Sunday, February 17, 2019

What's Happening When Writing Is Fun?

Writing can be and should be fun.

By John Warner 

I’ve long believed that if we want students to improve as writers, it makes sense to make writing as fun as possible.

Ask students how often they experience school-related writing as fun and expect a lot of silence. It’s not unheard of when it comes to the students I’ve worked with, but it’s pretty rare, and I think that’s a problem.

Fun isn’t synonymous with frivolous, though. As it turns out, I had an uncommon amount of fun writing one of last week’s blog posts, my review of/response to the new book, The Coddling of The American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure. For the four or so days I worked on it, I was wholly absorbed in the process, spending many hours on task, and even thinking about it during my otherwise “off” hours.

Waking up at 3am because a felicitous turn of phrase popped into your head may not sound like fun, but it really can be. Figuring out what I wanted to say and the best way to say it became something of an obsession, and seeing the ideas develop as I was writing was, dare I say it, fun.

This is what comes to mind when I think about what matters when it comes to making writing fun, followed by the questions regarding pedagogy and assignment design that arise when I think about each condition for making writing fun.

1. Freedom of choice

From the moment I started reading The Coddling of the American Mind, I knew that I had something to say about it, even as I wasn’t sure what that something was. It touched on subjects of personal importance (my concerns about rising incidences of student anxiety and depression), as well as personal knowledge and even expertise.

I felt equipped to be able to say something substantive in response to the original text. This had a big impact on my fun. 

How often do I give students the freedom to write in response to something which provokes them the way I was provoked by this book?

2. Freedom of form

I started the post with a different purpose in mind, covering the book for my weekly column at the Chicago Tribune. Fairly quickly, though, I realized that what I had to say would reach well beyond my 600-word limit for that space.

Being able to switch to a blog post which generally runs 1000 words allowed me to keep following the thread of my thinking as it developed through the writing itself.

Which of course led to me blowing well past my usual length and resulted in a post that’s well over 2000 words, too long for a typical blog post, but as the kids say, whatever. My brain wanted to follow the thread of my own thinking to its end. I ended up cutting around 1200 words from what I drafted because they represented arguments tangential to my main point, but even the stuff that hit the cutting room floor was fun.

How often do I give students the freedom to range into length or forms I may not have anticipated or prescribed?

3. Freedom of time

My obsession coincided with a weekend where I didn’t have much of anything scheduled, and when I wasn’t faced with any other deadline. The decks were clear to dedicate 100% of my mental bandwidth to this particular writing challenge.

How common is it for students to be able to dedicate an extended period of time to a single school-related task?

4. Freedom to discover

One of my mantras for my own writing is that I should be discovering something for myself during the process of writing. I can’t start without some notion of what I want to say, but if no discoveries have been made during the saying, I probably have not maximized my fun.

Do my assignments ask students to demonstrate mastery of material which I’ve exposed them to, or does it require them to create some new bit of knowledge for themselves?

5. Freedom to roam and the payoff of curiosity

By my count I cited or referenced 15 different sources, most of which I’ve run across in other contexts in the last year. It’s hard to describe what this feels like, but it’s almost as though I’m doing a puzzle where I don’t even know what picture I’m trying to replicate, but a subconscious part of my brain is bringing pieces up from the depths for me to inspect to see if they fit.

It’s the act of making sense of the world, threading these different elements into a cohesive whole that hangs together.

It’s a little mysterious, but a lot fun.

How often do my assignments allow my students to feel smarter than they previously believed themselves to be?

6. Not having complete freedom

While I think freedom is a necessary element to making writing fun and engaging, without some measure of accountability, it’s difficult for all those elements to come together in a satisfying whole. Yes, the writing should matter to the writer, and intrinsic motivation is important, but know that there would be an audience at the end of the process played a role in increasing the engagement, and the fun.

All along, I carried a small measure of anxiety about the post. It would be aiming criticism at figures significantly above me on the academic/public writer hierarchy. I did not fear retribution from the authors personally, but they have fans and followers. The book is a best seller. If I was going to be critical, it had to be criticism worth expressing, and I had to do my best to express it well.

For most blog posts, given the nature of the medium and genre, I’m happy to allow some of my thinking to be provisional, a work in progress, but I knew that post would need to be as tight as I could muster.

How do I balance both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation in a way that gets students wanting to maximize their potential on a particular piece of writing?[1]

Over time, as these questions became the foundation for the values I’d bring to designing assignments it became easier to engender these experiences for students, but even with them front of mind, it isn’t easy.

When it clicks, though, it really is magic.  

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