Embracing Exploration: AtoZ April Challenge


a-zchallengeThis post could have an alternate title: Eliminating Erasers. But the story would be the same.

I have been experimenting with ways to get my writing students to get away from writing for the sake of correct grammar and unusual vocabulary to first seeking ideas and opinions they want to express, and THEN using grammar as a tool for making their ideas more understandable to their audience. Audience? They look at me with blank stares when I suggest such a thing. I collaborated with my daughter last semester to give students an experience of audience.

But the point is that real writing involves prewriting–a form of exploration that helps the writer excavate the thoughts and ideas that are deep within the unconscious part of the brain. Prewriting is about discovery, about finding out what one really has to say, what the message is that he or she wants to convey. Trying to write something without doing that exploratory work first is like trying to build a piece of furniture without taking measurements and making a plan. It you just start cutting the wood and nailing pieces together, it’s not going to be very functional nor aesthetically pleasing.

The sad thing about most of my students is that they’re terrified of making a grammar mistake. Giant fear #2: They don’t have enough vocabulary. And these two fears immobilize any exploration of ideas. It’s not their fault. I understand that when learning English as a foreign language, it seems like it’s even more important to make sure you are mechanically correct.

That’s where the “eliminating erasers” title option comes from. In Taiwan, there isn’t a pencil case in a classroom that doesn’t contain an eraser and a correcting tape (or wite out), along with the requisite pens and pencils. It took me a while to understand how deeply being correct was culturally embedded. Particularly because I didn’t teach writing until my second year here. I tried teaching the writing process. It was like another foreign language, and then I realized that they were approaching each step as if it were a final draft. That they had no concept of a first draft. AND that most of them hated writing enough that all they wanted to do was get assignments done, not necessarily become better writers. Spending the first semester on the writing process helped, but only to a point–because they will do the assignments I give them because I give them, but they won’t buy into the spirit of the process. And when I ask them to go from their first draft to a new revision, I see many of them just give me another copy of what they gave me the first time. So frustrating.

I started by telling students that I would not take off points for grammar mistakes. That it was more important go get ideas than to worry about grammar, at least for most of the process. They weren’t sure they believed me. So the next step was to give them two bonus points on their final exam essays if they didn’t use erasers or wite-out. Gradually, I started including it in my opening day lectures, and I constantly reinforce it. NO erasers or wite-out in my classes–ever. You don’t need to worry about mistakes when writing. You can fix things later after you plan with ideas.

I mean it would be nice if I could give a demo on how to do free-writing. Oh wait! I did that. I set a timer for seven minutes (after demonstrating the process to them). I told them to write as quickly as they can without worrying about grammar, without even thinking. I went so far as to tell them that if they had a thought come to them in Chinese, they could write the Chinese, rather than try to think of an “easier” English word to substitute for the thought they were having.

They can’t do it. They want to believe me, they really do. But they are convinced that it is just a process that makes them spend more time with writing–something they want to avoid. Luckily, I recently had one student who totally got free-writing, and found herself making those discoveries that can happen when you just play with words and ideas. She had an experience of embracing exploration. Amy was so excited, she came to tell me about it. And she was excited enough that when I asked her to share her experience with her classmates, using Chinese, she animatedly spoke for several minutes. You could see light bulbs going on all over the room. (Another sadness is that they can’t always understand everything that is said in English, and they are too timid and embarrassed to admit they don’t understand.) Amy was even excited enough she visited another one of my classes to tell them of her experience. In the picture below, she is visiting one of my other writing classes to share her experience.

I’ll be honest. I had to really push the students to get up and get close enough to see her when she actually “wrote fast.” I also had to push them to ask her questions–even in Chinese. But the experience (and the prodding) was well worth it.

I am fortunate to have a few students who “get it” and are willing to share their experiences like Amy has done here. Other students have written to me, thanking me for helping them to change their ideas about writing.  It’s a slow process, but if I can help even a few students find their voices instead of practicing memorized grammar rules, I feel like I’ve made a difference. I’m willing to eliminate a few erasers on the way to leading students to embrace the process of exploration,