Author Archive for



12
Apr
13

Am I doing this right? The troubles with feedback and writing

In the past year, I read a lot about the idea of mindfulness meditation and the long term benefits the practice can have on focus, reduction of stress, and a general state of well being. Needing a bump in all three areas, I signed up for a free online course with guided meditations and exercises. During the first week, I read all the materials and enthusiastically sat on our bedroom floor with my eyes closed. I tried to listen as a guided meditation encouraged me to be present and focus on my breathing, but I kept thinking about my posture, my back pain, arm positions, etc. My internal monologue kept coming back to the same question, “Am I doing this right?”

That question dominates my thoughts whenever I am trying something out for the first time. In some cases, the answer is obvious. When I attempted to fix the pump on my iced tea maker and the water continued to sit placidly in the reservoir, I received immediate feedback, and I could try something else like buying a new iced tea maker. In other cases though, feedback is scarce, and the answer is murkier, sometimes a lot murkier, which causes stress and doubt. During the second week of the mindfulness course, I was less enthusiastic, and that’s partly because I felt more demands were being placed on my time, but I still could not tell if my efforts were being wasted.

Writing is among those activities where feedback is  the murkiest, and that’s a big problem. When I put words down on the page, I have to make an educated guess about whether they’ll have the effect I desire. Often, I’ll have no confirmation of that guess until the writing is out of my hands. Anyone who has a stake in what they are writing, be it a grant proposal, an application essay, term paper, or love letter to a prospective partner, faces the stress of trying to write creatively and accurately express who they are and what they know under a cloud of uncertainty. It’s pretty hard to put full effort and still not know whether or not you are on the right track. When a writer can’t tell, they’ll frequently produce a piece of writing that fall short of their best effort. Continue reading ‘Am I doing this right? The troubles with feedback and writing’

30
Sep
12

Why I hate learning styles and why you should too

Photo courtesy of Flickr user skpy

If you were a student or teacher in the past 30 years, you’ve likely heard about learning styles. In case you haven’t, here’s the basic theory:

Every brain has different strengths and weaknesses in how it encodes new information. If we map these strengths and weaknesses, we can detect that brain’s bias and learn that person’s particular learning style, the way that his/her brain prefers to learn. Learners can take advantage of knowing their own biases by changing how they study. Because everyone has a different learning style, teachers should present material in diverse ways appealing to many different learning styles to best serve all their students. 

The whole idea that we can somehow learn better by understanding our brain better is appealing, and the concept of learning styles seems so intuitively correct, that many people have made it a central tenant of their teaching philosophies without any further research. That further research suggests that learning styles are a myth. What’s more, we need to be cautious of the unintended consequences the learning style myth. Continue reading ‘Why I hate learning styles and why you should too’

21
Sep
12

Thinking caps, contemplative pedagogy, and getting started writing

Fifth and sixth graders can’t go directly from running around and playing outside to writing quietly. That should have been obvious to anyone, but nevertheless, I tried and failed at it when teaching my summer creative writing class for the first time. However, that experience taught me a lot about the value of carefully scripting the time right before starting to write.

“Getting started” usually comes pretty high on students’ lists of writing struggles. Many of them say they’re fine once they get into the middle of the paper, but they struggle with getting to that stage. I’m sure a good share of these difficulties have to do with content issues–students often try to write before they have a real idea of the complexity of their topic–but my experiences teaching in the summer make me think there’s something more than just a lack of knowledge that drives this issue for most.

I’ve been blessed to have the opportunity to teach a class for the past five summers for Johns Hopkins CTY. It’s a great teaching gig with phenomenal, enthusiastic students in small classes, but during the first week of classes in my first summer, my students seemed to struggle to get anything down on the page. Content shouldn’t have been a real issue because most of the prompts asked students to write about something in their own lives that they should know well. Fifteen minutes into many of the writing exercises though, I’d see more than a few students with only one or two lines. Those that had gotten to writing immediately had by that time exhausted their resources and felt as if they had nothing more to say.

Given that these were gifted students, some of the trouble surely had to do with fear of judgment. The camp situation throws students who have always been the smartest kid in their class in with a bunch of other students who are also the smartest students. That potential threat to pre-teen egos cannot have been too pleasant for them to deal with.

