Friday, February 12, 2016

Writing for Better Classroom Conversations

by Marilyn Savich

Have you ever been frustrated by your own lack of classroom participation? Your professor asked you to share your thoughts on the assigned reading, and your mind just went blank. What gnaws you is that you spent a fair amount of time getting through to the end of the page(s), underlining certain passages, circling keywords,and even scribbling some bullet points about it. In that setting and time of day though – zap. Perhaps you genuinely forgot. Perhaps you had a neutral response to what you read – you understood the author’s argument, but because you didn’t feel strongly about it one way or another, you struggled to put it into greater meaning, especially at that particular moment.

Here is where reflective writing can be of great help if you identify with any of these experiences. Reflective writing is tailored for you and meant to help you make sense of your thoughts. It seems non-intuitive, especially since you’re the only one reading it, and indeed – the beauty of reflective writing is the freedom to write whatever you desire however ineligibly you want. Nevertheless, there are some aspects to think about that can be motivational if you haven’t tried this kind of exercise in college yet, which is namely writing for the purpose of richer contributions in an academic setting. Below are some suggestions to ultimately help you develop your thoughts about those long, technical readings that are the basis of your classroom discussions.

Step 1: Find a journal.

Whether it’s the same journal for class notes or a different one for your personal reactions, make sure you have it available when it may be needed in class. Paper is all you really need, so any journal will do; of course, an aesthetically pleasing one is often encouraging if you need an additional incentive.

Step 2: Write in paragraph format.

The advantage of writing in paragraph format as opposed to bullet points is that writing in paragraphs helps you contextualize all the information in a way that makes sense to you when you re-read it. Writing one sentence after another also helps you internally make connections by propelling you forward to more ideas along the thought process, which is one of the overall goals of this exercise. It may help to think of this reflective exercise as a type of story or journal entry that you are creating for yourself.

Step 3: Give yourself time.

You may already be asking yourself: why am I giving myself extra homework? Sure, it may seem like a little bit of effort upfront, but in the long run, you are helping yourself immensely so that the next time you’re asked to think about that reading, the process of remembering will be less painful.

Step 4: Forget all of your professor’s writing pet peeves.

Even if the personal reaction you are writing to yourself is ultimately toward the very same class in which the professor let you know of her/his personal writing distastes, jot down all of your thoughts in the style that you would find most accessible. Since this is a self-reflective exercise, feel free to use the terms “I feel,” “like,” and “cool,” or whatever pet peeve your professor mentioned if those words are what come naturally to you. You can change those irritable words afterward when you re-read your response or when you orally share your interpretations in class. When you’re first writing to yourself though, you should focus your attention on making sense of ideas for yourself so that you can actually get somewhere.

 Step 4: Rephrase what the author is saying. 

 This process is actually really helpful when your professor asks you to think about the argument and how this specific theory differs from the other text you just read. Even if there is a line in the text that you highlighted which clearly gets across the author’s main point, it helps to write the author’s thesis in a manner that you would actually say out loud so that you are sure you understand it.

Step 5: Connect the text to greater themes.

What are the big, memorable keywords that have already discussed in class or in the syllabus? Along the same lines, think of ways in which this reading contributes to some of the comments mentioned by your professor or classmates. You may also find a greater connection to another field outside of the discipline you are studying in– be it a connection between mathematics and politics, the economy, religion, or a current event. Sometimes those links between the classroom and the outside world can be really exciting and lead to an interest you follow when you’re outside of the classroom.

This exercise is a pretty no-pressure task in which no one can judge you except yourself. It is also an opportunity for growth. In fact, you may be surprised at what new ideas spring forth when you give yourself time to think and express yourself beforehand.


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