commonly known material to decide which pieces of information could support which thesis gives the students practice in relevancy.
Based on my experience as a teacher of college basic writing courses, I now believe that many students who get placed into remedial courses have been taught incompetently. Their idea of acceptable writing has gotten confined to having an introduction that "grabs the reader's attention" and not using "you" or (worse) "I."
These students have little idea that writing is a way of thinking and expressing, much the same way that texting is, or conversation. Making them dredge their personal life for ideas may intrude on the students' interiors, producing unnecessary discomfort. If the goal is for them to write a paper on a topic of interest, the goal is much more quickly achieved if less personal assignments come first, and more personal ones happen once boundaries and trustworthy procedures have been established in the classroom -- two or more weeks into the semester.

25 Comments to How to Get Students Writing:

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Reine Duell Bethany on Saturday, August 31, 2013 9:25 AM
I appreciate all of these comments on my post about getting students to write. I have been remiss about my blog while I was drafting a new book. More to come!

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