These are the situations where most teachers are inclined to try and fix the students instead of changing the structure and situation to allow students to fix themselves. I fell into that trap here. My first approach was to give students the typical advice given to writers: turn off your internal editors, just write down whatever words come into your mind, even if they are completely unrelated, get the pen moving and don’t let it stop. That is good advice in general, and it had some effect, but some of my students still seemed paralyzed. Something else was missing. Continue reading ‘Thinking caps, contemplative pedagogy, and getting started writing’

09
Jun
12

Encouraging collaboration & effective brainstorming

Photo credit: Flickr user KatieTT

Having written about brainstorming and group work in three of the more recent posts here, you can imagine I was alarmed to see the blurb, “Brainstorming Doesn’t Really Work,” promoting Jonah Lehrer’s article Group Think: The Brainstorming Myth. After reading the article, I see there’s a lot to learn in thinking through setting up effective collaborations.

The blurb in question focuses on a very specific type of brainstorming that has been proven empirically to provide less creative ideas. When groups are told to throw out ideas without criticism, they tend to come up with a lot of ideas, but those ideas are more predictable, less varied, and ultimately less successful than groups that are free to criticize each other’s ideas. The criticism leads to a reconsideration of ideas, which ultimately makes them better.

Lehrer’s asssertion that this type brainstorming doesn’t work does not mean that groups cannot be creative. In fact, he introduces several studies that show that they can be more creative than individuals under the right conditions. The most compelling parts of the article are those that consider what those right conditions look like. Continue reading ‘Encouraging collaboration & effective brainstorming’

05
Jun
12

The spaces of innovation: Where Good Ideas Come From book review

Image Credit: stevenberlinjohnson.typepad.com

It takes a bit of hubris to write a history of good ideas. Good ideas are those which separate themselves above those that come before, so to attempt to provide insight into a wide swath of those ideas means you must fancy yourself fairly insightful. That generally yields books like Harold Bloom’s Genius: A Mosaic of One Hundred Exemplary Minds, which crafts a complicated kabbalistic schema to organize brief biographies of one hundred great minds from the history of literature. The results read like a well-crafted reference book that leaves the reader with a sense of awe for these authors. What we don’t get is much insight into where these good ideas came from, which I should add Bloom never really promises. He’s just fine with us being in awe.

The difficulty inherent in choosing to write about good ideas is partly what makes Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation such a darn clever book. Instead of focusing on the good ideas themselves, which out of context leave us with a sense of awe, Johnson focuses on the places where good ideas come from, finds patterns in the conditions that foster creativity, and suggests ways we can create those spaces in our own creative endeavors. The results are both insightful, inspiring, and extraordinarily useful for anyone interested in coming up with good ideas themselves. Continue reading ‘The spaces of innovation: Where Good Ideas Come From book review’

31
May
12

Workshopping peer workshops

I was at a conference last year where the idea of using writing workshops in class came up in conversation. A teacher from an education department commented, “I used to do workshops, but both my students and I thought they were a waste of time.” I brought up the fact that several studies support the idea that peer workshops work to produce better writers, and she shrugged her shoulders unconvinced. That experience made it pretty clear to me: workshops need a better PR department. They’ve become one of the most maligned forms of writing instruction, which is sad because they also have the potential to be the among the most productive.

I’m sympathetic to those teachers and students who deplore workshops. When I started teaching writing, I’d get student evaluations that said they found the process unhelpful in fixing their papers, and after reading their drafts, I could see the truth in those statements. Only later did I realize that we were both missing the point of workshops. A closer look at the structure of workshops shows us that focusing the goals of a workshop on the quality of papers produced invites these feelings of failure. Workshops can show us a lot of the weak points in our own papers and a lot of points that we need to work hard to fix, but they can’t solve those problems. Only the original writer can. But workshops do create better writers when they are assessed over time. Even though that’s cold comfort to someone wanting immediate improvement, a dedicated approach to workshops will help your writers improve, and there are several things we can do to help us tweak our approach to workshops that can allow that to happen. Continue reading ‘Workshopping peer workshops’

24
May
12

Top 50 Creative Writing Professors on Twitter

I  found out earlier in the week that WorldWideLearn.com put me on a list of the top 50 creative writing professors on Twitter. I’d never even consider myself in the same stratosphere as some of the other names on that list, so I’m extremely humbled. Given that and the mention on BoingBoing last month, I’m feeling like a real blogger. By which I mean, I feel a tremendous amount of guilt about not writing more.




Good Writer, Bad Writer

Good writer, bad writer reflects the philosophy behind the first writing lesson I attempt to teach students. Too many of them come into college believing that their writing abilities are set in stone. The bad writers continue to struggle, and the good writers don't take enough risks in their writing, figuring that any misstep will throw them back into the "bad writer" category.

Good writer, bad writer is my attempt to break the power of that dichotomy. On here, I share the lessons and attitudes that I teach, but I also talk about the attitudes I have towards my own writing since many of those have informed my own teaching. Thanks for visiting.


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