The Writer’s Workshop: A Solution for Better Writing and Learning

Adam Irish University of Illinois at Urbana‐Champaign


This essay originally appeared in the Political Science Educator’s Spring 2012 edition.


My first experiences teaching students to write occurred during a two‐year stint as a Teach For America (TFA) teacher in Las Vegas, NV. I struggled to illuminate the importance of basic writing concepts to my students. My many explanations and written critiques met with thoroughly middling results. Then an experienced teacher took pity on me, pulled me aside, and showed me the writer’s workshop model of writing instruction wherein writing is a teaching tool first and a form of evaluation second. Armed with this new approach my students’ writing profoundly improved.

This essay is part of the Political Science Educator: Editor’s Reading List

In Political Science we tend to borrow from other fields. Theories of market economics, concepts of personality, or genetics have been borrowed to help us explain and understand political phenomena, rewarding scholars brave enough to look beyond our disciplinary walls. Yet our teaching, especially of social science writing, is one of the few areas in our profession where borrowing is less common. This essay argues that we should borrow the WW model of writing instruction from the neighboring field of Education and that by doing so we can teach our students to learn more through the writing process and to be better writers.1 Below I lay out the central insight, motivation and basic principles of a writer’s workshop. I close with advice for political science professors on how the WW can be applied to research‐ and analysis‐ focused courses.

Writer’s Workshop: Motivation and Insights

The teaching dilemma of K‐12 classroom teachers (i.e. teaching inexperienced, energetic students, focused on anything but sitting still and writing) is actually very similar to the puzzle faced by political scientists teaching undergraduates, many of who are new to political science writing and the college lifestyle. Until recently, the fields of Education and Political Science shared common methods of writing instruction; both employing the “teacher‐ as‐audience” (TAA) model of teaching. The TAA model establishes the professor (or TA) as the authority and sole source of feedback on a student’s writing. Students are thus pushed to meet the professor’s standards or face the prospect of failing and professors are burdened with providing assessment and feedback to all students. In the TAA model students are writing for a single expert reader, unlike most professional writing where the audiences tend to be mixed groups.

In the last ten years, the model of teaching writing in Education has changed. Under increasing pressure to find efficient and effective methods for improving both student writing and learning, many classroom teachers have experimented with and embraced the WW model of writing instruction. The WW model flips the TAA authority structure on its head, placing the student in the roles of responsible author and critical editor within groups where both writing and feedback are frequent. Perhaps most revolutionary from the perspective of college teaching is that writing in the WW model is both an evaluative tool and a teaching tool.

The WW model’s main teaching insight is that writing is actually a social activity. Written work requires at least one writer and reader, and it often includes many of both. Thus employing the WW model requires a shift in how we view student writers, not as solitary producers but as members of writing teams that talk about and improve one another’s thinking and writing. According to the WW model, the reason that we have trouble getting students to write better, more carefully, and ultimately to learn more from their writing has nothing to do with our creativity or effort. The WW model suggests that the reason most students write poorly and learn little from writing is that they almost never generate, share, or revise enough pages to produce the editing or revision opportunities required to improve. Thus, the central motivation of the WW model is find ways to provide opportunities for students to write, edit, and revise.2

Writer’s Workshop: Basic Principles

The WW model comes in many forms; the three principles I examine here are common to every form of WW.

Principle One: Find a system for students to produce writing daily and keep track of it. Writing, like other human endeavors, requires practice. But for a student to practice writing, she must write more frequently than the week preceding a paper’s due date (or at 3AM the night before!). Classroom teachers often require writing journals and give students time to write each day, with the explicit understanding that most of what they write will be checked for completion, not content.3 With more computer‐literate and independent students, this activity can be pushed outside of class and online via blogs or electronic journals with dated entries. Entries often run between a paragraph and a page, usually focusing on a single writing skill, task, question, or puzzle.

The difficulty of providing incentives to write daily is the common objection raised to adopting the WW model. Two useful solutions emerge from Education. First, a regular review for completion of all the journal entries can create accountability.4 Additionally, students can tag a couple entries to which they would like a brief teacher response (2‐3 sentences), generating a social incentive. Second, professors should provide a variety of topics with brief text/video/image support (e.g. a sample introduction or youtube.com video). Across a 15‐week course this requires a maximum of sixty, short entries, half of which might have text/video support. 5 Many supported entries could draw from course readings. A quick survey of your latest set of graded papers will likely provide plenty entry topics and ideas for support materials.

