Friday, November 30, 2012

JustWriting: A Technique for Increased Student Creativity and Decreased Student Anxiety

During the second five weeks of fall quarter, the School for New Learning hosted its 1st Annual Month of Writing Challenge. The idea grew out of a conversation among SNL’s writing program: Michelle Navarre Cleary, Kathryn Wozniak, Kaitlin Fitzsimons, and I developed the idea during a yearly wrap-up meeting, and as a creative writer pursuing my MFA, I offered to lead the charge. We based much of what we did on the annual National Novel Writing Month held each November (see As part of the month, I taught a class called “WriteNow” that focused on a technique that I called “JustWriting.” During at least two hours of each three hour and fifteen minute class period, students just wrote. The atmosphere in this computer room had an energy that pulsed and flexed with the clicking of fingers on keys. When I would stop to look around the room, I saw mothers, grandmothers, women, men, students, and professionals all becoming writers. Their focus was incredible. Periodically I would invite them to get up and stretch, and many found it a challenge to tear themselves away from their work. On their weekly logs, many indicated that this was their most productive writing time of the week. And in these five short weeks and five short classes, by writing together and occasionally sharing experiences and products, these students grew together, grew closer to their goal of 25,000 words each, and moved from novice to experienced writers.
            Why does JustWriting work? Many argue that it doesn’t, and in the beginning of the quarter some of these voices were those of my students. However, in their longitudinal study of student writers at Harvard, Nancy Sommers and Laura Saltz argue that faculty often ask students to “experiment” in the writing that they assign, and I claim one way to become comfortable with experimenting is JustWriting. Sommers and Saltz argue that instructors that often expect college writers to come in as “master builders while they are still apprentices” (132).
            How does the apprentice become the master builder? Experience: “Students who see writing as something more than an assignment, who write about something that matters to them, are best able to sustain an interest in academic writing throughout their undergraduate careers” (Sommers and Saltz 127). They also found that writing experiences in college mean more to weaker (or novice) writers than they do to experienced writers: “Weaker writers often speak with even greater passion about the role of writing in helping them make the transition to college, in giving them the confidence ‘to speak back to the world’” (129).
In another analysis of the revision strategies of novice and expert writers, Sommers found that novice writers think that their first draft is also their final draft. They consider revising as “rewording,” or replacing one word for another, sometimes out of a thesaurus. Experienced writers, by contrast, see a first draft as a “scattered attempt to define their territory” and work on this draft until they have figured out what they want to say. (384). I have worked with many students in courses where they are assigned one, two, three or five page papers, and inevitably a student says that he does not know what he wants to say. Another student, meanwhile, pens an excellent thesis statement in the conclusion of the paper. Though they did not know it, they were using writing to figure out what they wanted to say. By contrast, in WriteNow students were asked to write a minimum of 25,000 words, but were not asked to “say” anything. At the end of our five weeks, almost every student said that he or she ended up somewhere different from where he or she began. In this way, the course forced them to experience some of the techniques used by experienced writers. Because they did not have to create a final draft, students were free to stay in the exploratory, “experimental” stage of writing until they figured out what they wanted to say. Now that they have overcome this hurdle, this fear of writing, the hope is that they might spend more time in a first or rough draft, and see revision as an opportunity to reveal the structure and subarguments of their essays for all of their classes.
One of the reasons that this early drafting process does not happen for novice writers is because writing anxiety is especially prevalent among adult students. This is echoed by many of the students in my class, who said that they chose to accept this challenge because they wanted to become more comfortable with writing. And in fact, Martinez, Kock, and Cass found that higher levels of leisure writing were associated with higher levels of writing self-efficacy, and also that higher levels of writing anxiety were associated with lower levels of writing self-efficacy: “Although quantity of writing does not predict quality of writing, students who engage in more free writing or leisure writing are able to express themselves creatively through writing without feeling constrained by the rules of grammar or structure of formal writing assignments” (357).  In their final presentations, students demonstrated the creativity that this process had afforded to them. Many had plans for what they would now do with the writing they had produced in the course. Some would produce one or multiple ILPs; others would continue a novel or a memoir; still others would finish the work they had begun on their Advanced Project. All had taken a step toward becoming experienced writers.
            So, as teachers of writing across the SNL curriculum, what does this mean for us? It means that students will further explore issues of a given topic in writing when given the time and a word count benchmark rather than a rubric and a grading scale. It means that encouraging students to journal and freewrite well before a final paper is due will result in more refined and structured final papers. Finally, it means making room for experimentation through writing in courses where students are dealing with new material and new terminology which might make them anxious. Giving our students, and ourselves, time to JustWrite will lead to increased levels of creativity, novice writers more likely to write with the authority that we ask of them, and decreased levels of anxiety among our adult students.

