Saturday, September 13, 2008

Group therapy

We flipped our schedule today to take account of the latest Ike news. Rain was forecast to start in the afternoon, so instead of holding our writing workshop in the morning and sending the kids out to hike and capture-the-flag in the afternoon, we took advantage of cloudy but dry weather after breakfast for outdoor activities.

So after lunch we broke up into groups of six or seven, and scattered to meeting rooms all over the the conference center to work on the students' first papers for their very first Honors class. We spent about 90 minutes, first exchanging papers to read, then communicating praise and suggestions to the writers, then rewriting sections of particular concern. The last twenty minutes or so were devoted to talking together about the revision process and reading aloud before-and-after examples.

I get really animated when I'm talking about what these exercises reveal about students' topics and particular voices. One writer made a subtle change of wording and structure that suddenly created a bold dichotomy between the way she felt at one point, and the way she felt later. Another stretched himself to personalize the impact of his subject, rather than writing about it from an objective perspective as he was naturally inclined to do. I was excited about their discoveries and eager to join the team around the table providing ideas and encouragement.

When I asked for feedback after everyone had had their say, the students eyes went wide. “This was great,” one said with a bit of wonder in her voice. “I was dreading this, said another, “but it was the best thing we've done up here." "I didn't expect it to be so helpful," a student said, to general agreement.

I don't know what people expect when they hear the phrase "writing workshop" -- one of my colleagues mentioned that one of her students thought they were going to be lectured -- but it must be some kind of grammar slog or criticism fest. Those who do workshopping a lot know that the objective is not to conform everyone's writing to a Platonic ideal, but to push each individual's writing toward its personal best. That's necessarily going to be involve a celebration of what makes your writing uniquely yours -- a recognition of the self that you alone can communicate.

And there's no group that is more interested in finding out who they are than eighteen-year-olds. If we could call it a soul-locating workshop instead of a writing workshop, maybe they wouldn't be so surprised at the outcome.

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