The following article was published this week in Teachers and Writers Magazine.
Writing by Hand to Create a Deeper Engagement in the Classroom
In an age when digital literacy is viewed as the holy grail of education, and when teachers are urged to jump aboard the digitrain or get run over by it, Heather Sellers is one of the few voices bucking the trend, extolling the benefits she says come with writing the way human beings have written since they became literate: by hand.
Sellers, a professor of English at Hope College in Holland, Michigan, and author of the critically acclaimed memoir You Don’t Look Like Anyone I Know, which details her lifelong struggle with face-blindness, believes students who write by hand produce superior work, so she requires handwritten first drafts of each assignment. Sellers says she stumbled onto the fact that writing by hand can make a huge difference in the quality of written work. After noticing stark variations in quality in students’ submissions to her writing class, she wanted to know if there was something about their approaches that made a difference, so she asked the writers how they worked. Three of them had submitted work that Sellers regarded as “stunning—prose that read more like poetry.” When she asked them about their writing process, each of them said they had written their stories by hand. In contrast, Sellers found that all of the weaker authors had written their drafts on a computer. There were a couple of students in the middle whose work was a mixed bag. Their descriptions of how they wrote, says Sellers, were revealing:
“There were these two stories that had some great parts, and some flat parts. ‘I wonder if you mind saying a few words about your process,’ I asked these two writers. I still remember their names. Chantelle said, ‘Well, I started hand-writing. But then I got behind, and it was due, and so I typed the rest, but the opening, the scene at the restaurant, and the ending were done by hand.’ Those were the EXACT same sections I’d pegged as thrumming, as memorable, as real. Charlie said the same thing–parts were done by hand, parts on the computer. The class was stunned when I showed him that I could tell which parts he’d hand-written first and which sections he’d typed.”
Sellers says this was a transformational moment for her, one she shares with each new incoming class. In her disarmingly warm and engaging style, she preaches the gospel of handwriting to every digital native who walks through her door. And she meets less resistance than one might expect. Make no mistake about it—her approach is a radical one. More than merely writing by hand, Sellers’s students start out writing with markers in giant all capital letters. The reason? “We go really, really, really slowly.” Surely college students balk at these elementary school practices? Surely these media multitaskers gripe and moan about this tedious work? According to Sellers, quite the opposite:
“I think we are all just working so hard to try to put something meaningful together… it’s easy to get caught up in the energy of that. Here’s the thing: You know why we write by hand? Why we keep doing it? It’s fun. It was fun when we were little kids, and it’s fun now. It’s fun to have markers and pens, and great sheets of paper, and to paint with words. And it is fun to concentrate. Any athlete knows that. Readers know that, lovers know that, kids know that.”
Though Sellers’s evidence for the benefits of writing by hand is anecdotal, recent research supports her findings. Gwendolen Bounds’ excellent Wall Street Journal article “How Handwriting Trains the Brain” (October 2010) cited multiple studies on the importance of writing by hand: Neurologists at the University of Indiana found more advanced neural activity in children when they wrote by hand as opposed to typing. An educational psychologist at the University of Washington found that 2nd, 4th, and 6th graders in a study there “expressed more ideas when writing essays by hand versus using a keyboard to compose.” In her Wall Street Journal article, Bounds also quotes a neuroscientist at Duke University who says “as [aging] people lose writing skills and migrate to the computer, retraining people in handwriting skills could be a useful cognitive exercise.”
“Writing by hand really works, and I just want to make sure we don’t lose this method,” says Sellers. “The process can help our students retain their individual thinking, get them in touch with their voice, and, also, help them understand the hard, slow work it is to write. Writing simply takes an enormous amount of time. Writing by hand is a realistic pace for making something out of words. It forces one to slow down and stay connected to the sensory and sensual moments that come from the deepest part of one’s self. I know this sounds weird, but I have seen the results.”