Works Cited

Martinez, Christy Teranishi, Ned Kock, and Jeffrey Cass. “Pain and Pleasure in Short
Essay Writing: Factors Predicting University Students’ Writing Anxiety and Writing Self-Efficacy.” Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy 54.5 (Feb. 2011): 351-360. Print.

Sommers, Nancy. “Revision Strategies of Student Writers and Experienced Adult
Writers.” College Composition and Communication 31.4 (Dec. 1980): 378-388. Print.

Sommers, Nancy, and Laura Saltz. “The Novice as Expert: Writing the Freshman
Year.” College Composition and Communication 56.1 (Sep. 2004): 124-149. Print.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Reflections from the 2012 SNL Month of Writing

In the thirty days from October 10 to November 8, fifty SNL students, faculty, and staff participated in the 2012 SNL Month of Writing Challenge. Each participant used the challenge differently; some used the challenge to begin new projects, some used it to focus on their school papers, and others used the challenge to help channel their creative writing juices.  Two writers agreed to share from their experience over the month.  

SNL Faculty member, Jane Wagoner, used the month to begin a blogging project. She says, “While I had never written a blog, I thought this month was the perfect time to begin my blogging career. The writing is different from what I have done before and a lot of fun. I find myself thinking of different topics to write about and reflecting on various literary works. So this month has helped me find my "blogging voice" and I am grateful for the extra motivation that the word count goal provided.”
SNL student, Nikki Knighten, took the 5-week SNL course that accompanied the Month of Writing titled, “WriteNow: National Novel Writing Month.”  Nikki distilled some of her writings from the month into a poem, “Save Me from Myself”: 
The cares of this world arouse me from sleep
I lay thinking, “will I make it through this day?”
I need you Lord to come to save me from myself.
I’ve grown stronger because of my trials. They are companions resting in the recesses of my mind. Always on the ready to move forward and profess the powers that are present. To testify of the muscles that have grown and developed because they had to; because they were strained by burdens and invisible foes.  The fears of the past are done away with. Some making way for new ones; weaker, less threatening new fears which pale in comparison to the old fears "made of good stock." those old fears that shook my existence and made me question my sanity and alliances. Those fears of yesteryear were the "real thing baby"! They played for keeps and didn't easily die. These fears required Herculean tenacity that morphed into crazy faith and fearlessness. There are those who dare to say that my future may be gloomy and despair ridden and there are those who have the gumption to question my fate. Theirs is but one voice in the crowd and but one view on the horizon but the report which I choose to believe is the Lord's. His report is rich with His hope and saturated by His plans for me. I am convinced that they are "of good and not of evil, to an expected end." Whereas many have come and seemingly even more have gone but Your word lingers and abides. It exalts and admonishes, it encourages and it chastens. It punishes the slothfulness and it rewards the diligence.
How will you use the SNL Month of Writing next year? Since we are increasing our departmental goal to 1.5 million words for the 2013 challenge, we’ll need you on board next fall!

Celebrate writing on December 5th with the NWA

Neighborhood Writing Alliance
Publishers of the Journal of Ordinary Thought
Body Wisdom
A celebration of dynamic movement, creative community, and personal stories throughout Chicago
                                               When:     Wednesday, December 5th, 2012
                                               Time:       6:00 - 8:00pm
                                               Where:    Harold Washington Library Center
                                                                Pritzker Auditorium
                                                                400 S. State Street
Free and open to the public!

Monday, November 12, 2012

1,131,981 Words

The 2012 SNL Month of Writing has drawn to a close. From October 10 until November 7, SNL Faculty, Staff, and Students accepted the challenge to each write 50,000 words in a month. Our department goal was 1 million words – and we did it! Collectively, SNL produced 1,131,981 words in just 30 days. In recognition of this accomplishment, an anonymous donor will be giving $1,000 to SNL Scholarships!

Special congratulations to these participants that surpassed the personal goal of writing 50,000 words each:
Heather Burlingame, SNL Student
Cynthia Flores, SNL Staff and Student
Cynthia Meehan, SNL Student
Michelle Navarre Cleary, SNL Faculty
Cindy Stevens, SNL Faculty
Shannon Stone, SNL Staff and Student
Steffanie Triller Fry, SNL instructor
Kathryn Wozniak, SNL instructor
This is will be annual challenge and we hope you will join us next year!