Teaching Writing Workshop in the USA
Teaching writing is a problem for many teachers; this is a problem not only for this country, but for other countries as well. In the United States of America there was one month-workshop under the slogan “Teachers teaching teachers” which means that the best teachers for teachers are teachers themselves. I was very happy to take part in it. It was so interesting and informative, as well as offering food for thought and a challenge at the same time, that I’d like to share my experience with you.
American teachers of primary, secondary, and tertiary education think that the modern system of education, being generally satisfactory, still lacks some aspects. Writing in particular, in their estimation, is not given proper consideration. As a result, the nagging (острая) problem of writing is not being addressed.
Therefore, American educators launched the National Writing Project in 1975. Its target was to help teachers improve the writing skills of students, not only in language classes, but in other class subjects, as well. They call this nationwide project “Writing across the curriculum”. Workshops are held annually every summer.
Teachers of different levels and of different curricula apply for the Summer Institute. They come to share their knowledge, to give presentations and to discuss them critically. They engage in brainstorming that enables them to find the most interesting approaches to the problem of teaching writing.
In June of 2008, my colleague and I visited the Summer Institute Course at the National University of Colorado in Pueblo. I should say it was an unforgettable experience. The group of 20 teachers (among them 2 from Russia and another 18 from locations close to Pueblo) came to class 4 days a week for a month. Our American colleagues were lecturers in philosophy, geography, mathematics, literature, methodology, and computer technology from colleges, secondary schools, primary school, even a school for handicapped children. Our classes started at 9 and finished at 4.30 with a half-an-hour break at midday.
The workshop program had been discussed and arranged in an established timetable several months earlier. And it was not adjusted during the month of studies: every member of the workshop knew perfectly well the day, as well as the times, of his\her presentation or assignment or reading.
Every type of writing task had its own label.
Each day began with Sacred writing. This does not have any religious meaning, it’s just the name used. At nine sharp, the group came and started writing. The title of the subject was written on the board. At each class, the titles were very different (e.g “Identity” or I Didn’t Have a Chance of Having a Walk This Morning” – a very wide range of titles were offered.)
It was “sacred” in the meaning that nothing could disturb your writing process: no side talks, no mobile conversations, no questions, no discussions, no coming late. By the way, the door was locked at nine sharp. Those who happened to be late (as there were people who had to drive for one hundred miles to get to this class) were not allowed to enter. So nothing should distract our attention. Nothing could break the silence.
We were given 5-8 minutes to put down our ideas, impressions, feelings on the topic offered. We were to write a page of A4 format. When the time was up, everyone was supposed to read their written text aloud – to share it with others. No commentary followed. Mistakes were never corrected.
The second obligatory component of the day was Morning Pages (or Afternoon Pages – if it was in the second half of the day). According to the program, each participant of the workshop was to find 2-3 pages of a text (from any book or textbook, from any piece of poetry or the Bible, or whatever), to read the text aloud only once and given the assignment to reflect “What would you do if you were him/the hero? Did you ever happen to be in a similar situation?” Everyone tried to find something burning, or exciting, or problematic with the situation. And the assignment (a question as a prompt) which followed the reading had to be written within 8-10 minutes and then shared with the group. If someone was unwilling to share it, nobody forced him. But being active was preferable.
The next obligatory component was a demo – a presentation, which lasted an hour and a half. It was about the participant’s approach to the problem of writing. The presentation or demonstration explained your view of the problem and how you cope with it. While presenting one’s own approach, everybody was to illustrate it with the papers of his own pupils or students (a must!) and to prepare interactive assignments for the teacher-listeners. Our presentations should start with an epigraph and finish up with a bibliography (paper version or electronic version of the book you have used). My American colleagues used video films made in their classrooms, cartoon fragments, extracts from films with their own commentary, pieces of music or performances from “You-Tube” just to enliven their presentations.
Since these presentations are considered a very important component of the workshop, there is a coach who offers his/her helping hand, explaining what is good and impressive, what is crucial and must be emphasized, which part should logically go next – that is, the technical side. As for the substance of each presentation it was exclusively each teacher’s responsibility. We had to keep in mind that our presentation must NOT be a lecture, and not just a Power Point slide report. It should be interactive with the listeners. While presenting ideas we must offer hand-outs which are supposed to have several assignments/tasks for writing, as well as provide for a time slot and ask our audience to share what they did. I must say that the presentation was such a challenge. And not only because I wanted to keep up with my American groupmates, but also because it was an awesome responsibility!
I personally made a presentation of Writing as a task at the Russian State Exams (EGE in Russian), FCE and CAE exams. My objective was to demonstrate that lexical and grammatical requirements increase from level to level. And I wanted to show what writing aspect is covered at each exam. I brought my students’ papers with me there and showed them to the participants during my presentation. My colleague’s presentation dealt with plagiarism. She made a questionnaire survey and brought student commentaries with her.