In her creative writing classes, whether fiction, non-fiction, or poetry, Sellers emphasizes the importance of taking one’s time by making a connection between writing and drawing: before her students even start writing, she asks them to take fifteen minutes or so to make a sketch of the scene they want to create. When they are done, she has them list all of the sensory details in the picture. “I think there has to be a kind of building stage before we get to the thinking stage,” she says. “In working by hand, I tell my students, you are creating the containers where you will eventually do your thinking. If you are just thinking, on a screen, where you can write so fast and erase so fast, it’s kind of like Frost’s thing of playing tennis without a net.”
Sellers describes those quickly typed up pieces of writing that students often produce as “phoned in.” She explains “You know in ‘bad acting’ how it doesn’t seem like the actor is that person he is playing—it seems…fake? That’s how computer generated first drafts can seem: too-fast thinking, a gliding over the surface, typos, hard-to-understand sentences and arguments.” Writing by hand, Sellers has found, serves as a governor to keep the writer from speeding past the necessary steps in the writing process. “This is very much a process of seeing what it is you know,” she says, “getting your mind on the page, without the interference of the editor, the fake voices, the cleaner-upper, the conformist.”
Educational theorist and philosopoher Paulo Freire defined literacy as “critical engagement with world and word.” Sellers believes writing by hand can improve literacy by deepening students’ engagement with word and world.
“I’m trying to create a reverence for the process,” she says. “I’m looking to be part of a culture of quiet and contemplation. My students get addicted to our in-class hand writing sessions. They have to do the handwriting thing for thirty minutes a day for thirty days. For many of them, it’s the only time in the day they are alone. It’s a form of meditation, right? To sit with oneself and discover what’s in there. Writing by hand, then, is a great way, of creating a conversation with oneself. That’s vital for the first year writer—maybe the most vital thing.”
As the author of three books on the craft of writing, Sellers frequently travels to read and speak around the country. When she tells other writing instructors about her practice of requiring handwritten first drafts, the responses range from intrigued to incredulous. “Some people freak,” she says. “And I’m not sure writing by hand is right for every teacher, every writer, every classroom. I just want to make sure we don’t lose methods that really work.”
Sellers knows full well the challenge of convincing students to commit the time necessary to do “the hard slow work it is to write,” but she also sees what this gives them. “I teach the sonnet in all my poetry workshops,” she says, “and at first the students complain mightily about how much time writing the sonnet takes. Yes, I say. This is how much time a poem takes. This is the right amount. Then, they produce their best work of the semester in these sonnets and they realize: it’s worth it. It’s worth spending this much time on a poem. And I think that lesson transfers to composing an essay, a memo, a letter—to all writing.”
For additional information:
OK - I confess.
I'm a recovering addict, and this is my story:
It was a sunny Sunday in Shanghai, and I’d just got out of a taxi when I had a horrible feeling, deep inside. In an instant I realized that I’d left my iPhone at home. And my brain immediately raced through a range of instinctive reactions:
First it was blind panic: “Oh my God – what shall I do??”
As most teachers know, every class has its own personality. That is certainly true for me, as I feature the texts and voices of the students in my writing classroom. They are the primary text.
The group I’ve taught this semester every Tuesday and Thursday at 8:00 A.M. is very special, and one of the reasons is a 31-year-old father and auto parts store manager who decided to come back to school. Early in the semester, he wrote a beautiful piece about his deceased grandfather. I asked him if he wanted to share it with his classmates. He was willing, but couldn’t do it without breaking down, so he handed it to a classmate and had them read it. That piece of writing, along with some others from that exceptional group, helped set the tone going forward. Game on.
Below is an email I received last week from Justin. With his permission, I’m passing it on to you. My goal, as always, is to make the case for the value of the personal narrative in the writing classroom.
I just wanted to let you know how appreciative I am of you. Through my experiences in life people are quick to let you know your shortcomings and failures, but for some reason we hold back when it comes to praise. When I walked to class on the first morning of my college career I didn’t quite know what to expect. I imagined that these entry level classes I was required to take would be a complete waste of my time. My perception was sorely mistaken. You have taken a class that would have had absolutely no meaning and made it very personal. Thanks to your guidance on our personal narratives you turned what would have been a mundane string of meaningless words and sentences into a tribute to the greatest man I have ever known. Thanks to you I was flooded with memories of my Grandfather that I had nearly forgotten. There is no amount of words that I could use to let you know how much those memories and that paper means to me. Thank you for your passion, your praise, and your guidance. Your class has been one that I will never forget.
