What are you working on? Discussion in the Writing Classroom

In the writing classrooms where I teach, we often sit in a circle and do a “quick share” to begin class where everyone offers a brief comment. Examples of what students might say include a golden line from a reading, a question for our fellow writers, or an observation about a project in progress they are working on. Beginning in this way helps me to avoid talking too much to start off the class, and I hope to encourage students who might otherwise just sit back and relax to try and engage actively with the activity of the course.

William Torgerson teaching writing research composition discussion college

the challenge of conversation


Even trying for rapid-fire sharing around the room, with up to twenty-five students, writers can get bored, feel left out, or be uncomfortable enough talking in front of a group that they don’t speak in a way that the students in the class can hear them.  Even if a student speaks two minutes out of fifty, that’s not much engagement or opportunity to be heard. In considering this problem, I’m taken back to my days as a basketball coach. I was always looking for ways to maximize our practice time and the opportunities each player had to improve. For example, if I were to put fifteen players in a line and have them shoot, get their own rebound, and then pass to the next player, then each player might get three shots in ten minutes.  This isn’t helping anyone very much and to my way of thinking, not so different than a student in a writing class who only gets to be heard once or twice. So what to do?

As a teacher, I often go back to my time as an athlete and then a coach. For me, developing as a writer has a lot in common with my development as a shooter of the basketball or training for a long run.  When I coached and wanted to get my players more practice, I arranged shooters into five lines of three, and all of the sudden each player got five times the amount of practice than if they were in one big-long line. The classroom version of this basketball solution would be to make use of small groups. Theoretically, a student in a small group has more opportunity to join a conversation about their reading and writing. However, I’ve been in small groups as a student and now as a faculty member, and I’m often not impressed with the sort of work that gets done. There’s often a lot of noise, but it doesn’t often seem to be the noise of conversation about reading and writing. If you want students (or faculty) to work in small groups, then there has to be a plan for how this conversation can flourish.  As someone who was beginning to get more and more interested in Twitter, I wondered about the possibility of using it to enhance classroom conversation.  More on that experiment in coming posts, and if you’ve got your own ideas about classroom discussion or the use of small groups, I’d love to hear them!

What do you tell writers who ask for advice?

At the request of Campus Activities I agreed to participate in what is called “Storm Talks.”  It seems the goal of the project is to initiate conversation between students and professors.  I talked briefly on video and invited students to tell me about their writing before, during, and after the first year writing course.  The video was published via YouTube and Facebook.  Questions came in.  Here’s one of them:   “Any advice for a young writer?”

Click Here to Be Taken to Facebook Conversation

I usually answer that question by saying that the writer should read and write a lot.  I suppose it’s a philosophy–PRACTICE– that I used back when I was eighteen years old and cared about my free throw percentage. Okay, I still care about how many I’d make out of 100 if I were to go shoot tomorrow morning, but what I’m getting at is that in order to shoot free throws well, part of that process was that I shot a lot of them.  I remember in Donald Murray’s book, Write to Learn, he quotes writer (and Google fighter) Ursula Le Guin about this notion of practice:

“If you want to be a tuba player you get a tuba, and some tuba music…And you probably get a tuba teacher, because there are a lot of rules and techniques to both written music and to tuba performance.  And then you sit down and you play the tuba, every day, every week, every month, year after year, until you are good at playing the tuba; until you can–if you desire–play the truth on the tuba.”

Right after I suggest reading and writing to the person who has asked for advice (who am I really to give it?) I say that the writer needs to learn how to read.  People often laugh and think I’m joking, but I’m not.   As a student at Georgia College in Milledgeville, a generous faculty helped me to begin to read like a writer.  I learned to see that when Flannery O’Connor wrote “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” she made a choice for conflict in her first sentence:  “The grandmother didn’t want to go to Florida.”  O’Connor had many choices when it came to the beginning of her story.  She could have delivered dialogue, oriented readers to the setting, or perhaps written images for the purpose of developing character.  As I began to read in this way, all of the texts that surround me became my potential teachers, and I can read for lessons connected to dialogue, structure, endings, word choice, and many, many more.

