Yesterday I taught my WRIT 110 class. I often teach WRIT 110 at the New York Institute of Technology. It's a basic writing composition course for international students whose written English isn't strong enough for regular college comp courses.
When I say "whose written English isn't strong enough," I don't mean that these students' minds are not strong. These students are intelligent and adventurous. They have decided to take up residence between two thousand and ten thousand miles away from home in order to get a university degree. They have also decided to explore complex levels of knowledge using a different language system from the one they have always known..
Languages are indeed systems consisting of thousands, if not millions, of symbols.The interaction of these symbols is as complex as the human mind. Learning to use an entirely different language system provides a huge challenge. Yet these students have said, "Bring it on."
To the dismay of many of these students, the complexity of symbolic usage becomes starkly evident when they try to write. Oral interaction doesn't depend on words alone; it uses universal symbols of vocal tone, facial expression, gesture, body position, and so forth. In writing, by contrast, nothing at all is universal -- not the order of the words, not the sounds of words in relation to the marks on the page, not even the means of separating thought units (which in English is done with punctuation and spaces between letters, sentences, and paragraphs).
International students study the system of symbols that is the English language. They learn that system in theory. And then, just like their domestic counterparts, they have to apply all that theory to writing.
Application is hard. Writing is famously tough for second-language students to master. But I am discovering that the teaching of writing cannot be effective without deploying one indispensable element: workshop time.
Yesterday, the WRIT 110 students worked in groups. They wrote collaborative papers about current trends of events. Some wrote about technological devices. Some wrote about the civil war in Yemen. Some wrote about the humanitarian crisis in Syria. Still others wrote about recent developments in airplane design. Each student was responsible for a section of his or her group's paper. Then each group assembled its sections into a group essay. Each group edited its paper, applying transitional words and sentences to link their sections together. Each group collaborated on an introduction with a thesis statement, and on a conclusion.
It was a lot of work. Fortunately, that once-a-week Friday class is five hours long, so with appropriate breaks, the students had an adequate span of time in which to develop their ideas and structure their essays.
My role was to respond whenever a student raised a hand to ask me a question: Is this a good paragraph? Is this how you use quotation marks? Does this paragraph make sense? Is this a good thesis statement? Do you say "on one hand, on the other hand," or "in one hand, in the other hand"? How do you say that a spaceship is away from the earth? (My students and I laughed a lot when I realized how self-contradictory it sounds to say, "The spaceship is in outer space.")
At the end of the class, as the students departed, cheerfully bidding me "Have a good weekend," I realized something terrifyingly simple: This is how people learn to write. Especially when using a less familiar language system, people learn to write by, well, writing. We professors spend a lot of time reviewing theory (writing strategies, essay structure, vocabulary, transitions, focus, etc., etc., etc. etc. etc. etc.). All of that theory is necessary. However, it's also necessary to learn how to sit down and persist until a piece of writing is finished; and then go back and improve what one has written.
I believe this aspect of learning how to write has to happen in class, not just out of class. We professors think that students at the college level should already have learned to write. However, they haven't yet learned to write at the college level, and many of them don't realize how to plan their schedules to accommodate the long spans of time necessary for writing papers. Writing in class helps them see how fast they write, how much time is needed for revision relative to first drafts, and so forth.
In addition to being given the span of time in which to learn concentration, persistence, and pacing, I think students need on-the-spot teacher feedback -- especially international students. Problems arise constantly during the writing process. At any moment, even in one's native language, the mass of symbols on the page can suddenly look senseless. A teacher's immediate feedback helps the student learn how to solve those problems. The result is to add encouragement and lessen anxiety. Less anxious people think a lot more efficiently than anxious people.
And they have a lot more fun. The tedious, creative, mysteriously elating process of writing is deeply fun when these intelligent young people can experience it together. They can laugh, they can share, the students whose English is stronger can help those whose English is weaker, they can help each other find definitions and translations on the Internet, and they encourage each other. I help them stay on task, not only by overseeing and informing, but by establishing regular breaks and making sure they get enough to eat. Brain work consumes unexpected energy.
In the end, the students produce real pieces of writing that they themselves have created. Also, they know how to get started, keep going, and finish the next time they write. The process of writing isn't a mystery anymore. All from the simple, brain busting, energy-draining, soul-enriching technique of writing in workshop form.