Here is a link to another blogger writing about MOOCs. Jonathan Rees brings added perspective to the argument I (and others) have been making about the negative consequences of the rush toward MOOCs in higher education. Enjoy!
I have a Fear of Missing Out on the best links and stories of the day, hesitant of taking breaks from Twitter—of jumping off the moving train—because I feel it will be harder to jump back on, to catch up to everyone else, to saturate myself in all that's relevant again, to know what now is.
I love the Atlantic's "What I Read" series, in which figures in the media and other public spheres describe how they deal with information overload, what they read, and how and when they read it.
When I was an undergraduate in the 80′s, I hopped into a friends Honda Civic to get something to eat. He buckled his seatbelt, and before he even started the car he turned to me and said “seatbelt dude.” I responded “it’s cool – I’ll be alright.” He said “if you want to ride with me, you have to wear your seatbelt.” “Dang dude” I huffed as I dragged the belt across my torso and clicked it into place (we said dude a lot). I thought the guy was weired; he was the first person ever to make me put on my seatbelt.
That story might not sound odd now, but up to the 80′s seatbelts were optional. Most folks weren’t into them. Heck, my dad never used a seatbelt; why should I use one? My dad used to take me and my four siblings to school in the back of his work van. When it was empty, he’d put flattened cardboard boxes back there so we could slide from side-to-side on our way to school. Now that was fun.
People who grew up in the 80′s and before often have stories about riding unbuckled as a child and mom or dad throwing their arms across their body when they had to stop suddenly. Most of us begrudged any restrictions put on our freedom, but eventually laws were passed and technology was developed requiring seatbelts for everyone. Now our old ways seem almost barbaric.
I believe we’ll look back one day and say the same thing about texting in automobiles. I drive thirty minutes to work every day, and almost every day I’m shocked by the people I see texting and driving while flying 80 mph in heavy traffic. In 2011, 1.3 million car accidents involved cell phones (I’m sure that number is low, because how many people admit they were texting when they wrecked?). According to the Ins. Institute for Hwy Safety Fatality Facts, texting results in 11 teen deaths per day!
This is insane. I’ll admit that I send a short text from time-to-time when I’m stopped at a light or on a lonely stretch of highway. But I’m not justifying it; it’s dumb for anyone to ever do it. And even though I lean libertarian politically (not in every way), I’m 100% in favor of governments doing what they can to prevent texting in automobiles. It is 100X more barbaric than the old days of driving without seatbelts.
I feel certain that technology will be developed, probably in a partnership between auto manufacturers and phone companies, that will prevent drivers from texting. In my opinion, that day can’t come too fast. Some might argue that people should have the freedom to do what they want, but this is an issue of the common good. People who text and drive are a threat that needs to be eliminated.
This is an article I had published last year in Education Week. It caused quite a stir.
A recent New Yorker article entitled “Groupthink” takes a fascinating look at the concept of brainstorming. According to author Jonah Lehrer, brainstorming was introduced in the late 1940s as a creativity-inducing practice by advertising guru Alex Osborn in his book Your Creative Power. The book was a surprise bestseller, and Osborn’s ideas about brainstorming, according to Lehrer, became “the most widely used creativity technique in the world.” Whether in business, politics, entertainment, or education, group-thinking was and still is regarded as the ultimate path to ingenuity and productivity.
One small problem: Numerous studies over the years have demonstrated that brainstorming doesn’t work, at least not as Osborn defined it. Lehrer quotes Washington University psychologist Keith Sawyer: “Decades of research have consistently shown that brainstorming groups think of far fewer ideas than the same number of people who work alone and later pool their ideas.”
