Friday, December 18, 2015

Talking the Talk

by Kamilah Cummings

For some time I have included what I dub a “Writer’s Circle” in my classes. In my mind I envision my students and me sitting cross-legged in a circle on a lush lawn in the center of a beautiful garden discussing our writing experiences as the warm sun beams down on us. Unfortunately, teaching evening classes in Lewis doesn’t afford me the opportunity to fully indulge my fantasy. However, regardless of the backdrop, I have been able to engage students in my “Writing Circle” in a way that has been beneficial to them and me.  

The “Writer’s Circle” is essentially an opportunity for students to discuss the highs, lows, and in-betweens of their experiences with the writing assignment from the previous week. It is in many ways an informal writing group. For me it enforces the learner-centered approach that I take to teaching. Although it originated in my writing classes, I have started incorporating it in other courses I teach. I usually allow time for this practice in the first 20 minutes of the class. 

In the first couple of weeks it is a slightly arduous task to get students to share. I think they are initially hesitant to participate because at the start of the term many of them are particularly self-conscious about not only how they seem themselves as writers but how others perceive them as well. In fact, most don’t start off seeing themselves as “writers” at all. Rather, they tend to see themselves as students completing writing assignments. However, when I assure them that the “Writer’s Circle” is a space to honestly share their writing experiences, the gates usually open. I also sometimes ask a simple leading question such as: What was easy or difficult about completing the assignment? 

Once the rhythm of the “Writer’s Circle” is established, it usually flows from week to week. Students share struggles with everything from generating ideas, researching and organizing ideas to writing the actual draft and time management. In addition to allowing them to share their experiences, it allows me the opportunity to review course material from the previous week and inquire about its application in a way that isn’t perceived as an inquisition. I am also able to answer questions that naturally arise or that students might be hesitant to ask for fear of how they might be perceived. 

The “Writer’s Circle” aids in not only releasing anxieties but also boosting students’ confidence when they see that others share similar if not the same issues with writing or even understanding assignments. When one student shares an area of particular difficulty, I ask who else had a similar experience. It can provide an opportunity for some healthy commiseration, as long as I keep the discussion on track.  A benefit for me is that I am able to identify trends related to assignments and make appropriate adjustments when necessary.  

In their research on writing groups, Gere and Abbott cite the findings of previous research on the multiple benefits of writing groups including that “teachers are freed from being sole authorities over writing” (363). Students learn from each other’s experiences in addition to my instruction, which helps to utilize the knowledge that adult students bring to the classroom. It also helps to boost their confidence when they see that they have something valuable to add that benefits their peers, especially in an area outside their particular expertise. Additionally, when relevant I add my own struggles with writing.  Students also share positive things that they discovered about themselves as writers while working on assignments. They often share helpful resources they’ve discovered in the process. 

Gere and Abbott also cite earlier research that suggests, “students develop a sense of community because of their work in writing groups. The exchanges that I often witness between students during the Writer’s Circle definitely enhance the supportive classroom community that I try to foster. Given the myriad anxieties and fears that non-traditional students, in particular, hold related to academic writing, creating a supportive environment for them to talk about and improve their writing is essential. 

Considering the time constraints that prevent many non-traditional students from taking advantage of formal writing groups offered by the Writing Center or even establishing their own writing groups, I have found that allowing this time in class provides some of the key benefits of writing groups. From their own research Gere and Abbott found that writing groups can, “enable students to become more conscious of themselves as writers” (378). Ultimately, that is the goal of the “Writer’s Circle.” Developing the confidence and awareness to see themselves as writers with all the highs, lows, and in-betweens that accompany that identity will hopefully better prepare students to meet the demands of our writing-intensive program.  

Works Cited

Ruggles, Anne Gere and D Robert Abbott. "Talking about Writing: The Language of Writing Groups." Research in the Teaching of English 19.4 (1985): 362-385.

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