Principle Two: The Writer’s Circle. The Writer’s Circle is the main organizational structure and mechanism for editing and revision in the WW model. It allows students to interact with one another to generate the feedback central to the WW model.6 Students must meet regularly with their writing circle (a group of 4‐5 students), at least once every two weeks. The goal of each meeting is to provide critiques of 1‐2 student’s written work and to promote discussion on the use of concepts, theories or evidence.

During a group’s meeting the author will present her work for 3‐5 minutes (e.g. “I wanted to produce…a clear logical theory, graphs to visualize a problem, an interesting case study, etc”). Presented works should be between two and five pages. In the 10 minutes following the author’s summary the group members give feedback; meanwhile, the author is limited to taking notes and asking clarifying questions of feedback (only responding to questions directly asked of him/her). This meeting structure forces the author to try to understand the suggestion/critiques without getting defensive.7 When meetings occur outside class, the author should submit a summary of the feedback received from each member as an accountability measure.

Principle Three: Daily writing is directed towards the final product. In the WW model the students determine the contents of their writing, but the professor sets the grander development plan. In the college classroom, a WW model can and should be synced with the progression of the papers required for the course. Rather than viewing writing as an evaluation after content is taught, professors adopting the model should use the daily writing/journal review and the Writer’s Circle as tools to teach political science and writing skills needed for the final paper/project. Because much of the daily writing will be exploratory in style and substance, professors can use writing exercises to introduce, re‐enforce, and review concepts, theories and evidence.8

In classes with research writing the WW model of instruction pairs nicely with a staged, larger research project. In this way students can write about literature reviews, theories, study designs and results in advance of those sections being turned in. As a way of forming natural writer’s circles, I recommend having students research individual case studies related to an overarching research puzzle common to the group members: What factors make peacekeeping missions successful? How does religion influence political behavior? This ensures group members understand the topic, promoting discussion about possible solutions to the research dilemmas that both authors and reviewers are likely to encounter.

In classes where analytical writing is the objective, a WW model is most useful when students respond to course texts rather than in composing their final paper.9 For example, students could write retorts to (or extensions of) selected readings and gather critiques from their writer’s circle about their analysis’s form, force, and potential weaknesses. This provides a natural avenue to include contemporary journal articles within the course as response texts.

This essay is part of the Political Science Educator: Editor’s Reading List

Conclusion

Among other things, courses in political science should produce students capable of understanding complex readings, engaging lively debates, and writing thoughtfully about politics. The WW model provides a useful structure to accomplish all these goals, without adding exponentially to the instructor’s workload. We should not hesitate to borrow the WW model for use in our classes. If my critiques are the only ones my students hear, how will they ever be prepared for the comments of others? The WW provides a solution.

 

 

Endnotes

  1. The WW model is applicable to all disciplines; I examine it with respect to Political Science.
  2. The TAA approach cannot offer feedback frequently and or fast enough to sustain more writing than our students currently do, thus it can never solve quantity dilemma that motivates the WW model. A single professor (or TA) can only meet with so many students and give so much quality feedback within the demands of a semester, neither of which approaches the amount required under the WW model.
  3. This doesn’t mean that this writing will not find its way into their papers, only that it isn’t required to.
  4. Three times a semester is likely to be sufficient.
  5. This assumes 4 scripted entries (i.e. teacher directed) and 1 unscripted entry (free‐write) per week.
  6. Ideally this interaction is in person – though with the prevalence of Skype online meetings are possible.
  7. The group should finish with the first piece before moving on to the second – the goal is not comparison.
  8. An example daily writing assignment might be: “Critique and re‐write the first two paragraphs of Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” to be more scientific or even more bombastic.
  9. This is especially true for courses where there is a common final paper question. Where students are producing writing for the exact same question (e.g. Can Locke’s conception of property and Rawl’s theory of social justice co‐exist?), the WW model should be avoided because it leads to heavily interdependent group papers.

Political Science Educator: Editor’s Reading List presents select PSE articles from the previous 15 years. APSA Educate is please to announce it will feature all future Political Science Educator‘s issues.

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