Sawyer’s statement supports the assertion that brainstorming is not all it’s cracked up to be, but I am more intrigued by the second half of the quote from Sawyer—the part about how working alone and then coming together to pool ideas gets the best results.
I’ve contemplated the use of groups quite a bit, particularly as it relates to writing in the classroom. You see, “group work” is very common in my field—many writing teachers swear by it, as I did originally. The idea is to break students up into small peer groups and have them help each other along each stage of the writing process. In the beginning of the process, they bounce ideas off each other, and as their work progresses, they read one another’s writing and give feedback.
When asked to articulate my philosophy for teaching writing near the end of my time in graduate school, I wrote this:
Though I was initially resistant to the idea, you can sign me up as one who is going to be applying collaborative learning in the classroom, using groups to create what [Mary] Belenky calls a ‘connected class.’ It is my hope that through their connecting and sharing with one another, the students will be more engaged in the classroom, more engaged in the writing process, and more engaged with the world in which they live.
Ah, the idealism of a new teacher. Belenky, an advocate of collaborative learning, means many things when she speaks of the connected classroom. She means teachers serving as midwives drawing out their students’ thinking rather than bankers depositing knowledge into them. She also means students “constructing truth through consensus,” i.e., brainstorming. While I still embrace the ideal of the teacher as midwife, I no longer believe brainstorming peer groups are an effective way to develop students’ thinking. On the contrary, peer groups often have the opposite effect.
My Change of Heart
My first couple of semesters as a teacher, I used groups weekly, breaking the students up into groups of four to six to respond to one another’s writing at each stage of the writing process. But I quickly grew weary of the mixed results, and a more experienced teacher whom I respected remarked to me one day that she had given up on groups, opting to manage the culture of the classroom from the front rather than entrust it to the luck-of-the-draw approach of small groups. Like so often happens in life, my colleague told me the thing I already believed and gave me permission to follow my instincts.
What are those instincts? Well, I believe group work is fraught with peril, above all the threat of a lousy dynamic due to the negative influence of one or more members. Here’s the thing: I’ve only got those freshmen in my classroom for about 36 hours per semester, and I need to maximize the time to instill in them all the goods I’ve gathered for their benefit.
I’m not talking about lecturing; I’m a workshop guy all the way. I constantly walk my students through writing exercises, then urge them to share their writing with the rest of the class, creating a community of writers in the process. I engage them in conversation as I seek to connect the subject matter with their world. By acting as a moderator orchestrating the interaction in my classroom, I am avoiding the pitfalls in brainstorming pointed to by Lehrer.
There is an art to this kind of classroom. The teacher has to intuit just what it takes to get the maximum participation from each student. Some students will lead the way, under my direction, and then most of the others will follow. Others require special care, but as long as they believe my classroom is a safe place, almost all of them eventually become participants.
This kind of participatory classroom needs strong leadership from the teacher, including the kind sensitivity to each student that cannot be replicated in peer groups. In my opinion, those who push for peer groups as an expression of hierarchy-rejecting collaboration are throwing out the baby with the bathwater. As they run from the misguided “banker” approach to teaching, they fall into the ditch on the other side, missing the middle road where teachers act as diligent guides leading their students on a learning expedition.
Teaching Students to Talk ‘Reflectively’
But my main point here, looking back at my quote from Sawyer, is that the best thinking comes from working alone and then sharing ideas. This is not to say that the writer who writes alone is only thinking his own thoughts—not at all. Every person is a collection of all the things that he has seen and heard and read since he entered the world. Reading and writing are social acts, even when done in solitude.
In my experience, students are lucky if they land in a small group whose culture facilitates this kind of in-depth thinking. Unfortunately, there is a very real chance they will land in a group rife with anti-intellectualism, “getting by,” and conformity. I can’t afford to take that chance; I’ve got a small window of opportunity to stir my students to great thinking and writing. So I’ll dictate the culture in my classroom, I’ll act as a coach and mentor, and I’ll force them to sit alone with their thoughts with nothing but a piece of paper in one hand and a pen in the other.