So when asked to give advice I say to read and write a lot, and I say to learn how to read.  That feels like a pretty “DUH” thing for me to write.  Do you think so?  If you’re in position to ever be asks the question, how do you answer it?

Click Here to See Storm Talk Video

Dear Josie, (dad takes daughter to hit golf balls)

Dear Josie,

Last week I picked you up from preschool, and we went to the driving range to hit golf balls.  It was one of those places with softball cages, miniature golf, and laser tag inside.  You’re four now and it was your first trip.  I think your favorite part was right at the start.  You have a little pink bag with three clubs and the bag straps on like a backpack.  You liked carrying your bags into the pro shop like that.  A woman said you were “too cute.”  That was probably the highlight of the afternoon.

So that we would have less chance of bothering people and maybe not firing any golf balls their way, we went to the far end of the line of mats to hit.  The entire range was netted in and there were flags and little greens to aim at.  You said you didn’t want to aim at anything.  You were just going to hit the balls.  You also remarked that it was too bad there were so many balls out there because it would be a good place to run.

Your golf swing varies.  Usually you hunch way over too far and if I try to help you stand up straight, you go all limp and fall back into my arms.  Most of the time, you have about a two-inch back swing that is not so different from your grandfathers, but occasionally you will do a huge, back-twisting one where you pause at the top of your swing and look at me as if it’s some sort of challenge.  In general, you “push” the ball out, twenty yards when you really get hold of one, a foot when you don’t.  I was impressed with how few times you whiffed.  Maybe only three times.  I tried not to think that we paid $13 for the bucket of balls when there were ten or so right in front of us.  We could hit balls for free at the beach, but if we went there you’d rather go play on the playground or look for creatures in the water.  I understand this.  I know to be very patient and am trying not to be “one of those dads.”

I’m not taking you to the driving range because I have great sporting aspirations for you.  I am taking you to the driving range because I’d like to be able to take you as soon as possible out to the local par three so we could spend some time walking up and down the fairways together.  I’m having a hard time at home when what you seem to want to do is play act Disney movies over and over or have me pretend to be the Evil Queen.  We are a lot alike, always on the mental and physical move, but at the moment, we haven’t found a lot to do together.

I think golf can be an enormous waste of time and money, but not if it’s you and me getting to walk and talk.  Golf would also give your mom a break.  You have boundless energy.  The more tired you get the more demanding you get asking to do something else, to play one more game, read one more book, or run a few more laps around the circle of our downstairs.  That’s something you, me, and your sis do together:  we run laps around our downstairs.  Sometimes we even set up obstacle courses.  If you happen to take a nap, your mom and I know we are in trouble.  We will run out of energy way before you.  You and your sis tired us out so much the other day, that we went to bed at 7:58.  I’m sure we were both sleeping by 8:15.  You occasionally announce that we are all going to stay up all night.

Sometimes between your golf shots, you sat down in front of the bucket right there on the mat.  You’d take a long time to put the next ball in position.  I felt like telling you to get up and hurry up, but I kept those thoughts to myself.  We alternated hitting five balls at a time, and when we got down to the last four or so, you asked me if we could go when the balls were all gone.  I said yes, and then you rapid fire hit the rest of the balls out into the range.

On the way back to the car, you decided that you wanted to putt on the putting green.  It was empty of patrons and so I said yes.  I tried to explain that on the putting green, you have to hit the golf ball much more softly.  It is here that you connected with some of your most powerful shots of the day.  You sent the first ball zipping off the green and into the wall of the pro shop behind.  You hit your first few balls completely off the green.  Then, after I tried to coach you again to hit the ball more softly, you hit your next few an inch or two.  Still very determined to be calm, I said it was time to go.  You dropped your putter and took off on a sprint away from me yelling that you didn’t want to go yet.  Once I caught you, you said that you wanted to putt some more.  Back on the green, you got the hang of it and you lagged a few putts up close and putted them in. You were very excited about making the putts and threw one fist up into the air when the ball rattled home.  On the way out to the van, you told me that you never wanted to hit balls again.