After our presentation, there were two types of comments: anonymous ones in writing on cards and public oral comments. Everyone gave me their cards, on one side of which the positive impressions were written, (they call them “stars”, meaning “pluses”) and on the other, the critical commentary (the “wishes” or “minuses”). Then each member of the group had his/her say. There were positive critical remarks concerning the way my presentation was organized. My colleagues expressed their approval and asked many different kinds of questions. After that my coach and the director of the Summer Institute took the floor and they explained what they liked in my presentation and what should have been organised in a better way. They advised me to include more visual information, and less text information. And I was to explain to them how I could possibly disseminate my knowledge, and where I could apply it.
Still another type of everyday class activity was “Moodle Time” (the name of a special computer program). Every member of the seminar had a blog or could go to the site of the National Writing Project, which would have a question or a task regarding our homereading.
It should be said here that by the end of each day we were given homework: to read 3-5 pages from the book mentioned, such as My Method of Teaching Writing (copies of the text, as well as the books, were available on the shelves of the classroom) and we were to write 3-4 pages of the text. It goes without saying that it was a must for everyone to do this daily assignment.
Pueblo Country Courthouse
The next day, at Moodle Time, everyone would see a question on the screen of his/her computer like this “What is your view of the approach described on page (so-and-so)?” Or someone from another city where a similar Writing Workshop was held (as I mentioned above Writing Seminars are organised every June all over the USA), would send me a question or would ask for my view of a problem. I was to write/type it and send my reply within the limited time span, or send my comments on somebody’s presentation and that sort of thing.
Another writing activity which was also held daily was “writing groups”. All the seminar members were split into groups of four. Every member of each group was to write two papers (3-4 pages each, size of the page A4). One paper should be open to discussion and we could choose the topic for it or take whatever we found interesting. The second paper was to demonstrate our creative ability. It could be our reminiscences, or a description of a life episode, or just a meditation. After I wrote one of the papers, I made three copies of it to give to the members of the small group to which I was assigned. They gave me theirs. This paper exchange meant that, at home, I was to read my groupmates’ papers thoroughly and give my response (orally or in written form).They also gave me theirs. For the next class, I was to give the revised version of the same paper, taking into consideration the criticism and the remarks of the first version. The second version was often followed by the third. Then the final version was presented to the public during the “author’s chair” exercise. This meant that the author read his/her final version of one of the two papers in class, and every participant was free to say what they thought of it, putting forth their remarks, opinions, and estimates.
Pueblo City Hall
When the class was approaching its end and everyone was very tired, the most enjoyable part of writing started. The organisers of the workshop called these efforts Lognotes. This name comes from the expression “to log in to a journal”. But before that: each day someone from the group (appointed according to the timetable) had to make notes of everything that happened during that day. It was like taking the minutes with all the questions asked, commentaries given, remarks or exclamations made. And at home the one who took the notes of the day, was (apart from his obligatory task) to write it up and to present it in class the next day. The most interesting moment was the style of presentation. It could be in the form of a TV program, a culinary recipe, a conversation, a monologue, a page of a diary, a timetable, or a party menu. And when people presented their lognotes they tried to imitate the manner of speech, the accent, the intonation of the original speakers. They performed like talented actors trying to outdo the previous presenter of the notes. The atmosphere was free and easy and so we all laughed a lot. And we all were impatiently waiting for Lognotes presentation time. Because we responded emotionally and sincerely to the apt turn of phrase, felicitous parody or joke, it was really a great joy.
That is how each day of the month of the workshop sped by. Nobody took into account the fact that my colleague and I were not native speakers. All our teachers spoke to us naturally as they were used to, not a single sentence was repeated, unknown terms or words were not explained – not until we asked. We were supposed to be on a par with all the others. It was really a challenge, but a very informative challenge.
Our month stay there passed so quickly. Just in a wink.
The “Sacred Writing” entitled “This Is the Last Day of the Workshop” was accompanied by sobs, frog-in-the-throat voices, as well as tears running down the face”. It was unforgettable.
The organisers of the workshop used every opportunity as a motivation for writing. For example a sightseeing tour. We went to the Historic Society Museum. The task was given to describe the associations and thoughts this visit provoked. In addition, they regularly organise a Writing Marathon – the young people run a distance, the elderly just walk around. Then they all get together at a café, sit down and write whatever they want: a story, a letter, a poem. And read it aloud. Then commentaries, assessment or opinions are expressed. So each piece of writing is shared with the group.
A very simple idea is implemented – everyone can be a writer. Every person is able to express their ideas and feelings in writing.
In two-week’s time the E-Anthology was published and every participant of the Summer Institute got a copy of this book.
Photos by T. Zhelonkina